The Immersive Period Room: Historic and Contemporary Approaches to Interactive Storytelling

Sarah Bailey Hogarty, New Museum, USA, Brinker Ferguson, CyArk, USA


In 2013 the Salon Doré, an 18th-century French period room in the Legion of Honor, was completely de-installed to undergo a yearlong conservation project. Throughout the year, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s digital media interpretive fellow (made possible by a Kress Foundation grant) created a variety of digital content designed to document and interpret the work of museum conservators, architects, and curators. Videos, photography, 2- and 3D animations, and 3D printing projects were published on the Museums’ website and social media channels, and provided unprecedented digital access to the entire process. This paper focuses the creation of non-linear, engaging, and interactive digital storytelling that communicates the rich history of an 18th-century period room and addresses the challenges and opportunities involved in producing an immersive digital experience within (and which does not detract from) an architectural experience.

Keywords: digital media, period room, immersive, interpretive media, experiential, art history

As museums continue their forward momentum into the 21st century, words like experiential, immersive, and multimedia dominate discussions of exhibition design and in-gallery engagement. Museum visitors now expect to see a variety of signals inviting them to learn more about individual works of art. These signals often draw viewers into immersive digital environments to learn more about a particular painting, sculpture, or photograph. But what happens when the work of art doesn’t hang on the wall or rest within a vitrine, but is rather an immersive experience in and of itself?

Before there was augmented reality, there was the museum period room—an architectural environment featuring historical furniture, textiles, and visual and decorative art—that represented a kind of analog augmented reality. Painstakingly disassembled and removed from its original location and installed in a museum gallery, the period room transported visitors into another time and place. So how then do we as digital media professionals create engaging and immersive digital content to enhance and extend what is already a physically immersive experience?

From late 2012 to early 2014 the Salon Doré, an 18th-century French period room in the Legion of Honor, was completely de-installed to undergo a long-term conservation project. In keeping with the overall concept of a period room, which invites visitors into an architectural space, the conservation project was also put on display, allowing viewers to look through the conservation lab walls. Conservators carved, chiseled, gilded, and restored the architectural and decorative elements of the period room in full view of the public. In this format, the period room was literally turned inside out, granting visitors unprecedented access to the room as an art object. Yet much of the work being carried out was by necessity extremely detailed and finite—not to mention time-consuming—so at times it was nearly impossible for visitors to understand the full breadth of the work underway. Additionally, the incredible intimacy of the open conservation lab to visitors in situ was completely absent for interested audiences unable to visit in person. For this reason, the Museums embarked on a comprehensive digital documentation and interpretation program designed to provide even deeper access into the project for visitors both onsite and online.

In late 2012, Brinker Ferguson was hired as a digital media interpretive fellow (made possible by a Kress Foundation grant) and tasked with creating a variety of digital content to craft a multivalent narrative articulating how, why, and what museum conservators, architects, and curators were doing in and around the Salon Doré. This content would serve as the building blocks for the construction of an immersive digital environment that would mimic and augment the enveloping experience of the period room itself. Defined by subject expert Bruno Pons as “a room decorated in the costume of the time,” period rooms have traditionally been installed as transformative enclosures, their meaning conveyed through a combination of architecture, symbolism, art and light. Traditional period room installations evoke a specific time and place and are, in fact, frozen in time. This static format, however, is necessarily subverted by the knowledge and experience that individual visitors bring with them into the immersive environment: chat panels describing the room’s original owners invariably mingle with visitors’ own memories of their family or their own childhood homes; expectations and vantages of the next (perhaps unrelated) gallery occupy the room’s passageways; and the sounds of the museum inevitably infiltrate the quiet confines of the room. In this context, the experiential narrative of a period room is definitively non-linear, much like the precepts of interactive storytelling in the digital sphere. When visiting the restored installation of the Salon Doré, repeat visitors to the Legion of Honor will now also bring with them memories of the conservation project that will inform their experience of the newly installed environment, further compounding the room’s already multilayered narrative.

To take advantage of this level of audience engagement, we employed what we term a poly-linear model to formulate the digital interpretation of the room, integrating the nearly 300-year art history and social context of the room, its geographic dispersion, and its most recent iteration as a disassembled jigsaw puzzle on view in the open conservation lab. Whereas linear storytelling consists of a beginning, middle, and end—which prevents the viewer from exploring alternate paths or access points—poly-linear storytelling is the foundation of interactivity and introduces the possibility of choice. Based on the physical nature of the room as art object, combined with the fact that many visitors bring their own histories to their experience of the period room, we created a multifaceted story space by mapping spatial, temporal, and thematic content. In this type of environment, much like in an actual period room, the visitor becomes an explorer within the story space, seeking out information about specific details that catch his or her eye.

One of the first content pieces produced was a time-lapse video illustrating the nearly two-week deinstallation of the south wall of the room, which demonstrated the intricate nuances involved with deconstructing a fragile, yet architectural work of art like the Salon Doré from start to finish. When completed, the video was installed outside the open conservation gallery and served as a key access point to visitors by immediately contextualizing the deconstructed artwork that lay in pieces before them. Visitors familiar with the room prior to its de-installation were able to recognize elements being worked on by conservators. Through the video, new visitors were able to experience the elements as a whole structure and thereby gain a clearer understanding of what exactly they were looking at through the windows of the open conservation lab. Online visitors were likewise given perspective into the conservation project’s initiation, with subsequent technique-specific videos taking the place of the physical work on display in situ in the museum.

To further contextualize the scope of the project, a second time-lapse documenting the re-installation of the period room will be shown side-by-side with the de-installation piece. While it was our initial hope that these two renderings would be entirely in sync—the second a virtual rewind of the first—project logistics proved rather difficult to navigate. The constantly fluctuating re-installation schedule made it very hard to capture every aspect of the process from start to finish. For this reason, the second time-lapse will be slightly less streamlined in terms of temporal sequencing and areas covered. In many ways, this is a representative simulacra of the project and therefore will add alternate meaning to the first time-lapse, and the digital interpretation overall.

When integrated into the digital environment and installed in the period room itself, both time-lapse pieces will serve a similar function as they did in the open conservation lab, but from a different temporal vantage point. Visitors to both the pre-conservation iteration of the room and the open conservation lab will bring with them knowledge and understanding of those two original exhibition strategies, which, when combined with the all-encompassing experience of the newly installed room, will foment a strong temporal and spatial understanding of the project and the room as art object. First-time visitors, on the other hand, will be transported into the workspace that made the current presentation possible. Additionally, viewers of the second time-lapse will be able to reference the room immediately before them and more clearly understand how and why various elements were placed where. Moreover, captioning will convey the actual time taken to de- and re-install the room, contextualizing for visitors that each video took place approximately one year apart and for the duration of approximately two weeks. The time-lapses then serve as bookends to the digital interpretation by clearly demonstrating the project’s extensive scope in terms of both time and energy.

The time-lapse videos are but two components of a comprehensive content strategy designed to capture as many aspects of the project as possible throughout the past year. When working within the poly-linear structure, exploration is key to the conveyance of meaning, so it is imperative to provide a media rich environment that allows deep and ranging investigation and engagement. That isn’t to say, however, that the format should be unstructured. On the contrary: the aggregation of large amounts of unstructured data becomes merely a database, as opposed to a narrative story space. Rather than presenting a laundry list of information, the poly-linear model is intended to shape information in a way that guides a user to select content that interests him or her. In this way, we the storytellers relinquish control over the narrative’s trajectory and invite the user to co-author his or her experience.

After the time-lapse video was complete, we set out to create educational content for a variety of audiences. Over the course of 15 months, we captured still and video footage daily, designed an interactive timeline as well as an interactive world map, produced 10 short-subject videos, wrote four long-form blog posts, created two 2D animations, and one 3D animation. Integrating this wealth of content into an in-gallery platform, however, was a bit more challenging. While the poly-linear format benefits from an overabundance of content, the realities of in-gallery media consumption require significant editing. Museum visitors are on their feet, often over-stimulated, possibly hungry, and likely tiring with each step—so presenting them with an engaging, yet accessible, virtual environment by necessity must take into account all of these physical components. Visitor accessibility dovetails with our continuing efforts to encourage a heads-up mentality, one which fosters close-looking and intimate interaction with the artwork (rather than a hand-held device). Within this context, an edited digital engagement platform can enhance the visitor’s experience of the museum, especially when the artwork in question is surrounding them physically, as in the case of the period room. When structured as a poly-linear storyspace, the visitor is encouraged to explore the digital environment in the same way that he or she explores the surrounding period room, referencing his or her surroundings as the digital investigation deepens. The added tactile component of touchscreen technology also allows a visitor to physically access content associated with the room—an anomaly in the traditional museological framework, which prohibits touching as a form of investigation.

As the project neared completion and plans for its re-installation commenced, it became clear that the narrative created to communicate and interpret the yearlong conservation project was not the same narrative that would be needed to interpret the new installation of the Salon Doré. While the room was de-installed and undergoing conservation, it had been our charge to digitally document and interpret as many aspects of the project as possible. However, when installed in its fully restored glory, the curator felt that the compartmentalized nature of the content would detract from the appreciation of the room as a completed whole. In his words, the goal of the installation would be to “show the room as it is, not as it was.”

We did not, however, entirely abandon the poly-linear approach, but rather made the determination that its necessarily profuse content would be better suited to a web platform. The online version incorporates a fully articulated array of this content that falls within the structure necessary to incite a poly-linear narrative experience, replete with enough content to explore in depth during multiple sittings. The user is ushered into this journey through a video invitation made by the lead curator, who provides an overview of the room, its history, and the year long conservation project, concluding with an explicit invitation to “come see the room” in person and to dive deeper into the content provided on the site. At this point, the viewer has a choice to learn more about the history of the room or to move on and investigate the conservation project. If the user chooses to delve deeper into the history of the room, he or she may then select an interactive timeline, peruse an interactive map, or watch a long-form video revealing the art historical and social context and implications of curatorial research uncovered during the room’s de-installation period. If the user instead chooses to examine the conservation of the room, he or she has an option to watch a video of the lead objects conservator, which provides a brief overview of the project from a conservation perspective, either of the two time lapse videos, or two technique-specific videos on traditional gilding and carving, and finally a 3D animation revealing the myriad parts of a candelabrum featured in the Salon Doré. The “Kid’s Corner” presents two animated videos that answer the questions “What is an 18th century French period room?” and “Who is a museum conservator?” Within this media-rich, multivalent content, a poly-linear story space emerges that allows the viewer to access information about the Salon Doré, its history, and the yearlong conservation project that led to its current state from a variety of different avenues of information channels. These multiple avenues allow users with past experience of any variety of the many iterations of the room to enter at points most relevant to their interests.

In earlier discussions of the poly-linear narrative, we addressed the issue of structure. Like a museum period room, which requires curatorial interpretation to create meaning of its disparate elements, a poly-linear digital environment also requires an organizational strategy. Our goal with the Salon Doré in-gallery digital experience was to create an open information narrative with a fluctuating structure logic, where control over content consumption is shifted to the user through interaction. Unlike conventional museological interpretation strategies traditionally used to interpret period rooms—such as chat panels or extended labels—in which the visitor has no control over what content they consume when, our digital environment affords users the freedom to choose topics to explore based on their own interests. In this way, the visitor is included in the shaping of his or her own experience of the room and the authoritative museum voice broadcasting content is mitigated. Fostering this level of personal investment in visitors/users is essential to lasting and meaningful relationships between 21st-century museums and their constituents.

To create this guided explorative experience, we designed a clearly articulated information architecture that presented the content in concise, easily digestible “areas” of investigation. Within each of these areas, however, the element of choice remained allowing users to choose their own adventure and craft an individualized interpretation of the Salon Doré. While this type of information re-contextualization inherently derives from the logic of the database, the data garners meaning and maintains the element of possibility by virtue of filtering. Filtered, yet diverse, data serves as the foundation of the environment’s organizational structure from which an elegant visual map is designed to orient the user. Once oriented and cognizant of the platform’s poly-linear narrative, the user may begin exploring the content using the data’s dynamic visualization as his or her guide. This format is mimetic of the period room, in which visitors confront an overall architectural structure with the freedom to explore its details and the narratives therein over time.

Cite as:
. "The Immersive Period Room: Historic and Contemporary Approaches to Interactive Storytelling." MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014. Published January 30, 2014. Consulted .

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