Collaborative Research: Designing Digital Rails to Foster Scientific Curiosity around Museum Collections

Project: Research project

Project Details


A persistent question facing modern natural history museums is how to understand the role of interactive digital technology in the visitor experience. Can interactive technology be
used to foster visitor curiosity and engagement around the authentic artifacts and specimens that make museum collections? Or does it lead to a digital disconnect in which visitors focus more on screens than the objects in front of them? Can technology help enrich conversation and social interaction between visitors? Or does it lead to situations in which people are "alone together" in exhibit galleries? Coming to grips with these questions will be critical to the continued relevance of collections-based informal science institutions. In this collaborative project between The Field Museum and Northwestern University, we propose a design-based research study to investigate a new form of interactive technology that we
call digital rails. Put simply, digital rails are interactive computer displays mounted on exhibit
case railings that serve a similar function to traditional static labels. Our long-term goal is to augment
these digital rails with near-field communication (NFC) devices to explore the degree of interactivity in which we vary the nature and degree of visitor interaction with the rails. We will also use
NFC tracking to link digital rails with visitors’ mobile devices. The combination of NFC tracking, computer logs of touch interaction, mobile app interaction and observations of visitor behavior around display cases will enable us to develop a nuanced understanding of these design dimensions and their effect on visitor experiences. In this EAGER project, we will carry out the first phase of this larger research agenda. Specifically, we will observe visitors using
existing digital rail installations at The Field Museum in Chicago. We will then build
on these observations to systematically explore design dimensions in the creation of several prototype digital rail experiences. This will lay the groundwork for future work (in the form of a larger-scale proposal) in which we will refine these prototypes and conduct a controlled study on visitor engagement and learning as a function of these design dimensions and factors such as visitor group type. Intellectual Merit : The development of curiosity has been studied as a psychological construct in variety of domains (Golman & Loewenstein, 2013). However, little work has been done on translating that research into museum contexts to cultivate visitor engagement. Curiosity increases when an individual becomes aware of an information gap and has a desire to narrow that information gap because doing so will bring satisfaction. Using a combination of automated visitor tracking and naturalistic observations, our study will begin create a theoretical curiosity framework that can be used to both design and study interactive learning experiences in museum settings, particularly around the use of digital technology. Laboratory studies have found a variety
of situational factors that can cultivate curiosity, including posing questions, making predictions, and incomplete narratives. The digital rails provide a mechanism to explore the application of these situational factors as a means to cultivate curiosity about the museum artifacts Broader Impacts : This study will be conducted at a large natural history museum serving hundreds of thousands
of visitors every year. We anticipate that this project will lead to improved experiences
and engagements for these visitors. We also anticipate that design principles
Effective start/end date9/1/158/31/17


  • National Science Foundation (IIS-1550051)


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