Dancing with WONDER at the Renwick Gallery


When I think about “interactivity” in the design of museum experiences – something I desire as both a patron and as an educator – I tend to think about my desire to interact by touching or manipulating in some way (e.g. a robot arm, a computer simulation) an object or system. I also want to interact with objects I can’t touch through digital augmentation (e.g. augmented reality, text overlays, opportunities to participate through making my own creations).
Today, however, I was challenged to explore how my highly interactive visit to the Smithsonian’s Renwick Museum was achieved, even though I could neither touch the art nor experience it through a digital layer. It turned out the key here to interactivity was my body, and the challenge to keep it in a state of motion.


The exhibit is called WONDER. Each room features a single installation that evokes a sense of wonder (and an awareness of the materiality of the art). There were only 5 rooms (pieces of art) available when I visited. Words won’t do this justice, but in short, one room contains monumental towers of index cards that evoked shapes familiar to those who have visited southern Utah, the next offered an ethereal rainbow created through string, light and interference patterns, and the final room on the 1st floor filled with flowing willow branches shaped into something suggesting homes for tree-dwelling humans, with doors to enter and windows to look through. The second floor offered two overhead pieces – one was an orderly row of hung silver rods, in a grid, with lights twinkling on and off, up and down them, together creating the illusion of movement through shifting patterns, the second piece being a woven expression of a tsunami above a carpet filled with people lying down to view it.

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Digital Engagement at the Postal Museum

Yes, that’s right – I’m talking about the postal museum, a museum about those places we hate to go, with those long lines, to weigh boxes and ship them back to Amazon or something, whose name has turned into a noun which often means (according to Wikipedia) “becoming extremely and uncontrollably angry, often to the point of violence, and usually in a workplace environment.” I’m talking about the museum in Washington, D.C., dedicated to everything postal.

And yes, I had absolutely NO interested in going there. I could care less about stamps. Which is precisely why I went.

At work I was challenged with going to a museum about a topic I cared little about to observe how the digital interactives facilitated my experience with the content and potentially generated an interest. Today, while attending the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Conference, I walked right past the Postal Museum. And in I went.

Long story short: I loved it! I could have seen spending 2-3 hours there, with my whole family. The three videos below, highlighting different digital interactives, show how an experience was created that, in each instance, generated a seed of interest in me.

The first interactive, geared towards families and children, invites you to browse a collection of stamp images – photos of real stamps – to create a virtual collection.

I found this interactive effective in part because it asked me to do what people do who love stamps – personalize a collection that reflects my identity and/or interests – and then, upon opening the email once I returned home featuring images from my collection, reading the encouraging “Now keep going! Start a physical collection by acquiring real stamps with personal meaning.” It was a nice arc from in-museum to at-home experience.

The second one – geared for adults – is a form of open collections, which can be experienced directly on one’s own (for the more adventurous) or starting with the digital interactive.

Unlike with the child-oriented virtual stamp collecting, this interactive is ALL about connecting me with the original object, ones I cared little about before entering the room but, after exploring their digital replica, made me quite interested in seeking out and finding the original. I experienced something similar – in the gems and minerals room – at the Yale Peabody Museum: there’s an interactive that asks three fun questions and then reveals a rock or gem in the room (with instructions on how to find it). Digital interactives can work well when they generate a need to go connect with the original on display.

The third exhibit was for families and children, like the first. Rather than ask the visitor to replicate the actions of stamp collectors, now the visitor is asked to step into the role of a real postal employee, using their digital tools of the trade. Role playing is fun, as is using real tools (albeit simulated ones).

So I entered the Museum not caring much about stamps or the postal delivery service. I left fascinated by what I learned and, equally so, by how I had learned it.

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Live at the Museums and the Web Conference: 4th Episode of Object Oriented Podcast

This episode of Object Oriented recaps our experiences at the Museums and the Web (MWXX) conference. It includes short reflections on what we did at the conference, who we met with and what we’re thinking about.

This podcast is hosted by Rik Panganiban (Senior Manager of Digital Learning at the California Academy of Sciences), Barry Joseph (Associate Director of Digital Learning at the American Museum of Natural History), and Eve Gaus, (Digital Learning Manager at The Field Museum), .

—x—x— segments —x—x—

00:00-01:29- Teaser – We’re all together at Museums and the Web!
01:29-01:54 – Introduction
01:55-09:30 – Data, privacy and surveillance
09:31-11:30 – Understanding & designing your audience
11:31-13:35 -What is digital today?
13:36-19:20 – Getting out: museums we explored in L.A.
19:21-24:45 – Pop-up Museum at MWXX
24:46-33:33 – News of the Future, with Elizabeth Merritt
33:34-35:31 – Follow us online

popup sign

—x—x— show notes —x—x—

Resources mentioned:

Dispatches from the Future of Museums: Sign up here for their weekly email, and see below for links to this episode’s stories:

  • Carnegie’s Innovation Studio (link)
  • IMA Lab (link)
  • Cooper Hewitt Lab (link)
  • Met MediaLab (link)
  • MIT Media Lab (link)

Blog: http://objectoriented.info Twitter: @ooriented

Follow the hosts individually at @gauseve, @mmmooshme, and @riktheranger.

Subscribe to the podcast on Stitcher and iTunes.

[PHOTO INFO: Pop up Museum sign at MWXX. Credit: R. Panganiban]

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Coverage in Vice’s Motherboard: “How Games Are Changing the Museum Experience”

We’re appreciative of Becky Ferreira‘s recent coverage in Vice’s Motherboard of a variety of efforts around AMNH to explore how games can enhance the visitor experience – from exhibit-based interactives (Flap Like a Pterosaurs), Hall-based games (MicroRangers), to tabletop gaming (Gutsy). I hope coverage like this helps advance the dialogue around the intersection of museums and games-based learning. Check the full piece out here (How Games Are Changing the Museum Experience) or read it in full below.

How Games Are Changing the Museum Experience

Museums have always aimed to engage their visitors with the spectacle of their displays, be they works of art, fossils, or historical artifacts. Increasingly, this has resulted in numerous efforts to integrate an interactive, game-based dimension into the museum experience, as opposed to relying on more passive observation of collections. Using multiple platforms like augmented reality, tabletop games, or digital displays, curators and designers are hoping to immerse people more deeply in their exhibitions, and to push the limits of what it means to take a trip to the museum.

“For a number of years now we’ve been exploring what it might mean for museums to employ games and play as a way to increase visitor motivation,” Barry Joseph, associate director of digital learning at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), told me over the phone. “We want to offer something to people that makes them want to leave their home, come to the museum, and experience something and it also gives them an opportunity to not only appreciate, but actually connect with the objects themselves.”

Take, for instance, the mobile game MicroRangers, which debuted at the AMNH last December. Continue reading

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Check out this INSANE Hollywood-style MicroRangers Trailer

To support this Sunday’s Game On! MicroRangers Competition, the following “trailer” was created, that will run on and off all day in our Hall of Ocean Life, on the giant screen beneath the whale. I can’t wait to see and hear it large than life – it’s going to be insane!

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NYTimes promotes MicroRangers in “Solving Mysteries at the AMNH, Smartphone in Hand”

Sometimes when it rains it pours. Today I am quoted in the New York Times, in two different pieces, each talking about digital games (both articles previewed online – the print versions come out tomorrow and this weekend).

First, the New York Time’s Sunday magazine features a PHENOMENAL article called The Minecraft Generation, by Clive Thompson (whom I’ve interviewed here). Check it out.

The second article is about our work at the Museum, focusing on both MicroRangers and our related event, Game On!, this Sunday. It’s awesome. I couldn’t be prouder of all who worked on it to get MicroRangers to this place – the dozens of students, the app and game designers, the scientists, the writers, graphic designers, the MicroRanger Guides who run the cart, and more. The article is reposted below (don’t take too long to read it – the squid and the bison are waiting!):

Solving Mysteries at the American Museum of Natural History, Smartphone in Hand


If you visit the American Museum of Natural History on Sunday and see young people fixated on their smartphones, don’t assume that they’ve abandoned science for the joys of social media. These visitors are not absorbed in Angry Birds — though they may well be investigating bobtail squids or runaway bison.

They’ll be playing MicroRangers, a new mobile game that’s the museum’s latest effort to use popular technology to fire youthful enthusiasm about the wild and woolly.

“You’re invited to shrink down to the microscopic level and go inside our permanent exhibits and solve science-based problems,” said Barry Joseph, the museum’s associate director for digital learning, youth initiatives. Each challenge involves a microbiome — the world of microorganisms within an environment — that’s out of whack.

“Sometimes it’s because there’s a dangerous microorganism at play,” said Mr. Joseph, who helped create the game. “And sometimes to resolve the problem, what we need is a microorganism, sometimes something as unexpected as a virus.”

On Sunday the museum will introduce MicroRangers at Game On!, an event that will award prizes, ranging from toys to a museum sleepover, for successful completion of different levels of the game. Staff members will advise players, and a telepresence robot — like a video screen on wheels — will roam the halls, showing teenagers (who were instrumental in MicoRangers’ development) dressed as some of the game’s scientist characters, soliciting visitors’ help.

Intended for children 8 and older, MicroRangers can be played by two to six people using one device. After downloading the free app, they obtain a communicator coin from the museum. When scanned, this disc sets the game’s characters in motion, causing a tiny talking hologram to appear, “like the little Princess Leia in ‘Star Wars,’” Mr. Joseph said.

Players become MicroRangers by helping the scientists resolve one of nine possible MicroCrises. The game, for instance, may send them to the Deep Sea diorama to investigate why the bobtail squid has lost its glow (pollution has interfered with its bioluminescent bacteria) or to the Bison diorama to learn why the animals are bloated. (They’ve escaped their habitat and are eating grass filled with gas-producing microorganisms.)

“The game is taking you into the exhibits, but it’s also taking the exhibits out of the glass,” Mr. Joseph said. “The bison get loose.”

Each MicroCrisis takes 20 to 30 minutes to vanquish. At the advanced level, though, the emergencies become interrelated in an accelerating mass extinction, “and the tone shifts from Pixar to Stephen King,” Mr. Joseph said.

But if you can’t make the Sunday celebration, you can still play any day. The squid and the bison are waiting.

(From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Central Park West and 79th Street, 212-769-5100, microrangers.org.)

A version of this article appears in print on April 15, 2016, on page C18 of the New York edition.

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Promotional Coverage for “Game On! MicroRangers Competition” Begins in the New York Observer

This Sunday we will hold a special event to bring people to the Museum to play MicroRangers, called Game ON! MicroRangers Competition. It will be a great opportunity to help spread the word about this new way to engage with the Museum and for us to further explore the potential of using games to support informal science learning.

The New York Observer just posted a lovely plug in their “Here’s What You Must Do in New York This Week” column:

SUNDAY April 17

Can’t get your kids to stop playing with their phones long enough to, say, enjoy the exhibits at a museum? Good news, the American Museum of Natural History has you covered. It’s hosting the Game On! MicroRangers Competition today.  Kids can download the MicroRanger app on their iPhones or Androids. The game challenges kids to explore the museum exhibits and solve nine “MicroCrises.” The whole first floor of the museum will be turned into what the AMNH describes as a “series of animated adventures.” By playing, kids will learn how to identify how microbial life affects all manner of species. Advanced players will even have a chance to combat a “sixth extinction.” That’s a whole lot more than anyone has ever gotten out of Candy Crush. Central Park West at 79th Street, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., free with museum admission


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