17 February 2005

Multimedia Museum Guides

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Multimedia art is so new and strange to most of us that it still takes a lot of explaining. What is needed is not only a new way to exhibit multimedia art, but also a new way of guiding visitors

In 1997 Karlsruhe, in the South West of Germany, made the headlines when the first museum for interactive multimedia art was opened. The museum is part of the Centre for Art and Media (ZKM), which also comprises five research institutions. Inside, is the famous work of Nam June Pike of a Buddha watching television, and many other interactive exhibits, where the visitor can use hands-on devices. But what do these works really mean?

Multimedia art is so new and strange to most of us that it still takes a lot of explaining. A European research project called SCALEX has recognized that what was needed was not only a new way to exhibit multimedia art, but also a new way of guiding visitors through a museum like the ZKM.

SCALEX is an adaptation of the traditional museum audio-guide to the multimedia world. Instead of using headphones and push-buttons receive information, the museum visitor of the 21st century will be able to browse through information, pick and choose the interesting parts and receive the information in several formats, whether text, sound, pictures or videos. The museum guide of the future will provide more that just an audio function. It will talk about a piece of art, giving background information, details of related works, and cross-referencing to other exhibits in the museum. For this, a multimedia device is needed.

Orphan Kipcak, Media Designer and Professor at the Fachhochschule Joanneum in Graz, Austria, has been one of the driving forces behind the development of SCALEX. He is convinced that the system will one day replace traditional audio guide systems: “Museums will benefit from such technologies, because it will enrich the entire way museums can communicate with their audiences. The main problem”, he says, “is that museums are traditionally conservative, they need to collect and conserve. But the development of new technologies will continue, and as people get used to these new technologies, the museums will also have to react and adapt to new solutions.”

The researchers behind SCALEX first had to think of a way to manage such a device and consider how the user would retrieve his information. In Karlsruhe, they opted for two versions. ZKM’s Technical Support Engineer, Dirk Heesakker, installed a traditional computer terminal in the exhibition, where everyone could use to retrieve information of the pieces of art included in this test run. But the project engineers wanted more, and installed a network, so that the personal digital assistants (PDAs) could be used to retrieve information as the museum visitors browsed through the exhibition. According to Dirk Heesakker the philosophy of the museum and its new guiding system are very similar: “As we are in a museum with many hands-on experiences, the art is not clearly defined but part of the interaction with the visitor. With SCALEX it is the same, there is no predefined route to follow, but everyone can choose and pick what interests them in particular.”

In order to get the most out of SCALEX, the user has to choose from three user profiles: a quick overview, an in-depth guide, or a multimedia handbook for children. Then the system automatically pre-selects information and presents it in a suitable format to the user. Each of the profiles uses the same database of images, videos, sounds and texts, and so the system can be easily expanded and changed when the exhibits change.

But one hurdle still remains: the PDA is clearly the best way to be guided through the museum, but it requires computer literacy. This problem has already been addressed by the developers, and Orphan Kipcak wants to see the integration of the system to the most common multimedia device on the street today: “Next we would like to adapt SCALEX for the mobile phone, a device almost everyone is familiar with, and a device that also has an increasing multimedia function – ideal for a new multimedia guidance tool.”

It is no surprise that the Centre of Art and Media in Karlsruhe was chosen as one of three museums as a testing platform for SCALEX - the others are the Technical Museums of Prague and Vienna. Once more ZKM has put itself in the technological limelight, but this time it was not art and media that inspired the museum. If Orphan Kipcak is right, we will soon see SCALEX in many more exhibitions around Europe.
 

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