Local Projects reinvents how museum visitors interact with art, transforming them into curators

Until relatively recently museum goers were told “look, don’t touch,” passively experiencing the exhibits that surrounded them. But in our digital world where art collections are increasingly available online, visitors are now growing accustomed to and demanding richer, more memorable experiences when inside a museum.

Confucius is credited with observing: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” This approach to learning is very much at the heart of the many museum projects created by award-winning media and exhibit design firm Local Projects.

“Different people learn and experience in different ways, not just by looking. We believe in creating spaces that activate the senses and get people to participate in their own learning,” explains Jake Barton, Principal and founder of Local Projects, adding “We like to get the visitors involved and give them agency in their own experience because we believe that people learn in many different ways, including through touch. It’s essential to tap into different senses and different ways of learning so we can reach a wide variety of learners.”

Recognized as a leader in the field of interaction design for physical spaces, Local Projects has rethought visitor experiences for the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, to name a few.

“A lot of our work is about translation — translating knowledge, feelings, emotions, history — and we would cut off a huge number of individuals if we focused only on reading and seeing. History and emotion are often felt through the body, and many people learn by doing, by moving their bodies through space in a different way, by touching and building. To activate these senses opens up a whole new type of experience and connection,” Barton explains.

At the Cleveland Museum of Art, Local Projects installed a forty-foot wide touchscreen on which visitors can explore the museum’s entire collection. Offering non-traditional themes—from “Love and Lust” to “Blue” — the wall lets visitors plan their visit through the museum, saving information about artworks that they can then retrieve on a portable screen as they tour the museum. To add a little more whimsy as they explore the collection, visitors can make faces in front of a screen and an algorithm will match their expression to artworks in the collection, or they can draw simple lines and shapes to call up works with similar geometry. Visitors are also tested to reproduce body poses in artworks and a kinetic motion sensor will measure their accuracy at recreating the pose and rate their performance.
Museums are most often a reflection of how society and culture engages with its history, and what people are interested in, remarks Barton, adding, “Today, we’re craving connection and understanding. If we can create an experience that not only engages visitors but connects them with what they’re looking at and to each other, we can unlock new ways of understanding.”

At the ARoS Art Museum in Aarhus, Denmark, Local Projects created a suite of interactive experiences that offer a playful way to interact with the art, sparking conversations that bring visitors together. One experience asks a visitor to play the role of a model with another playing the role of artist. The model is asked to match a pose that is tracked and scored by a spatial camera in real time, while the artist takes a photo. The museum collection is then mapped to parts of the visitor’s body allowing the ‘artist’ to create a new artwork. “The experience is now more than looking at a beautiful work of art, it lets you dive deeper, and have some fun in the process,” Barton notes.

For the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, Local Projects created a novel interactive pen that allows visitors to tap on an exhibition display case as they walk though saving information about the work to a personal collection they can privately access later through a website. “As a piece of experience design, the pen was created to be a ‘quiet’ device–one that wouldn’t attract too much attention. It’s not another screen, or an app on your phone,” Barton says.

The response to the new pen has been extremely encouraging. Within the first five months, more than 95% of visitors used the pen, with over a third going on to check out their digital collection online after their visit, which is almost unheard of in digital conversion,” Barton adds.

The design firms has garnered many awards including the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Interaction Design (2013), and the Gold Lion for Creative Data at Cannes (2015) for the powerful and diverse use of data in the 9/11 Memorial Museum, which is built into displays that convey the tragic scope of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

Local Projects is currently working on the creative renewal of the Hyde Park Barracks Museum – a UNESCO World Heritage-listed building in Sydney that focus on early Australian colonial life.
“Our goal is to create a cohesive experience that brings forward the lived experience of those who passed through the building, explores its role in building Sydney, and recognizes its impact on Aboriginal people. The project engages the many themes this site touches on: displacement, forced labor, migration,,,, and ultimately hope,” Barton says.

Talking about the firm’s design approach, Barton points out their initial basic philosophy remains the same for all projects — start with emotion: “When the emotion is there and people can connect with the stories and points of view of the experience, the type of technology you use becomes a canvas. We like to explore the edge of new technologies and push the boundaries of what is possible, but at the end of the day it comes back to the emotional heart of what we’re trying to lay bare and have visitors experience.”

This article was first published in PRESTIGE SINGAPORE May edition 2019.