Reinventing the Museum Experience in the Digital Age

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Using New Media Technologies to Create an Immersive Storytelling Experience

American University's Maggie Stogner filming with Mayan hieroglyph expert Simon Marting. Courtesy: Helena Swedberg

We have communicated our culture though multimedia storytelling from the earliest cave drawings and stories around the fire pit. Immersive media technologies are an evolving means to tell and share those stories.

Imagine exploring the pirate ship Whydah with its captain, Sam Bellamy; taking an intimate tour of ancient Egyptian artifacts guided by Cleopatra; viewing a three-dimensional CT-Scan of King Tut; or being welcomed into a world of archeological adventures by Indiana Jones himself. These are the worlds created in cultural museum exhibits by Maggie Burnette Stogner, professor in American University’s film and media arts department, recently recognized by Variety magazine as one of the top forty film programs in the country.

These immersive storytelling experiences transport the visitor to a different time and place, engage them with the sights and sounds of the era, and contextualize the artifacts in an interactive learning environment.

“Culture is all about our human stories,” said Stogner. “It is how we, as humans, share who we are, what we believe in, what we fear or love, what we hope for, how we live. We have communicated our culture though multimedia storytelling from the earliest cave drawings and stories around the fire pit. Immersive media technologies are an evolving means to tell and share those stories.”

21st Century Technologies for Storytelling

The technologies Stogner employs have come a long way since the days when man first drew pictures on cave walls to communicate. Today she makes use of the latest twenty-first century technologies: high-definition videos, photomurals, archival imagery, 3D computer animation, and digital audio for voice, music, and soundscapes.

“New media technologies have excellent potential to create immersive storytelling by heightening sensory engagement and by forging deeper cognitive and emotional contextual connections with artifacts and objects,” said Stogner.

Reaching Out to New Audiences

Stogner—a pioneer in the realm of narrative immersion—explains there is disagreement among cultural museums about the use of these new technologies. Many continue to display artifacts in cases with small text labels. While others have embraced this innovative approach, using new media technology to make exhibits accessible to a more diverse, more digitally sophisticated audience and boost attendance and revenue.

“This engagement is critical at a time when cultural museum attendance is seriously declining,” said Stogner. “Younger generations learn in very different styles than the traditional approach offered by many cultural museums. They are growing up in a media-rich, networked society and have different expectations.”

In addition to younger audiences, Stogner points out that immersive exhibits appeal to an ever increasing ethnically diverse crowd, and to older visitors. Integrated multimedia exhibits can provide a more effective educational experience to persons with visual or hearing impairments when compared to traditional text labels and tour guides.

It’s Still About the Artifacts

In order to be most effective these technologies must take into consideration best practices including quality of content, authenticity, and representation says Stogner.

The exhibit featuring the first fully-excavated pirate ship discovered off the coast of the U.S.—the Whydah—tells the ship’s complete story from its use in the slave trade to Captain Bellamy’s piracy to its rediscovery off the coast of Cape Cod. The work of eleven scholars, transcripts from the 1717 trial of pirates who survived the shipwreck, scientific studies of the artifacts, and other historical data ensure a high level of accuracy and authenticity throughout the exhibit.

“Today’s new media technologies have tremendous potential to enliven and give meaning to ancient cultures and historical events of the past,” said Stogner, “but they must be used with a strong commitment to content research and quality.”

Bringing Indiana Jones to Life

Stogner’s latest work can be seen in the new exhibit, Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology—presented by the National Geographic Society and Lucasfilm Ltd—that opened April 28, 2011 at the Montreal Science Center. The interactive exhibit takes visitors on a tour of sites found in the Indiana Jones films, exposes historical myths, and features ancient artifacts.

Stogner spent almost two years working on the project. She was brought in for her expertise at the concept development stage, and then waited nearly a year to begin production of the “real archaeology” films for the international exhibit, a process that took another year.

“It’s a collaborative process,” said Stogner—who eschews a traditional storefront and studio. “We work around my kitchen table with laptops. On any one of these traveling exhibitions, we’re spread out over multiple countries, three or four time zones, and often two or more continents.”

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Wes Hickman
American University
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