All About the Participation
November 9, 2013

Originally published on April 20, 2012

At the Newseum’s new gallery on new media, interaction is key.

By Caitlin Johnston

Participation is the key to new media. It’s also the driving force behind the Newseum’s new-media gallery, set to open Friday, April 27.
“Everything we tried to do in here was a way to illustrate that participation, that conversation, that engagement that new media has empowered,” Newseum Senior Vice President Paul Sparrow says.

Whether it’s software technology like Facebook and Twitter, or hardware technology like smart phones and touch screens, or the networking capability that allows users to have broadband access wherever they go, all of those things contribute to this ability to participate. And that core idea of participation is what drives everything in the gallery, Sparrow says.

The Newseum, a museum dedicated to news, opened on Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C., in 2008. It soon became clear that the media landscape was evolving much more rapidly than had been anticipated, and that a heightened emphasis on new media was in order.

HP, the information technology giant out of Palo Alto, teamed up with the Newseum about two years ago when it came on board as a “founding member.” The New Media Gallery first came to life when the Newseum developed the initial concept for the gallery and approached HP with the idea. It was a hit. The two began collaborating on designs about 15 months ago. For the first time, the museum is working with a partner that provides hardware in addition to funds and perspective.

“We would conceive of these visitor experiences and figure out which HP products would allow us to do these things,” Sparrow says. “We would push them to do some things, and they would push us to do some things. It’s been a great partnership.”

The first step in developing the gallery was defining what constitutes new media. And then came a seemingly simple question: Is new media singular or plural? After all, for a museum chronicling the advent of this new sensation, the debate of whether to use “is” or “are” was a very real problem.

“Unlike news media, which is clearly a plural, we think that new media is referring to a specific kind of phenomenon, which is the democratization of news,” Sparrow says. With that in mind, they kept it singular. When planning an exhibit, seemingly simple questions like that are important.

The relatively small gallery packs quite a punch. Four massive screens―8 feet by15 feet―tower over visitors and serve as the introduction to the gallery. They broadcast the history of new media with two different videos. One tackles the question of “What is new media?” and includes people talking about what new media means to them and a timeline of the Internet starting in 1969. The second includes important definitions for new media lingo, such as “phishing” or “tweet,” alongside aggregated comments and photos of visitors.

The space is a circular set-up filled with screens begging to be touched, poked and prodded. It relies fully on interactive elements, new technology, videos and live streams.

The gallery tackles its subject in a way previously unexplored in the Newseum. “We realized we were trying to tell a story about new media in an old media way,” Sparrow says. “We wanted to create a gallery that would be participatory, where the visitors would actually engage in all of the parts of new media that are changing the media landscape.”

Visitors are encouraged to check in, a familiar process for any social media-savvy user. They step forward to one of several check-in stations where they snap a photo, enter their name and location, and answer a rotating survey question. Visitors can then choose to e-mail the photo to themselves or simply submit it to the gallery. The photo and comments are then broadcast on a nearby panel where other responses are aggregated.

Multi-user, multi-touch screens dominate the left side of the gallery with stories from the past decade that have played a critical role in the rise of new media, such as the China earthquake and the Virginia Tech shooting.

Sometimes the glitz and glam of the high-tech approach are deceptive. “Some people say, ‘How come there’s no content in this gallery?’ Sparrow says. “There are 29 stories here, which contain 563 photographs, 350 text panels and 84 videos. It would take you at least 90 minutes to go through and engage in all of these things. This touch wall has more content than some of our smaller galleries.”

And that’s just the touch wall alone. The rest of the gallery includes live feeds from broadcast and online news outlets. Plus, the opportunity for visitors to design their own Web page and play an interactive game testing their new-media knowledge.

“We saw this as an opportunity to create a living lab around how consumers of all ages, generations and cultures began interacting with a world that’s ubiquitous with information,” HP Vice President Carlos Montalvo says. “This is really an opportunity for us to take some our most advanced, immersive medias out of HP labs, work very closely with the Newseum and begin presenting what we believe are the enabling technologies of the future.”

The partnership between HP and the Newseum allowed the two organizations to push each other further and develop new methods for telling the story of new media. For example, the Vantage Point―the official name for the swanky touch wall―didn’t even exist a year ago.

“The broadcast and news industry has always been leading and pushing the edge of technology,” Montalvo says. “It’s an authentic story. This is the technology that’s not only shaping how news and information is captured and shared but how people relate to it in the real world.”

Whether it was the first online video editors or first satellite phones, journalism has driven new media and technology in a way unlike any other industry.

“We’re journalists,” Sparrow says. “We are always looking for what’s next. We understand that experience is perishable. And you see it with museums all over the world, where their attendance is declining because they’re still putting objects in glass boxes with a little sign underneath. It’s hard for a visitor to relate to that.”

But for the Newseum, the content is the artifact, not the device that carries it. For example, the clip of Walter Cronkite announcing President John F. Kennedy’s death is what visitors want to see, not the physical reel of film, Sparrow says. And for the new-media gallery, participation is the artifact. That’s the story they’re trying to tell.

“The definition of artifact is an object that reveals a bigger truth,” Sparrow says. “Participation is the bigger truth in new media. It has broken down those traditional walls and allowed this democratization process to happen.”

Editorial assistant Caitlin Johnston is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.


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