Episode 79

79. The Future of Hands-On Museum Exhibits with Paul Orselli

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About this Episode

The modern museum invites you to touch. Or it would, if it wasn’t closed due to the Covid-19 outbreak. The screens inside the Fossil Hall at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC say “touch to begin” to an empty room. The normally cacophonous hands-on exhibits at the Exploratorium in San Francisco sit eerily silent.

Museum exhibit developer Paul Orselli of Paul Orselli Workshop says he’ll be reluctant to use hands-on exhibits once museums open up again. But he hopes that future hands-on exhibits are more meaningful because museums will work harder to justify them.

In this episode, Orselli predicts what hands-on exhibits could become, the possibility that the crisis will encourage museums to adhere to universal design principles instead of defaulting to touchscreens, and how Covid-19 might finally put an end to hands-on mini grocery store exhibits in children's museums.

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 79. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.


The modern museum invites you to touch.

Or it would, if it wasn’t closed due to the Covid-19 outbreak. The screens inside the Fossil Hall at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC say “touch to begin” to an empty room. The normally cacophonous hands-on exhibits at the Exploratorium in San Francisco sit eerily silent.

And the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia-- which is inviting you right there in its name--has presumably stopped running commercials.

Please Touch Museum Commercial: “No need to keep your hands by your side here. Exhibits are rich in detail, encouraging children to touch, feel, and see the way everyday things in our lives work… to learn more and to plan your visit, visit pleasetouchmuseum.org.

Interactivity in museums in the form of hands-on exhibits has been a trend since 1962, when Michael Spock, director of the Boston Children's Museum, removed “do not touch” signs from the display cases.

Since then, hands-on exhibits have served as a way for museums to indicate they’re free of their paternalistic past; that knowledge doesn’t come from on high, but instead comes from the vistor’s own curiosity, investigation, and play.

Paul Orselli: Traditionally in science centers there were all of these science content that lend themselves to physical and interactive demonstrations and in a children's museum, they were very much concerned about multi sensory approaches and engaging, different types of learning styles. You know, full body and kinesthetic. When the bulk of your audience is preschoolers, they can't read, so you need to engage them in some other way. I think that's traditionally where interactive have lived in science centers and children's museums.

This is Paul Orselli of Paul Orselli Workshop, who knows a lot about science centers and children's museums.

Paul Orselli: Hello. My name's Paul Orselli. I'm the chief instigator at Pow: Paul Orselli Workshop. That's my company that specializes in museum exhibit development and consulting. Before I started running my own business, and I worked inside museums, I sort of oscillated back and forth between the science center world and the children's museum world.

But hands-on exhibits spread further than science centers and children's museums. They spread to art museums and history museums and natural history museums too.

Paul Orselli: And I think the reason that interactive approach expanded was that those other types of museums realized that this interactive or immersive approach helped them reach a broader audience. As more and more museums become more and more concerned with reaching a broader audience, one of the opportunities for them to explore, or one of the tools in their toolbox are interactive exhibits and experiences.

So, the question is, will visitors still want to use hands on exhibits once museums open again? Is the trend that started in 1962 over?

Paul Orselli: as a museum designer and as a visitor, the last thing I think I want to do immediately after museums open up again is to rush into a super crowded museum. We're sort of training people in the era of covid-19 and maybe future pandemics to socially distance and be careful about touching surfaces and objects and so on and so forth. Part of me wants to say, especially as it relates to children's museums, even before covid-19, it wasn't like they were the most rigorous cleaned places in the world.

So the thing is, it's kind of hard, for my friends in the museum world with a straight face to say, well, we're. We're just gonna, be more rigorous with our cleaning schedules and our cleaning regimen. I mean, are you really gonna trail after hundreds of visitors in a, in a decent size museum and sort of wipe down everything they've touched after they touch that.

One thing that Orselli can see happening is that hands-on exhibits will need to work to justify themselves a little harder during the planning stages. He sees the end of so-called “empty interaction.”

Paul Orselli: There are lots of good examples, but maybe there are also some examples of things that I would consider primarily empty interaction. And a good example of that is a flip label. You know, here's one piece of texts and information on a little flap or a door, and to encounter the rest of the information or to get an answer to a question, you have to open up the flap and you get the rest of the textual or graphic information. I mean, that's interactive in the sense that you had to do something to sort of complete the informational circuit, but that might be about the lowest level of interaction possible. When I teach graduate students, one thing I often say is the flip label is the last vestige of an exhibit scoundrel. You know, it's like somebody who's not really somebody who's not really putting in the work, you know, they just sort of mailed it in. “Oh, we can put a bunch of flip labels here, or we can put a flip label here, and then that's something for kids to do.” It's sort of a challenge because now that I mentioned that about flip labels, it's sort of like, whoa, could you actually design a flip label experience that is more of a conversation or open-ended or engaging in terms of an intellectual sense and not just sort of this base level, tactile or mechanical sense. And, you know, I'm sure you, I'm sure you can. It's that when it's misused or thoughtlessly used. You know, the end results are just bad. We can't just so glibly and unthinkingly employ something like a push button as we did before. And I, and honestly, I don't know that that's a bad thing because then it sort of forces us to think, well, how could we provide a satisfying experience and what are the interfaces or other kinds of opportunities that we could provide that would let people, you know, that would carry the content, that would carry the emotional ideas that we want to carry across?

In episode 27 of this show, I argued that there’s a certain type of content that digital media is best suited to: systems simulation. Understanding Concepts like climate change requires thinking about how complex systems interact with one another, and computer simulations allow for that type of enquiry. It’s almost like a video game: visitors try to find the edge of the rules of the world, expect in an exhibit about climate change, those rules are the rules of atmospheric and oceanic physics. Right now, the best understood and most common interface to digital media is a touchscreen.

Paul Orselli: There is a certain segment of people who love their touchscreens. You know, they would, if they could fill up their museum with touchscreens, they would do it. And you know, again, I'm agnostic, touchscreens and touch tables: they are amazing tools, but now we have to be realistic. So now you're going to bring somebody into a new museum and ask them to crowd around with several other people and poke at a touchscreen after what has just happened in the world? That's a toughie.

So what are some interfaces that allow visitors to interact with digital media, without a touchscreen and without requiring the visitor to touch anything with their hands?

Paul Orselli: And if I think for example, of a large floor projections system. Where you could even just tap with your foot to control some different parameters or different people may be on the different corners of this large projection area could be controlling in real time different parameters. I could imagine that actually being a positive and a worthwhile experience that still takes into account a social aspect, but also a social distancing aspect as well as, you know, something that is sort of full body and it doesn't involve people touching their hands and that you don't have to sort of sanitize the floor cause people are tapping it with their feet and doing things.

In his most optimistic moments, Orselli hopes that a new approach to hands-on exhibits can bring universal design front and center.

Paul Orselli: Flexibility or control with something like tapping of a foot, which could easily also be somebody wheeling their wheelchair over the active area too. I mean, I think this brings the notion of universal design to a different place and a positive place. You know, these, these limitations and this triangulation between post Covid-19 perception and the notion of universal design. I'm going to be optimistic, and maybe that puts us in a, a better place, in a more thoughtful place, in a more satisfying place, ultimately, in terms of interactive experiences for visitors, which I suppose is really what this sort of all boils down to. How supported are museums as institutions in the various countries or parts of the world where they exist or how resilient our particular museums or museum structures that let them withstand these sorts of events.

But Orselli sees a silver lining: an end to all those mini grocery store exhibits at children's museums.

Paul Orselli: Although this might finally be like finally be a good reason for all the children's museums in the world to get rid of those horrible mini grocery store exhibits! A small room filled with lots of tactile objects that kids are just constantly pouring over and checking out and throwing into their mini baskets, and then they get put right back on the shelf.

Already already it's a gigantic entropy experiment, so if you're going to keep that experience, are you, after everyone has touched something, hundreds of things, wipe and disinfect them all, and then replace them for people, you know, to just do this. I think constraints are a good thing for creativity and now we've just been thrown some public health and perceptual constraints.

And we have to, we have to think about that because certainly our visitors are going to be thinking about that. Then if we don't show that, at least we're sensitive to that. Our visitors could rightfully think that we are insensitive. Not only to those design constraints and those design considerations, but insensitive to them as people who want to have fun and want to be safe.