RFID and the museum

Technology is often used by museums and galleries to create moments of interaction that encourage a deeper consideration of a collection or subject. At the same time, using hardware and software can bring an element of theatre and magic to exhibition spaces. But choosing and developing interactive technologies can be fraught with pitfalls: What is available? Is it too expensive? Is it reliable? Will people understand it? And the most important question of all, is it appropriate?

One option for building visitor interaction into an exhibition space is to use an RFID system. RFID stands for radio frequency identification, which perhaps sounds complex, but it is a simple, relatively inexpensive and reliable method of making connections between visitors and installations or exhibits.

If you have ever used the Oyster card travel system in London, you have used an RFID card and reader. Handling thousands of passengers every day, Oyster offers a robust, quick and seamless communication between your personal account and the network of transport connections.

The beauty of radio is its invisibility. Passing a card near a reader, which can be embedded in another object or ‘prop’, creates a direct and instant communication with computer software, without the need for any other physical input from the user. In a museum environment, RFID tags and readers can be used to trace an individual visitor’s path through an exhibition, perhaps building up a record of responses to themed questions, or a record of achievement in interactive games.

In the Amsterdams Historisch Museum’s A’DAM, man & fashion exhibition, which runs until 1 February, an RFID-based interactive element runs throughout the space. At the start of the exhibition visitors create a personal profile which is then linked to their A’DAM ID card. At various points in the exhibition this RFID card is used to register personal preferences relating to clothing, self-image and fashion, including choice of brands for things such as beer, shoes, jeans and underwear. Each selection is logged, just like a journey across London on the Oyster system, and at the end of the exhibition the data are used to reveal a profile of the participant, showing how his or her self-image compares with other visitors. As the museum says, ‘the visitors themselves become part of the exhibition’.

The A’DAM ID concept was developed from a workshop between the museum’s curators, graphic designers, education staff and marketers, along with design group Buro Koos. According to Hester Gersonius, the museum’s head of social media and web, there were a number of elements which everyone wanted in the exhibition, including a personal ‘questionnaire’, a photograph and profile of participants and something for people to receive via email after their visit.

‘We have used the RFID system as a kind of prototype test for future exhibitions,’ says Gersonius. ‘One thing we have learnt is that you have to keep things very simple for people to understand – some visitors were swiping their cards over the screens with the instructions on, rather than over the pillars where the readers are embedded, for example. But now people have got used to it I think they will expect something similar in future exhibition. We have invested in the hardware and will be using it again in our upcoming permanent exhibition.’

A similar use of RFID featured in the Science of Survival, a touring exhibition created by The Science Of…, where installations asked visitors to make various lifestyle choices relating to the content of the exhibition (including zones on eating and drinking, and transport and building). Again, each decision was recorded and compiled into the final display, Future City, which forecast the environmental impact of these lifestyle choices on a community in 2050.

In both these examples, the RFID card and reader are used as a simple way of embedding the visitor’s responses in the content of the exhibition itself. This helps promote a cognitive interaction with the ideas at hand by making thematic connections between different areas in the exhibitions.

Other input technologies, such as keyboard and mouse, physical buttons, touch-screen devices or barcode scanners, could have been used to gather the same information, but for a simple tracking of responses RFID is probably the most elegant. As a bonus for the museum, the RFID readers can be used to record anonymous, but nonetheless individualised,  visitor usage and dwell times for later analysis. Similarly, at the British Music Experience at the O2 in London, visitors may use the RFID tags in their tickets to ‘collect’ the objects and exhibits they are interested in so that they can view them at leisure online after their visit.

Another benefit of RFID is its relatively low cost, especially when the cards are bought in bulk. Cards and readers operate over different ranges, with the shortest range usually being the cheapest, so it is worth choosing carefully, depending on the needs of the installations.

But the magic of RFID really comes to the fore when the readers are embedded inside (or near) other objects. A good example is iTea, a teacup reader created by a collaborative team of Amsterdam-based designers and programmers at an RFID workshop hosted by Mediamatic. Drop your ID card into the cup and information about you, sourced from the internet, is projected onto the tabletop before you.

A ‘hidden’ RFID system is also used at the Nobel Peace Center exhibition in Oslo, Norway, which features interactive technologies designed by US-based Small Design Firm. In the centre’s Nobel Chamber, a ‘book’ of Alfred Nobel’s life uses projections to create its pages and infrared sensors to detect where on the page people are pointing. RFID chips are embedded in each page to tell the computer which page is open and therefore which to project.

As with any technology in a museum environment, careful consideration of the exhibition’s aims and requirements, content, objects and stories, project budgets, design plans and the physical environment itself will all determine what interactive approach, if any, is most suitable. But as the examples here show, RFID can offer a simple and often enchanting interface between people and digital installations.

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Scott Billings is a freelance journalist who write for publications including Design Week, Museum Practise, Museums Journal and Marketing.

3 Responses to “RFID and the museum”

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  2. Very interesting article on RFID!
    For the new visitor center of the European Parliament (opening this week in Brussels btw!) we used RFID in yet another way. Through RFID tags in the museums’ multimedia guide and the media installations in the exhibition we were able to establish a two-way connection: on the one hand the media installations respond to the guide (e.g. by triggering an animation/video/effect), on the other hand the multimedia guide responds to its environment (e.g. triggering an audio in the visitor’s language when entering a certain area of the exhibition).
    Using RFID in addition to multimedia guides can be an innovative way to let the visitor actively experience the exhibition in his or her own language just as using RFID within the exhibited objects.