Here's one lovely answer: Meta.L.Hyttan. This project in Avesta, Sweden, in which visitors use special flashlights to explore a historic site and reveal interpretative content of interest, is an elegant example of how museums can innovative the label experience.
First, a little explanation about "pull" content techniques. Pull techniques invite visitors to actively retrieve content of interest, rather than consuming content "pushed" indiscriminately by the museum. "Pull" techniques don't just allow multiplicity of content; they also emphasize the visitors' active role in seeking out information. Of course, visitors are always somewhat active in their pursuit of interpretation--they decide whether or not to read the label, whether or not to watch the video, whether or not to click into the interactive. But requiring visitors to take a physical action to retrieve interpretative material imparts a certain power to visitors--they choose what to reveal, not just what to look at. It's not surprising that research has shown that information retrieved via "pull" techniques is retained better than that which is pushed. You may not remember what your teacher lectured about, but you probably do remember the answer she gave you to a question of particular interest.
The most familiar pull learning tool we use daily is Google. It's certainly possible to plunk a computer into the gallery and let people google to their hearts' content, but that activity doesn't fit naturally into the flow of museum-going. Nor does hitting different buttons on an audio guide or even a cellphone feel entirely natural in the context of the physical and visual exploration of exhibits. The technology distracts and breaks a bit of the power of the museum experience. And while I believe in letting people use their own technology (i.e. their phones) to access information, I think there's potential for other kinds of devices and environmental interactions to add value in a way that enhances, rather than detracts from, museum-ness.
Which brings us back to Sweden. In 2004, the firm Smart Studio created a unique flashlight-based interpretative interface for exploration of a historic blast furnace site in the old Swedish steel town of Avesta. The site itself has no interpretative material--no labels or obvious media elements. But each visitor is given a special flashlight, used both to illuminate the space (for general exploration) and to activate interpretative experiences include light projection, sound, and occasional physical experiences (i.e. smoke and heat). There are indicated hotspots in the site which activate interpretative material when the flashlights light on them. Smart Studio launched with two layers of content in the hotspots--educational (how the blast furnace works, explanation of certain elements and history) and poetic (imagistic stories from the perspective of steel workers, based on historical content). Visitors can walk through the blast furnace site and receive none of the interpretative material if they choose, or they can use their flashlights to activate content.
I love this project for several reasons:
- They used a technology that fits well conceptually and practically into the experience of exploring a historic site of this type. You use the flashlight to see the site, and you use the flashlight to see deeper, hidden layers of history as well. The metaphor is consistent and the object interaction is intuitive.
- The flashlights function in a magical, surprising way that stems naturally from their typical use. If you were given a crazy pointer and told to use it in this way, it would not be as surprising or exciting as this new "activation" of a familiar object. This gives the sense that there is something magical and unusual happening at the historic site, giving it an aura of mystery and enhancing the uniqueness of the experience.
- The minimal intervention of the interpretative material allows purists to experience the site without additional media elements if they so choose.
- Unlike an audio tour, the light-based interpretative material can be shared socially. A family could explore the space together and use flashlights to "show" new content to each other.
- The act of illuminating the interpretative material gives visitors the sense of personal agency in the discovery and exploration of history. Again, the flashlight metaphor evokes the experience of other explorers and archaeologists, and lets visitors play at uncovering history. But they are also in control of the content experience, revealing stories on demand.
- The infrastructure can support a layered, changing set of content pieces. In their original proposal, Smart Studio alluded to this potential for multiple languages and interpretative contexts, but I'm not sure whether they have pursued it and added additional interpretative material over time.