Episode 105

105. Building a Better Visitor Experience with Open Source Software


April 15th, 2024

14 mins 58 secs

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About this Episode

While working at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History during the pandemic, Dr. Morgan Rehnberg recognized the institution's limited capacity to develop new digitals exhibits with the proprietary solutions that are common in big museums. This challenge led Rehnberg to start work on Exhibitera, a free, open-source suite of software tools tailored for museum exhibit control that took advantage of the touch screens and computers that the museum already had.

Today, as Vice President of Exhibits and Experiences at the Adventure Science Center in Nashville, Rehnberg continues to refine and expand Exhibitera, which he previously called Constellation. The software is crafted to enable institutions to independently create, manage, and update their interactive exhibits, even between infrequent retrofits. The overarching goal is to make sure that smaller museum’s aren’t “left in the 20th century” or reliant on costly bespoke interactive software solutions.

Exhibitera is used in Fort Worth and Nashville and available to download. In this episode, Rehnberg shares his journey of creating Exhibitera to tackle his own issues, only to discover its broader applicability to numerous museums.

Image: Screenshot from a gallery control panel in Exhibitera

Topics and Notes

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 105. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

Welcome to Museum Archipelago. I'm Ian Elsner. Museum Archipelago guides you through the rocky landscape of museums. Each episode is rarely longer than 15 minutes, so let's get started.

I’ve spent most of my career building interactive exhibits for museums. These are all visitor-facing: touchscreens for pulling up information or playing games based on the science content, projection walls for displaying moving infographics, and digital signage for rotating through ticket prices or special events.

Dr. Morgan Rehnberg: Well I think most computer interactives in museums are pretty bad. And I don't think that's because they were necessarily bad when they were first installed, but major exhibitions can last for 10, 15, 50 years, and it's often quite difficult to go back and retrofit and improve something like technology as time goes on.

This is Dr. Morgan Rehnberg, Vice President of Exhibits and Experiences at the Adventure Science Center in Nashville. Rehnberg offers that long-term maintenance is the reason most computer interactives in museums are pretty bad – and that is kindly letting us programmers off the hook for the other reasons why computer interactives can be bad. But I agree with him. When I build an interactive exhibit for a museum, I’m optimizing for opening day, and generally leave it up to the museum to maintain it for years after.

Dr. Morgan Rehnberg: Hello, my name is Dr. Morgan Rehnberg and I'm the Vice President of Exhibits and Experiences at the Adventure Science Center in Nashville.

I actually started my journey in science. I did my PhD work in astronomy. And I worked as part of NASA's Cassini mission, which studied Saturn for many years. And it got to a point where we sort of dramatically crashed the spacecraft into Saturn. And I realized at that point that I was going to need to find something else to do. And kind of thinking back,I realized that I had been having more fun when talking about the work that we were doing than actually doing it.

So I started to look and see how I could turn that into a career, and I ended up in Texas at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History and spent five lovely years there, including the time during the pandemic. And as the world started coming back,, I felt like it was time for a change of scenery and made the switch to Nashville. And I've been thrilled to be here at the Science Center for just under two years now.

Like many science museums, we focus on families with young kids, full of hands-on exhibits, exploring all the areas of STEM. And we serve the public, we do field trips, we run summer camps, all the things that science museums do. But we do it with a team that's maybe a little bit smaller than you would have at some of the big museums, in cities like New York or San Francisco or Chicago.

And that team size becomes relevant to the long-term maintenance of computer interactives.

Dr. Morgan Rehnberg: Here in Nashville. We have touch screens that we installed in 2008 that still do everything that they did then, but what the world around them has done since 2008 has changed a lot. And so while the experience is the same as it always was, the expectations of visitors coming in are quite a bit different.

On the back end, most of the computers running in museum galleries are general purpose computers, normal PCs running Linux or Windows. Similarly, the interactive exhibit software running on them are often built using game development engines like Adobe Flash or Unity.

There are advantages and disadvantages to building on top of these platforms. On the one hand, museums get to benefit from the rapid iteration of consumer technology. On the other hand, these tools that were not designed for the museum environment, so there are all sorts of situations where you end up working at cross-purposes with your tools.

A good example: any general purpose computing environment needs to have an easy way, in fact many easy ways, for a user to close an app. However, in a museum's touchscreen setup, you wouldn't want visitors to be able to close the exhibits, so you have to invent ways to prevent that .And every time Windows updates, you might have to do it all over again in a different way.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked out of a museum server room, satisfied with a job well-done, only to notice that a smart kid on the gallery floor has figured out how to close my interactive software and has pulled up a game of solitaire. And let me tell you – solitaire is the best case scenario. If that computer is connected to the internet, things can get a lot worse.

Dr. Morgan Rehnberg: I think a lot of us who work in medium or larger museums forget that by number, the vast majority of museums in this country or anywhere in the world have staffs of one or two or three and have budgets measured in, you know, thousands of dollars or tens of thousands of dollars.

Those places are never going to be able to afford the sorts of bespoke custom software that you might see at Boston Museum of Science. They're just never going to have that. But they shouldn't be left in the 20th century of all we've learned about the value of interactivity in museums.

So while working at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History during the covid pandemic, Rehnberg started looking for a solution.

Dr. Morgan Rehnberg: As I was looking at sort of this big idea of what could be a piece of software that would solve all my problems.I started looking at that and sort of subdividing those problems. And one category of problem was wanting to have new touch sensitive, visitor facing things. And I didn't have the money during the pandemic to hire a vendor to redo all the things everywhere. The second piece of it was how can I, with greatly reduced exhibit technician staff, manage all of these things with the least amount of effort. Because I know if I have one tech who needs to cover the whole building, they can't spend a bunch of time debugging a thing after a visitor has smashed the screen 50,000 times and frozen the computer. Those two parallel ideas have lent themselves to the structure of Constellation.

Constellation is the name of the free and open source exhibit control software that Rehnberg developed. Today, he calls it Exhibitera, but you still might catch him referring to it by its old name. And those two parallel ideas have turned into a suite of tools that a museum can use to build their own interactive exhibit software, and the control server, which is how museums can control the apps within the exhibit.

Dr. Morgan Rehnberg: All that guest facing stuff, you can use that all on its own. You basically install it on a computer, start configuring what you want your content to be, and then you can just set your computer to boot that every time the computer boots.

So instead of building interactive exhibits using engines designed for game development, museums can build interactive exhibits using tools designed with the museum’s needs in mind. Exhibitera has several common exhibit types built into it, like an info station, a media browser, and a timeline.

Dr. Morgan Rehnberg: One of the big focuses has been that it shouldn't just be technical people who can produce these things. And so a big focus has been creating ways for people to use apps they already know to create apps that are guest facing. For example, with our timeline application, the way you make a timeline is you just open up Excel and you make a spreadsheet. You make a column of dates, you make a column of event names, you make a column of file names for a picture, and then Constellation just ingests that and makes this beautiful touchscreen timeline. A classroom teacher should be able to create a museum exhibit. An educator we have here on staff should be able to have an idea and create at least a prototype, if not a complete exhibit, just using Word and Excel and those sorts of things. And they get turned into these beautiful guest facing experiences that at first glance, a visitor is not going to know the difference between that and something that a science center might've paid a hundred thousand dollars for.

Too often when building bespoke custom interactive media, accessibility is something that gets tacked on at the end. But for museums using Exhibitera, accessibility features are automatically built in.

Dr. Morgan Rehnberg: One of the things I'm really proud about is we've built in just a tremendous amount of accessibility at the core. So any one of the apps that uses language allows you to set up your language in an arbitrary number of languages. So it's not just English. You can say, I want English and Spanish and Arabic and Chinese and German.

And if that's your audience, it'll support all of those simultaneously. And it provides a nice little dropdown to switch languages. And then it also provides variable text size support by default in those applications. And those are things that I think we all agree are key aspects of professional practice to make our exhibitions as accessible as possible. It shouldn't be like a thing you have to remember to add on when you're building something. It should just be built in at the core and that's what we've tried to do with Constellation.

But then there's this thing called Constellation Control Server. And the idea here is, let's have a central server that communicates with all of the other Constellation components in the exhibit. And can help me remotely diagnose and remotely repair these things. So if one of those exhibit pieces has stopped checking in, I get an, I can see that on my dashboard and I can easily press a button from my desk to reboot that computer, cause maybe the app is still running, but I got a call in from somebody in guest services saying a kid's playing solitaire on the computer.

Without this software, a smaller museum might have a staff member walk around every morning to turn on each computer one by one.

Dr. Morgan Rehnberg: When I come in in the morning, the building basically just turns itself on in the morning and shuts itself down at the end of the day. And Constellation provides this really powerful scheduling system that allows you to set these schedules that vary day to day. So every Monday, you know, we close at three and every Saturday we close at five and so forth.

Exhibitera was built to support as many devices as possible, from the touchscreens from 2008 to Android tablets to mini pcs. There was never any doubt for Rehnberg that he would release this system as open source, for free – the problems that Rehnberg faced mirrors the problems faced at many other museums.

Dr. Morgan Rehnberg: My background, having come from the world of science, was just really informed by the culture, this wonderful cultural open source that exists in science. I was working on studying Saturn and analyzing data, the code that I was using to do that had legacies of decades. I could go back and look at the changelog and see, you know, NASA engineers who were working on the same code in the 1980s. And that's what allowed me as a 20 something kid starting out in science to do these things that otherwise I would have had to reinvent from scratch. And I just got such an appreciation for the value of having something supported by the community as a way of opening more doors to that community.

If we all agree, and I think most people would, that having digital elements in installed exhibitions is just like a standard professional practice, then you shouldn't have to fork over tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to do what is standard professional practice. It still might be the right thing to do to hire a third party company, and I've had great experiences working with those companies before, but it shouldn't be the only option.

Today, Exhibitera is being used in Fort Worth and in Nashville and several other museums But anyone can use it. I set up a little exhibit in my office on an old PC and just marveled at how many museum-specific features are just built-in .

Dr. Morgan Rehnberg: I really think long term, the biggest opportunity is to bring this level of digital interactivity to places that haven't been able to afford it before. And so I'm excited about this podcast because I think there is just this huge sea of places that want to be able to be the modern museums they are in thought also in physicality. And so far, just haven't had a good way to connect with those folks. Because I think, big museums, this will always be, at best, one thing in the play of many solutions that they've integrated together. But for a lot of smaller places, I think there's an opportunity for Constellation to really become a standard for the way in which they are engaging digitally, with their audience inside the building.

This has been Museum Archipelago. I have two quick announcements about Club Archipelago, our bonus podcast. I've been having a lot of fun making Club Archipelago, which is kind of a mirror image of Museum Archipelago. While the main show examines the landscape of real museums, Club Archipelago is the podcast that examines museums through the lens of popular culture, like movies and video games.

We've built up quite the collection of episodes from the Night at the Museum series to Toy Story 2. And honestly, I think more people should listen. So I've just added a seven day free trial to the Patreon. You can sign up, listen to as many episodes as you can and cancel before the trial is up completely absolved of any guilt.

Of course, you're very welcome to hang around too. To get access to the free trial, just go to join the museum.club.

And finally I'm discontinuing the sticker rewards of the Club Archipelago membership. It's just too much of a logistical challenge to ship things from Bulgaria. And I want to focus all my time on the much more scalable podcast production. But if you're interested, regardless of whether you're a club member or not, just send me an email and I'll let you know where the closest museum is, where I've left a pile of stickers for you to collect.

For a full transcript of this episode, as well as show notes and links, visit museumarchipelago.com.

Thanks for listening, and next time, bring a friend.