The “Epic Theater” of a New Exhibit on Personal Computing

Have you ever had the experiencing of serendipitously stumbling into an unfamiliar museum to find yourself leaving a short time later in a state of amazement and delight? That happened to me yesterday at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery‘s new exhibit “The Interface Experience: Forty Years of Personal Computing“.

I won’t try to fully describe the experience of both the exhibit and its three associated print and digital companions – for an exhibit ABOUT “experience” that would be an exercise in futility – but I can share MY experience of encountering each of the four elements and how they combined to created a beautifully designed museum-based experience that reinforced for me both the power of museums and of digital learning.

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1. THE USER GUIDE

The first thing I saw was the book for the exhibition, displayed for visitor’s outside their store. I burst out laughing. For an exhibit about personal computing, the book is gorgeously and meticulously designed to appear as the type of early-80’s user manuals that might have accompanied a new computer purchase. From the spiral binding, to the tabs, and even the typeface (a late-70’s font designed for AT&T), its form took me back to reflect on the physical and print objects that shape my interaction with personal computers.

And that was the point. Curator Kimon Keramidas, in his introduction, frames the central challenge within the exhibit by recounting a story. Four or so years ago he encountered an Apple Macintosh at an art museum. “The Macintosh was behind glass,” he writes, “without a keyboard, not powered up, and definitely not meant to be touched.” This left him with an empty feeling. The materiality of the computer is certainly of interest, but he wanted to better understand “how an interface between user, hardware, and software produces a meaningful experience.” This is the challenge this exhibit and its associated media aim to address, “with an eye toward the way we perceive, think about, and even desire this category of objects.” And as a museum experience, their visitors would need to interact with the computers, not as “static hunks of plastic, silicon and metal” but as object to be “used, thought about, and related to as platforms for dynamic interactive experiences.”

Keramidas explains how they drew inspiration from the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht, to design an experience within the exhibit space that supports visitors to interact with the computers (or watch others do so) in a manner that allows them to overcome their perceived familiarity with the objects. In a sense, the computers become actors that “performed” their characters in a manner that provided enough distance for the visitor to gain a new perspective.

I had no idea what this meant, and couldn’t until I entered the exhibit, but would understand soon enough. But, in regards to the book, this notion was clear. Humorously subtitled, “A User’s Guide,” the exhibit catalog used the from of the computer user manual to pull up my nostalgia for these abandoned texts while offering essays which helped me reflect on that very nostalgia and what they might have contributed to my own “interface experience.”

2. THE EXHIBIT

I took the elevator to the fourth floor and exited into a short hall connected to a square space smaller than my living room. The wall offered, like the guide, a humorous but serious set of instructions, an “Exhibition How-To,” as if the exhibit was a new product fresh out of the box:

Touch everything on display… Don’t worry. None of these devices is precious; they have already lived their lives. They will be okay.

Interact with the five core objects: they are still in working condition. Each device runs a custom application that will help you experience its particular innovations and characteristics and enable you to understand what made each so important.

The five core objects are located in a tight circle in the middle of the room – the Commodore 64 (1982), Macintosh Plus (1986), PalmPilot Professional (1997), iPad 2 (2010), and Microsoft Kinect (2010). The walls surrounding them trace three timelines, which each rise and fall depending on which objects in the room they connect: software, desktop computer, or game console. Walking the timelines I learned interesting facts about various items, such as about the French Minitels I’ve always heard about but never seen. But the highlight for me just being able to touch them, such as the Xerox mouse above (one of the first to come with a commercial computer).

But back to the five core objects, the obvious center piece of the room. I started at the beginning, with the Commodore 64. This was not a simulation of a Commodore 64, or a real one running an emulator of the software that once engaged its users. This was a real Commodore 64 running its original operating system. But here’s the trick they pulled, the piece of epic theater which worked magic: for this and the other four core objects, the curators have programmed something NEW within the old code, something which guides the visitor through a  structured interaction with the device and is specific interface experience. This allows a contemporary voice to speak to the visitor through the historic voice of the device, allowing us to have a new “interface experience” with the machine without strictly viewing it from our contemporary frame of reference.

For example, next to the Commodore 64 were both instructions and processing questions:

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So I did what it said. I typed in the code:

And it was surprisingly difficult. The space-bar kept sticking. I had to search for the “delete” key. And this lead to two things. The first was the short rabbit hole the code initiated – two questions for me to answer (I think they asked me to enter my favorite computer (iPhone), and then share why (see bottom of this post)) followed by a pre-GUI display of text with symbols whose colors I could change. The second thing it lead to, as supported by the questions you can see in the exhibit copy above, were the various ways my attention was drawn to the experience of the interface, e.g. How did it feel to use the keyboard?

I then moved on to explore the Macintosh with its new interface gift, the mouse. As I encountered with the Commodore 64, a program on the screen guided me through an experience with the mouse. And the exhibit copy asked me more processing questions. But more importantly, the questions were now scaffolded, drawing connections between the machines and their innovations. “Imagine how it must have felt in 1984 to exchange the typewriter-like keyboard of the Commodore 64 for a mouse.” And now I could! The mouse I have now used every day for almost two decades I could experience in a new way, as a relief and a release from the constraints of a pre-GUI interface (a transition I did grow up with, btw, having started computing in the early 80s, but an experience I couldn’t easily recall).

I could go on, about the experience offered at each machine, about the display that shows what the world looked like through a mid-90s web browser, about the wall of cellphones you can take down to play with, but I think I’ve made my point. The exhibit curators, acting through the interface of the computers, gave a masterful performance.

3. THE MOBILE SITE

But wait, there’s more! I logged onto the gallery’s wifi and was immediately taken to both my web browser and, within it, their mobile site. That was a beautifully seamless experience, shrinking what is usually a clunky 3-5 steps into a simple one click process.

Just as the exhibit catalog didn’t simply reproduce the text from the exhibit but used the form of the computer guide to explore the same topic from a different perspective, the mobile page did the same. Each object in the gallery had a number. Entering the number into the site (which felt like typing it into one of these old computers), returned a photo of the object and some interesting information to read. So rather than burden the small exhibit space with the weight of the deeper background information for each item, it was instead made available for anyone interested through the intuitive site for those desirous to dig deeper.

4. THE MOBILE SITE

I left the gallery, picked up a copy of the exhibit guide, and returned to my office. At my desk I went back to their web site, but this time not on my iPhone but on my desktop computer. I was surprised to see the exhibit content unfold in a new and unexpected way.

A grid containing all items in the exhibit appeared. At the top, I could switch to “connections” or “device statistics”. I clicked on the Minitel to learn more. As the exhibit helped me to understand how the five core devices built upon or replaced the interface designs of those which came before it, I could now explore connections amongst ALL of the devices. The Minitel, for example, offered two connections, one to the World Wide Web (remember when it had three words in its name?) and the other to the Mac, with each connection explaining how those software’s and computer’s interface experiences made the Minitel’s obsolete.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 11.48.20 AMSo while the mobile site was designed to focus on isolated objects – which is ideal for the screen size of a mobile device – the desktop version took advantage of the significantly larger space to emphasize the connections amongst them. It also offered me a fun way to explore the collection and do so not just with words (as in the guide) but now through a playful visual design. It was a nice interface experience.

So, in the end, I wanted to write this post to reflect upon how the guide, the exhibit, and the two versions of the web site stood on their own. At the same time, each enhanced the others. Together they serve as a beautiful example of how museums can design experiences around a shared concept that leverage collections within a Hall and through digital and print media that can be explored before, during, and after a museum visit.

(view more photos here)

Postscript – 4.9.2015

Just 17 hours after I posted this I am sitting at the Museums on the Web’s conference watching Kimon present this exhibit using MY image above from this very blog post, with a lovely shout-out to me located in that blue strip across the bottom. Thanks Kimon and happy to help spread the word. File this one under #LifeCanBeStrange

About Barry

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