Revisiting Digital Engagement at the Field Museum

I was in Chicago recently for the Museums and the Web conference. Two years ago, in town for a different conference, I wrote about my visit to the Field Museum to learn how they were deploying digital media to engage hall visitors. I was impressed with much of what I saw, both in the specifics and in the wide range of approaches they employed. This week I returned to see what might have changed in the intervening years.

The first thing I was delighted to experience was a new digital interactive in association with their two enormous 20 feet tall red cedar totem poles from Haida Gwaii. In days of old, the Field and my museum battled to have the best totem pole collections. So now we each share a similar legacy, and challenge – how do we present these important cultural treasures to a public which often has little awareness of the Native Canadian communities from which they originate.

The Field found two solutions, which I think they collectively call “digital rails.” One is signage (not shown) which includes a piece of cedar one can touch. The second is the interactive below, which I filmed, composed of text, videos, old and contemporary photos, and a step-by-step visual guide for interpreting both the crests represented on the poles and the iconography used to represent them. The frame of the interactive seems designed to directly address questions that must have been common amongst their visitors – what are they and how are they made? where are they from and are those communities still around? And why are they here (and do they belong here)?

You can see the Field’s answers in the video below:

The second thing I saw was another screen interactive, this time in the Wallace Gallery. Featuring the work of Bunky Echo-Hawk, I’ll let the Field’s web site describe it:

Contemporary artist Bunky Echo-Hawk‘s live painting events, colorful skateboard decks, and his design partnership with Nike all debunk stereotypes about Native Americans today.  And by merging Native American images with pop culture references– such as the Stars Wars-inspired painting If Yoda Were an Indian– Echo-Hawk uses humor to shed light on current issues facing Native American communities. Now, see what happens when this artist, activist, and traditional Pawnee singer draws inspiration from historic Field Museum collections, from a richly painted ceremonial dress to traditional spoons carved from bison horn. Experience Echo-Hawk’s large-scale paintings, and see how an artist can fight as a modern-day warrior– striving for constructive change and keeping his Native culture alive and flourishing.

The Webber Gallery at the Field Musuem

In the image above (click for enlargement), the room on the left begins with a video about and with Echo-Hawk, who is talking, in part, about the creation of the red painting you can see next to the video, produced during his visit to the museum. His contemporary art fills the room alongside objects he selected from the Field’s vast collections. The interactive screen below then allows visitors to dig deeper into Echo-Hawk’s selections to learn what the items from the Field’s collections mean to him.

In other words, not only has the Field developed a strategy for bringing contemporary Native voices into their Halls but they have also figured out how to use those voices as the filter and framing device for displaying the cultural artifacts within their collections.

As you exit the gallery you realize it has now become the entrance to their Hall of North American Indians.

Finally, I experienced a Kinect-powered wall-sized interactive. I had experienced the same space during my earlier visit. A small-screen interactive let you build your own cabinet of wonder from the Museum’s collections and then manipulate it on the wall-screen. I wrote about it at the time, and found the wall part confusing. Apparently I wasn’t alone. The small-screen interactive is still there, I was glad to see, but now a new gesture-controlled experience was featured on the wall. The video below gives you a small sense of it. In short, visitors work together to interact with projected elements within a nature scene to save it. I was particularly impressed with a simple strip of light on the floor. With Kinects, you have to stand IN THE RIGHT PLACE. Rather than put a giant sticker on the ground or draw a red line, the strip of light was intuitive and, at the same time, didn’t call undue attention to itself.


A big shout of thanks to both Jeremy Keninsky of Geomedia, who kept me company and posed in my shots, and Eve Gaus, who generously took time out of her day to show us around.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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