Interactives, both physical and digital, are an area of particular concern for museums. Interactives are designed to be handled by multiple visitors throughout the day – but this presents a very real risk of virus transmission. Research shows that 53% of families are nervous about using interactives in museums. Many museums have therefore had to temporarily barrier off or remove interactives as part of their Covid-secure measures. But now, questions are being asked about how long this situation may persist.
There is no doubt that good interactives are invaluable in the interpretation of a site and contribute significantly to visitor enjoyment. Are there ways to bring back interactivity without compromising health? Should we plan for a future where interactives do not rely so much on touch?
Certainly, there is an opportunity to think about our interactive activities and to think carefully about their purpose. Are they simply there to entertain children in a corner, or do they help visitors understand and engage with our stories? Thinking about the purpose of our interactives helps us to identify which are important to bring back and how they might be adapted for the future.
Many museums have removed all their physical interactives in an effort to minimise handling by numerous visitors throughout the day. However, there are ways to develop new interactives or adapt existing ones so that the risk is minimised but the visitor engagement is retained.
Questions to ask yourself
- Is there a way to encourage interaction with your collections without physical resources? For example, ask visitors to adopt the same pose or expression as a statue?
- Can you create interactive activities using bigger spaces or outside spaces? For example, using footprints or lines to follow on the ground, or creating a maze outside.
- Can you adapt your family trails so that rather than giving out paper trails, you place questions or themed objects to find around the museum? Check that you won’t create any bottlenecks you’re your layout.
- Where you usually have pencil and paper activities, can you ask visitors to bring their own resources? For example, provide a design or activity sheet and ask visitors to bring own their own pencils (or buy one from the shop!).
- Where dressing up activities are not available, could you provide suggestions of what visitors could wear to enable them to arrive dressed up? Could you share photos or simple patterns online?
- Could some interactives remain available and be cleaned between uses? Is that something staff or visitors can do?
For example, family activity packs containing a magnifying glass, laminated activity cards, torch etc. could be offered to a family bubble and collected in for cleaning in between uses. Packs could also be quarantined for 3 days if you have enough of them.
- Can some interactives be used with the provision of hand sanitiser for before and after? For example, at one museum families hand sanitise before and after entering a mock steam engine cab. With this approach, ensure you provide clear signage about what visitors should do.
- Can resources be quarantined for 72 hours between uses (72 hours being the amount of time it takes for the virus to die on various surfaces)? This works for interactive activities where, for example, a coin is placed in a slot.
- Could you suggest activities, particularly for families, that can be completed before or after the visit? You could provide online links or handouts with instructions for craft activities to do at home.
- Where interactives are crucial to the interpretation of the collection, is there another way of providing that interpretation? For example, could a volunteer physically demonstrate the interactive?
- Have you considered using costumed interpretation as a way to playfully engage visitors and provide an element of social interaction? Give clear messages to visitors about maintaining social distances with your interpreters – visitors have been known to get caught up in the moment and forget!
- Are there new interactives you could develop that don’t involve physical handling? Think about how to create an engaging experience through backdrops, sound, visuals, lighting and smells.
For many museums, digital interactives are an important part of the interpretation of the collection. They are a way of giving visitors access to background information, audio and visual content, and interactive games. The concern is that many visitors will touch the same screens and devices on a daily basis, but there may be alternative options to simply switching off your touchscreens.
Questions to ask yourself
- Can your digital content be made accessible through a visitor’s own device? QR codes have been used to make it possible for visitors to listen to oral history on their own smartphone, which is a popular choice.
- Can you offer disposable earbuds or ask visitors to bring their own to use your audio guides?
- Could you provide styluses for visitors to use on touchscreens? These could be collected and cleaned/quarantined for 72 hours before being used again.
- Could you change the way digital interactives on screens are triggered? For example, proximity sensors or sensors that respond to gestures or vocal instructions.
- Should some of your digital content be put on a loop, removing the interactivity, for the time being?
- Could buttons designed for fingers be replaced with something that can be foot operated? Our could visitors be encouraged to press buttons with a pencil, elbow or stylus?
- Are there digital solutions to some of your physical interactives? For example, clothing apps may be adapted to enable visitors to see how they would look dressed in historic costume.
“’Creativity thrives on constraints’ is something I am sure many readers will be familiar with. Let us therefore consider these new constraints as a chance to push ourselves and our industry, to innovate in a positive way! Maybe even a chance to move past the touch screen ;)?” Anna Heimbrock, MuseumNext
New York Times article on museum interactives in the US in time of Covid-19
MuseumNext article on corona-proofing digital interactives in museums
Natural History Museum & Science Museum summary of different approaches to adapting digital interactives
Article on Science Museum’s experiences of Gesture based control in digital museum interactives
Kids in Museums reopening guidance, including some examples of ways in which interactives have been adapted
Examples of downloadable Family Trail resources from British Museum
Chester Zoo playful resources for families to use during a visit
Making Interactives Covid-Secure