Thursday, May 24, 2012

GoogleEarth and the Museum Experience

My colleague Bob Hickey recently pointed me to the very helpful Trails Co-op website which embeds multiple views of trails around the county.  Through the viewer window, at  a user can click on any icon and then easily pull up information on specific trails.  I've also been fascinated by the Center for Geospatial Poetry, directed by colleague the poet Katharine Whitcomb, which leads users to poetry about specific geographic locales in Washington state, by clicking on specific icons tied to the work of specific poets.   (For this to work,  or to see the above frame view of GoogleEarth at the top of this page, you will need to click here to download and install the free GoogleEarth software.)
I have been pondering how our Museum of Culture and Environment might best make use of this kind of GoogleEarth interface to enrich our visitor experiences at the Museum.  For our upcoming exhibition, "Voices of the River: Storytelling, Nature and Culture along the Yakima," for instance, our blog commentaries about the river could include embedded, framed views of GoogleEarth, allowing users to focus in on specific regions or landscape features along or near the river.  For each story we have gathered about the river, we could have an icon that users could click on, associated with a specific geographical site.  Thus, a fly fisherman's commentary (written or audio) about a beloved spot on the river could be accessed by clicking on that specific location.

Roza Dam, Yakima River (Washington state)
Or a recorded debate (audio or video) on the pros and cons of removing the Roza Dam could be accessible via an icon located at the Roza dam site.  A blog commentary on beaver relocation from the valley floor to the river's headwaters areas (an important strategy for flood mitigation) could presumably show geographically where new beaver dams and colonies are located. 

A designated workstation within the exhibition could present that kind of material on the screen, and people could of course access this kind of data before or after their visits to the museum.  But how might we best use GoogleEarth interfaces to enhance our visitors' actual experiences within the museum?  Presumably, this data could be accessed on ipads (signed out from the front desk) as the visitor walks through the gallery, or on the visitor's own iphone or smart phone device through a mobile browser window.  We could have QR codes throughout the gallery so that those with smart phones could scan the codes and be taken to a relevant website that had an embedded GoogleEarth map frame within it, showing the geographic location associated with the story or display in question. Since we will be collaborating with the campus Spurgeon Art Gallery,which will be holding a January 2013 exhibition on art inspired by the river, I imagine that QR code labels near given works of art could let viewers call up geospatial data on the geographic locale that inspired a given painting or sculpture.

As with all uses of mobile devices within a museum space, we'd need to think carefully about how to get visitors to take their eyes off of the screen to engage with exhibited artifacts, works of art or related displays, so that the museum visit doesn't turn into an entirely privatized experience of isolated "life on the screen."  Perhaps there is a way to pose thought-provoking questions about a given artifact, relating the geographical information conveyed through the GoogleEarth map to the physical object on display.   For example, a visitor might be asked:  how have these two painters chosen to interpret this particular locale in the river canyon in two very different ways?  Or, why might this style of indigenous canoe have been favored for navigating this section of the river?  Or, where do you think salmon swimming back up the river system encounter major obstacles to their migration?

In turn, when readers are actually walking along the river, using iphones or other mobile devices, they can be directed to information and stories about that particular segment of the river? (This would be challenging at many points in the Yakima River Canyon, where it is difficult to get any sort of signal; unless there is a way first to download the data before entering into a 'dead' zone.) It would also be great if people out in the field, with ipads or smart phones, could enter their reflections about specific landscape sites along the river, into a comment section of our Museum blog, so that their voices could, in effect be added to the other "Voices of the River," documented by our exhibition project.

The challenge in other words, is using these exciting geospatial technologies to encourage our museum community partners to be active producers of knowledge, and not only passive consumers of  pre-digested imagery and information. 

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