Te Papa’s new Our Space exhibit
Recently opened at Te Papa is the Our Space exhibit. It cost $6 million and is apparently aimed at the 15- to 25-year-olds – you know, the sort of people who’d rather be texting or updating their Bebo page or saying “woteva” than visiting a museum, etc.
At its most basic, Our Space is a photo album. More specifically, it’s an electronic database of photos and short video clips of New Zealand places and events. It’s a bit like Flickr, but rather than just relying on media submitted by the public, it also taps into Te Papa’s archives and the TVNZ archives.
The exhibition is made up of three parts: The Map, The Wall and The Rides, and in the interests of proper grown-up blogging, I made visits to Te Papa to do a thorough review of Our Space.
Magic wands, surly teens and motion sickness after the jump…
The first room contains The Map, a giant satellite image of New Zealand on the floor. The floor is made up of touch-sensitive panels, like a more high-tech version of the “Billie Jean” video. When you step on a part of New Zealand, it picks something from the database from that place and displays it on a side walls, with your eyes lead to the right spot by a trail of LED lights.
So stand on Wellington and a image of the Beehive might pop up; Napier might get you some archive footage of the city in ruins after the earthquake; and Auckland might get you the photo I took of some graffiti on Ponsonby Road.
But I noticed that most visitors were not really paying much attention to the images. The fun was in standing on the sensitive floor and seeing the system react, and the trail of lights extending from the adjacent coastline to the screen showing the relevant photo.
As far as being a medium for displaying New Zealand photos and film clips, it was pretty lousy. In fact, it seemed that to most people, the interface was more interesting than media in it. Imagine if using Google to search for stuff was more fun than visiting the webpages in the search results.
In the second room was The Wall, a giant projection of photos as selected by visitors via a touch-screen computer interface. The touch-screens allow you to search for photos by keywords or (if known) the artist. So I could search for my name and find my graffiti photo. You can also find related photos based on keywords – a bit Flickrish and a useful feature to have. There’s also a video camera, so you can take a photo or create a short video clip.
Once you’ve found or made some photos you like, you can send them over to one of the adjacent screens. Then, using a sort of giant remote control mouse pointer type thing, you can select the images and move them around and do really basic image manipulation.
There’s potential for greatness, but most people seemed to whack up a few photos of them pulling faces and a few other shots from the archive, and then mucked around with the image editing software and attempted to write their name on the screen – but it’s hard to write with the giant mouse wand thing.
“What is the point of this,” I heard one teenage girl ask her friend. Well, I don’t know, but I suspect it’s got to do something with engaging that 15-to-25 demographic in a way that’s FUN and EDUCATIONAL. Apparently this age group can only appreciate a photo if they can move it around a screen and write “HELLO” on it.
The Map and The Wall seem to be based on the idea of taking something that would work best as a website, and blowing it up to room size but without adding anything new.
The third part of Our Space is – uh-oh – rides. These are built from old gear that was part of the controversial Te Papa rides back when it first opened.
In the name of journalism, I tried both of the rides. The first is The High Ride, which is based around the sort of chairs that jolt around, attempting to mimic the movement of eXXXtreme activities in the real world. So when, say, a dude does a bungy jump, the chair lurches downwards.
So I got strapped into a chair and spent eight minutes being jolted about, getting horrible motion sickness. I realised that the ride created distance between the audience and the images on the screen. While the audience is technically looking at images on the screen, the attention is being drawn away from the screen and to the drama of the lurching seats. I left feeling like I had a bad hangover, without the fun of a prior drunken night.
The second ride, The Deep Ride, is much more gentle. You sit in a Disneylandesque mock submarine and go deep down to explore an underwater volcano. As it’s a fairly gentle experience, the ride’s narration hilariously has to keep coming up to contrived excuses for it to have a bump or a jolt. Thud! Oh, we’ve run into a volcanic chimney! Lolz!
Why does Te Papa need to wrap its exhibitions up like they’re part of a children’s science centre or an amusement park? Why can’t it just display digital photos from around New Zealand in a more simple way? Why does it have to be self-consciously “fun” and “educational”. Why can’t it just let the photos and video be what they are and let us find the fun, education, depth and meaning (or lack of) ourselves? Why does the media have to be the message?
Our Space is predicted to last about 10 to 12 years. Well, in less than that time, Our Space is going to be hopelessly dated. It’s going to seem as weird and old-fashioned as a 1990s fax-machine-based exhibition would seem to today. It’ll soon stop being relevant to the audience it’s trying to hard to lure in.
I like the idea behind Our Space – pretending digital images and video of New Zealand in a new way – but I don’t like how it’s been done in such an unengaging way. I’m out of the target demographic, but for me, a more satisfying experience would be to have a browse through Flickr. And at least I won’t get motion sickness that way.
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