If you are one of the three regular readers of this blog (thanks Paul and Phil!), you are going to hear me repeat certain ideas about the best use of technology in interpretation. I might even be accused of sounding like a broken record – no, wait, um… an eight track… no, ack, a cassette tape… I mean, a CD… no gosh darn it, an MP3? Anyway, you may think I sound repetitive, which is the opposite of our mysterious fourth writer, the infamous Shenanigan Lewis, who cleverly gets a byline without stating anything.

My philosophy is that new media should not be the end product – it is merely the medium by which you choose to communicate. And, it should mainly be used to show something or engage people in ways they can’t do on their own.

Every once in a while, I’ll demonstrate this by sharing examples where technology is well planned, and others where seemingly little planning was done. This is one of those times. So, I’ll borrow from my late night friend, Stephen Colbert, and offer Media Platypus’ first “Tip of the Hat” and “Wag of the Finger”

Example 1: Tip of the Hat

Technology shows this sea star can really move (Photo Credit: Vancouver Aquarium)

At the Vancouver Aquarium, there is an ingenious display that, for me, makes one of the smaller animals take centre stage. Imagine, if you will, a large aquarium filled with sea stars (*nerd alert* that’s the politically correct term for starfish, which aren’t a type of fish at all, but are instead a very fascinating type of echinoderm). At first glance, there really isn’t anything much going on  - just a bunch of seemingly stationary animals. But, above the tank is a tiny video camera pointed at the animals, while a large flatscreen, clock, and wheel sits in front of the visitor. Spin the wheel counterclockwise, and the screen shows you a time lapse video of the tank going backwards in time (with the corresponding time of day on the clock). Spin the wheel clockwise, and it shows a time lapse back to the present time. The faster you spin, the quicker the playback and the faster the animals seem to move. Suddenly, a tank of seemingly sedentary animals becomes alive with action. This is a perfect use of new media in exhibits – it is interactive, engaging, focuses you on the actual resource, and shows you something you couldn’t see on your own. A most honourable Tip of the Hat goes out to the Vancouver Aquarium.

Example Two: Wag of the Finger

One of the most common objections during meetings about exhibit technology is when someone says, “I think we should avoid technology. It always breaks down, and there is always a sign that says ‘out of order’.” Even though I don’t agree with the philosophy (avoiding technology), the observation is often true. This is probably because there wasn’t a contigency plan on how to deal with that technology in the case of a breakdown. Well, here is an example of just such an epic failure. Whilst strolling through a popular visitor centre (let’s just call them the XYZ Centre to spare them the shame), I noticed a computer set up with an expensive touchscreen. The screen was supposed to show the current weather, but the computer wasn’t working. So, the staff tried their best to improvise:

How not to use your exhibit screens. Epic fail.

The reason this doesn’t work is that 1) the technology was not used for anything more that what can be done with a whiteboard, and 2) there obviously wasn’t a contingency plan for when the technology broke down. They could have removed the screen from sight, or switched it with a whiteboard, or replaced it with a back-up activity. In each of these options, I would have been none the wiser. But, instead, they drew my attention directly to the fact that the technology wasn’t working. My Wag of the Finger goes out to XYZ Visitor Centre.

The lesson here? The Aquarium was successful because it used technology to create a stronger connection between people and the resource (sea stars), and the amazing technology was merely the catalyst. The XYZ Visitor Centre was unsuccessful because they purchased an expensive screen to show visitors a website, and when it didn’t work, they taped paper to the screen. At the Aquarium, the animals were the attraction, and at XYZ, the screen was the attraction.