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For many cultural institutions imagining a post-COVID re-opening, one thing is clear: touchscreens are going to be a problem. Local Projects, the New York firm that has created interactive exhibitions for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and the Equal Justice Initiative, to name a few of its prominent clients, is already re-thinking a feature that has become a pervasive and expected aspect of the modern museum-going experience.

We’ve become used to touching the art. In fact, when the Cleveland Museum of Art underwent an expansion in 2013, Local Projects collaborated with the institution to create a 40-foot touchscreen that corralled 4,000 works under the instruction “Please Touch the Art.” In general, the incorporation of the digital experience into exhibition design can be very effective, making the art experience more malleable and customizable, giving individuals a certain choose-your-own-adventure power. The connected pen that Local Projects created for the Cooper Hewitt, for instance, introduced a sense of play and education; users got to digitally “collect” the museum’s objects and draw their own inventions in a designated space. It was instantly iconic.

But even more valuable is how digital interaction can affect the museum experience at an emotional level. At the National September 11 Museum, the digital guestbook and the Last Column enabled visitors to connect personally with that part of recent history, for example.

So how can the widespread expectation for interfaces be mitigated? “We’re pivoting to emotional outcomes, not focusing on touch per se,” explains Ben Millstein, the communications and marketing manager at Local Projects. “What that means is that we’re exploring the metaphor of touch – but reverse engineering it for the emotional outcome.”

In truth, touch activation is just one aspect of the digital-IRL experience – and one element in a much broader problem that might be best summed up as, “How will we museum in the future?” In consultation with its clients around the world, Local Projects is considering the ways in which cultural spaces will need to move visitors through a linear experience by many means and with interactive cues throughout.

But first, museums need to reassure visitors of their vigilant regard for health and safety in order to bring them back in the first place. And this, too, will require new design tools. As Millstein explains, there are two time-dependent approaches: the short term, which will include adjustments in tune with the “cadence of partial re-opening and accepting that we’re not going to create a graceful system;” and the long term, which will be characterized (hopefully) by the discovery of an effective vaccine and herd immunity. Regardless, the understanding is that physical distancing will continue indefinitely.

A traffic-tracking app for a museum could allow visitors to see which areas are nearing capacity.

Building trust goes hand in hand with envisioning a memorable, positive experience. Local Projects is exploring new tools that allow museums to encourage vigilance while also creating a dynamic environment. For instance, might they be able to monitor the human density inside museums with crowd-counting apps that keep track of the number of people in various sections of an exhibition? Will they be able to enforce a mindful, no-devices awareness in visitors with new types of designated pathways, for instance LED-illuminated lines? These measures will require museums to model conscientious behaviour and impose new expectations on visitors.

LED-illuminated pathways could aid in physical distancing.

The firm has visualized even more ideas for carrying out these resolutions while enriching the museum-going experience. One idea it is prototyping is a hand-held lamp (easily disinfected, post-use) that visitors can use to light up aspects of a vignette, say; it would provide an interactive, experience-customizing element in lieu of a touchscreen.

The interactive hand-held lamp that Local Projects is introducing for the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center.

“There will be many necessary solutions,” explains Amelia Falco, creative director at Local Projects, “but what really interests me is creating the experiences that reinforce human connections and re-establish a sense of community. Custom hand-held devices such as the interactive lamp,” which is being devised for the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center in Philadelphia, “gives users a unique experience that isn’t dependent on using their own personal phone.”

Another idea is an LED belt that creates a visual six-foot perimeter around a person’s feet. “The LED belt creates beauty through necessity: the need to create a personal boundary, in this case,” says Falco. “We can imagine these pools of light moving around a space, transforming it into a place of responsible social connection.” 

An LED belt could provide a halo of light around visitors that indicates six feet of distance.

Among other tools ripe for rediscovery are voice-activated features – already at Planet World, which was set to open this month in Washington, DC., the firm has created a double-height wall composed of 1,000 light-activated words that asks audience members questions to respond to out loud – and robotics. The Hastings Contemporary in the UK (which Local Projects was not involved in) has already instituted robotic surrogates — an iPad-sized screen mounted on a pole attached to wheels is guided by the museum’s director through art works. Building on this is the notion of human surrogates, which would allow the elderly or infirm to view art at home from the vantage point of an onsite museum-goer.

It turns out the alternatives to touchscreens for digital interaction are plenty – and designers working with museum and gallery clients have a varied palette to choose from.

Local Projects Explores Museums Post-COVID

The New York firm, known for its exhibition designs for institutions including the National September 11 Memorial & Museum and the Cooper Hewitt, is envisioning new tools to help museum-goers navigate cultural spaces in the new normal.

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