Sustainable Interactive Interpretation (yes, really!)

This blog post covers the content of the talk that Lyndsey Clark and Ken Boyd delivered at the Scottish Museums Federation conference on April 2nd. 

Lyndsey is an interpretation professional, with a background in science communication, an interest in sustainable development and thirteen years’ experience in cutting-edge museum work.  

Ken is the Director and founder of FifeX Ltd, a bespoke product design company specialising in taking fun and interesting concepts and ideas and turning them into real-life products, model and displays for education and visitor attractions. 

Sustainable Interactive Interpretation (yes, really!)

This is the content of a talk that I gave with Ken Boyd of FifeX at the Scottish Museums Federation conference and AGM last week. I promised to share the slides and some web links but as the slides are just photos I thought I’d better write some text too!

The theme of the conference was ‘sustainability’. Ken and I immediately thought about how we often encounter the attitude that interactives are not sustainable in museums because ‘they break’ or ‘they’re expensive’. We believe this is not true and set out to convince the SMF audience to come round to our way of thinking.

Why bother? 

Today’s theme is sustainability and for most museums that means visitor numbers. One of the key audiences in terms of sustainable visitor numbers is repeat visitors, and this often means local families. Over and over again research has shown that what these visitors want from their visit is something to DO. This doesn’t just apply to families, any repeat visitors need a reason to come back. Obviously events and programming is a big part of this but we can offer something which is there during your entire opening hours, is self-guided for visitors and runs itself without dedicated staff.

Simple Children’s Activities

To start to bring some ‘doing’ into your museum, think about off-the-shelf simple children’s activities, examples include dressing up, to books, to jigsaws. Companies like Truprint orPhotobox make very cheap jigsaws from your own photographs. These won’t last long but they are cheap and can be replaced regularly giving variety for repeat visitors.

Don’t underestimate the power of an off-the-shelf toy when presented in your context. One big success I was involved with has been K*Nex at National Museums Scotland. We bought a few big kits of K*Nex with project funding from the Royal Academy of Engineering and presented the kit with images of Thomas Telford bridges and other famous bridges such as the Forth Rail Bridge and let the kids loose.


Some stayed for hours and there was fabulous inter-generational collaboration going on, particularly involving fathers and grandfathers. One mother who was exploring the museum while her partner and child built a bridge asked them ‘Why are you STILL here when you’ve got this stuff at home and never play with it?’ – the answer to me was obvious.. it was the social context of the museum visit that made the father and child sit together and work together in a focused way on the task.

For more specialist ‘learning’ toys and furniture that you might not find in high-street shops try these online suppliers:

Replaceable parts

Imagine gallery at National Museum of Scotland

National Museums Scotland may have more money than many museums but because of the huge footfall (2 million visitors!) the museum has to think very carefully and creatively about sustainability. FifeX have just been doing some refurbishment of some of the exhibits and Ken pointed out how most of the exhibits have a bespoke designed furniture item but then off-the-shelf replaceable components such as the instrument tree above, the drum box which FifeX have replaced with drum skins in standard sizes available from musical instrument suppliers, and the Fantasy Landscape. These could all be done on a budget with furniture from the suppliers above or even Ikea if you have fewer visitors.

 Exhibit have to be robust to be sustainable!

Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh

This photo shows how even babies think that flaps lift up to 90degrees, if yours are designed to rotate like a keyhole cover then they will break when visitors try to use them as a lift-up flap.

There’s a whole conference on the theme of ‘how exhibits get used and abused’ and how to design items to make ergonomic sense, but for now – it’s best to assume you need to make it as tough as you possibly can: try and upgrade everything to the next level:

  • if you plan to use paper – use card; if you plan to use card, use a board of some sort… and so on.
  • Think carefully about paint finishes – if you plan to use two coats of paint, use three.
  • Get your graphics guys to use the longest-life materials, Make sure they set their printers to the highest quality of finish
  • Don’t bother with interior varnish – go straight for the stuff they use on yachts

Whatever you do, make sure you or your fabricators get some kids to test out what you’re making – remember that kids will always try to reinvent the laws of physics – it’s fine, let them do it but just make sure you’re one step ahead of them!

Things that move will eventually break – just think about your car! Don’t worry about it, just find a good way of dealing with it. It’s essential that you can keep it running and that repairs can be done quickly and easily. When you’re working on a budget, some things have to be compromised and sometimes a really sensible compromise is to actually accept that a part will have a limited life, as long as it is easy to change and spares are affordable. If you do this, be sure any parts you need are readily-available – make sure they’re standard in whatever way makes sense…. and if you can only find one chinese supplier on ebay, then no – it’s out – find something else!

As the client, ask about all these things… ask what are the components that need servicing or will wear out, ask where they are bought from, ensure as much as possible is from a big brand store or is standard. If possible bring in your handyman or woman to speak to the exhibit builders directly.. don’t disengage when the talk gets technical. Ask, ask, ask till you really understand your exhibit.

 Exhibits with longevity

Create a Rainbow

These exhibits at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh which I’ve blogged about before are classics – they’re classics as physics experiments, they’re simple and they work. Whilst FifeX repackaged them, the core functionality remained the same. Their original creator is unknown but Richard Ellam rebuilt them in the late 90s – Ken got in touch with Richard and was able to come up with a good plan for upgrading them. The client was on a budget so FifeX were able to leave the more costly parts, which have many many years in them yet. They adapted what we were doing to bring the finish up-to-date as well as upgrading things like the safety requirements of it. Perhaps most importantly, they simplified the method by which repairs can be made and documented this fully for the client. It was a great project and we hope it has many more years yet!

Update-able content

Audio & Video are very powerful story telling media and are now far more accessible to smaller museums. We are so lucky that technology costs have come down so much in the last ten years. Now, not everything has to be designed bespoke for you. There’s stuff our there you can buy and customise for your own use.

FifeX Audio Points

FifeX is one of a few companies that have developed platforms which allow museums to make one investment in a piece of technology and then use this across various different exhibitions. As an example we make a small audio player (we also have video and media players too) – the unit can be set up to do whatever you want, whether it’s playing just one file or multiple files – but the key thing is that it plays files from an SD card – so when you want to change it, you just take the card out and change it – it can be triggered from a sensor or a button or anything you can think of really. Also, when if it does ever go wrong, you can just put the spare one in place, change the card over and post this back to us.

Final Top Tips

1.  Add one activity at a time as budget allows – have a design template and build up your suite of exhibits.

2.  Invest in something already developed that you can change the content on yourself

3.  Don’t worry, give us (or someone like us) a call and just tell us what you’re thinking – tell us what budget you have and what time you have – maybe we’ve done something similar we can use as a starting point… get somebody like us in for a discussion / brainstorm session.

4.  If you get something made by a builder and you may want to repeat / adapt / change it in the future – make sure drawings or files for 3d printing exist and are safely filed, even if you can’t read them yourself.

5.  Getting interactives into your displays doesn’t have to be hard – look at basic children’s activities and think how they can be adapted to your setting

– With thanks to Ken Boyd of FifeX who wrote and presented this with me.

This blog post originally appeared on Lyndsey Clark’s blog on April 8th 2015. Reproduced with permission. 

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