The Worcester Historical Museum (WHM), located at 30 Elm Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, is the sole authority on the history of Worcester and its inhabitants. Worcester has a rich and diverse history, with strong connections to important people and events in the course of American history. One of the most modern representatives of Worcester’s role in American history is the David Clark Company, a pioneer in the creation of Full-Pressure High Altitude Flying Suits. These are the predecessors to the modern suits used by NASA for space and atmospheric exploration. This flying suit is one of the many artifacts that shaped Worcester’s Industrial history which are currently exhibited in its Fuller Gallery, under the heading of the In Their Shirtsleeves industrial history exhibit.
Due to the immense amount of material contained within the gallery, the exhibit as a whole feels static and does not promote interactivity. The layout of In Their Shirtsleeves currently follows a timeline posted along the walls, starting with artifacts and data from the early 17th century and culminating with examples of modern industrial design from the early 1990’s. During the process of providing an educational and memorable experience for visitors, an exhibit that lacks interactive exhibits will prove to be ineffective in creating the required visitor engagement.
The overarching goal of our project was to revitalize WHM’s In Their Shirtsleeves exhibit through the use of interactivity and digital technology. Our team focused our efforts on several key objectives to accomplish the following goals:
- Develop a database that will allow museum staff and visitors to easily and effectively access the city directories of Worcester.
- Develop an interactive design for the David Clark Company’s Full-Pressure High Altitude Flying suit exhibit, which integrates to other space related highlights of Worcester’s industrial history such as Robert Goddard and modern rocketry.
- Develop an interactive design for the Joshua Stoddard steam calliope exhibit that incorporates digital simulation technology and sensory interactivity.
The Worcester Historical Museum staff, specifically Executive Director Mr. William Wallace and Exhibitions Coordinator Ms. Vanessa Bumpus, served as our project sponsors for the duration of this project. The museum staff and resources provided us with the necessary information and expertise for the completion of the project objectives.
Small museums like the Worcester Historical Museum have a unique ability to give each visitor a personalized and special experience (Lord, 2002). Each and every visitor can discern which parts of the museum they will explore and what order they go about viewing different exhibits. The museum is able to display much more in-depth information about specialized content and specific artifacts that a large scale museum cannot afford.
Small museums face many challenges. The most notable challenges include budget constraints and physical space limitations. Ultimately, exhibit coordinators and designers need to be aware of all limitations and restrictions during the process of designing an effective exhibit.
During the fall of 2012, WHM created the Alden Gallery to provide a dynamic and interactive environment for families that visit the museum (as shown in Figure 1 below). The Alden Gallery is an excellent representation of visitor engagement through interactive exhibit design. The gallery remains a favorite amongst local elementary schools and families. The WHM staff and board of directors intend to use the Alden Gallery as a guiding example for the continued implementation of interactive designs in the other galleries of the museum. The Fuller Gallery, home of the In Their Shirtsleeves exhibit, is the current focus of WHM’s interactive redesign process (as shown in its current state in Figure 2).
Figure 1: Snapshots of Alden Gallery (WHM, 2014)
Figure 2: Snapshots of Fuller Gallery (WHM, 2014)
Our team chose to focus our redesign efforts around David Clark’s Full-Pressure suit and Joshua Stoddard’s steam calliope, as the museum determined that these items had the most potential for successful interactive redesigns within the entire exhibit. We inferred the flying suit would naturally capture the attention of museum visitors. Conversely, the Fuller Gallery only has one picture of the steam calliope; and we foresaw an opportunity to educate the visitors more about such a unique musical instrument.
Our tenure at WHM began with research and series of interviews regarding museums that successfully utilized interactive exhibit designs. Our visits to Boston Children’s Museum (BCM), New York Historical Society (NYHS), and The 9/11 Memorial and Museum enabled us to observe interactive exhibits in context and to interview museum staff members involved in the engaging exhibit design process. Specifically, we interviewed Mrs. Marla Quinones, Director of Exhibit Design and Production at BCM, and Mr. Chris Catanese, Director of Museum Administration at NYHS.
In order to effectively display a redesign of David Clark’s Full-Pressure suit and Joshua Stoddard’s steam calliope in the exhibit, we researched a variety of different exhibits that properly utilized as much interaction as possible. To create a database, we first identified the primary users of the database. Understanding the database users and their needs allowed us to identify an appropriate framework for the design process. Upon selecting a framework, we then researched potential methods for completely digitizing the city directories. Our team then spent a great deal of time evaluating the methods and resources necessary to successfully implement a search function within the digitized copies of the directories. After the creation of a fully functional prototype directory, the team devoted their efforts to applying a visually engaging format for the directory. The culmination of the team’s efforts regarding the creation of a digital directory included a variety of testing and evaluation procedures.
After gathering all information from our research, the feedback from Worcester Historical Museum staff members, and our observations of the museum’s exhibits, we inferred the In Their Shirtsleeves exhibit would benefit from interactive redesigns of the Full-Pressure suit, steam calliope, and the Worcester city directories. Upon reevaluation of the methods we utilized in the interactive redesign process of the In Their Shirtsleeves exhibit, we developed working interactive prototypes for each of the three artifacts. The following highlights an outline of the project team’s findings.
Understanding Museum Visitors
The most common age groups visiting Worcester Historical Museum were students under 12 and adults over 30.
After interviews with WHM staff members and our observations of the different galleries, we realized that the interactive exhibit redesigns would have to appeal to different age groups.
Visitors retain more information about interactive exhibits than static exhibits.
Although all of the exhibits in the museum have labels and other documentation to inform guests, our observations of visitors in the Fuller and Alden galleries showed that visitors demonstrate a much deeper level of knowledge regarding the interactive exhibits of the Alden Gallery than they do in regards to the static exhibits of the Fuller Gallery.
Worcester City Directory Findings
An E-Book format for the digital city directories would be easier, more efficient, and more interactive than an Access database.
After interviews with Mrs. Robyn Conroy, Worcester Historical Museum’s Librarian, and Ms. Diane Strong, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) specializing in database technology, we concluded that an electronic book (E-Book) format for the city directories would prove most effective. While traditional databases are best formatted for storing large amounts of information, E-Books allow for more interactivity and are much simpler to use.
The most efficient way to convert a physical directory to a digital format is to chop and scan the directory using a sheet-fed scanner.
After an interview with Ms. Jessica Colati, the Assistant Director for Curation, Preservation, and Archives at WPI, and evaluating different scanning methods, we found that chopping and sheet-feed scanning the directories is the most time and cost efficient strategy. The only caveat is ensuring that the physical directories have duplicates before chopping and scanning them.
The optical character recognition (OCR) software featured in Adobe Acrobat is efficient for the search option presented in the digital directory.
After discussing different OCR software with Ms. Jessica Colati, researching all of the different possibilities, and testing the prototype with visitors, we realized that the OCR feature in Adobe Acrobat is effective and cost efficient. This software suite is easy to use for system-users and does not require any specialized skillset to utilize.
Visitors with genealogical ties to the city directories display a much deeper level of engagement with the directory terminal.
During the testing phase of the project, many museum visitors approached the directory terminal and expressed interest in the directories. Visitors with a genealogical connection to the directories (often a family member that lived in Worcester during the given time period) conveyed a much more enthusiastic response to the prototype. Visitors that searched the directory for specific names had a much greater linger time than other visitors and asked about more detailed questions about the features and capabilities of the prototype.
David Clark Company Full-Pressure Flying Suit Findings
The Full-Pressure suit redesign helps to educate visitors about the connection that Worcester shares with the history of American space exploration.
After an interview with Bill Wallace and Vanessa Bumpus, we agreed that the Full-Pressure suit redesign would provide the visitor an explanation of why human space travel would not be possible without Worcester. Visitors would interpret the story of the David Clark Company’s role in providing the National Aviation and Space Association (NASA) with pressurized suits to use in space exploration missions.
The design criteria for the Full-Pressure suit included incorporating some technology and providing rewards for younger visitors.
After interviews with WHM staff members, Boston Children’s Museum’s Marla Quinones, and Higgins Armory curator Jeffrey Forgeng, we developed the design criteria for the Full-Pressure suit. This involved using technology to both engage and educate visitors.
Trying on various components of a replica Full-Pressure suit was infeasible.
After discussing the possibility of visitors trying on various parts of a replica suit (gloves, helmet, etc.) with Marla Quinones and Vanessa Bumpus, our team determined that this would raise sanitation concerns. Vanessa Bumpus stated that the frequency with which the museum would need to sanitize the equipment would prove too time consuming and expensive.
Utilizing green screen technology/Chroma key software satisfies both the learning outcomes and design criteria.
After visiting the Boston Children’s Museum and American Museum of National History and conducting extensive research, we came to the conclusion that utilizing a green screen for the Full-Pressure suit redesign would be both interactive and educational. We found that other museums such as AMNH utilize green screens for attraction purposes and that VidStudio is an effective and no-cost solution for live feed Chroma key software.
Younger visitors enjoy role-playing with the live feed green screen software while older visitors enjoy getting a picture taken.
After testing the green screen prototype, we realized that the green screen has different outcomes with different visitors. Younger visitors exhibited the most enthusiasm and interaction with the green screen, showing a strong interest in the live feed displayed on the video monitor. Older visitors, particularly those over the age of 25, conveyed a desire to save an image of their photograph imposed upon a Chroma key background.
Steam Calliope Findings
The interactive redesign of the exhibit containing Joshua Stoddard’s steam calliope should educate visitors about the steam calliope and its connection to Worcester’s history.
After an interview with Bill Wallace and Vanessa Bumpus of WHM, the project team developed several learning outcomes for the visitors in order to enjoy an interactive music exhibit featuring Stoddard’s steam calliope.
Our design of the steam calliope exhibit should address any challenges that an interactive exhibit would confront.
After visiting the Boston Children’s Museum and interviews with WHM staff members, Mr. Jeffrey Forgeng and WPI music professor Mr. Victor Manzo, we came to the conclusion that the design criteria for the calliope redesign must cover a wide range of ideas, including the volume level, sanitation of the device, and durability, among a few others.
A software application run on a touchscreen device successfully addressed the ‘hands-on’ experience aspects we desired, such as virtual buttons or a virtual piano-style keyboard.
After extensive research and discussions with Seven Hills Charter school teacher Ms. Kathy Holton and Steamboat Natchez calliope performer Ms. Debbie Fagnano, we were able to create and test a playable keyboard through a mobile application run on an iPad.
Museum visitors displayed significant interest in the calliope keyboard.
After testing the calliope keyboard application with visitors, we found that the visitors enjoy the app and are able to play simple songs such as Hot Cross Buns and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star when provided with simple sheet music which is easy to follow and requires no musical background.
Visitor interaction with the calliope keyboard varies with age.
After testing the calliope keyboard with visitors from ages 5 to 75, our team inferred a small difference in visitor engagement with the device. All visitors that tested the calliope keyboard had minimal or no musical experience, but younger visitors, specifically children under the age of 15, expressed interest in hearing the sound of each note on the keyboard. Visitors over the age of 15 verbally expressed a desire to hear full compositions of traditional calliope songs.
The result of our project was a solid framework of new steps taken to redesign a part of the In Their Shirtsleeves collection. These steps show the methods we conducted in order to achieve our project objectives. We have a list of recommendations for WHM to consider in order to continue the redesign plans we have set forth.
Partnering with Worcester Polytechnic Institute to aid in the scanning of city directories
The staff of WHM could collaborate with the Archives Department at WPI to continue the digitization of city directories in the museum. Since the chopping and scanning method to present 1892’s directory book as a prototype proved successful throughout the project timeline, the WHM staff should continue to preserve the rest of the directories within digital replica.
Chopping and sheet-fed scanning every possible directory
Sheet-fed scanners are much more cost-effective than flatbed scanners. Every directory that has at least one duplicate should be utilized for this sheet-fed scanning process before reverting to flatbed scanning the single copy directories.
Utilizing the theater area as a permanent green screen exhibit
After some testing, the theater area is just large enough to put a green screen on the steps and project the live feed through the television already there. If necessary, the theater could still be used for playing DVDs like it currently does, but when it is not being used for that purpose, the green screen can function as an extension to the Full-Pressure suit exhibit as the theater is located directly to the right of the suit.
Utilizing the green screen for more than just space related themes
The green screen is effective for space themes, but could also prove effective for displaying other aspects of Worcester’s history. This could include anything from popular Worcester inventions, factory and mill settings, or even nostalgic photographs of the city, depending on what the museum would like to highlight. It could highlight a different aspect each week, going along with the idea of the Stories They Tell exhibit, which highlights a different artifact each week.
Incorporating an information panel for the different parts of the Full-Pressure suit
Having a photograph listing the separate parts of the Full-Pressure suit would provide additional information for the visitors. Many visitors would be curious to discover the different parts of the Full-Pressure suit and its functionality. Employing an external loudspeaker for the steam calliope exhibit
The tablet computer, even though has a built-in speaker system, needs external loudspeakers to provide enough audio coverage to the visitors when interacting with the steam calliope exhibit.
Playing audio files of performance recordings on steam calliope
The current state of the calliope redesign allows visitors to interact with a simulated calliope keyboard and reproduce accurate calliope sounds. However, many visitors expressed a desire to hear full-length recordings of traditional calliope songs. This functionality may be critical for visitor engagement in the continued development of the calliope exhibit.
Our team’s work during this Interactive Qualifying Project was largely experimental, and functioned as a measurement for the Worcester Historical Museum to assess the feasibility of the proposed overhaul of the Fuller Gallery. The In Their Shirtsleeves industrial history exhibit offered ample opportunity for the implementation of interactive exhibit design. This process was largely experimental, and therefore involved a lengthy period of research into the material contained within the exhibit, as well as the proper methodology to approach the design process. After the creation of prototypes for each facet of the proposed redesign, our team used a variety of evaluation measures to create a detailed set of findings and results. These findings and results are the basis for the recommendations that we provided to the Worcester Historical Museum for the continuation of the Fuller Gallery redesign.