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2 examples of phygital museums you should check out

What does phygital mean?

"Linguistically, the word phygital is a combination of the words “ physical” and “digital” to signify the ever-growing experiential cross-referencing and amalgamation of these two worlds. In other words, the term refers to the ways and means how these two realms — physical and digital — have melted into each other and hence increasingly difficult to inhabit them separately."

As Sandro Debono, a museum expert and member of our Academic Committee, points out in his article "The Phygital Museum", in museums the digital dimension and the physical one are more and more interrelated. Problem is, how can you achieve this goal both efficiently and inclusively?

We will bring here two examples of museums which were effective in creating phygital experiences, both in northern Europe (one in the Netherlands and the other one in Estonia).

Phygital exhibits in the Markiezenhof museum

The first one is the Markiezenhof (literally, the Marquise Palace) in Bergen Op Zoom, a small town in the Brabant region of the Netherlands.

Here, two storytelling experts from the nearby Breda University, Licia Calvi and Moniek Hover, have designed an innovative interactive storytelling adventure which tries to make the most of a house museum. The idea is to create "animated objects" to be mixed with the real objects in the collection, in order to put back life in the galleries. We'll show here a few examples:

At the beginning of the interactive path, in the first room, an animated mannequin talks and then a "magic mirror", in reality a disguised video, offers some moving images, and they serve as an introduction to the story. The videos and audio are short and engaging; unfortunately in Dutch only. Multi-language can be difficult in an interactive storytelling like this, but should be addressed in some way.

In the same room, disguised between some real antique portraits, there is a "magic portrait" with a proximity infrared sensor, making it move and speak when a visitor gets nearby. It is a very simple yet effective interaction.

The most spectacular room of the storytelling itinerary is in the final room, where the visitor can sit down at an "animated table" and watch and listen to a conversation between invisible people, represented by their animated dishes.

It is, we think, an intriguing glimpse into a new wave of "animated museums" who try to take Walt Disney's lessons and adapt it to the cultural environment. Walt Disney was adamant that the technology should always be at the service of the story and not vice versa, and we 100% agree with this approach.

In this case, we can talk about phygital storytelling because it animates physical objects. The advantages of such an approach are:

1) there is no digital divide, because interactions are triggered by simple gestures like going near an object or sitting down, and require no digital literacy.

2) animated objects still retain that "magic" aura that usual digital interactives like touchscreens lack

3) they can mix more effectively with real museum objects in fragile contexts like the house museums.

4) they invite the visitors to explore and can be fun for kids and adults alike. Of course the quality of the storytelling (well written audio clips recited by good actors for example) is critical.

There are anyway a few disadvantages, typical of any digital approach. The most important is maintenance: digital or phygital equipment requires constant monitoring and maintenance, something that cannot usually be realized in-house and has to be foreseen at an initial contract level, otherwise interactives will soon break down.

Another aspect is rigidity: contrary to a human guide, that can adapt to the audience by changing her narrative style, this fixed storytelling cannot be changed and is not good for returning visitors.

In another gallery of the museum you can find an interesting "fake phygital", in other words an analogue panel that reacts as a digital tool, simply showing invisible messages using a special glass. It's fun and surprising, and reminds us that magic can be achieved not only through electronic means.

Phygital exhibits in the Estonian Maritime Museum

Another museum, totally different in size and theme, that uses the phygital approach is the Estonian Maritime Museum in Tallinn. Hosted in an enormous former Soviet hydroplanes factory, the museum is very atmospheric because it has been transformed in a dark space, a vast deep blue canvas where boats, submarines, where gigantic ceiling propellers slowly turn, creating a Jules Vernes feeling.

In this case the digital technology has been used in order to animate the museum objects or make them interactive.

For example, videomapping is used to animate the side of a Soviet submarine at regular intervals, as if we could see through its metal walls.

In another exhibit, a real Anti-Aircraft soviet machine gun can be operated to try to hit attacking helicopters (something sadly happening right now in Europe).

On a more positive side, a rescue boat simulator is very effective in showing the difficulties of locating a drowning person in a stormy environment.

Videogames in museums usually suffer from the competition of commercial games available at home. In this case, the usage of real museum exhibits, such as the machine gun, or complex physical set ups, like the boat, usually unavailable at home, can be quite effective at reducing the "lame effect" that digital games can easily induce in younger visitors.

The effective combination of an atmospheric environment, spectacular museum objects like the submarine, a very good storytelling, effective interpretation tools and a consistent phygital approach make this museum a compelling experience for children and adults alike.

As in the Markiesenhof, also in the Estonian Maritime Museum there are analogue interactives; in fact the museum is interactive, sometimes digitally, sometimes not. But interactivity is the key.

As you can see here, one of the most successful exhibits is a big table full of white sheets and precise instructions on how to make a paper plane, that you can fly afterwords in a big target. Providing recycled paper for the planes could be better, but the idea is simple, interesting and super engaging!




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