Exhibit curation is an art form in itself, and with todays technology we are given the means to really extend the viewers experience beyond a strategically placed frame on a wall. This is exactly what the exhibit known as “David Bowie Is” at the MCA in Chicago does.
Personally, I’ve never grabbed an audio guide at a museum. I read the little plaque on the wall, look at the art, and move on. So immediately I was dreading this audio guide that you were given upon arrival. However I quickly learned not all audio guides are created equal. The exhibit partnered with Sennheiser, a german audio company to really bring the exhibit to life.
The exhibit was designed to simulate the “live performance experience” using their guidePORT system. This system allows the museum to really create the ultimate user experience, by catering towards specific languages and ages, really taking customization to the next step. The audio guide itself doesn’t require the user to do much on their own, as the guidePORT is wireless and adapts itself to the individual route of each visitor by detecting their location via radio. This helps apply the appropriate audio sequence automatically.
The happy path of using this technology should also allow the user to stop or repeat any of the audio as they wish. However for this specific exhibit most audio pieces were brought to life simultaneously with the visual. As many people are viewing specific videos at once, no one person had the ability to stop or repeat using the guide, but instead had to wait until the video looped.
Although I found more pro’s than con’s in this technology, it still has a ways to go before implementing the perfect user experience. Giving the user full control of their path, including how long they choose to stand in a particular spot may not be the best option for a finely tuned curated exhibit like David Bowie Is. The audio is ever changing and creating a disruption between gallery to gallery. The individual isn’t aware of which step might take them out of a specific audio sequence, one step to the left might create a new experience before an individual has truly finished the last. Another thing to point out is that on occasion technology can just be glitchy. Was that static I heard? Did the audio drop for a second? Did my battery just die? These are still basic audio guide concerns.
Regardless, in my experience the exhibit really was doing the most by using state of the art technology. Even if you’re not the biggest David Bowie fan, or a fan at all, you can’t help but be transfixed by the world created for you. Bowie’s lyrics say it all “Let’s sway through the crowd to an empty space”. It’s a 360 experience between you and the exhibit, video and audio, where other people cease to exist. Hearing an interview with Bowie in your ear makes you think you’re sitting right there with him. When the music starts to play you can’t help but want to join in and dance. This technology really breaks up the stiff monotony you see in the majority of museums and exhibits, and really brings everything to life. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this technology implemented more often.