Advice from me

So you want to put a computer interactive in your museum? – A beginner’s guide

You will need;
1. Content
2. Hardware
3. Software
4. Management
5. A maintenance plan
6. A budget


A museum exhibit should communicate some information, ideas or feelings. What you are trying to communicate is known as the content. Before you do anything else in the development of a computer interactive you should have a good idea what the content should be. As a museum professional, deciding on the content is what you are most qualified to do and if you can't decide on this then your chances of making good choices about other matters such as technology are not good.

Typical mistakes that people make are to either try and put too much or too little content in the exhibit, or don't aim their content at the target audience. If you put too little content in your exhibit then you are effectively relying on the interaction and spectacle of the exhibit. This is something that the games and entertainment industries do far better and your exhibit will come off looking second best.

If you put too much content in your exhibit then you are in danger of creating an encyclopaedia. There will be too much for your users to take in and your resources will be spread too thin to be effective. Remember, that the average time spent on a museum exhibit is about three minutes. Exhibits with too much content generally happen when you have difficulty deciding on priorities, often due to a committee of people being involved each with their own pet content.

The other mistake developers make is making the content too obvious for the audience (people get bored) or too hard (people don't like to feel stupid). The only sure fire way of judging the right level is to do some research on your audience before you start.

It's a really good idea to have a 1 or 2 sentence "Message" which sums up the essence of your exhibit.
Here's an example message for an interactive on the MMR vaccine.

Ages 8-12 Vaccination can stop you getting diseases.
Age 12+ If vaccination levels fall below a certain level then you will get outbreaks and possibly epidemics of the diseases. And those who cannot be immunised for medical reasons will have no defence.

Here's another for an exhibition about Vikings in Britain

The Vikings left behind many objects which we can dig up and have a good guess at what they were.
Some parts of Viking life were like our own but others were very different.

And another for an art exhibiton

Picasso and Matisse lived in similar times and each was inspired by the art of the other.
Matisse's art is often based on the use of colour whereas Picasso's tends to be an exploration of form.

Why have a message?

You will have to make many decisions and it helps you focus on what to keep in and what to leave out You can test against the message to see if you've been successful

Hardware and software

Hardware is like a CD player - software is the CD
You get your hardware and software from different companies

What hardware will I need?

There's a huge variety of hardware you can use to run your exhibit. If you don't have much experience then I would advise steering clear of anything too exotic and sticking with the basics which are:

  • A computer - reliability is more important than power
  • A screen
  • Some way of controlling the exhibit .Keyboards and mice don't last long. Touchscreens and trackballs are good
  • Something to put the exhibit on, such as a table, or in, such as a ready made kiosk

A PC plus a cheap screen plus a trackball = ~£700
A ready made kiosk including PC and touchscreen = ~£3000

There's a lot more information in my document "Buying a computer for a museum exhibit"

What software will I need?

Software is what actually contains the content of your exhibit. So you'll spend most of your time developing the software. Although if you're a regional museum, with a fairly local catchment area you could save yourself a lot of time and heartache by buying one that some else has already developed. Your audience won't know the difference, you'll know what you're getting before you buy it and it'll be a lot cheaper.

Developing software

Whole books have been written about the best way to develop software but here's a rough guide to the process.

1. Museum decides on the initial message and content of the exhibit
2. Contractor then pitches a storyboard for approval
3. Once the story board is approved the contractor produces a prototype exhibit
4. The prototype is tested on the public and results fed back to the contractor
5. This happens two or three times depending on the budget and time scale
6. Once the exhibit is finished it is delivered and tested by the museum to make sure it works without crashing.

How do I get the software right?

1. Go and look at other people's exhibits. Decide what works and what doesn't.
2. Test prototypes out on the public frequently - there is no substitute for this
3. Choose a contractor who specializes in museum exhibits
4. Keep back some of the money until the exhibit has been working 6 months
5. Give out a document specifying all the general requirements at the beginning (See my document "Requirements for computer exhibit software")

Project management

To develop a computer exhibit you will have to work with your content people, your software developer, your hardware supplier and probably other parties such as exhibition designers and so on. This will definitely require some project management, a subject which is too large to go into much detail here but here are some tips.

Make sure you decide who is managing the project at the start and that they have the authority to make decisions.
Don't tell wait until they almost finished to tell exhibit developers that you hate their idea/design. It's much easier to make changes earlier
Don't change the content as you go along
Don't give developers feedback in dribs and drabs - give them a clear prioritised document after each stage and explain it to them face to face.

Maintenance plan

Computer interactives are generally much more reliable than mechanical ones, but they do break so you need some kind of maintenance plan. Its generally much easier to find funding and personnel for development so if you don't make a plan at the start its likely that nothing will happen until something breaks which is too late.

What you can do

  • Make sure your software doesn't crash. Programs don't wear out. They either work or don't, make sure yours does before paying for it.
  • Also make sure that your developer gives you the software on a disk together with instructions for installing it. That way when your computer breaks you can get another one and just install the software again.
  • Some maintenance tasks are pretty simple and can be learnt in a day or two. The most common problems are that wires become unplugged and that touchscreens need cleaning. Get whoever is installing your hardware to show whoever is maintaining it how to do these things.
  • Eventually computer parts do break and need replacing. The parts are generally not too expensive (less than £100) so make sure you have someone skilled available (either in house or external) to do this for you.

What does it all cost?

A computer exhibit can cost from not that much to a huge amount. But to give you a feeling for how much money you need, here's some basic estimates.

The bare minimum for a simple exhibit is around 6000 pounds for hardware and software. This does NOT include a housing for it, the cost of your time and the cost of maintenance. If you spend less than this then you've either found some clever way of saving money or are taking some risks with the success of your exhibit.

The Science Museum typically spends about 11-12000 pounds for an exhibit. This does not include the time spent developing the content, the exhibit housing or maintenance costs

© Joe Cutting 2003-2005. You are welcome to use this document for your own purposes but you must retain this acknowledgment. You may not sell all or any part of this document or use it for financial gain.