Creating Digital Interactive Labels for Art MuseumsKevin Kane North Carolina Museum of Art
Felicia Ingram North Carolina Museum of Art
In this how-to session, staff members at the NC Museum of Art will discuss how they created an expandable digital touch labeling platform for on site galleries in one year, opening with 15 exhibit locations. Education staff member, Felicia Ingram, will talk about brainstorming and ideation with a focus on creating buy-in from other departments, including the museum administration, curatorial, exhibits, still imaging, and videography staff members. She will also highlight the content creation process for interpretive text, images, and videos. Kevin Kane, software developer, will speak on designing and implementing content management and front-end software systems, hardware selection, and automation procedures for the gallery floor. We will highlight the core features that allow this platform to extend beyond conventional print labels, including on-demand editing of published content, a multilingual user interface, and the ability to add streaming video playback and high-resolution magnifiable photography of collection objects. Additionally, we will discuss how we navigated important architectural feasibility prerequisites and built custom accessible casework with new power and data service to each location.
This session is intended for any museum professional interested in learning about how digital touch labeling can deepen collection interpretation, enhance the visitor engagement with heritage objects, and streamline the content editing process for labeling. Many of the details of this project can be distilled into best practices for implementing touch interactives of any kind into exhibit spaces, and thus can be applied to interactive projects of any scale.
As staff members at the North Carolina Museum of Art we have created an expandable digital touch labeling platform for our institution’s permanent collection galleries. The platform provides multilingual support, streaming video playback, high-resolution magnifiable photography of collection objects, and layers supplemental content behind a simple menu system. The project’s goals are to deepen collection interpretation beyond the provisions of conventional print labels, enhance visitor engagement with heritage objects, and streamline the content editing process for collection labeling through on-demand editing. The project took place over one year, with initial planning in November 2021 and opening to the public in October 2022 with 15 exhibit gallery locations.
In this paper we’ll walk through the high points of the project from ideation and content planning to software design and accessibility challenges. As you read on, consider that several details of this project can be distilled into best practices for implementing touch interactives of any kind into exhibit spaces, and thus can be applied to interactive projects of any
Figure 1. Digital label kiosks installed for NCMA’s collection of American art
Figure 2. The main page of the digital label user interface
The core features that allow this platform to extend beyond conventional print labels are summarized here.
On-demand editing of content is provided by a hosted WordPress instance, accessible to staff editors anywhere there is an internet connection. While the WordPress platform provides a content management system (CMS), it does not currently publish any data to a web page, though it provides the option to expand in that direction if appropriate in the future. The digital label application built for our gallery instances retrieves and stores the relevant data for its location in the galleries from WordPress over a secure connection.
Figure 3. Content ending view from the WordPress CMS
Text in the digital label touch interface may be switched between English and Spanish. This reflects a goal in 2022 to print all collection labels and signage in both languages across the museum.
Figure 4. Main menu UI in English
Figure 5. Main menu UI in Spanish
High-resolution magnifiable photography is provided for each collection object, allowing visitors to examine enlarged detail views.
Figure 6. UI view of a collection object in isolation
Figure 7. Collection object unmagnified in “pinch-zoom” view UI
Figure 8. Collection object fully magnified in “pinch-zoom” view UI
Streaming video playback may be included for collection objects where appropriate. Videos are placed under a section heading “Watch More” and generally feature interviews with artists and curators that give a more thorough contextual background for the selected work. Streaming video is integrated through the Vimeo API.
Figure 9. Video paused in UI with playback controls visible
Figure 10. Video playing in UI with playback controls hidden
Optional special content categories currently provided by this labeling system include conservation history for a given object and references to artworks with related histories or themes elsewhere in the collection. The digital label application marks these categories with the headings of “Conservation Stories” and “Related Works” respectively. The usage of the related works category is closely related to an earlier NCMA initiative called “Interchanges” in which works from disparate historical genres and time periods are juxtaposed to bring overlapping themes, mainly culturally timely themes, into focus.
Figure 11. Collection item with related works
Ideation and implementation
From the very start of the project, one of the biggest hurdles was creating buy-in across departments in the museum. Brainstorming began during our “Reimagining the People’s Collection” where Museum staff began the task of reinstalling the permanent collection and telling new stories in the galleries. The curators were trying to brainstorm new ways to hang artwork in a more dense and compact design. Some did not want labels on the wall at all and were worried about the traditional numbering system that is used at art museums. That’s where collaboration with curatorial, education, registration, photography and exhibition design came to work together to first develop the concept of the digital label. Curators were excited they could keep their initial design ideas that helped to promote educational learning. Education believed that this could be a way to connect the pre-existing online resources to the works in the gallery and vice versa.
From there, we believed it was important to see what other institutions were doing along the lines of digital labels. Research was conducted among art museums but there were few to no examples of expandable digital labels – only static ones with changeable text. So, the research was broadened to other types of museums such as science and history. Together, NCMA education staff and project manager, Felicia Ingram, technology staff, Kevin Kane, and graphic designer, Sean Thomas traveled to museums around the US to see examples of digital labels. We traveled to the Field Museum in Chicago, the NY Historical Society, the American Museum of Natural History (NYC), the National Museum of the American Indian in New York and the Smithsonian in DC, and finally the Museum of the Bible. Each of these institutions had their own version of a digital label or had many digital interactive stations to experience. We were thankful to be able to speak at length with staff at the Field Museum who helped us think critically about hardware, design, layout, and function.
Now that we had a general understanding of what other institutions were doing we began selecting content categories and began the initial wireframing process. Preliminary UI designs were provided by our exhibit signage designer. He began creating designs based on four major sections we developed that could be utilized with each work of art. Each artwork would be required to have “tombstone” or “dogtag” information (i.e. required information like artist name, title, medium, time period, and acquisition information). From there, optional specialty content categories were developed for a given object and references to artworks with related histories or themes elsewhere in the collection. These are titled “Conservation Stories”, “Related Works”, and “Related Videos”. These three speciality content categories can be applied to any work of art in the digital label and are intended to emphasize other stories related to the content on the label. Each work of art may have up to five instances of these categories to allow for multiple iterations of storytelling. Taking into consideration these categories, the interface design was tested for intuitiveness using paper printouts of each major state among a sampling of staff internally and museum visitors. This user experience testing ensures that we are creating an instinctive system that will be easy for all visitors to use.
Once these categories were finalized and designed, curators began to write the content to fit the new structure which supports “chat text” (brief explanations of artifact significance) as seen on the walls and also the speciality categories and other images and videos. Video content was created in partnership with community groups to help bring the object to life. For example, in the digital labels for NCMA’s collection of Judaic art there is video content featuring staff of The Center for Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education of NC who help to tell the stories of objects connected to the Holocaust. We also created cooking videos and spoke with local Rabbi’s.
Spatial design considerations (accessibility and architectural feasibility)
Computing requirements for the digital labels platform included new power and data service to each planned location in our galleries. We are very thankful for our Exhibitions, Facilities, and Information Technology teams partnering up to make this possible.
Custom kiosk furniture is installed at each digital label location securing the electronic components. The kiosk furniture is mounted to gallery floors, and allows the power and data terminals to connect to the internal equipment. Below is an image of the as-installed kiosk. Note that the design drastically minimizes competition for visual space with our collection objects. Credit goes to designers Mary Wolff and Cesar Zapata for arriving on this excellent design at NCMA.
Figure 12. A digital label kiosk installed at NCMA
Figure 13. A digital label kiosk installed at NCMA
The furniture design meets all regular requirements for kiosks in terms of technician and visitor accessibility. This means electronic components are secured inside and cannot be tampered with. Authorized technicians have access to an interior space by removing a cover plate at the kiosk base. The housing is large enough to accommodate articulation of the fingers or wrist, allowing manipulation of electronic ports and buttons. The display is rear-mounted and not enclosed, which provides ventilation on all sides. The PC and transformers in the kiosk base have ventilation by a grated rear wall that also allows for vertical component mounting.
Figure 14. Design of digital label kiosk housing
In terms of visitor accessibility, 2010 ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) Standards for Accessible Design are considered. Relevant sections cover reach height and depth (Section 308), operable parts (Section 309), and obstruction of path width for assisted mobility devices (Section 403). Tilting the screen back did not cause an issue for reach depth because the screen height is only 9” measured from bottom edge to top bezel (10” outer edge to outer edge). Tilting at an angle of 45° yields a reach depth of no more than 7” to the deepest point. Visitor operation (which occurs only with the software) only requires one hand and does not require tight grasping, pinching, or twisting of the wrist. And furniture is installed in such a way that walkways are not obstructed for use with assisted mobility devices.
The digital labels run on touch displays of a 32:9 aspect ratio (1920×540 pixel resolution output). These were selected after visiting the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where similar technology has been implemented. Exhibitions staff came to consensus on using these devices that fit within a conventional reader rail design instead of displays with standard aspect ratios that would take up more vertical space. They also chose a 29” display over a 35” display, the smaller of two models of equivalent aspect ratio.
Figure 15. Touch display from the side as mounted in the kiosk stand
Intel NUC (Next Unit of Computing) provides the PC platform for each digital label instance. These are very small form factor devices commonly used in kiosk hardware for their combination of high performance components with minimal space requirement. They also ship with mounting hardware included.
Figure 16. Components in the base of the digital label kiosk include (left to right) an Intel NUC PC, data and power connections, and transformers for both the PC and touch display
User interface design
Preliminary UI designs were provided by our exhibit signage designer, Sean Thomas, who designs all conventional gallery labels, as well as all environmental graphics like exhibition title treatments and wayfinding. The interface design was tested for intuitiveness using paper printouts of each major interface state among a sampling of staff internally and museum visitors.
Content management system
The content management system was built in WordPress because this is the CMS used for two pre-existing web platforms of the institution’s. The additional digital labels WordPress instance could be hosted alongside these at no additional cost. However, in this case WordPress is utilized as a headless CMS, meaning that it does not publish directly to a web page and rather a secure API that the gallery application holds credentials for. This setup comes with the downside of content editors not being able preview how content will appear in the production environment instantly from the admin portal. Instead, we have a prototyping station set up in our museum offices on-site that we can test out novel content which may pose design challenges.
Figure 17. Content ending view from the WordPress CMS
This tradeoff is made so that the gallery digital labels can run without persistent internet connection. It prevents the application from having to retrieve remote data for every new user request, as web applications conventionally do, while instead that data is retrieved from local storage in the background. So, data caching allows the application to continue running without interruption in the case of the digital label kiosk losing internet connection for any reason.
The gallery application is built using the Electron software framework, which couples the Chromium browser engine with Node.js to interact with the local filesystem. This is a relatively simple way to create desktop applications built on standard web technologies.
It should be noted that while our digital labels WordPress instance does not currently publish any data to a web page, it does provide the option to expand in that direction in the future. The CMS data remains available both for traditional WordPress usage and over a REST API used by the gallery application.
The PCs that deploy the digital label experience power on at 8am and off at 11pm daily. This window is wide enough to meet our regular open hours (10am-5pm) and special event occurrences, which includes after-hours receptions and gallery visits by scholars and donors. These tend to happen when the museum is closed to the public.
Content is stored per gallery location instance on the local hard drive of each PC running the digital label application. The application requests updated content from the CMS API every hour, but the frequency of content updates can be adjusted easily. The application will only download and store content if an update has been published.
Stored content includes text, images, and references to videos streamable from a cloud service (Vimeo). It is important to store this data on the device in the event that internet connection is lost for whatever reason the digital label system will continue to be usable. The option to view streaming videos simply disappears from the interface when network connection is lost.
Evaluation and future directions
We are currently working internally to evaluate the first iteration of the digital labeling platform and determine how it needs to shift to best serve our visitors and staff. For example, art museum visitors are not used to touching items in the museum space. Therefore, we believe the attract screen videography could be a barrier when engaging with the digital labels, since the attract state currently conceals images and labeling information of nearby collection items from view in the UI (this would otherwise be seen as the home state or main menu). Individuals that do not interact may end up missing important identifying information because objects labeled digitally do not currently also have conventional print labels.
Figure 18. When there is no active use, the attract state shown above conceals the main menu (next figure) with an animated slideshow of artworks
Figure 19. This main menu UI is concealed by the attract state, which is triggered when the kiosk is idle
We are also hoping to explore options for adding visitor usage analytics that help us understand which content is most attractive, and perform a deeper assessment of the platform from an accessibility standpoint. At this time, we do know that on average visitors spend a little over 2 minutes at one digital label location, and we have had visitors spend as long as 10 minutes with one digital label location.
The digital label platform gives more flexibility and interaction to the traditional wall label. It allows for multiple ways of engagement including watching and listening. We are looking forward to what the future has in store for these labels. If you are interested in pursuing such a project, or want to do some knowledge-sharing on integrated technology in the museum field more generally, feel free to reach out. We’d love to meet and help each other achieve success.
(2010) U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design. Last updated September 15, 2010. Available https://www.ada.gov/law-and-regs/design-standards/2010-stds/
0 Kevin Kane North Carolina Museum of Art
0 Felicia Ingram North Carolina Museum of Art
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