Jukebox Memories

Part of Exhibition: Memory

Topic: Other Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibit

by Jim Spadaccini

Published on December 05, 2007

  • Description and goals

    Jukebox Memories is a computer-based exhibit that plays #1 hit songs from the years 1955 to 1995. It was originally developed as part of the Exploratorium’s Memory exhibition. A simple “question and answer” format was developed to keep visitors engaged; they select which one of four artists performed a particular song. Yet, the point isn’t to test visitors’ knowledge of pop music trivia, but rather to jog their memory. As visitors play back songs from each year, memories are stirred up and in many cases conversations are sparked.

    The Jukebox Memories exhibit was designed to look similar to the real thing. The screen design was made to look like title cards on a jukebox. The photograph that appears in background of the screen was taken of a jukebox which we came across in a restaurant on Lombard Street, not far from the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

    The physical enclosure has a jukebox facade and a series of buttons for each year. Having over forty buttons is an unusual design decision for an electronic exhibit, but it seemed an obvious one, since it allowed for easy access to individual years. In addition, the number of buttons resembles the array of buttons one might find on an actual jukebox. However, the implementation of this design required some serious electronics work: a keyboard was disassembled and buttons were soldered to respond to specific key strokes programmed into the application.

    While rewiring the keyboard was quite laborious, the application itself was fairly simple to put together. It was developed in a now defunct program called Apple Media Tool (AMT). This CD-ROM and kiosk authoring software allowed designers like me with little programming experience to create complex applications. The main technical benefit was that AMT actually compiled what ever you created into a stand-alone application. This, along with “hard wired” buttons, made for a practically indestructible exhibit.

    On a personal level, while I certainly enjoyed the design and development challenges this exhibit presented, helping select and locate the songs from 40 years of music was a joy. Each year had three songs associated with it (120 songs total). The criteria was simple. Each song needed to be a #1 hit (more likely to be “memorable”) and the three selected needed to “represent” the year well. For example, the three #1 songs chosen for 1966 were: Paint it Black, You Can’t Hurry Love, and The Ballad of the Green Berets.

    In addition, novelty songs were especially prized since they were less likely to be replayed over the years and visitors might not have heard them since they were hits. Locating these songs led to some interesting encounters at various music stores throughout San Francisco. While I managed to get Rhino Records to donate a number of Billboard CDs, I needed to buy (and then resell) used CDs to acquire a number of songs. This was before the age of iTunes. I vividly remember being asked, “Hey did you find that Helen Reddy CD yet?” as I walked into one music store for the second time. I am Woman was one of the songs selected for 1972.

    The hardest to song to find was the 1989 hit, Girl, I’m Going to Miss You sung (lip-synced!) by the disgraced 80s band Milli Vanilli. In the case of Milli Vanilli a Japanese import CD saved the day.

    A couple years ago, I happened across the exhibit for the first time in a long time while visiting Explora! in Albuquerque. Our family was attending birthday party when I heard the music from across the museum floor. I was pleased to see that the design of the exhibit remains essentially the same nearly a decade later. It has wisely been reprogrammed with a more modern authoring platform (Director, I believe) and 5 years of music was added (1995-2000) for younger visitors. The Memory Jukebox continues to travel with the Memory exhibition.

Latest Comments (1)

Memorable encounters

by Wendy Pollock - December 14, 2007

I had a similar encounter with the jukebox when the Memory exhibition was in Durham, North Carolina. It was a quiet afternoon at the Museum of Life & Science, and only a mother and child were in the exhibition. But there they were, dancing away while the mom remembered “my music.” The Wild Music exhibition offers a different take on a similar idea (people can record themselves talking about musical memories). It must be the strong emotions associated with music memories that make these exhibits so compelling.

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