Exploring the Early Americas

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Mara Kurlandsky

Published on March 04, 2011 , Modified on March 23, 2019

  • Description:

    Most potential visitors to the Library of Congress probably imagine it to be a stuffy, staid place filled with high stacks of ancient tomes and the hushes of equally ancient librarians. Well, parts of it are like that. But the Library also has several public exhibitions that, with the aid of some sophisticated interactive kiosks, are far from staid—fun even!

    For this review, I’d like to assess the interactives found in the Exploring the Early Americas exhibition. This permanent exhibition aims to cover the Americas before the arrival of European explorers, the period of contact, and some of its consequences through the extraordinary artifact collection of Jay I. Kislak. Despite the initial traditional appearance of the exhibition (wooden artifact cases with text labels), there are actually 15 separate touch-screens scattered throughout, which can be broken down into four content types.

    Types of Interactives:

    MyLOC Stations

    MyLOC stations are kiosks loaded with visitor information, images, maps and games. There are a total of six myLOC stations located in this gallery, allowing the visitor a unified experience with the myLOC stations they will find in the other galleries and in the Great Hall. The only games that can be played on these stations are the ones pertaining to the Early Americas, by inserting the passport received at the information center near the entrance to the Library. The games (eight in total) seem to be designed for school-age kids and relate to objects or concepts that are found in the gallery. Some were truly educational, such as identifying which items on a Mayan ball-player’s uniform were for decoration or protection, and calculating the value of units of measure from a Huexotzinco Codex. However, many of the games were object specific and made little sense if the viewer has not yet reached that object. Since all the games are available at once, the tendency is to play around with a few, then continue going through the gallery. Since the myLOC kiosks are spread evenly around the gallery, it would be better to limit each station to one game that relates to a nearby object, with the game further pointing out its location.

    Artifacts Up-close

    There were three kiosks that offered more information about artifacts: one about artifacts used for recording time, one for artifacts with writing on them and one for artifacts dealing with the heavens and earth. The first two, Recording Time and Reading Pre-Columbian artifacts were located, like most of the myLOC stations, on railings that ran along the sides of the walls between display cases. This made them unobtrusive and did not take away from the viewing of the artifacts in the cases. The last, The Earth, was table mounted near touchable globes at a comfortable height for using while standing. The tables are an appropriate height to access by wheelchair, but would not be good for very small children. These interactives were much more effective than the games because they were located near the relevant objects. Some contained videos from curators with more information, but the best feature of these interactives was the graphics. Many of the artifacts are displayed in low-light, as a conservation measure, but this makes them very difficult to see. The interactives allow the visitor to see several artifacts per kiosk in high-quality, well-lit images. This is especially useful for the objects with script and incisions—the high contrast of the screen allows you to see what is only faintly visible on the object itself. By touching the Explore button, one can also zoom in to see details, and some images can be seen “three-dimensional” on the screen. The images are easily manipulated with screen controls and significantly enhance the enjoyment of what are already spectacular artifacts.

    Page-by-Page

    Two kiosks allowed the viewer to virtually page through archival books—one on Buccaneers and one a natural history text—that they would usually never come into contact with. Both interactives were located directly adjacent to the objects and featured at least a partial translation of each page with audio available in both English and Spanish. The addition of an extra language and the audio option is a good way of reaching visitors who may be unable to read the small text or are not native English speakers. More languages would be nice, but are likely cost-prohibitive. Pages could be turned by back and forward buttons, or the reader can jump from section to section using the table of contents.

    Oversized Objects

    The last type of interactive dealt with outsized objects—two side-by-side screens for an eight panel display of paintings depicting the Conquest of Mexico, and two for the Waldseemuller Maps. These interactives—with screens much larger than the other kiosks—were the most heavily used during my visit and were usually approached by groups (most commonly groups of 2 or 3, teens or adults) who conversed over one screen or used both screens simultaneously. Both the set of paintings and the maps are quite old and behind protective glass, so the kiosks were particularly useful in viewing details though the kiosk’s high-quality images. The interactives also provided the viewer with the stories behind the objects and offered two different ways of experiencing them: a curator-led virtual tour or the option to explore the images independently. The option to zoom in and out and further explore the images was offered, but through intuitive touch on the screen as opposed to a side zoom bar. Due to this touch method and the screen size, these interactives elicited the most positive response from viewers and seem to have the “wow-factor.”

    Evaluation

    Each type of kiosk offers a different kind of learning experience, and the mixture of graphics, video, and audio allow for accessible interactions. The placement of the interactives is both elegant and unobtrusive, either lining the wall, table mounted or stationed in a handsome wooden platform directly in front of the object. However, during my visit I saw very few people using the interactives along the sides of the walls, so perhaps they are too unobtrusive. Visitors were more likely to use the large-format interactives located directly in front of the object, and these seemed to inspire a more social interaction. Perhaps a solution would be to move the kiosks along the walls to the central aisle between display cases so they are not too tucked away.

    While the educational games leave something to be desired (then again, I’m not a kid), the other kiosks provide a good amount of “just-in-time” information without being overly long or boring. The touch-screens all function well and are easy to learn to navigate. The kiosks also allowed a great way for the viewer to overcome conservation concerns and see the object up close and in detail on the screen. Because this exhibition is meant to be permanent, the kiosks can be easily updated or new artifacts added without having to rework the entire kiosk system. Overall, the interactives in this gallery are informative, interesting and innovative, if underutilized. The general attitude of those who did use them seemed highly positive and this exhibition is well worth a look, both for its stunning artifacts as well as its more modern kiosks.

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