Creating a design document: part 2

More time than I’d like has passed since I started creating my design document. In my last post on the subject, I described how a recital I’d seen could be broken down into “Natoms” or Narrative Atoms. The recital itself was constructed to create a story by putting these natoms into an emotionally engaging order.

Now imagine that we want to use the same research to create an exhibition in a museum, or tell a similar story to people visiting a country house.  Last time I introduced the idea that the natoms could be all sorts of different media: “documents (which could be original or images); portraits (ditto); text (spoken in this case, but it could be printed); sound (live music in this case, but it could be recordings); and even original instruments.” This list can be divided into two types: physical media – objects, and maybe in an historic environment (rather than a museum gallery) the spaces themselves; and, “ephemeral” media – video, audio, text etc, which can be delivered to the access points on demand. I use the word ephemeral because the physical stuff is by definition in a located in a particular place and (generally) doesn’t move around. By the other media can be delivered to visitors wherever the visitors are. A fundamental difference between this concept and traditional interpretation design, is that text panels cease to be permanent objects in the gallery, letting the collection take pride of place. But the ephemeral stuff is not necessarily less important than the physical stuff, as Cohen and Shires pointed out, the only thing that distinguishes kernels from satellites is that the kernals have come in a certain order.

click to enlarge
click to enlarge

In the diagram (above) I’ve separated out the physical natoms (spaces and objects) from the ephemeral ones (indicated by the cloud box), but I think I may have been mistaken by making all the kernels ephemeral natoms. There could well be “wow” objects, that curators place at the very start of an exhibition, to make sure that everyone sees it at they enter. This would obviously be  the first Kernel, and maybe a should redo the diagram to show that possibility. Alternatively, curators can put a wow object at the end of an exhibition, for example at the brilliant Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum,  but in fact this is more difficult to do in many free-flow historical environments, so maybe I won’t show that case in the diagram (or maybe I’ll create different diagrams for different curatorial audiences).

What I’m trying to show in the diagram is that there is at least one ephemeral natom for each physical one, for example a catalogue entry, but there may be more – maybe a recording of music being played on an instrument on display, for example. That piece of music may have a specific place in the narrative, making it a kernal. Giving a very simple, broad-brush example, it may in be a minor key, a “sad song” if you will, and works very well in the narrative when we’d like the audience to reflect on the death of protagonist. The object itself may, or may not have a specific place in the narrative. Lets assume it doesn’t.

Now imagine our visitor wonders over to look at the object. The system knows what natoms have been delivered to the visitor at this point, and has a choice: it can let the instrument stand on its own, as a thing of beauty, remember, it is in itself a natom; or it can measure the time the visitor pauses by the object, which indicates a particular interested in it, and deliver (via an e-ink panel say) the catalogue entry; OR it can note that the visitor has recently been told about the death of the protagonist, and so the plays the “sad song”, which, for another visitor who has not yet heard the death story, it holds in reserve until later in the experience.

This isn’t meant to remove all control from the the visitor, who may well have the ability to trigger the music (or another piece) even if the system chooses not to deliver it until later. Indeed, if the visitor goes around triggering every bit of music, a sophisticated version of this system should be able to background the social story, in favour of a more musicological one. Rather, its an acknowledgement that the visitor already takes control of the experience by moving around the spaces, and offers a more flexible way for the curator to tell an emotionally engaging narrative by defining the kernels of the story.

Does that make sense?

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