Gordon Research Conference
Irsee, Germany, September 29, 1994
Training and information in modern societies requires the transfer of knowledge in the form of interdependent messages, signs, codes and symbols. These messages concern various publics and
represent different levels of abstraction.
The traditional media complement one another to reinforce such communications : books, graphics, photos, slides, videos, films, interactive software p; all are used in varying degrees and with their own specific features to provide the essential elements necessary for the acquisition of knowledge.
The multimedia exhibition has a particular role to fulfil in such system of educational media. Its role is to increase our sensitivities and to deepen our awareness. This type of exhibition integrates in the same space, text panels, photographs, drawings and graphics, audio visual presentations, mock-ups, and interactive equipment ranging from simple computer simulation game to complex mechanical or electronic devices. Often expensive, these exhibitions are nevertheless becoming more and more popular.
How effective are these exhibitions compared to available modern communications systems ? What is their specific contribution, and how do they complement other media such as books, courses, conferences, television broadcasts, or simulation software ? How will they evolve in the future in order to integrate the complexity of scientific and technical information ? And, above all, how to use them efficiently in order to let visitors benefit from the presentations provided as part of a personalised knowledge route ? These questions give rise to a new approach to exhibitions. It needs to be considered as an integrated communications system providing adapted and tailor-made interfaces.
The first scientific and technical exhibitions were inspired by encyclopaedias : putting up texts and photographs on stands, backed up by mock-ups of real objects: instruments, machines, or heavy equipment, testimony of passed technical development. Architects and scenographers were asked to fill a space, to provide it with a coherence and a style likely to attract a visitor's attention and to keep them on the spot. The person responsible for the exhibition became literally a 'producer' in spatial terms, much as we might speak of a 'producer' for a film, having in this context responsibility for and control of the quality of the content of the messages intended for the visitors.
This style of exhibition (in the form of a 'book on the walls') has given way, (thanks to technical progress,) to interactive exhibitions in which audiovisual techniques, computer, video disk, animated screens, and sketches performed by robotised figures play an ever more important role.
Evaluation studies tell us that visitors are no longer satisfied reading texts or watching audiovisuals; they want to participate in experiences, do something active, answer questions, initiate new sequences of hands-on experiments. This means that exhibition planners progressively become 'systems engineers' in multimedia communications. Scenographers, designers, and graphic artists have continued to play their part, but conflicts have arisen between museographic designers and animators over styles or methods of space implementation, giving preference to spectacular shows over the deep meaning of the messages.
Three types of exhibition could be described today in which the new communications technologies are used on a broad scale.
The first is the 'linear' exhibition, which presents a subject in a sequential manner, dividing it arbitrarily into periods (such as chronological sequences), into disciplines, or even by following a progression from the 'simple' to the 'complex'.
The second is the 'matrix' exhibition, in which no sequence as such is imposed, but where closely related sectors are presented. The interactive elements are located at the cross roads of visitor's pathways.
The third is the 'discovery' exhibition, a kind of labyrinth of knowledge intended to stimulate the visitor's curiosity by presenting elements which attracts the attention as the visitor passes down the aisle, and create a desire to learn more.
Unfortunately, these three types of exhibition only partially meet the constraints imposed by the complexity of the messages and their contents. If the elements of the museographic presentations are too detailed, there is a risk of losing the lead of the whole. An exhibition which is too analytical no longer brings about a global vision. At the opposite, an approach which is too general deprives visitors of the precise details necessary to set their imagination to work and increase the depth of their knowledge.
Added to these inconvenients are the frequent restrictions imposed by the space itself, with an overload of information resulting from the close packing of texts with photographs, audiovisuals, or interactive processes, which are difficult to understand. The lack of hierarchy among the themes and sub-themes and the weakness of the descriptions makes the messages even more confused.
It seems to me, therefore, that we need to go beyond the architectural vision alone, or the scenographic or graphic representation of a multimedia exhibition. We need to consider the relationship with the visitor placed at the center a "communications system", and no longer think only of a 'communication space'.
We are therefore led to define and implement in an exhibition what I shall call from now on 'intellectual ergonomics'. As with any interactive system, or computer with a direct interface to one or more users.
This involves a methodological and technical approach necessary to amplify the acquisition of knowledge by providing an adequate relationship between objects and subjects, by the simplicity of the modes of use, and by the ease and comfort of the user/machine interfaces.
For a computer, these ergonomics are translated into reality by the notion of user-friendliness. For a machine, office equipment, or a work station, well-designed ergonomics will allow for improvements in the efficiency of interrelations between user, tools, and equipment. An instrument panel, a receiver unit, a cockpit or a control system will all possess a type of ergonomics adapted to the needs of their users.
It seems to me appropriate to create multimedia interactive exhibitions by integrating the intellectual ergonomics approach into the museographic domain The global exhibition must therefore be conceived and used as one single interactive system (and not only as an area of space equipped with interactive systems). The visitor interacts in such total system through eyes, ears, fingers, and by mouvement of the body through the area of the exhibition.
Successful intellectual ergonomics help visitors to optimise their personal pathways in a system of communications within which they are active.
The ergonomic approach to an interactive multimedia exhibition must rest on a certain number of fundamental points.
First it is necessary to recognise and take into account the basic constraints imposed on a visitor to an exhibition. There are 4 major constraints : time, energy, money, and information.
The first three are rare resources on which we need to practice savings. Buy the abundance of the last (information) can lead to a saturation effect, preventing the visitor from getting any pleasure or motivation through his or her visit. An exhibition with successful intellectual ergonomics assists the visitor and help to optimise the use of time, energy, money and information through the visit.
To achieve such task it is important to set up a clear hierarchy among the messages received, in order to facilitate guidance and reduce aimless wandering or queuing. Studies of the behaviour of visitors show two major types of attitude when arriving in an new and unknown exhibit area : 'scanning' with the eyes and "zapping" with the feet.
Scanning consist of a visual sweeping of the spaces, panels, themes or sub-themes. This activity does not involve much energy but collects large amounts of superficial information.
Zapping is moving at random in search of interesting and relevant information. It is a natural response of the visitor expose to an exhibit area poor in information content, lacking guidelines or swamped with details .
In order to avoid passivity, frustration, or saturation with information, the intellectual ergonomics of an exhibition must rely on a global language, a 'macro language', immediately visible, accessible and meaningful. Such language is expressed first in the guides and plans provided before the visit. It should then be followed up in the scenography which creates a distinction between the major objects. Finally, it should appear in the details of the exhibition which lead the visitor from the general to the specific by offering several levels and degrees of abstraction or precision.
A guiding thread would then become clearly apparent. An overall message would be conveyed which would form the systemic frame of reference in the course of the detailed and analytic acquisition of the elements of the exhibition.
When deprived of intellectual ergonomics, an exhibition can be compared to those modern electronic machines, video recorders, micro-computers or electronic watches with over complicated operating instructions and control panels packed with buttons and switches. We all know that 80 per cent of whose functions are generally useless !. Seeing users turn away from these machines designers are now competing in redesigning and simplifying controls and instructions.
The same must apply to a modern exhibition. An exhibition is a communications macromachine, made up of many levels of information transfer, buttons, notices, screens, panels, and animated models. And that is why its user-friendliness, just like the software and hardware of a computer, must be carefully designed and tested before being put into use.
A multimedia exhibition with good intellectual ergonomics presents a balance between in-depth messages and their format. Between the scientific and technical content of the messages and the way in which they are presented. It should also answer that dilemna of modern museology : do we need to give preference to overall understanding or detailed analysis ? Do we want to emphazine the "macro" approach or "micro" understandinf ? How to present in a multimedia exhibition themes as complex as biology, ecology, the city, communications, services, finance or risk (all selected by the city of science for its major exhibitions) ?
We need to talk in terms of systems, networks, control, flow, evolution. But at the same time, we need to specify details, stimulate reasoning, and provide the basis for action.
The golden rule from radio and television, 'one idea at a time', applies equally to the elements of an exhibition. But what we need is to know how to insert the details into a broader context which will allow a personalised 'cognitive ecology' to be constructed by way of a dialogue with that global system of communications : the exhibition.
This 'ecology' is a system of interdependent knowledge. This dialectic form of knowledge acquisition oscillate from the micro to the macro, from the local to the global, from the analytical to the systemic. What format should be given to an exhibition in order to favour this dialogue, this constructive dialectical interaction ?
To achieve this, I propose a combinatorial approach using the new concepts of hypertext and fractal images.
Hypertext is a network of interconnected information. Thanks to guidelines provided by a computer, one can navigate in such a hypermedia like trough a multidimensional graph. A button is clicked, and an illustrated section materialises on the screen. Cliking leads on to other connections, other sections, texts, graphics, images or sounds.
A modern interactive exhibition should be organised like a hypertext. Each node and link of the network must contain the representation of the whole, even if it provides details for a particular aspect. Such structure looks like a fractal image.
A fractal image is a geometric shape which remains unchanged whatever the degree of enlargement under which it is being observed. Each micro image contains the macro structure.
An exhibition built with the intellectual ergonomics of each museographic element in mind and by reference to a fractal approach, will recreate at every node of the network the sense of coherence of the global entity.
There are many exemples of theses approaches at la Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie. Some of them are presented (see slides and VideoLexicon, one minute definition of scientific concepts)
The fractal and hypertextual nature of an interactive multimedia exhibition will become a determinant factor in its success and user-friendliness. It becomes possible to create an equilibrium between museographic presentation and the richness of content of the scientific and technical messages intended for general publics.
Joël de Rosnay
Director of Strategy
Cité des Sciences et de l'Insdustrie – La Villette – Paris – France
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