Interactive Technology in the Scott Polar Research Institute
By Neil O'Sullivan
The museum of the Scott Polar Research Institute opened its doors in 1934. It was founded as the national memorial to Captain Scott and his fellow explorers, to commemorate their ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic in 1910-12. The museum, in the UK town of Cambridge, now houses the world’s largest collection of artefacts, documents and photographs relating to polar exploration and research.
With the centenary of the expedition approaching, the museum recognised an opportunity to reach out to people and engage a new generation with the science and the history of the Polar Regions, but the museum as it stood was not well-equipped to achieve this goal. Displays were static, housed in old cabinets which did not meet modern standards.In 2008, the museum embarked on an ambitious 15-month refurbishment project. Costing £1.75 million, almost half of which came from a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, the renovated museum is now almost unrecognisable to anyone who knew it in its previous state. The installation of interactive technologies was a central aspect of the refurbishment.
The Institute has always operated as a forum where academics from different disciplines within science, social science and the arts could gather and exchange ideas, but these experts had often found it difficult to communicate their ideas to the interested public. Kiosks offered a refreshing solution to this problem. Academic staff were asked to submit ideas for topics, images and videoclips, and museum staff worked with them to ensure that the accompanying text would be accessible for visitors. These science presentations are now available to browse from three kiosks in the museum. This has allowed the academic community to engage with the public in a clear way, presenting often quite complex information without dumbing down. The idea has proved so successful that the museum is now getting contributions from outside the Institute, including several from from NASA. Two further kiosks are dedicated to explaining the current politics of the Arctic and Antarctic, incorporating information submitted by all the member states of the Arctic Council and signatories to the Antarctic Treaty. This international dimension is something that could not easily be presented without the use of technology.
It was decided that the technology used should be engaging and exciting, but also as simple as possible. The museum has only a small staff, who admit that they are not particularly technically minded. The equipment therefore needed to be easy to update and repair.
The kiosks are very easy to update. Information and images are fed in online and can be downloaded to the kiosk. The new displays in the museum also provide a context for the interactives, which adds to their appeal.
Another advantage of technology has been that much of the museum’s vast reserve collection can now be browsed in a way which would never have been possible before, given space limitations. Visitors can now explore parts of the museum’s catalogue of photographs through innovative new touch screen technology.
To achieve this, the museum worked closely with Cambridge-based company Deep Visuals, which has developed software that allows very large sets of photos to be explored visually on a screen or kiosk. The software links all the images together by content, and is able to provide a means of exploring the content without the need for search terms.
A touch screen was installed in the gallery, displaying a set of images relating to the British Arctic Air Route Expedition of the 1930s. A visitor can touch an image that interests them, and many closely related images then appear on the screen, their position and size varying depending on their relationship to the central image. Images can be ‘flipped over’ to reveal text on the back, explaining the content of the image and giving details of the photographer and date. The visitor can travel through the collection by touching the images that appeal to them. This method of exploring photo collections is easier than a traditional catalogue, because it requires no prior knowledge but is based entirely on images and is driven by the user’s interests.
According to Heather Lane, Librarian and Keeper of Collections: “This demonstrates how technology can be used to customise the museum experience for each visitor. Casual passers-by are more quickly engaged, and those with a serious interest can delve far deeper than was possible before. We find people spend far longer than anticipated exploring the photographic collections in this way and we are developing another set to accompany our next temporary exhibition on the British Graham Land Expedition, 1934-37, which opens in January.”
The success of the project is evident from the visitor figures. While previously the museum averaged about 10,000 visitors a year, since it reopened in June 2010, it has already seen 25,000 visitors come through the door. A sure sign that modern museum visitors have a hunger for engaging, interactive exhibits.