How 'smart objects' can bring cultural heritage to life

12 March 2019

How 'smart objects' can bring cultural heritage to life

Tuesday 12 March 2019 Reading time: 4 minutes

A Sheffield Hallam-led team is putting interaction design tools into the hands of curators

When the first visitors arrived at Atlantik Wall, an interactive World War Two exhibition in The Hague, they were presented with an unusual choice. Would they prefer to carry around a miniature beer mug, a box of sugar, a food coupon, or one of three other items?

These replicas were all based on real objects in the exhibition, and they did a consistently good job of arousing curiosity. But they weren’t just for show. In fact, they played a fundamental part in the visitor experience. Place a beer mug on a glowing panel and you might hear a story from a German soldier. Use a sugar box instead and you’d hear from a civilian.

Over the next seven months, there were almost 15,000 sessions of visitor interaction using these chip-carrying replicas. Driving it all was an innovative mix of sensors, software and custom-designed objects called meSch – the work of twelve partners across Europe, with coordination from design experts at Sheffield Hallam University.

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

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

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

‘Beauty and craft’

While every meSch implementation is different, one of the constants is a commitment to high-quality design and craftsmanship.

At Hadrian’s Wall, a display of Roman altars inspired a ‘votive lamp’ – a flat cylinder with three lights to be used as offerings to the gods. Smooth and contoured, it sat comfortably in the palm, its tapered orange lights glowing softly. Each one slowly darkened when the visitor presented the lamp to a chosen altar. The object even gave off a little heat.

Interactive lamp created by the meSch project team
MeSch's 'votive lamp' was used in a display of 13 Roman altars at Hadrian's Wall

Dulake argues that this attention to detail differentiates meSch from interactive experiences that depend on familiar devices such as smartphones and tablets.

‘We feel that it is really critical to design objects that have beauty and craft,’ he says.

‘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.’

Smart objects, simple interface

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

‘Ease of use was a key goal for us,’ says Dulake. ‘We wanted to build something that makes it easy for heritage professionals to experiment and explore new opportunities.

‘Our partnerships and testing have allowed us to see first-hand how curators respond to it. They’ve been able to try out new ideas with very little technical know-how.’

MeSch content management system in use
The meSch CMS gives curators granular control of digital assets and devices

Petrelli explains that installations typically emerge from a codesign process between curators and the meSch team, starting with site-specific research.

‘At the very beginning, what we generally do is go and see the place for which we’re designing,’ she says.

‘The second step is to brainstorm possible ideas, and then we build on what seems to be the most interesting ideas for all of us, and then combine them into something that embodies the vision of everyone.’

Empowering curators

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 – at Hadrian’s Wall, visitors who used the votive lamp received a card telling them more about the three gods whose altars they chose.

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.

‘It has been very pleasing to see curators’ reactions, because it’s something very different,’ she says.

‘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.’

The meSch consortium consists of twelve partners from six European countries and is coordinated by Sheffield Hallam University. The four-year project started in February 2013. It is funded by the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme ‘ICT for access to cultural resources’.