Site Visit: American Museum of Natural History

Instead of meeting in the classroom this week, we visited the American Museum of Natural History. Before arriving, I downloaded two apps: Explorer and MicroRangers. These are only two of nine apps produced by the museum and intended to be used onsite during one’s visit. Upon entering the museum, we were all given a Communicator Coin that would allow us to use the MicroRangers app in the within certain areas in the museum. This coin acts as a platform for different characters to appear in Augmented Reality (AR) when looking at your smartphone’s screen. There are different narratives, games, and missions within this app that require to the visitor to move around in the galleries and visit different parts of the museum. The Explorer app is designed to act as a personal tour guide or allow visitors to discover the museum in a new way.

There were a few technical difficulties and hiccups in during our visit. When opening the app, it asks you to login to the museum’s WiFi and to turn on you BlueTooth. Unfortunately, the museum’s WiFi was down the entire time we were there essentially making the Explorer app useless. This was disappointing, but I think that it brings to light an important aspect of bringing digital technology into the museum: Things don’t always work like they are supposed to. While this in no way impairs visitors from experiencing the museum as people have for the past 100+ years, it does shows that the most successful apps do one thing and do it well. The MicroRangers app did work, so not all was lost!

MicroRangers is a game that both educates and entertains visitors. By using a range of technologies to geolocate you within the museum, augment reality with animated characters to guide you, and provide mini-games, the app brings the dioramas and the museum itself to life. I was impressed with the amount of work that went into developing this app, but in using it I felt a bit distracted. The first adventure I took was in the Hall of North American Mammals. In the Raccoon diorama, I was informed by the animated charchters that I needed to determine why and how rabies were to blame for a raccoon’s strange behavior and distribute vaccines. In the game, visitors learn that rabies is a viral disease transmitted by saliva when one animal bites another. One of the mini-games that help you learn this is dropping vaccine pellets for sick raccoons to eat. At another point I was prompted locate the raccoon in the diorama and line up its outline superimpose over you smartphone’s camera view with the raccoon.

The first adventure I took was in the Hall of North American Mammals. In the Raccoon diorama, I was informed by the animated charchters that I needed to determine why and how rabies were to blame for a raccoon’s strange behavior and distribute vaccines. In the game, visitors learn that rabies is a viral disease transmitted by saliva when one animal bites another. One of the mini-games that help you learn this is dropping vaccine pellets for sick raccoons to eat. At another point I was prompted locate the raccoon in the diorama and line up its outline superimpose over you smartphone’s camera view with the raccoon. This was fun, but I felt very self-concious of taking up too much space in the narrow hallway where the diorama was located. It was also dark in the Hallof North American Mammals, so my smartphone turned the camera’s light on. I felt like this might be distracting to other visitors.

After complete the tasks and the mini-games players will earn badges and can move on to other areas of the museum. After collecting enough badges, you can upgrade you level of difficulty and the task will become harder. Apparently, in the more advanced stages, players can potentially lose games and have to try again. This seems like a key component to the game. People like challenges, but this will requre mulitple visits and lots of play-time.

After exploring the museum with the Micro Rangers app, we met Hannah Yaris from the Education Department. She gave us an overview of the development of both apps (and others) that included working with high school students at every stage of development. The process was interesting and because each app is so complex. While we didn’t get an exact amount, it seems that the Micro Rangers app was in development for about two years and cost a couple hundred thousand dollars to produce. Without a doubt, this was a big project.

The American Museum of Natural History is one of the leading institutions in the county and the world for its field, and the Education Department seems to play a huge role which makes sense. I guess I was a little suprised at how involved these apps were, though. Most of my experience with digital culture in cultural heritage institutions comes from art museums, and I think that my inclinations lean towards the frame of mind. At art museums, in my opinon, apps should be simple and to the point — you don’t want to distract from the objects on display too much. I think that a place like the American Museum of Natural History has different objectives and their audience is more willing to devote screen-time in the galleries. Overall, I think that the apps being offered at the American Museum of Natural History are amazing and they have a great process from development to analysis, they are just not my kind of use of digital technology in a museum setting.

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