We identify a broad opportunity to develop an understanding of how digital technologies that provide tangible interactions can be effectively used in museum environments that engage cultural heritage. Tangible interaction couples computational media with physical objects embedded in a physical environment.
Our goal as researchers is to better understand how tangible interaction technologies can be designed and situated within the museum context in order to improve visitors’ understanding of historical and cultural concepts. We introduce here a tangible tabletop installation piece for an exhibition titled Mapping Place: Africa Beyond Paper, which contrasted Western and African notions of mapping history and place. Under the guidance of professor Ali Mazalek, students from Georgia Tech and Ryerson University collaborated to create the installation between 2013 and 2014. The Mapping Place exhibition took place from February 28 to June 6, 2014 at the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum in Atlanta, GA, and was part of the Africa-Atlanta 2014 initiative.
The design of Mapping Place was inspired by the Lukasa, a hand-sized wooden tablet studded with beads and shells and carved with ideograms. The beads, shells and carvings are used to represent pieces of stories and thus serve to record the history, genealogy and cosmology of the Luba peoples in Central Africa. With the authentic Lukasa inside a glass case in the Mapping Place: Africa Beyond Paper exhibition, our piece aimed to give students a tangible way to explore symbolic and non-linguistic mapping concepts that are central to the Lukasa. The installation consists of a multi-touch tabletop with multiple tangible shells and two wall mounted projections. By placing a tangible shell on the tabletop display, seven icons appear as a circular “menu” around it, representing possible components of a story about family and place. The visitors can assign meaning to the digital beads by dragging them onto the menu icons, and a corresponding animation begins to play on a wall adjacent to the table. The entire tabletop becomes the group’s digital Lukasa, holding multiple visitors’ stories. Through the shared practice of storytelling, our design enabled visitors to create a personal connection to the historical and cultural practices of the Lukasa.The Lukasa-inspired interactive installation demonstrates one way in which emerging digital interaction technologies can be used to support historical and cultural concepts in ways that are tangible, embodied, and performative.
Our observations and our user study of the museum visitors show that grounding the tangible experience in contextualized knowledge can enhance visitors' comprehension of abstract concepts and subject matter. As illustrated in this project, we believe that bodily interaction is a viable way to remediate cultural heritage and support learning goals. The openness of the interactive experience invites visitors to reflect on their experience, actively participate in the meaning-making process, and share their understanding with others. We share our design process, user study, and design implications for how digital and tangible interaction technologies can be used for cultural learning in museum exhibits.