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The new technology helping curators get creative

Researchers at Sheffield Hallam's Design Futures have devised cutting-edge technology to enhance customer and curator experience in museums and heritage sites.

It’s all part of a new toolkit called meSch — Materials Encounters with Digital Cultural Heritage. This innovative package of software and hardware was designed to help heritage professionals to design interactive content, without the need for detailed technical knowledge.

What we did

Leading a consortium of twelve partners from six European countries, our researchers have created technology that changes the way people interact with historical sites and installations.

Electronically-chipped replica artefacts from a given site — such as a German beer mug in a Second World War museum in The Hague — are providing visitors with new, immersive experiences and engaging content.

The beer mug, when placed on a glowing panel, will allow its holder to hear from a German soldier. If the visitor chose a pack of sugar, they might hear from a civilian.

“MeSch is designed to cross the bridge that exists between physical heritage and the digital content that is generally stored in computers,” explains Daniela Petrelli, professor of interaction design at Sheffield Hallam.

“It’s a toolkit,” adds Nick Dulake, a senior industrial designer at Design Futures. “It provides hardware and software that creators can use to dynamically prototype, test and deploy interactive installations.”

The results

Since its first exhibition, the toolkit has continued to demonstrate its flexibility and creative potential at sites that range from indoor museum spaces to a World War I trench in the Italian Alps.

The designs allow for a seamless experience — one that dispenses with the need for jarring screens and digital interfaces in otherwise realistic historical environments. A replica lamp at Hadrian's wall, for example, gently warms and illuminates when placed on an alter, and provides information on Roman gods.

“Not just having a screen in front of your hands, but having an object that has been designed to tell the visitor a different story, or to give them a perceived quality of experience that they are going to have in the museum.”

Although the project’s design standards are high, the platform itself is driven by a simple content management system, so even non-technical users can take charge of interactive experiences.

Once an installation is up and running, curators can manage it independently, changing or adding digital content with ease. Detailed usage metrics help them to make informed content decisions, or generate custom outputs.

For Petrelli, the goal of the project is to empower heritage professionals to bring their collections to life in new ways, presenting visitors with experiences that surprise, excite and educate.

They say

“There is a perception among curators of technology being difficult, so it’s surprising for them to see that actually you can do this in a couple of hours, and have everything up and running. For them it’s an eye-opening experience.”

Professor Daniela Petrelli, professor of interaction design at Sheffield Hallam

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