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Museum of Anthropology exhibit features SFU SIAT team’s design and technology

January 21, 2015
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By Diane Luckow

A clever interactive exhibit at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) in Vancouver is the result of a unique collaboration between a team of people from the MOA, the Musqueam Indian Band and SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT).

The exhibit, ʔeləw̓k̓ʷ – Belongings opens on Sunday, Jan. 25. It’s part of a larger exhibition, c̓əsnaʔəm, the city before the city, an historic partnership between three Vancouver institutions: the Musqueam Indian Band, the Museum of Vancouver, and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. All three will feature exhibits about c̓əsnaʔəm, the ancient village site on which part of Vancouver was built. Visitors will learn about past and contemporary Musqueam culture and community.

For the past six months, SIAT professors Kate Hennessy and Alissa Antle, and graduate student Reese Muntean have worked together with a team of SIAT students to develop the MOA exhibit’s principal display, created on a Microsoft Surface that resembles a large tabletop iPad.

They designed the display’s interactive concept, interaction design, programming, graphics and photography.

On the tabletop display, which shows an image of a contemporary Musqueam salmon-cutting table, visitors can place replicas of Musqueam archaeological artifacts, or belongings, into wooden rings. Setting the rings on the display triggers information displays, photos, videos and audio narratives.

“The rings enable small groups of visitors to interact simultaneously,” says Hennessy, a media anthropologist. “It also encourages dialogue about the belongings between visitor groups.”

The display includes a series of small puzzles requiring visitors to match the ancient belongings with modern-day objects. Connecting the belongings to one another, and to hotspots on the tabletop, activates information about how they are related.

Matching a replica of an ornamental belonging, for example, with a replica of an Indian Status Card opens up information about continuity of traditions, weaving, fishing and the revitalization of the Musqueam language. Or, placing a replica of a stone net-sinker on the part of the table depicting fishing nets used today displays information about Musqueam peoples’ use of new technologies. Once all pieces of a puzzle have been completed, a related video story from a Musqueam member is shown on a nearby video screen.  

“In this way, values about respect and earning the right to knowledge are built right into the way visitors interact with the belongings,” says Antle, a leader in tangible computing.

Says Hennessy: “As far as we know, this is the first time that an interdisciplinary team like ours has come together to develop a tangible tabletop museum project that pushes the boundaries of everyone’s work.

“Our goal has been to find new ways for museums to convey the dense and expansive information contained in a tiny archaeological fragment, and the broader historical context that produced it.”

The overall goal, she says, is to teach visitors something new about Musqueam culture, values and identity.

The project was funded with assistance from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Grand NCE and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

l-r: Reese Muntean, Alissa Antle and Kate Hennessy
l-r: Reese Muntean, Alissa Antle and Kate Hennessy