August 1, 2017

What Is an Interactive?

museum display

Roula Tsapalas

Compiled from Dictionary websites :

  • allowing or relating to continuous two-way transfer of information between a user and the central point of a communication system, such as a computer or television.
  • (of two or more persons, forces, etc) acting upon or in close relation with each other; interacting.
  • mutually or reciprocally active

We in the museum world use the word interactive to apply to active participation by the visitor. Contrast interactive with active or reactive. Is pushing a button, watching a video or turning a flipbook really interactive?

A relatively simple exhibit I developed for Discovery Place, Design Your Floor Plan is a low tech example of a true interactive because of the fluid interplay of actions and reactions.

The challenge is to design the interior space of a house with a 3-dimensional floor plan, by moving walls, furniture and people. Visitors interact with each other and with the exhibit to make changes and adjust the design.

What is space to an architect? How do they design space? An architect uses many tools, from sketching to drafting to building models. I wanted to develop an activity for the visitor to think and design as an architect in a developmentally appropriate way for 8-14 year olds. Instead of a using a pencil and paper for drawing a 2-dimensional floor plan, the visitor manipulates extruded walls, furniture and people to create a 3-dimensional model for exploring space.

Through prototyping, I learned what was working and what was not. A variety of wall modules and simple block furniture maximized flexibility and versatility. The conceptual detailing of the materials allowed for personal interpretation; a low wall was used as a bed, a bed as a closet (by positioning the components upside down or sideways). By adding a few personalized and highly specific objects, such as a bike, one visitor used walls to create ramps, changing his house to fit his needs.

This particular “interactive” illustrates the design process. By exploring the possibilities, participants play with relationships between spaces and potential furnishing opportunities to create an optimal layout. There is no right answer, but instead endless possibilities for creative problem solving. They soon discover that design is fluid and always changing.

“There’s no space leftover for a bathroom, I’ll have to put this toilet in the bedroom or move some of the walls.”

“It’s O.K. if we don’t have a dining room. I like eating in the kitchen.”

“If I use this low wall, people can look into my bedroom.”

As a designer and developer, I strive to create activities for exploring content through active learning. By flipping a panel, or answering a question, one acquires information. By providing an activity for role playing and exploration, there is abundant room for self expression and experiential learning. Visitors use their hands and minds to interact with the world, to increase their understanding of the content and to reach their own conclusions.

For museums, a true interactive satisfies many goals. It provides an open-ended, visitor-driven experience, so it’s different for the visitor every time. It promotes conversations and collaboration as well as critical thinking and creativity. And most of all, it is fun and engaging for all ages.

August 1, 2017