Exhibiting the interface: Curating computers and designing didactic user experiences

Kimon Keramidas, Bard Graduate Center, USA


Presenting a computer in an exhibition while precluding the involvement of a participant really isn’t representative of what is important about that piece of culture. After all, it is not simply the hardware in isolation that made a device like the Macintosh memorable; it was the introduction of the mouse in conjunction with a new graphical user interface and software designed for that interface that made it stand apart. In response to this shortcoming in the presentation of computing technology, an exhibition entitled "The Interface Experience: Forty Years of Personal Computing" is being planned. This exhibition will consider how the experience of interface can be recreated in an exhibition in a way that shows the interplay between user, hardware, and software, and puts on display the way we perceive, think about, and even desire this category of objects. To accomplish this, the computers must be displayed, thought about, and used within the exhibition as platforms for dynamic interactive experiences. This is really what the experience of these objects is about in our daily life, and presentation of them as static hunks of plastic, silicon, and metal is an incomplete and ultimately irrelevant approach to signaling their relative importance to human culture. In response to these concerns, this two-part submission to the MWX strand of Museums and the Web 2015 entails both a paper on the nature of displaying computing devices in exhibitions and a demonstration of software designed as didactic scripts to be interacted with by visitors on original hardware in the exhibition. The five devices for which scripts are being designed are the Commodore 64, Apple Macintosh Plus, PalmPilot Professional, Apple iPad 2, and Microsoft Kinect. The paper will elucidate the questions and challenges posed above, while the software demonstration will put on display some of the solutions that will have been arrived at by the opening of the exhibition in late March.

Keywords: interface design, personal computers, experience, curating computers

1. Introduction

We are undeniably in the midst of an era in which digital technologies are having a profound impact on museum theory and practice. From upheavals of institutional websites and collections databases to the expanded deployment of social media, participatory technologies, and mobile and static interactives, digital media have become persistent and necessary to the growth of twenty-first-century museums. But as we traverse this era of urgency, it is important to consider the technologies by which we are changing museum practice with the same scrutiny and rigor we apply to the study of more traditional objects. We must be mindful of the importance of the devices and platforms we use to entice engagement, and consider the multitude of ways they explicitly and implicitly impact interactions by their mere presence. This mindfulness must transcend visitor analytics and extend to a textured consideration of the sociocultural role these technologies play in both the history of museums and the day-to-day experiences of museum visitors.

This paper will discuss how the Bard Graduate Center (BGC) Focus Gallery exhibition The Interface Experience: Forty Years of Personal Computing engages with a number of these questions by making digital technologies not only a means of interpretation and participation, but also the exhibition’s main focus. The Interface Experience opens up for critical consideration both the manner in which museums traditionally display dynamic digital technologies and the new ways in which digital technologies are being used to supplement and transform visitor experiences. The exhibition covers the development of personal interface experiences since the release of the first personal computers in the 1970s. Through displays of obsolete devices, Web-based interpretation and participatory experiences, and scripted didactic interactives on original hardware, the goal of the exhibition is to promote not only an understanding of the history of these devices, but also a stronger sense of self-awareness in visitors’ use of digital technology. Specifically, this paper will focus on the challenge of displaying not just computing objects but also the experience of interface. In particular, it will focus on the methodology deployed in presenting five of the objects in the exhibition—Commodore 64, Macintosh Plus, PalmPilot Professional, iPad 2, and Microsoft Kinect—as both historical objects and interactive experiences.

This exhibition has developed within the framework of the BGC’s Focus Gallery Project, an initiative that connects exhibition practice with faculty research, encouraging the conveyance of scholarly arguments through spatial and digital media. The scholarly structure of the Focus Gallery provides for greater intellectual experimentation than most exhibition environments, and benefits from the integration of classroom-based investigations that incorporate students as important participants in the development of projects (Keramidas, 2014).

2. On the nature of knowledge and technology in museums

In The Postmodern Condition (1979), Jean-Francois Lyotard considers the history of knowledge construction, particularly through narrative, and explicates a theory as to how contemporary society poses certain challenges to those frames of knowledge construction. Lyotard says that knowledge in a modern society must be acquired through experiences that society has determined to be reputable. Lyotard notes that museums in particular have long specialized in constructing the types of controlled narratives that are preeminent in the formulation of knowledge. As such, museums tend to function less as public spaces for knowledge engagement and discourse and more as stages for the display of accepted knowledge and the reinforcement of prescriptive forms of knowledge dissemination. This has historically established museum knowledge as unassailable and rigid, a condition that is further enforced physically by the display of static untouchable objects that perform the incontestable and immovable museum narrative.

Lyotard notes that this model of museum knowledge construction is a distinctively modern one that is increasingly at odds with the destabilizing technological knowledge parameters of postmodern society. Lyotard describes this transition from the modern to the postmodern and how technical devices enable a different set of practices by which knowledge is legitimated. These devices:

follow a principle, and it is the principle of optimal performance: maximizing output (the information or modifications obtained) and minimizing input (the energy expended in the process). Technology is therefore a game pertaining not to the true, the just, or the beautiful, etc., but to efficiency: a technical “move” is “good” when it does better and/or expends less energy than another. (Lyotard, 1979)

According to Lyotard, this means that while the foundational metanarratives of modern society are legitimated by institutional systems that reinforce knowledge by reassertion, knowledge in postmodern society operates on the premise of progressive efficiency and is legitimated by a constant assertion and definition of reality through the seemingly objective lens of high-performance technologies.

The clash between these two different modes of knowledge construction is a tension currently faced by museums. As audiences are increasingly conditioned to technological modes through the daily use of digital media, they are more readily resisting the grand metanarratives that defined the modern age and upon which most museum practice is still based. Museums are therefore going to where the audiences are, using technologies like accessible touch tables to allow for visitor-driven discovery of collections (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum); deploying familiar digital taxonomies, such as tagging, to allow visitors to participate in the organization of the museum’s collective knowledge (Brooklyn Museum); and leveraging preexisting social media platforms to expand community involvement (Facebook and Twitter). But, as Lyotard warns, the mere information efficiency of these experiences often establishes their merit, legitimating knowledge based on how it is delivered more rather than the quality of knowledge and the level of information reception.

The conundrum is that optimal experiences of institutional construction and knowledge dissemination can be well-served by both traditionally well-researched and constructed narratives and the new efficiencies provided by technology, if those choices are made carefully. Just as the discourse surrounding the modern or post-modern condition ebbs and flows depending on perspective and opinion, so too does the relative value of narrative construction and technological expediency rely on questions of context and objective specificity. We are therefore challenged to create experiences that thoughtfully leverage the creative and participatory possibilities of new media without falling prey to the expediency and data-centric nature of digital technologies. Likewise, we must consider how those technologies allow us to create carefully devised didactic environments where visitors can explore materials and acquire knowledge without falling victim to historically rigid structures of the modern museum.

3. Museums, knowledge, and interface technology

The components of The Interface Experience dance carefully, but also precariously, at the crossroad of Lyotard’s knowledge structures, deploying and critiquing both simultaneously. It is situated within one structure, yet to completely eschew the trappings of the modern museum, while being constituted by the very technologies that represent the most ubiquitous instantiation of the second structure, postmodernity. As such, the exhibition endeavors to take advantage of that intersection to provide an experience that highlights those tensions, while hoping to avoid falling prey to the potential inevitability of message that would result from allowing either mode to dominate the manner in which knowledge is constructed and deployed. To do so, the curation and exhibition of these objects is executed in a fashion that presents objects that constitute a culture of technological performance within a context structured along theatrical conceptions of performance.

The motivation for this project came from the display of computers at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Computer History Museum. Being different types of museums each handled these devices in ways that are representative of their respective missions. MoMA’s presentation of computers, in particular the Apple Macintosh (Figure 1), focuses on the aesthetics of the object particularly as representations of refined examples of twentieth-century industrial design. This presentation does not highlight the experiential importance of the Macintosh, neglecting the computer’s importance for having successfully introduced the mouse and graphical user interface (GUI), but focuses on the computer as an assemblage of plastic, glass, and silicon. The devices are shown in a turned-off state, often presented without their accompanying mouse and keyboard, and have little accompanying information beyond the barest label metadata.

Fig. 1 Apple Macintoshes on display at Museum of Modern Art in 2011. Photo by flickr user j.s. Clark

Figure 1: Apple Macintoshes on display at Museum of Modern Art in 2011. Photo by flickr user j.s. Clark.

At the Computer History Museum, the Macintosh is handled differently, as an artifact of history (Figure 2). It is put in proximity to other important computers of the era (in this case an IBM PC and Apple Lisa) and is shown with all of its components as well as images of operating system screenshots and advertisements. There is also interpretive text that provides context for the device and its relative importance in the history of computing.

Fig. 2 Apple Macintosh (center) on display at Computer History Museum in 2013. Photo by author

Figure 2: Apple Macintosh (center) on display at Computer History Museum in 2013. Photo by author.

Neither presentation is ultimately that surprising. The three major kinds of museums—art, history, and science—tend to collect and display objects in certain kinds of ways (Burcaw, 1983), and MoMA and CHM’s manner of exhibiting their collections maps along the lines of traditional art and history museums. As designed experiences, traditional museum and gallery exhibitions such as these are for the most part focused on providing visitors an intimate, but removed and passive, relationship with objects and works of art. These objects sit statically, situated in such a way that actively discourages any interaction beyond visual surveying. Tactile interaction with the actual objects of exhibition is usually prohibited (although there are exceptions), and even proximity is either discouraged due to fear of accidental contact or mitigated completely by the insertion of a range of physical barriers—in the case of these two examples, glass panes or Plexiglas boxes.

For many objects, the interaction lost can be explained away due to the demands of conservation practice. But alongside these strict material demands runs the enforcement of a range of sociocultural expectations of the museum experience: people shouldn’t touch objects, they should be quiet, they shouldn’t take pictures, etc. Scholars such as Pierre Bourdieu (1984), Carol Duncan (1995) and Elaine Heumann Gurian (2006) have noted how these educative practices have developed over more than a hundred years and are bound up in complex networks of narrative construction, sacralization, and value hierarchies. These historical conditions derive from the very particular and controlled institutional frame of knowledge construction within which museums, as the presumed maintainers of cultural heritage, tend to operate. They adhere to a strict commitment to historical preservation and tend to take a conservative approach to the manner in which they perform that history through their institutional identity and the display of and access to their collections. There are of course exceptions, but even as changes are made at some museums, the implicit assumption made by most museum visitors is that there is a way one should behave in a museum. If curators and exhibition designers wish to work against such trends, they usually have to prepare to actively work against these assumptions and find ways to educate audiences on not only the contents of a collection or exhibition, but also how to engage with that material.

But, as the conditions that led to these historically contextualized modes of museum display and knowledge construction grow increasingly unstable, visitors are beginning to demand more engagement and self-discovery in their experiences. Furthermore, while the limitations on interaction and contact make sense for unique paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, the computer is a different kind of object, no matter how notable its visual design, that problematizes traditional museum practice. Brenda Laurel in Computers As Theatre (1993) has written that a “computer-based representation without a human participant is like the sound of a tree falling in the proverbial uninhabited forest.” As such, presenting a computer while precluding the involvement of a participant really isn’t representative of what is important about that piece of culture. It is not simply the new form factor of its case that made the Macintosh memorable; it was the introduction of the mouse along with the GUI and new software designed for that interface that make it historically stand apart. It was in fact the experience of the Macintosh in toto that made it significant. This project therefore exhibits objects in a way that differs greatly from the presentation style displayed at MoMA and the Computer History Museum.

Interactivity is not a new thing in museums and there have been numerous studies, such as Andrew Barry’s (1998) study of interactivity in science museums and Lucy Bullivant’s (2007) contributions on interactive exhibition spaces and architecture, that have addressed the topic. Furthermore, exhibitions such as MoMA’s Talk to Me exhibition curated by Paola Antonelli (2011), have put interface design front and center in a museum context. Lynn Dierking and John Falk’s “Interactive Experience Model” (1992) provides a conceptual approach to understanding interactivity in the museum that sees the entire exhibit space as more dynamic and complex. This model acknowledges the overlapping spheres of personal, physical, and social context that exist in a museum and argues for more compelling interactive experience. Dierking and Falk write that providing frameworks for social learning is an important aspect of developing interactive museum experiences, as it eschews the directness of most museum knowledge dissemination and allows for alternative paths of learning. In a report on interactives at four major art institutions, Scott Sayre (2005) supports this notion stating that “observation showed that visitors were more inclined to engage in conversation and information sharing in galleries containing interpretive media. These social interactions can have the effect of further extending the gallery experience as a personal, shared set of experiences.”

The validity of adding interactive technology to the social characteristics of an exhibition remains a contested notion. Heath and vom Lehn (2013) argue that interactives are not effective hubs for social experiences because they are usually designed for a single user to have an experience that others are merely witness to, while Fiona Romeo and Laurence Chiles (2012) find that even the best laid plans for designing interactive spaces do not often result in visitors behaving in ways that are expected. Sayre (2005) adds that less-traditional art museums face a challenge when questioned as to “what is contemporary art and what is interpretation?” The thought is that more interactive and technologically complex artworks from the digital art and net art periods generate experiences that are not too dissimilar from the interpretive technology added by the museum. Rather than avoid these two concerns, The Interface Experience directly engages with them by a) utilizing the role of participants as spectators or witnesses as an integral part of the experiential framework of the space of the exhibition, and b) integrating the interpretation within the objects and allowing the experience of, discourse about, and presence of the object to exist simultaneously.

4. Performed interactive experience

In “Performing the Museum” (2001), Charles Garoian posits a performance-based pedagogy that situates the museumgoer as a proactive user who initiates an alternative understanding of the museum and its artifacts through dialogic interventions. These interventions reframe the museum experience through “perceptual, autobiographic, cultural, interdisciplinary, and institutional content.” While Garoian’s performance pedagogy is subversive, intentionally separating the knowledge performed by the visitor from the museum’s performance of knowledge, it is possible to create a performative intervention that builds upon the expected frame of the museum’s institutionalized model and enacts the visitor not as a subversive performer but rather an intentional one. Through such a performance, the user of the interactive can be guided to purposefully engage in dialogic experiences, while simultaneously enacting the interaction in a way that allows other visitors to understand the performance of interaction from an additional perspective.

Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1977) writes that “an object or place achieves concrete reality when our experience of it is total, that is, through all the senses as well as with the active and reflective mind.” This makes performed experience a powerful pedagogical tool, for when an interface can be both something to be performed (active) and something to watch being performed (reflective), it can be more comprehensively understood and open for examination. This is made possible by thinking of interface, like a stage, as a space that affords both the potential for a dynamic experience and the opportunity for the individual to effect change in that space. Laurel (1993) notes that interfaces are representational and highly context-dependent, characteristics that can also be applied to exhibitions. Both provide a material experience and representational context in a physical space where visitors negotiate and interpret objects that are placed in specific contexts. The stage, interface, and exhibition are all spaces of dynamic, live experience in which the human presence provides valuable variable input and enables possibility, whether that possibility is drama, computing, or cultural learning.

The three experiences are, of course, differentiated by the nature of the medium within which they are experienced. Museum exhibitions traditionally discourage interactivity, and the same can be said of the traditional staging of plays. Personal computing devices, however, require interactivity. How can one reconcile those differences in an approach that looks to engage and utilize the knowledge frameworks of all three? The exhibition’s display of objects directly engages with this difference by a) utilizing the role of participants as spectators or witnesses as an integral part of the pedagogical framework of the exhibition, and b) integrating the interpretative texts of the exhibition within the objects, thereby allowing the experience of, discourse about, and presence of the object to exist simultaneously. To do this, specific parameters for the experience of the interfaces in the space are conjoined with theatrical performance strategies and existing museological methods for framing knowledge.

Since the objects that are on display are meant to evoke the personal experience of computers, then the exhibition must begin with a method of display that represents the history of changing interface design, materials, and technologies. To accomplish this, the exhibition uses working original hardware for five of thirty-three devices that visitors will be able to touch and use. This assures that the materiality of these devices is conveyed not just visually or through descriptive materials, but in a experiential mode that allows one to feel the responsiveness of a Commodore 64 keyboard, the contour of a Macintosh mouse, the heft of a PalmPilot, the shape of the iPad’s body, and the physicality of activating a Microsoft Kinect through gesture and voice. Interacting in this way is an important part of framing a historical reflection about what made these particular devices important, what makes them different from one another, and how they relate to contemporary and future technologies.

While this experience with the devices generates the first or active layer that Tuan refers to, to conceive of how a second layer might can function, we can look at the work of German theater director and theorist Bertolt Brecht. Brecht (1964) famously believed that, through the deployment of certain techniques and styles, theater could be didactic, instructive, and revelatory for the audience. He conceived of an epic theater that integrated music, text, staging, and acting style that brought light to the human condition of the spectator. An actor performing in Brecht’s style would present his character to the audience as if wearing a mask—what Brecht called a gestus—presenting to the audience the fiction of his character through an intentional distancing. This mask of intentional distancing prevented the audience from getting caught up in an empathetic response to the character’s plight and allowed them instead to take an alienated and more critical stance to the actions being portrayed by the actor.

This distance allowed Brecht’s theater to enact a critical practice called defamiliarization. Something is defamiliarized when it is separated from a familiar sense of recognition and made to stand out anew as different, recognizable. Defamiliarization is important in the study of culture, because it allows us to see clearly once again those things close to us that have become invisible due to regular or overexposure. Brecht’s utilization of acting methods as a means of staging defamiliarization provides us an access point to think of personal computer devices as a stages for instructive performance. The exhibition space is important here, because just as the scenery and music set the stage in Brecht’s epic theater, an exhibition space is an environment that is inherently educative and didactic; a place where people are prepared to see objects out of context, out of place, and out of time. Tuan (1977) notes that within museums and other places of memory and conservation:

the effort to evoke a sense of place and of the past is often deliberate and conscious. To the extent that the effort is conscious it is the mind at work, and the mind—if allowed its imperial sway—will annul the past by making it present knowledge.

Tuan sees this annulment as a loss, but this exhibition will attempt to exploit the disruption between past and present experiences in order to create the kind of experiential differences that are similar to practices of defamiliarization in Brecht’s theater.

If the static conservation of objects in exhibitions creates an illusory past, which is in fact an incognito representation of the present, performance and interaction with objects provides an alternative experience by allowing the museumgoer to view the performance of a functioning object. This is contingent on a central factor—the design of the experience to be had by the user of the personal computing device. The interaction must be such that the practice of using the device creates an unfamiliar and specific experience for both the user and any possible onlookers. Because the material nature of the hardware strongly grounds the personal computer as an object in the history of exhibiting, we have not changed the hardware’s nature in an expressive fashion, because it is more effective to use it as an entry point and stable platform for the defamiliarizing act. The software, however, is contingent enough to be used more flexibly, and custom applications can be designed to establish and then counter the authenticity implied in an exhibition setting in a manner that mirrors epic theater.

This has been achieved in The Interface Experience through the creation of software with embedded interpretive material—and coded to run on the original operating systems of each device, which, when activated by a museumgoer, will create the effect of a technical gestus being generated by the computer. Through this gestus, the exhibition highlights which technical affordances make each specific device historically significant. However, the software experience will not attempt to present an authentic re-creation of what it was like to use these devices in their heyday; that is simply not possible. Rather, what is highlighted are the characteristics of each device that continue to make it an important historic object in the present, especially in relation to the contemporary interface experiences that visitors will be encouraged to reflect upon. This simultaneous perception of and distancing from the past is necessary for critical introspection and defamiliarization.

In order to accomplish this sense of contemporary experience and historic reflection, the custom software is engineered to focus on use scenarios that highlight how hardware and software worked together in each object to create distinct experiences. In the case of the Macintosh, the software experience highlights the new iconic experience of the GUI and mouse by leading the visitor through a series of icon clicks and having her draw and shade bitmap shapes. These experiences have been developed in coursework as part of the Focus Gallery initiative. Students considered the devices in their original time period and also in relation to their own contemporary experiences of technology. They then drafted scripts that introduce the visitor to the fundamental interface features of that particular technology. Those scripts were then translated into code by a programmer and loaded onto the vintage technology. For an idea of the kinds of actions visitors are taken through on each device, here is a draft script for the PalmPilot in the exhibition:

  1. User starts by pressing the power button and pulling stylus from cradle.
  2. User activates the screen experience, using the stylus to calibrate screen by touching all four corners.
  3. Upon completion of the above, user sees version of Giraffe game load up. The first screen shows you the strokes to make all the letters for Palm’s Graffiti vocabulary.
  4. Once the user has successfully viewed all of the letterforms, they will see a button that says: “Play!”
  5. During the Giraffe component of the interactive, user must draw letters as they fall. The letters spell “Palm Graffiti.” There will be a “Help” button for the user to return to the chart referencing the letterforms.
  6. Once they have successfully completed drawing all the letterforms, a menu item will pop up saying: “Congratulations! You have successfully completed the Palm Graffiti training! Now use the below application to write ‘Palm Graffiti.’” Below this text will be an icon that appears like the “Memo” app on the Palm homescreen. This will be an icon that functions like a regular button, but will make reference to all of Palm’s applications.
  7. Once the user has clicked “Memo” button, dialogue at the top of the menu says: “Please write ‘Palm Graffiti.’” (Or this can flash as a menu item before the user is brought to the Memo-pad.)
  8. There will also be a “Help!” button at the bottom of the Memo screen that will allow the user to return to see all of the Palm letterforms.
  9. Once the Memo exercise is complete, the user will see a dialogue that says: “Good work! Please remember to return the stylus to holding cradle at the side of the device.”
  10. The screen will then reset.

These scripted interactions are a simple series of easily executable actions that aim to quickly make the device accessible, while providing an opportunity to experience physical, temporal, and modal specificities of the device. This opens up the possibility of the recognition of difference between devices and enables the defamiliarization of any individual object or the complete range of devices in concert.

It is important to restate that this defamiliarization is not meant to occur solely for the museumgoer who is participating in the constructed semi-performance via the device. The act in which that museumgoer uses that device is itself to be presented as a performance by the user of the interface and can, like the Brechtian actor, be watched, examined, and considered with critical distance. Although the user of the device may have an instructive defamiliarizing experience, it is equally if not more likely that observing visitors will, through their spectatorship, be able to reconsider the relevance of these popular objects and reflect on their own use of personal computing technologies by watching another’s use of a technology. Thus, the spectator of the performed interaction, like the audience in Brecht’s theater, is experiencing a performance that is not like reality but is intentionally structured against the grain of the “real” experience of these devices in their historical context. The physical objects may persist as relics of certain historical moments. But the software, the dynamic part of the staged experience, provides an instructive experience outside the illusion of historical reconstruction.

This parallels the value of interactive designed environments, which Lucy Bullivant (2007) has noted:

promote the personalization and customisation[sic] of not just architecture, but also of their wider physical public contexts…Through the activation of embedded, custom-designed software and responses to its effects, the identity of public space itself goes beyond its constitution through generic formal givens, and becomes porous and responsive to specific information and communication conveyed to it.

The Interface Experience combines Brechtian theatrical conceits with the impact of immersive interactive architecture to create a staging that, involves “visitors and passers-by so intimately… [that] they too become part of the prosthetic impact, and the public space it occupies becomes, for a limited time, prosthetic, too” (Bullivant, 2007).

The choices made in arranging the devices to accomplish the goal of staged interface were not as explicit or obvious as those made in placing a Brechtian actor on a proscenium stage. That would be too radical a departure from traditional museum practice, and such a presentation would become the focus of the display, distracting from the experience of the interfaces. The challenge was to find a subtle staging that situated the core objects within an informative context relative to interpretive text and the other non-working devices on display, and also that allowed exhibition visitors to watch each other interact with those devices. You will see in Figure 3 that the majority of objects in the exhibition are situated, in chronological order, along three of the walls of the space. These objects are non-functioning but able to be touched, so that people can physically engage with different shapes and designs. In the center the room, four of the working devices—starting at the bottom left with the Commodore 64 and going clockwise to the Macintosh, PalmPilot, then iPad—are situated proximal to where they would fit on the timeline. This layout created space around the active devices for both the user of an interface and spectators of that user, providing ample lines of sight so that people could view the experience of interface from a distance. The Kinect has its own subwall in the bottom right-hand corner, as it necessitated a certain amount of space to be easily usable. It nevertheless fits chronologically and places the user of the device in a prominent and visible space to both perform and be watched.

Fig. 3 Rendering of exhibition groundplan in Sketchup. Design by Ian Sullivan

Figure 3: rendering of exhibition ground plan in SketchUp. Design by Ian Sullivan.

At this point the effectiveness of the custom software and spatial layout for this project remains hypothetical, as it does for any exhibition at this stage of planning. It remains to be seen whether this particular approach will be able to transcend certain obstacles to success. First of all, we do not know whether the obsolete hardware, particularly in the case of the Commodore, Macintosh Plus, and PalmPilot, will stand up to the rigors of use during the run of the exhibition and potential tours. These devices have been sitting unused for at least a decade and the hardware may not be sustainable. It is possible that software emulation ultimately would have provided a more robust option although it does lacks the sense of authentic material interaction that is important to this project.

The design of the new applications will also face challenges to their effectiveness. They may be too out of time and place to evoke memories or simulate the experience of what it was like to use these devices, and it may turn out in the end that using existing software from the appropriate period for the experiences would have been more valid. Their deployment may also be too subtle in its didacticism, as they may ultimately be seen as frivolously entertaining experiences rather than engendering a sense of critical awareness.

Lastly, the layout, while meant to provoke a sense of staged performativity, may be too subtle in its construction to be effective. If this is true, then it may be ineffective in getting visitors, who are comfortable with their understanding of how they should relate to an exhibition and its contents, to have a different kind of experience. It may turn out that a more aggressive design and more explicitly clear interpretive texts would have been necessary to engender the critical effect being aimed at. This is in fact a criticism often levied at Brechtian theatre, which many felt was too subtle in its distancing effects to break audiences out of their orthodox expectations of a theatrical event. Theatre critic Herbert Blau (1990) for one feared that people would not actual participate in the social commentary of the play, but rather would slip into an illusion of participation which was just as problematic and alienating as traditional theatrical staging. It will be interesting to see how the project plays out and to see if the design works the way it is meant to or whether audiences be less inclined to accept its subtle differences and follow the exhibition’s intentions.

5. Conclusion: Local and global considerations of museum interfaces

This paper has been predominantly about the local choices made in the development of The Interface Experience. Those choices pertain to the specific content and narrative of the exhibition, but nevertheless the technological end experiential issues addressed here are relevant on a more global scale in two different ways. First, as time passes, the complex questions that computer interfaces beg will become an increasingly important sector of our cultural heritage. Already there is a large range of collectors of this material, as these devices are currently accessible (many can still be purchased on eBay, and in fact all of the exhibition objects were acquired in that way), and nostalgia and memory are strong. It will be critical that, as collections grow and more museums make a commitment to this range of material culture, we continue to consider these devices for their experiential import and not merely for there material construction, as their true value is in how they are used and what they can do, not in what they were made of or looked like.

Second, as these technologies penetrate deeper into every facet of daily life, as increasingly smaller and portable devices and the Internet of Things spread computing technology ubiquitously, it is ever more important that cultural heritage institutions maintain a critical perspective when deploying these devices. The selection of any technology, because of material cost and the power of the companies behind it, carries with it serious political economic implications and stigmas of branding and corporate affiliation that already are historically problematic in museums. That is not to say that any one selection of computers is better than others, or that these devices should not be used, but that museum professionals should keep in mind the sociocultural discourse surrounding computer interfaces and consider how the simplest selection may have implications on the pedagogical and didactic possibilities of cultural heritage work. The Interface Experience attempts to engender such an awareness in its visitors, and I hope that the thorough and repeated intellectual deliberations that my students, our gallery staff, and myself exercised as we made object, interpretive, and design decisions have positive repercussions on the experience of the exhibition.

Finally, the complications that personal computers raise as artifacts for exhibition are not wholly unique. All technologies are in a sense defined by their utility, whether that technology is as explicitly complex as a computer or automobile, or is something that does not feel like a technology at all, such as food or clothing. The tactile and performative moves that The Interface Experience makes in presenting its materials didactically and interactively therefore have the potential to be transposed to the exhibition of other technologies. As such, this kind of display may be able to provide new, more engaging museum experiences with objects that are defined by their usability, but are often presented to us in museums at an unassailable distance.


I would like to acknowledge the students who worked so hard on The Interface Experience: Emily Banas, Martina D’amato, Caitlin Dicther, Andrew Gardner, Alana Jiwa, Jane Kilmar, and Cynthia Kok.


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Cite as:
. "Exhibiting the interface: Curating computers and designing didactic user experiences." MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published January 16, 2015. Consulted .