Nov. 8, 2011

The World is Already on Exhibit

The experiences exhibition designers produce are realized through the tools of mediation that connect the visitor to collections, objects and ideas. Of course, the same definition could be applied to many other forms of communication. Books mediate between readers and subjects, television and film mediate between viewers and subjects. The Internet serves both readers and viewers as well as participants, and is revolutionizing the fabric of society. But what the museum exhibition offers that none of these other things do is direct contact with real objects, authentic artifacts and specimens or, as in the case of exhibits without collections, experiences that can’t be had without being inside the museum context. So far this has kept exhibition designers busy, creating the experiential frameworks that museums exhibitions need to tell a story, embed a concept or provide a direct experience.

But things are rapidly changing through an explosion of mobile devices and apps for generating and sharing content. Now, almost anywhere we go, we have the ability to access content over our phones. Not just maps and information about local businesses but images, stories and videos laid over whatever lies in front of us. Augmented reality (AR) browsers like Wikitude World Browser puts the world on exhibition. Using a smartphone, Wikitude overlays anything you see through the camera display with interactive content.


Wikitude on a smart phone

Museums have been experimenting with augmentation like audio tours and mobile devices for years, but apps like Wikitude point to an eventual content saturation where the world itself can be considered an exhibition and we are all its curators.
An historic record of “everything” is being constructed “in place”. It emerges out of personal moments of inspiration. Perhaps it is not the individual image or sound that is important but their conglomerate effect. A temporally stratified atmosphere of content integrated with the terrain, a sprawling monument of compiled memories. This is a good thing. It's important that we understand that everything isn’t shallow and fleeting, that every thing and every place has a history and a story to tell and that we are connected not just laterally in the moment but vertically through time. It shows that places and things, often taken for granted, are far more than they appear. Of course, it is only a matter of time before people will begin tagging themselves as points of interest. As twitter and Facebook have shown, people devote a lot of time to masquerade and self-aggrandizement. But as many wiki-produced projects have shown, the collaborative, collected input of users can yield profound and surprisingly accurate results. At the same time, museums have started to utilize this technology to expand their footprint. The Museum of London recently made their app "Street Museum" available for download on i-tunes. Now with a growing interest in transmedia, a movement away from the idea that a story or subject must be communicated or interacted with through one medium, (a concept that exhibition designers have been working with for years) we are capable of an even broader range of possibilities for providing and using a combination of content sources wherever we are.

Image from the Museum of London's "Street Museum" app.

While this may cause some exhibition designers to worry, wondering if such devices might be adopted by museums as a primary means of content delivery, it forces them, in the best possible way, to rethink the tools of the trade. It also opens unlimited territory for applying their expertise. The world may already be on exhibit, but just as designers transformed exhibitions from an early cabinet of curiosities to what they are today, this global exhibition is about to get a lot more spectacular.
MWB, 2011


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