Developing digital exhibits to engage young people

How can museums use digital interactive exhibits to engage young people with cutting-edge scientific research? This was our challenge at National Museum of Scotland in the exhibition Parasites: Battle for Survival.

Under Attack digital exhibit

The exhibition focuses on five parasites that cause some of the world’s most devastating diseases, such as malaria for example.  I joined the team late in 2019 to manage the delivery of the digital exhibits. The curator had been working on the exhibition content for quite some time with expert input from the exhibitions partners in research*.

The other key partners involved in the development were the students and teachers of a local secondary school in Edinburgh. The exhibition curator and a museum learning officer visited the school multiple times with different exhibition ideas to consult the target audience. This gave us valuable input to develop the digital exhibits.

Reflecting on the whole process, I have drawn out these five top tips:

Tip 1: Digital is not always the answer

My first task was to review the briefs. We had ideas for five digital interactive exhibits plus one large-scale AV. One of the most interesting things about this exhibition is that the topic is not simple. There are five parasites, each of which causes a disease, and each of which enters the human host via a different third animal. The most commonly known example is malaria. Malaria is caused by a microscopic parasite called Plasmodium, which gets into people via the bite of a female mosquito. The other four examples are even less familiar. It was tempting to use a digital exhibit to cover this information in an engaging way but our first step was actually to delete the proposed digital exhibit here in favour of back-lit graphic panels.

Meet the Parasites Graphic

Tip 2: If the messages are complicated, make the game-play easy or familiar

Simplifying was a theme throughout, and I almost always find this on projects. When we wanted to show how public health workers often experience many set-backs during a campaign, we used the familiar format of snakes and ladders as an analogy for the experience.

Parasites and Ladders digital exhibit

In the ‘Under Attack’ game, we attempted to cover the very complicated way that the Malaria parasite attacks the human body in an arcade game. The key to making this game work was knowing where simplifying is OK and where to try to stick as true to the science as possible. We worked closely with our expert research scientists on this, sending them a series of sketches of the parasite at different life stages and explaining the reasons for simplifications we’d made.

Tip 3: Prototype

This one really is a non-negotiable. The digital exhibits were all developed by a small local company called Pixel Stag. They produced storyboards for us from our initial briefs, which we fed back on and they developed into prototypes. Time was extremely tight for testing these with museum visitors. So instead we invited museum staff with no connection to the exhibition or topic to try the prototypes. We are looking at three things during prototyping – motivation, usability and messages. This means is the game fun? can it be made more fun?, can people use it? is it clear what to do? and finally do people get the messages we intended them to?

Prototyping

Tip 4: Emotional engagement matters

Although it can be tempting to focus on content, the MOST important aspect of any exhibit is how it makes people feel. Our introductory AV shows some of the parasites under the microscope. We decided not to label any of these organisms. This AV is the entire ‘why’ for the exhibition: Why should I care about this ? So we focused on creating emotional engagement. We worked with Pixel Stag and animation studio Touzie Tyke on music, images and animation to create a spooky, threatening, ambience. Extremely brief headline text gives an instant and dramatic impression of the extent of the threat.

Tip 5: Don’t forget the fun

Finally, whatever the messages, however we attempt to engage the emotions. We must not forget to make the games fun. The consultation the museum staff did with secondary school students revealed that they generally felt that science was important. They believed that studying science could lead them to a good career. However, students did not think that science could be fun. Challenging this impression was a key driver for the development of the digital exhibits. Judging by the visitor book comments I think we can say we succeeded.

Positive visitor comments

*The partners were three Scottish research centres which are at the forefront of these efforts. (Wellcome Centre for Anti-Infectives Research at the University of DundeeWellcome Centre for Integrative Parasitology at the University of Glasgow and Edinburgh infectious Diseases at the University of Edinburgh)