Recently on Twitter Ben Gammon who is a Consultant in the Museum and Heritage sector asked the question “What advice would you give to someone commissioning/developing interactive exhibits about ensuring that these exhibits are robust & low maintenance?”
I had a drink of my coffee , gave it a thought and quickly came up with a list of 8 things to remember when developing interactive exhibits to keep them running and trouble free , plus two more came up in the conversation. So here they are 10 things that you can do to keep your interactives as robust and low maintenance as possible.
1. It starts with the drawings
Insist on receiving technical drawings from suppliers for anything that is going to be custom built. Check the drawings thoroughly and with a fine tooth comb. Are the apertures for the screens the correct size? Where do the cables run, has space been allowed for them. Has enough space been left for the computer, is there adequate ventilation. Do objects need to be moved to remove a screen?
Its a lot cheaper to to correct any problems at this stage than it is when everything has been built.
2. Prototype and test early
In an ideal world all museums would have departments dedicated to user testing, but this isn’t always possible.
Ideally test on gallery with visitors, but if that’s not possible, set something up in the office and get your colleagues to test. Check the robustness of Joysticks, buttons and any other controllers. Consider the installation. a Joystick can be pulled a lot harder if it is solidly fixed in a housing than if it is held in your hands.
3. Use reputable suppliers
Avoid Ebay and ali-express specials. Look for commercial and industrial grade items. Buttons that are designed for Arcade games or to be used in outdoor intercom systems are going to be far more robust than ones for lightweight hobby projects.
Companies such as R.S and Farnell can deliver next day, they stock items for years, provide data sheets and will display on their website if an item is to be discontinued, often making an alternative suitable item available. Buying an item from China can have a lead time of several weeks, often very little information is given, the photograph may not be accurate and there is no idea if that item will still be available in two or three years time.
4. Built by engineers not artists.
I have created art installations that only have to last a few days or a few hours. When I’m building for a long term exhibit my artist hat comes off and my engineer hat goes on.
Diplomacy is the watch word, when working with artists. An highly interactive galley full of six year olds robustly investing forces is quite different to a white cube of respectful patrons.
5. Involve maintenance and gallery staff in the design and development of the interactive.
This will be different for every organisation, but never dismiss practical experience
This starts with having them look at the drawings. If there is an existing exhibit talk to the staff who work with it, spend some time yourself observing visitors. I will never forget seeing a man sat on the floor, forgoing the provided bench pulling an headphone cable a lot further than was ever intended.
6. Don’t use all in one computers or tablets for long term exhibits.
The form factor of these devices cannot be guaranteed. Consumer devices only have a product life of around 12 – 18 months. Manufacturers will often change screen size and aspect ratio at each iteration often based on nothing more than fashion and perceived demand. Moving a product from being aimed at a productivity segment to a media consumption segment will lead to a aspect ratio change.
Consumer devices will typically only last 3 years. An all in one solution may be cheaper than a separate computer and screen but factor in buying spares in advance.
7.Get copies of all assets and files, not just the completed executable.
This is especially important for Arduino and other Microcontroller devices.
Want to convert an old game from Flash to HTML5 to put on the web or mobile. It will be a lot more expensive if the graphics have to be recreated from scratch.
Has there been an advance in Science or medicine that requires a change to the content. Even a simple change could require the interactive to be completely re-created without the original assets.
8) Make sure full Documentation is supplied.
detailing all maintenance procedures, how the exhibit works and bill of materials. Test the procedures to make sure accurate and correct.
There is nothing worse than discovering several years after a project was completed that the documentation is missing,incomplete or wrong. Don’t rely on on-line documentation, it might not exist when you come to need it .
They were the original eight things that I came up with. Other points raised in the conversation.
Tom Beevers highlighted the need for ventilation
Think how much abuse it’ll get, and double it.
Include ventilation and easy access.
Everything Catherine said.
— Tom B (@tejb1) May 4, 2018
Dave Patten Pointed out that damage and wear can come from unexpected sources.
From the Exploratorium pic.twitter.com/fBX69M1hFf
— dave patten (@davepatten) May 4, 2018
Considering projectors. Modern Laser/LED Projectors are preferable to the older Lamp Projectors. They require less maintenance. Typically have a expected life of 20,000 hours which can be extended by reducing the brightness if it isn’t required to run at full output. a 20% reduction in brightness will extend the projector life by 20%.
A Further point that came up after the conversation is that Google is planning on removing autoplay of Audio in Chrome, this annoyed a lot of artists who work on the web. It will possibly have an impact on interactives installed in galleries but at least it can be negated by changing a setting in Chrome. A lot more difficult for artwork and interactives that are consumed on the web. But it goes to show that even with all the best planning and execution keeping museum and gallery interactives running smoothly is a none stop task.