"Packing for the Unknown"
Part of Exhibition: Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery
of an Exhibit
Published on March 01, 2011
Museum: National Air and Space Museum
Visit Date: February, 2011
Whenever someone prepares for a trip—whether it is a short visit with relatives or an extended adventure in Europe—the question of what to pack must be considered. One must think about length of stay, weather, and the types of activities that will be undertaken. The interactive game “Packing for the Unknown” challenges visitors to the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) to make thoughtful decisions about packing for a trip that literally takes them everywhere. Participants are charged with helping Charles and Anne Lindbergh plan for their long trip across the world to survey overseas airlines routes. This engaging interactive technology enriches the visitors’ understanding of the trials of preparing for early overseas flights and the types of objects required for expeditions to extreme climates.
“Packing for the Unknown” entertains a variety of visitors. Pioneers of Flight tells stories about the individuals who overcame the existing limits on flight in the early twentieth century. Located on a corner of the exhibition section discussing the Lindberghs’ unprecedented world exploration, the interactive serves to either augment or act as an alternative to the traditional display. Set about three feet off the ground, the kiosk is accessible to most, but children and guests in wheelchairs can find the screen difficult to reach. The large blue display grabs the attention of visitors and a conveniently placed wooden post provides a comfortable armrest. The game may be played as an individual or as a group; an angled screen and ample space around the interactive allow for the possibility of a larger audience. The ability to play this game in a social group is an important feature at a museum known for attracting families and school groups. Indeed, the interactive appears to target a younger audience as evidenced by its cartoon-like graphics and overall design. Both children and adults participated in the game, although individual adults tended to be more hesitant in making the decision to go up and start the interactive. One adult initiated the game, but quickly backed away when he saw a younger boy eying the kiosk. When visitors actually decided to begin the interactive, they usually spent about three minutes at the kiosk and successfully completed the task.
This interactive also features user-friendly navigation. The directions are easy to follow and usually consist of one or two sentences. These directions are condensed into brief commands such as “Start Over” or “Repack” and placed on buttons so that the user can simultaneously absorb the directions while engaging with the content of the interactive. The entire game is accomplished by pressing buttons or other shapes on a touch screen. Sometimes the touch screen can be finicky. I saw one visitor give up and walk away after the screen did not register her multiple touch attempts. The game’s accessibility is also limited by its existence in only one kiosk. Some visitors patiently waited for their turn, but many moved on to the next display. Although I did not see signage in the exhibit to alert visitors that this game could be played at home, I later discovered the interactive on the museum’s website. This is a great alternative to waiting in line and extends the visitors’ connection to the physical exhibition. NASM should make an effort highlight this web option as a means to increase the sustainability of this single touch screen within their popular museum. As NASM evaluates this newer exhibition, it might also want to consider the installation of additional kiosks and the cost of maintaining troublesome touch screens.
The content of “Pioneers of Flight” engages its users and enhances their understanding of exhibit themes. By helping the Lindberghs decide what to pack, visitors learn about historic objects while making connections to their personal travel experiences. This often inspires conversation among groups of visitors. I witnessed several adults discussing packing options with younger children. Two adult males commented about and pointed to the physical anchor in the exhibit case as it appeared on the screen. The user-directed simulation also provides an opportunity to grapple with the task of packing for a variety of conditions when constrained by the weight limitations of a small aircraft. Visitors may experiment with different object combinations until the desired weight and contents are achieved without the fear of failing. Pop-up screens give more detailed information, images of the objects, and welcomed packing advice from Charles and Anne. A yellow caution sign appears when the baggage exceeds the maximum weight. This warning does not apprehend the user, but instead challenges him or her to really think about the necessity of their selections in terms of weight. Such a simulation also resonates among the many visitors who have had to remove items from their luggage to avoid airline weight penalties. At the same time, this component of the game can allow the disinterested visitor to make an arbitrary decision to eliminate an object in order to proceed.
Before completing the exercise, the visitor is presented with a screen that compares his or her choices to the actual supplies carried by the Lindberghs and the final option to go back and repack. The simulation concludes with historical footage of the takeoff and encouragement to look around at the actual objects, linking the technological experience to the past and grounding it in the current exhibition.