How Exhibit Technology Can Enhance the Post-COVID Museum Experience

Phase Shift’s Tony Warner and Jim Wolf discuss how museums can pivot existing exhibit technology and make smart updates to adapt to a new global normal. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything—from travel to education to work—and it’s likely that nothing will remain untouched by social distancing measures once the smoke clears. Museums are no exception. But make no mistake: museums and other civic spaces are not going away. They are fundamental to our culture and heritage. They will, of course, need to adapt to society’s new normal, just like everyone else. And that’s where exhibit technology comes in.

But what will that look like and how can museums shift and adapt without breaking the bank?

First, The Good News

It is self-evident that most institutions were already facing funding crises, and the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped that. Now is not the time to be spending money carelessly, which is why the best news about this shift is that all of this technology already exists; and many operators will only need to adjust their systems to accommodate key concerns like sanitation, security, integration and scalability. And installation and maintenance aren’t cost-prohibitive either, especially if there is already some type of tech infrastructure in place.

Exhibit technology updates can help museums adapt to a post-pandemic world.

Human Behavior

One massive hurdle will be human behavior. People will eventually return to our civic spaces and places of public assembly, but how will essential protocols (hand hygiene, social distancing, etc.) impact the overall experience? Exhibit designers have spent the last decade removing artifacts from beneath glass cases and encouraging visitors to interact, but no one wants to go back to the old days when everything had a Please Do Not Touch sign.

We’ve known for a long time that smartphones and downloadable applications can significantly enrich the visitor journey—from extending the overall experience to boosting commercial opportunities—and that presents a chance to change and optimize how technology is deployed. Still, getting a visitor (or accommodating those without a phone, like schoolchildren) to download an app has always been difficult. Given the global change in circumstances, people may be more willing to download a museum-based app if it means they don’t have to touch a device that has been previously used.

A large part of the solution to this challenge will be educational: when and how do you address such concerns? Just as it did after the 9/11 attacks, queuing and security will almost certainly change—an opportunity for signage, information displays, and pre-event entertainment that could go a long way to keeping visitors safe and healthy. Anyone who has ever flown into an airport in Asia has seen the thermal scans and temperature-takers, but I would suggest we lean more toward an enriched queuing experience (i.e., Disney) than an impoverished one (i.e., TSA). Again, the tech is basic but the impact can be huge.

Touchless Touchpoints

While we can’t know for certain how all of this will play out, we’re fairly sure that hygiene is going to be on people’s minds for quite some time. I don’t say this to be alarmist but only to reassure anyone looking to the future that implementation of any technology that limits physical touchpoints and sharing of public surfaces, while maintaining a powerful museum experience, will be money well spent.

In recent years, our clients have often asked for touchscreen tables and other interactive displays. We will likely see those give way to different technology that allows patrons to see, interact, and engage with a museum exhibit without having to touch anything. How will that work? There are a number of cost-effective ways to do this. Replacing buttons with motion or gesture-based controls is relatively easy, as is changing out hand-based buttons for things that visitors can operate with a toe-tap instead.

If people are willing to download an app and use their own devices, it becomes much easier to minimize touch-points and create “touchless touchpoints.” In fact, it’s hard to imagine a “touchless” museum without a robust phone app. We can design RFID sensors to trigger audio on individual phones, but that’s more difficult and more intrusive for the user than simply having visitors download an app and initiating an audio tour or enable their phones as “remote controls.”

In an interactive exhibit, the phone could complement the experience through augmented reality (think: a more academic version of “Pokemon Go,” for example), and social media integration becomes much easier (take a selfie with our Dolly Madison filter and post it to Instagram..and don’t forget our hashtag).

The biggest caveat is to make sure that even the most robust app doesn’t try to replace the museum experience but enhance it on-site and extend it pre- and post-visit. The tech needs to encourage visitors to, well, visit.

Rethinking the Exhibit

It’s really the creativity behind touchless exhibits that will get people back into museums. Anything from a floor that responds to footsteps or a touchless 3D model in a science museum to a mirror that automatically shows visitors in period costume in a history museum will engage and inspire people to walk in the door.

As an example of an existing exhibit technology breakthrough, albeit one that was dreamt up long before COVID-19, holocaust survivors have recorded interviews answering thousands of questions, with cameras at every angle. The result is a “hologram” that answers questions based on voice activation at holocaust museums across the country. While the cost and logistics behind something like this are unrealistic for almost all museums, it’s the kind of vision and creativity that brings history and exhibits to life; it also happens to be touchless for visitors.

Let the Museum Come to You

We all need to be prepared for the possibility that, even when museums reopen, many people and schools may be hesitant to return in person. That’s where we can all get really creative.

The concept of a “virtual field trip” isn’t new; in fact, there are many museums around the world offering online tours already. But to give people a real, more personal sense of the collection or exhibit, the tour has to be a lot more than a run-of-the-mill walkthrough on social media.

Consider a program where a curator or docent can stand in front of a green screen in a museum’s dedicated broadcast studio, maybe even in costume, explaining the Revolutionary War to a group of third-graders, who are watching from a screen in their classroom (or at home!). The guide can call up different images of objects in the museum’s collection and, with a second camera, he or she can show artifacts up close. Before the “field trip,” the museum could even send a box of replica artifacts (fully sanitized, of course) for the children to pass around.

Virtual visits may never truly live up to an in-person experience, but with the right technology and vision, they offer museums a new way to engage and keep their stories alive as the world continues to grapple with social distancing and public health concerns.

Ultimately, however museums choose to adapt, technology changes will likely be necessary, as will experts who understand the complexity and meaning behind what museums, curators, and exhibit designers do. We see it as a partnership, one where the technology enriches the content and, especially, the experience without breaking the bank or getting in the way.

Phase Shift Consulting is a full-service technology design consultancy with a particular focus on the museum space. The Phase Shift team has worked on projects ranging from the US Capitol Visitor Center to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library to various projects with the Smithsonian Institute.