Observed: exhibit interactive that lets users "see inside" fragile textbooks



Newseum lead image

The Newseum in Washington, D.C. is dedicated to free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. It’s an exciting, immersive, and expansive space. Seven levels of exhibits feature some of the best in interactive exhibit design, from physical systems to digital interactives. 

I was drawn to the Pulliam Family Great Books Gallery. it features books and documents on loan from the Remnant Trust that are the cornerstones of freedom — a 1542 printing of the Magna Carta, a 1787 first pamphlet printing of the U.S. Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. The original documents are glass encased in low lighting. 

Newseum interactive page

Alongside the artifacts, four digital interactive kiosks allow users to select a text and see inside it. Visitors can leaf through pages, zoom in on details, and experience the fragile documents in an intimate way. It’s a very appropriate use of digital technology, enabling users to do what they ordinarily cannot. 

There are two ways in which the experience can be improved. Without chairs, users are left standing, and so limit their time to a few minutes. Too many books were offered for the limited time available; just deciding what text to look at took up a significant amount of time. More importantly, the entire text was not scanned. No guidance is provided that clarifies what pages are available, and which are not. Why did the curator select these specific pages for review? What should the user draw from them? Guiding the user through these curatorial choices helps to augment the educational value of the interactive, and reduce frustration — I wanted to see the table of contents of several of the books, but that wasn’t part of the selection. 

Overall an excellent example of museum digital interactives. I felt like superman, with newfound x-ray vision powers, to see inside the very documents that founded our notions of freedom in our nation.