Narrative Technology and the ‘Third Teacher’

  • Tony Hall
Part of the Digital Education and Learning book series (DEAL)


A key educational philosophy inspiring this book is the Reggio Emilia concept of the ‘third teacher’. In the Reggio approach, the physical learning environment and space is conceived of as so important that it is considered equivalent to another educator. This chapter details the iterative design, development and evaluation of narrative technology, which utilised hybrid and ubiquitous computing to instantiate and develop a novel, interactive physical learning environment. It focuses in particular on the detailed enumeration of the narrative technology design in context and its impact on learners. The chapter practically outlines how key stakeholders were collaboratively involved in the design; how the novel narrative technology was prototyped and scaled and how the evaluation was undertaken, involving creative methods of data collection and reflection, and informed by relevant ethnographic methods. A principal output of this chapter is the design narrative, exemplifying how the physical space—as narrative technology—can be designed to mediate storytelling for creativity with computing.


designDesign Physical Learning Environment Secret Room Study Room General Visitors 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Chapter Introduction

A key educational philosophy inspiring this book is the Reggio Emilia concept of the ‘third teacher’. In the Reggio approach, the physical learning environment and space is conceived of as so important that it is considered equivalent to another educator. This chapter details the iterative design, development and evaluation of narrative technology, which utilised hybrid and ubiquitous computing to instantiate and develop a novel, interactive physical learning environment. It focuses in particular on the detailed enumeration of the narrative technology design in context and its impact on learners and/or users. The chapter practically outlines how key stakeholders were collaboratively involved in the design; how the novel narrative technology was prototyped and scaled and how the evaluation was undertaken, involving creative methods of data collection and reflection, and informed by relevant ethnographic methods. A principal output of this chapter is the design narrative, exemplifying how the physical space—as narrative technology—can be designed to mediate storytelling for creativity with computing.

Bringing It All Together: Towards the Final Narrative Technology Design

Scenario Design

The principal method that was used to help finalise a narrative technology design for the museum was scenario-based design, itself a narrative-based, conceptual tool for technology conceptualisation, development and evaluation. This interaction design narrative tool was used because it would allow the design team to report, share and discuss descriptively different ideas for how the exhibition might be constructed. Scenario-based design is an expedient design tool: one can write up a scenario with detailed characters and interaction sequences very quickly, with the level of elaboration that one’s design partners would need to understand, discuss and critique one’s ideas (Cooper, 1999). Three intensive design sessions were conducted, which lasted roughly two hours each. At the first session, the members of the team each presented their scenarios. It is useful to briefly recap the general theme of a number of scenarios in particular to illustrate the refinement of the team’s ideas, as it progressed towards the final exhibition in the museum.

A number of the design team also used additional resources, such as images and sketches, to supplement their scenario designs. In these design meetings, multiple creative ideas were put forward, from a mysterious, interactive attic space to an augmented Study Room environment to an Alice in Wonderland theme and a false-wall maze.

Importantly, with each of these scenarios, it would be possible to embody the design themes: sociality, materiality, multi-modality and so on. For example, each of these spaces would afford touching and handling of objects; there would be space for collaboration, and the spaces would engage visitors’ different sensory modalities—sound, vision, touch, smell and perhaps even taste.

The challenge was to select the best scenario, which the design team envisaged would be a case of identifying and extrapolating the most promising features of each of the different types of settings, and integrating these within a compelling, overarching narrative frame.

The proposed maze would be an abstract space with curved monochrome walls, peepholes, false walls and hidden compartments. Computing would be used in this area to create novel sounds, displays and projections. It would also be a tactile space, with visitors having to grapple with and operate large mechanical contraptions.

A further theme was the idea of an archaeology hunt or quest, where children would collect replica objects and clues in one space, a simulated archaeology dig, and bring to an adjoining location, a laboratory setting where they would use a number of different interactive instruments to analyse the artefacts and find out different characteristics and historical details of the objects.

The mysterious attic idea was to create a sloping-roofed construction, which would be dimly lit and populated with various artefacts such as trunks, storage boxes, shuttered windows and so forth. Visitors would explore the space, opening the trunks and boxes using torches and lanterns to illuminate their contents. The trunks, boxes and other containers in the attic space would hold both physical items, the paraphernalia one might typically find stored in an attic, and digital content.

The first significant agreement at this stage in the design process was that the space design would encompass two or more interconnected spaces.

As a result of the architectural and size limitations of the museum’s permanent collections, it was decided that the most appropriate space in the museum, for the kind of large-scale exhibition proposed, would most probably be the downstairs temporary gallery area in the museum. It was now finally decided that the design team would site the exhibition in this space. It was decided that the team would break this room up into a number of different sections, parts of which would be the exhibition, while other segments would be reserved for technical staff and the concealment of auxiliary technical equipment.

In the respective scenarios, each member of the design team touched on the subject of how computing would be integrated sensitively within the environment. A number of the design team suggested that, in order to make the technology unobtrusive within the space, it could be embedded in or hidden behind false walls constructed within the walls of the gallery. On a practical level, this would help the designers to circumvent the problem of having to physically alter the architecture of the gallery space, affording more latitude and space in which to create the interactive exhibition. In effect, it would enable the design team to construct a completely new space within the walls of the gallery space. This space could be more freely altered or configured, and customised in the way the designers required. An interior room space, within the gallery, and created using false walls, would enable the design team to make the computing disappear into the background, and thus help to integrate the technology unobtrusively in the environment. One of the key design themes was to have computing recede into the background, and the false-wall setup would enable the design team to do this expediently.

The Emerging Dual Exhibition Space

In the discussions about the respective scenarios, a recurring theme became the idea of a secret room. In speaking to docents (expert museum guides), the design team discovered that John Hunt (who originally bequeathed the collection that became the Hunt Museum, the site of the narrative technology design) had a secret room adjoining his Study Room at his house. He kept his favourite objects, including an extensive collection of crucifixes and reliquary in this room. John Hunt was particularly interested in such items; thus, he kept a private collection of these objects in a hidden closet beside his study.

This narrative about John Hunt’s secret room captured the designers’ imagination. Furthermore, in the attic scenario, the design team were all compelled by the idea of a mysterious room, which would engage visitors’ curiosity and interest. It was decided that the design team would endeavour to design a secret room for the narrative technology experience. Or if not a secret room, a space that would not be immediately apparent to visitors, which they would uncover as they traversed the exhibition space. One could envision this progressive discovery of the secret space creating curiosity and excitement among children and other visitors, which would likely add to and enhance their experience of the exhibition.

In the design meetings following the first session, the design team endeavoured to extend and build upon the initial iteration of scenarios. It was decided that the secret room idea merited further discussion and explication. The team also considered in discussing the scenarios what kind of space or spaces should exist alongside the secret room. A number of the design team had discussed in their scenarios the idea of a laboratory space or examination/investigatory room, where children and other visitors would be able to conduct some form of analysis of objects or clues related to artefacts.

Another significant agreement among the design team at this stage, based on the findings having undertaken the design process, was that artefacts should be the centrepieces of the exhibition. It was determined that this should be the case, particularly following the discussions with docents. This would help to make the interactive exhibition fit with the ethos of the museum. John and Gertrude Hunt’s vision of material culture was that it should be studied in a direct, hands-on manner; they believed that museums should engage visitors in close/intimate and, if possible, tactile interaction with artefacts.

In the discussions with the docents as part of the design process leading up to the final exhibition scenario, it was discovered that John Hunt’s Study Room was an archetypal archaeologist’s Study Room, with old maps, reference books and artefacts dotted around the space. A number of the design team suggested that a computer-augmented replica of John Hunt’s Study Room could be compelling as a space for children and general visitors to examine objects or clues about objects more closely. It was considered that children and other visitors might find objects, replicas of originals, in this space and use a number of interactive installations in the room to examine the objects more closely and systematically.

This idea generated further scenarios. The ‘narrative of use’, or metaphor of the Study Room, with an adjoining mysterious/secret room seemed to encapsulate many of the features the design team was hoping to implement in designing the exhibition. If this space could be designed authentically, with fittings one might find in an old Study Room, it would match the aesthetics of the museum, more so than an assembly of interactive technology installations, simply deployed in the gallery space.

In the innovative exhibition, the design team could embed the novel computing in the authentic fittings of the reproduction Study Room, constructed using false walls and contained within the gallery, and this potentially would provide a compelling way to integrate the technology seamlessly in the museum environment.

Additionally, designing such a space would establish an interesting connection with the museum’s history, and it would be possible also to take advantage of, and engage children and general visitors in the embodied or physically interactive narrative of being a cataloguer/collector of artefacts. The initial idea or narrative theme, to help organise and direct children and other visitors’ activity in the space, would be that they would explore the exhibition, collecting replica objects or clues related to artefacts and assisting John Hunt to identify and classify objects.

The design team envisioned children and general visitors participating in a narrative within this space, playing the role of collector, gathering clues and/or investigating artefacts, in some respects similar to cognate initiatives, for example, simulated archaeology workshops, where they partially enacted the roles of people from the past, and archaeologists, digging for artefacts.

The thematic space of an interactive, reproduction Study Room complemented the museum. While it might be possible to incorporate many of the desired features and functionality in a scenario such as the false-wall maze setup, this space would perhaps be more appropriate in a science centre or children’s exploratorium. The Hunt Museum is a traditional gallery museum, housed in an old Palladian-style building. A replica, computer-enhanced version of John Hunt’s Study Room would be a more elegant, logical and relevant scenario for the museum. Furthermore, it would enable the design team to address the important design themes of narrativity, engagement, active interpretation and so on.

Finalising the Content for Re-Tracing the Past

Once the general structure of the exhibition was decided upon, the design team continued to look at how this space would be populated with interactive computing. This involved investigating typical fittings and objects that one might find within this type of space, for example, a desk, floor-mats, lamps and a filing cabinet. In prior technology explorations, the design team experimented with computing devices such as RFID and PolhemusTM 3D tracking. It was ultimately decided that one of the key interactive fittings in the Study Room space would be a desk where children and other visitors would garner clues as to the identity and functionality of artefacts. A bureau or desk is usually the centrepiece of a Study Room, and therefore the design team endeavoured to work with this traditional Study Room fitting in developing the interactive exhibition.

The Prototype Interactive Desk

An early technology demonstrator explored the idea of placing a book on a desk, on which geographical information would be projected, which would inform visitors of where different artefacts were discovered, made, used, sold and so on. In collaboration with colleagues, the author experimented with a hybrid of technologies, Web-cam shape detection and RFID tracking, in endeavouring to implement the interactive desk.

It was at this point, following the first design meeting, that the design team practically started to synthesise the technology explorations and the ideas for a set of interactive spaces, which fitted with the ambience and ethos of the museum. For example, one of the interesting findings from experimenting with technology was that RFID tags could be used in combination to reveal associative information about the objects in which they were embedded. It was now considered how this functionality could be used to present children and general visitors with information about two or more museum artefacts, and possible relations between these objects.

Tagged key-cards with pictures were used in exploring the desk prototype. Users placed a card on different parts of the map, which controlled a projection on the blank book. The projection provided geographical details about an object’s respective provenance. The design team now started to explore how this technology, RFID, could be used (especially its combination possibilities) with other Study Room fittings, while remaining sensitive to the design constraints and themes.

Selecting Interpretive Subject Matter: The Four Mystery Artefacts

It was decided following the discussions with docents that the interactive exhibition would focus on objects and on four artefacts in particular: a Dodecahedron; Y-shaped or fork object; Stone Ball and a Disc discovered in Oxford, UK, thus called the Oxford Disc. This content would also enable the designers to address the design constraint (from consulting the Irish Primary School History Curriculum and The International Council of Museums [ICOM] museum education policy) to actively engage children in historical interpretation, rather than having them receive a canon of facts about artefacts. These objects of undetermined provenance would provide suitable content for an interpretive exhibition, where children and general visitors contribute their own opinions. Because there are no authoritative theories about these objects, their functionality or origin, they are amenable to different interpretations.

Incorporating Collaborative Technology: The Interactive Trunk

As the design team progressed towards the final exhibition in the museum, it also considered, in addition to the desk, other fittings that one might find in a Study Room. An old chest or trunk might be one such feature of an archetypal Study Room. In synthesising the findings of the technical probes with the consideration of the possible contents and paraphernalia one would find in an old Study Room, the design team explored the idea of an interactive chest or trunk, into which visitors would place multiple RFID-tagged cards. Like the desk prototype, these cards would represent different artefacts and, once placed in the trunk, they would activate animated sequences about the artefacts and possible connections between them. However, in contrast to the desk, where visitors would explore details about individual artefacts, the trunk would furnish information about potential connections between two or possibly more objects.

This technology might furthermore help the designers to engender collaboration among visitors: one could envision groups of children combining different cards in the interactive trunk, engaging in social interaction and discussion around objects and possible connections between them. The information about objects and their possible association with other objects would appear on a screen embedded in the trunk. It was discussed how a flat-screen monitor could be made to look like an authentic part of an old trunk; the design team discussed that it could be made to look like an old mirror, which had been discarded in the chest.

Design of Digital Content for the Exhibition

Allowing latitude for participants themselves to make, suggest or guess at connections between historical content potentially had a lot to commend it. The design team did not want to prescribe one particular interpretation of the objects. Children and general visitors should propose their own ideas and theories about the artefacts. Some of the key design themes were to encourage children to interpret, create and share actively their own ideas and theories about the objects and to question historical interpretation. To help achieve this, in designing the digital content for the exhibition, the designers endeavoured to present the information researched in an open-ended and suggestive way, rather than present it as prescriptive. The design team aimed to design content whereby children and other visitors would be provided with clues or suggestions, but the synthesis and putting together of these evidential pieces of information about the artefacts would be left to their own creativity. Extensive research was conducted on the four objects. Additionally, the docents were interviewed about the objects, and they were asked for any particularly interesting narratives or stories they knew about the arcane artefacts. Rather than present digital content in a didactic fashion, where visitors are told canonical facts about artefacts and history, the design team aimed to design the digital content for the innovative exhibition in such a way as would invite personal interpretation of artefacts by children and the exhibition’s other visitors. The book will presently outline in further detail the final digital content for the interactive installations in the exhibition.

Furthermore, there are no authoritative archaeological or curatorial accounts of these objects. The design team wished to convey this and to use the objects in the exhibition as symbols of the open interpretability of history and material culture. Thus, it was decided that the different pieces of information about the arcane artefacts, which were sourced from the museum library and docents, would be edited and included in the exhibition in the form of clues or suggestive items of knowledge about the four artefacts. It was also decided that different installations would provide different clues about the mysterious objects. Therefore, to gather all the clues about the respective objects, children would have to explore thoroughly each of the interactive installations in the exhibition. By distributing the clues in this way, it was hoped to encourage the children to use all the interactive installations in the exhibition. Furthermore, different installations would have different types of clues. For example, the interactive desk would provide geographical clues about the provenance of the four objects. And, the interactive chest/trunk would provide clues, which suggested various associations between objects, posing questions about different objects possibly being found or used together.

The graphics for the interactive desk were projected on a white surface (a blank open book) on the tabletop of the bureau. White outlines of images and script on a black background were used for the graphics and text for the desk in order to make the text and images readable/visible. The content for the trunk interactive was displayed in colour on a screen embedded within the chest.

An important criterion for the design of the digital content for the exhibition was that it would be graphically aesthetic. The design team wanted to have graphics that were visually appealing and interesting. The design team gathered together images related to the four objects, and the additional data collected through the interviews with docents and consultation of the Hunt Museum Library. The graphical and text content was based on these resources and according to the extensive content matrix that was devised. Outlines of the images related to the artefacts were animated using Macromedia FlashTM.

At this stage of the final process of actually conceptualising and building the exhibition and its components, the design team was looking at how it could sensitively combine the natural affordances of fittings one would find in a Study Room, for example, desk, old chest and how it might add computing technologies in a way that preserved these affordances but added something extra, something special or even magical. Silverman (2002) asks, “So, where is the magic in museums? Where is the soul?” He advocates that handling and innovative interpretive techniques be encouraged, to help ‘conjure’ magic in the museum. Then the question becomes rhetorical: “Don’t you know? Museums are magical places, where people encounter objects that help them make meaning of their lives” (2002, p. 8).

By integrating innovative computing in the exhibition, as a complement to children’s narrative, multi-modal, pedagogical and social engagement, perhaps the design team might even be able to add a touch of magic to their experience in the museum.

The designers were very thorough in ensuring that the technology would not be apparent to visitors and that it merged seamlessly with the environment. This integrative approach, of trying to make the technology authentically a part of the environs and its fixtures and fittings, of making the computing invisible within the setting, characterised the approach taken in the technical development work for the exhibition.

Creating the Second Exhibition Area: The Room of Opinion

While the Study Room was taking shape as an interactive space, it had to be clarified what the adjoining secret room would look like and what it would incorporate, in terms of interactive features and installations. While it was previously decided that the false-wall maze scenario did not necessarily fit, aesthetically or thematically with the Hunt Museum, the design team liked a number of elements of this type of abstract space. They liked especially the fact that it would be very different, aesthetically and visually, to the Study Room. Haider (2002, p. 26) notes how diverse spaces, with different material properties and scales, are engaging for children and particularly if they are themed differently: “Spaces of different scales designed inside buildings and within exhibits produce a sense of wonder for children. Children perceive space differently from adults. A child’s perspective of space is affected not only by size, but also by variety and fantasy.”

It was considered in the meetings subsequent to the first iteration of scenarios that it might be compelling and engaging for children and other visitors if the secret room, although contiguous and related to the Study Room, comprised an entirely different kind of space, like the false-wall maze.

Thus, it was determined that it might be more compelling in designing the narrative technology if the secret room had a very different focus than the Study Room.

For the secret room, adjoining the study space, alternative, more playful types of interaction for visitors were considered. For example, a ‘monkey trap’, which is a device where you put your hand through, and you can touch an object, but there is a trap mechanism so while you can touch the object you cannot remove it to look at it. Thus, a monkey trap deprives one of seeing an object and focuses one instead on making meaning of that object through physical handling and touch. Particularly, this type of interactive could have significant potential in terms of Hunt’s vision of material culture and the importance they placed on tactile engagement with artefacts.

Incorporating Handling of Artefacts

Following from the literature review, observations of handling sessions in the museum, how compelling these were for children and other visitors, and furthermore because of the significance attributed to handling of objects by the Hunts, it was decided that the interactive exhibition should incorporate, as a key aspect, tactile interaction with artefacts. The possibility of using actual artefacts for the handling part of the exhibition was discussed, like the sessions organised for visitors by the Hunt’s Education Department. However, for conservation, legal and security reasons, it would be impracticable to use authentic artefacts from the permanent museum collection. However, this did not discount the possibility of using replicas, and the design team started to think about having a number of these made for the exhibition. One of the priorities in designing the exhibition was to remain faithful to the vision of John and Gertrude Hunt in relation to handling of objects. Replicas would be a very effective way to engage children and general visitors tactually with material culture.

Collecting Visitors’ Interpretations

Furthermore, in addition to handling artefacts, children and general visitors should also be able to contribute their own ideas about objects. Following from the literature review, consultation with the school history curriculum, observational studies and discussions with children and teachers, it was decided that supporting children in recording and sharing their own interpretations of material culture would be the central goal of the exhibition. Active interpretation by children was one of the main themes informing the design of the extrinsic narrative technology.

However, the way that the design team had been thinking about the Study Room was as a space where children would gather clues or objects, playing out the narrative of a cataloguer/collector assisting John Hunt in clarifying different objects in his collection.

Thus, the designers started to think of how the secret space might provide the setting where children and general visitors would both handle replicas of objects and leave their own opinions of these artefacts.

Linking Both Exhibition Spaces

It was not the intention for the secret space to be completely unrelated to the Study Room, however. While it would be thematically different to the Study Room, it should also bear some relation, or be linked in some way to the reproduction study.

In investigating possible links between the two parts of the exhibition, a number of different options were considered: window/shutter displays with peepholes and controllers between the two spaces. One of the scenarios involved children and general visitors doing a number of activities in the Study Room: collecting clues or figuring out different puzzles about artefacts. On completion, they would activate a lock-release, which would open the door to the secret room; whether children and other visitors got to enter the secret room, or not, depended on their completion of tasks in the Study Room.

However, the design team favoured interaction, which would be more elective, non-sequential and open-ended.

Thus, it was decided that while the secret adjoining room might not be immediately apparent to children and the exhibition’s other visitors, once they have discovered this hidden area, children and general visitors should be able to move freely between this space and the Study Room. Moreover, the design team was considering how it could design a compelling link between the spaces, which would motivate children and general visitors to revisit and move back and forth between the two sections of the exhibition.

It was decided that the Study Room would be an exploratory space, in which children and visitors would collect clues about the four mysterious artefacts.

However, the designers also wanted it to be a consultative and interpretive exhibition, where children and general visitors would be able to record and share their own ideas about the arcane artefacts.

It was therefore decided, having discussed different options, that the secret room would be the space where visitors would share their opinions. The Study Room would be an exploratory space, where visitors would gather clues about the artefacts. But the adjoining secret room would be a contributory space, where visitors would synthesise or use the clues gathered in the Study Room to inform their own theories about the artefacts. They would subsequently add their own interpretation of the objects to a community repository of ideas, collected in the secret room.

It was decided that since the design team would necessarily want visitors to enter the secret space, to record their opinions, it would have to be made more obvious to visitors that this space existed beside the Study Room. However, the designers still wanted to preserve the curiosity potential of the space. It was proposed to do this by putting a door in the corner of the Study Room, which would connect the two areas, thus making the secret room less of a clandestine location. Therefore, although still curious and not immediately apparent to children and other visitors, they would discover progressively the door and adjoining space as they moved through the Study Room area.

The design team deliberated on what type of recording they would make once children and general visitors entered the adjacent space, and how the community collection of ideas would be represented in the exhibition.

Sharing Visitors’ Interpretations: The Interactive Radio

An artefact that was mentioned in an early scenario was the radio. In the laboratory scenario presented in the first design meeting, an old radio crackled in the background, playing 1950s swing music. The purpose of this artefact was to help to create the ambience of an old science laboratory, which has a radio playing contemporary music.

Instead, in the latter design meetings, the design team considered, what if an old radio could be used as the repository of visitors’ opinions about the mysterious artefacts? They would record their ideas in the secret room, but the radio would be positioned in the Study Room, and visitors would return to the Study Room to hear their ideas once they had recorded them in the secret room. Thus, the design team had a compelling link between the spaces. Visitors would record their ideas in the secret room, and these would be added to the augmented radio in the Study Room. Children and other visitors could leave as many opinions as they wished, and return as often as they liked to hear their opinions on the radio.

The designers next needed to clarify the mechanism by which visitors would record their opinions. Many discussions were had about how this would be done, but the design team ultimately decided on that most trusted of voice-input devices, the telephone receiver. A significant part of the rationale for using this device was the apparent usability of the telephone. Children and the exhibition’s other visitors would be very familiar with it.

Because visitors would contribute their opinions about the mysterious artefacts in this area, it was renamed the Room of Opinion. And, the reproduction study became known as the Study Room.

The design team furthermore had the idea that static and frequency interference would be heard when the radio was idle, indicating that it was a working interactive. Development work on the radio commenced, taking the shell of an original analogue radio, which had frequency dials/knobs and station listings on the outside casing. The old radio was on loan from a colleague. Many of the items that were used to populate the spaces were on loan from antique shops, local schools and researchers, among other generous sources.

The old radio that was used was a functioning radio and it was a family heirloom. All the electronic parts were carefully removed from the inside of the original radio. In effect, all that was required were the case and the knobs. The interactive repository of children and other visitors’ opinions was created using an innovative assembly of different computer parts, housed discreetly/invisibly within the casing of the old radio. A flat-screen monitor was placed inside the radio cover, and a number of computer mice were reconstituted to create the dials. The design team used previously developed software, the Sonic Browser, to create a visualisation of visitors’ opinions. There were four channels on this visualisation, each channel or frequency corresponding to an individual artefact. The idea was that visitors would use one knob to select the frequency (containing all the recorded opinions about a particular object) and the other knob to navigate through the different opinions that were recorded for this artefact. The opinions were added as individual red lines along the frequency bar for each artefact.

While the issue of how children and visitors would record and share their opinions had been resolved, and though a compelling way to link the two spaces had been found, the design team still had to figure out how it would incorporate handling of artefacts and engage children and other visitors tactually with objects.

Refining the Design of the Exhibition’s Handling Activity

The design team considered just having handling of replicas, without necessarily any computational augmentation, in the Room of Opinion. A number of replicas of the four objects were commissioned. An important consideration at this stage was how the exhibition would facilitate visitors’ tactile engagement with the replicas.

It was suggested that a platform like a plinth could be particularly useful for the purpose of presenting the replica artefacts in the Hunt Museum exhibition. Plinths allow many people to gather around and view what is placed on them. It was discussed that it could be particularly atmospheric if the Room of Opinion was darker than the Study Room, and there were four plinths with the four mysterious objects spotlighted on them. The design team envisioned individual spotlights highlighting the objects on the plinths. This would bring attention to the artefacts, and there would be sufficient space (given that plinths are narrow columns, and thus do not take up much room) for groups to congregate and pick up, handle and discuss the artefacts. The design team also thought that it would be timely to have children and general visitors handling artefacts in the Room of Opinion, because, having touched the reproductions artefacts, they should have an enriched understanding of these objects, before they made their recordings on the telephone.

Furthermore, handling the replicas would be a fitting ending to the experience, where children and visitors finally get to touch and examine physically the objects they have spent significant time researching in the Study Room.

Building the Exhibition in the Museum

Articulating the Final Walkthrough Scenario for the Narrative Design

Before entering the museum to build the physical narrative technology, a very comprehensive walkthrough scenario was written up, describing the two rooms in detail, and clearly stating the purpose of each interactive within the two spaces. Sketches of the proposed exhibition were drawn up to illustrate how it would look in situ in the museum. The following are excerpts from the final scenario:

The space [Study Room] will be populated with pieces of antique furniture ranging from a desk to a cabinet, mats, bookshelves, a clock and a few strange devices. The smell of old books and beeswax should be evident when you walk into the space. The lighting will be quite low, not dim but comfortable, overhead lighting will be kept to a minimum (projection surfaces in the space) but a number of standing lamps will be dotted in the corners.

The radio will look like a big old classic radio, wooden, large, built-in speaker, tuning dial etc. It is at this point that the visitor will be able to listen to other people’s opinions on the artefacts. Turning one dial will allow the user to select an object, and then they will be able to ‘tune in’ different stations that are actually recordings of people’s opinions

Constructing the Exhibition

Once the general scenario and concept designs for the exhibition were decided, sketches were created to help with visualising the different interactive installations in the two spaces. These sketches helped as illustrative blueprints for the narrative technology design (Figs. 4.1 and 4.2).
Fig. 4.1

The final setup for the interactive desk (left) and trunk (right)

Fig. 4.2

The interactive radio in the Study Room (left), and close-up of radio (right) showing the dial for selecting objects and the four frequency channels representing the four mystery artefacts

In the latter scenario discussions, it was also decided to include one further interactive, in addition to the desk, chest/trunk and radio. And, the design team also discussed and designed a visualisation for the Room of Opinion; this visualisation would represent the community repository of children’s and general visitors’ opinions about the artefacts.

As the Room of Opinion was discussed in greater detail, it was decided that it would require a mechanism, which would confirm for children and other visitors that their opinion had been added to the communal or group repository of ideas about the objects, stored on the radio. It was decided to create a graphical display, where they would see a virtual representation of their opinion added to a visualisation of the collection of all other opinions, once they had recorded their respective idea using the augmented telephone receiver (Fig. 4.3).
Fig. 4.3

A new opinion (bottom left) is added to the larger vortex of visitors’ collected opinions

The design team also discussed the idea of a background murmur in the Room of Opinion, where a sample of visitors’ recorded opinions would loop and update continuously. This murmur would be audible to visitors, and if they listened closely they would be able to detect and hear theirs and other visitors’ opinions. It was decided to hide speakers in the space such that it would seem that the murmur and sampled opinions were panning quietly, all around children and visitors as they entered the space. The design team envisaged this audible murmur would enhance the unusual ambience of the Room of Opinion, helping to increase visitors’ curiosity and wonderment; that this room was not just the place where opinions were recorded, but that these opinions seemed to be extant in the very ether of the space (Figs. 4.4 and 4.5).
Fig. 4.4

View of the Room of Opinion from the Study Room door

Fig. 4.5

The replica Stone Ball artefact on its plinth in the Room of Opinion

The quiet murmur and detectable opinions of other visitors would help to lend a unifying feel to the space: that this really was the Room of Opinion; opinions and suggestions about the artefacts would seem to be all around visitors as they entered and moved through the space.

The final interactive that was designed for the exhibition was the Virtual Touch Machine. The design team also discussed the possibility of using dynamic sounds related to the material and physical properties of museum artefacts as a potential way to enhance visitors’ engagement with these objects.

The desk and trunk were designed to provide visitors with chronological-historical information about the four mysterious objects in the Hunt collection. However, the content provided by the final interactive, the Virtual Touch installation, focused on the material details of the artefacts. It enabled visitors to examine virtual models of objects in close detail—zooming in and zooming out—to examine traces of the physical workmanship involved in the production of the objects and to also investigate patterns on the objects (e.g. the raised segments and grooves on the carved Stone Ball). The integral part of the installation was a ‘magic wand’, and by handling and turning this device, visitors could manipulate virtual models corresponding to the objects. The design team envisioned the Virtual Touch Machine serving as an enhancement to children and general visitors’ handling of replica artefacts in the Room of Opinion. Furthermore, due to obvious conservation restrictions, it is not permissible for visitors actually to strike museum artefacts. However, the Virtual Touch installation enabled children and other visitors to hit an object virtually and hear somewhat what it was like for the creator of the artefact when they originally fashioned it.

The ‘magic wand’ allowed users to virtually tap the 3D objects on the screen in order to hear the sound they would produce if these artefacts were struck in reality. The sound content used was dynamic so that if a visitor tapped harder with the wand in front of the screen, the sound created would become commensurately louder (Figs. 4.6 and 4.7).
Fig. 4.6

Virtual models of the four mysterious artefacts as displayed in the Virtual Touch Machine

Fig. 4.7

The Virtual Touch Machine in place in the exhibition

The final setup for the exhibition in the gallery space encompassed five interactive installations—the trunk, desk, Virtual Touch Machine, the radio and the recording plinth/station in the Room of Opinion, where children and other visitors inputted their hypotheses about the mysterious objects. Visitors activated and interacted with the trunk, virtual touch device, desk and telephone receiver in the Room of Opinion using RFID-tagged key-cards, representing each of the four mysterious objects. While visitors used a handheld device to manipulate and create sounds for the objects in the Virtual Touch Machine, they initially placed a key-card on an RFID reader on a small table in front of this interactive to select one of the objects. On placing a tagged card on the reader, the respective object would zoom to the front of the screen. The visitor could subsequently turn the virtual model using the handheld device and tap in front of the screen to create and modify the dynamic sound object related to that artefact. In endeavouring to make the technology invisible, and to help integrate it with the environment, members of the design team embedded the RFID antenna for the Virtual Touch Machine in a wooden block covered with black felt, which was positioned on a small table in front of the Virtual Touch Machine. Although the mirror with the back-projected virtual models looked very well in the Study Room, and although the felt-covered block appeared unusual in the space, it still seemed a better option to try to, in some way, hide this part of the installation rather than just placing the technology unconcealed in the room (Fig. 4.8).
Fig. 4.8

The final version of the RFID-tagged key-card; this one represents the Dodecahedron object

Also to activate the recording mechanism in the Room of Opinion, visitors used a tagged card. The plinth with the telephone receiver contained an RFID system that read the identity of a card once placed through a slot in the telephone, and this subsequently activated the recording of the visitor’s opinion about the selected object. The only interactive that did not require an RFID-tagged key-card to function was the radio, which could be manually operated using the knobs on its front panel (Fig. 4.2).
Fig. 4.9

RFID card collection point: the shelf from which visitors took tagged key-cards on entering the exhibition

Fig. 4.10

From prototype to final design: an early desk design (left) and (right) the interactive desk in place in the Study Room

Linking the Exhibition with the Museum’s Permanent Collection

In endeavouring to link their visit to the museum’s permanent collection with their visit to the interactive exhibition downstairs, the design team placed labels in the museum’s permanent study galleries, above or beside the original mysterious objects, informing visitors that there was an interactive exhibition, dedicated to these objects, taking place downstairs in the gallery. Posters and other publicity material were also produced and circulated widely, to schools and other interested institutions and professionals.

Pre- and Post-Visit School Sessions

Pre- and post-visit activities in schools were also organised, where members of the design team met with the schoolchildren who visited the exhibition. The aim for the pre-visit sessions in class was to introduce children to handling of artefacts and to encourage them to interpret museum objects for themselves. Children were encouraged to create small dramas or enactments using replica museum artefacts as props. These replicas ranged from Neolithic axe heads to Bronze Age pendants and an exotic musical instrument, an African finger piano.

The pre-visit sessions were intended to prime the children for their visit to the museum, where they would be handling and interpreting the four mysterious objects selected from the museum’s permanent collection. These school visits were furthermore used to promote the exhibition; a number of teachers brought their classes to Re-Tracing the Past after hearing about the exhibition from colleagues.

The design team intended using the post-visit classroom sessions as part of the evaluation of the exhibition; these sessions would afford the opportunity to gather more data about the children’s experience in the museum. Going into schools after the children’s visit to the exhibition would provide additional resources to evaluate the exhibition; it would be possible to collect data in the school, which it would not be possible to collect in the museum; the children could provide feedback in the form of sketches, notes and so on in the classroom (Fig. 4.11).
Fig. 4.11

Student creating her sketch of the Room of Opinion during a post-visit session in class

These additional analysis or evaluation tools would help the design team to assess - more critically and comprehensively - the impact of the exhibition on children, and whether the exhibition succeeded in embodying the eight design themes, narrativity, materiality, engagement and so on.

Data Collection Techniques in the Exhibition

A number of video cameras were put in place in order to gather video data of children and general visitors interacting around the exhibition. Video recording was the principal means of data collection. As vom Lehn and Heath (2000, p. 3) note: “Videorecordings have certain advantages over more conventional data, particularly for those with an interest in social interaction. They provide an opportunity to repeatedly scrutinise the conduct of the participants, and gain access to the details of action and activity which are unavailable through interview or field observation. They also provide the opportunity, at least in public environments … to show and discuss analytic observations with regard to data themselves.” During the ten days of its life, the exhibition was visited by approximately 900 people, ranging from 2 to 94 years of age.

A total of seven primary (elementary) schools participated in Re-Tracing the Past. Visiting children comprised over a third of the total visitor demographic for the exhibition. In all, 326 schoolchildren visited the exhibition.

The challenge, in finally creating the Re-Tracing the Past exhibition, resided in trying to align effectively the multiple design constraints and themes, which emerged in the DBR process. The next sections report on the analysis of the exhibition, once it was opened to the public, and whether the final integrated narrative technology design proved successful in enhancing education, specifically children’s learning in the informal setting of a museum. The key question to emerge was: how did the imaginative and innovative design of the physical learning environment as narrative technology impact upon, and potentially augment children’s engagement and education? The next chapter outlines how the multifaceted data emerging in the evaluation were collected and analysed, and furthermore what they illustrate for us about the systematic design and evaluation of innovative narrative technology in education.


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  2. Haider, J. (2002). Learning to Play and Playing to Learn: An Integrative Approach to Designing for Children. In Proceedings of Hands On! Europe Conference 2001 (pp. 25–27). London: Discover Press.Google Scholar
  3. Silverman, L. H. (2002). Taking a Wider View of Museum Outcomes and Experiences: Theory, Research and Magic. Journal of Education in Museums, 23, 3–8.Google Scholar
  4. vom Lehn, D., & Heath, C. (2000). Studying ‘Visitor Behaviour’ in Museums and Galleries. COTCOS Technical Report, King’s College, London. Retrieved June 27, 2004, from

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tony Hall
    • 1
  1. 1.School of EducationNational University of Ireland GalwayGalwayIreland

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