Tangible Interfaces in Culture & Heritage

Tangible interfaces are beginning to move from research labs into physical real-world spaces, weaving their way into homes, workplaces, learning environments and the public realm [1].

This offers a world of opportunities to improve and deepen visitor experiences within the culture and heritage industry. Museums have always been great test beds and incubators for cutting-edge technology. They have to engage visitors through visuals, interactions and storytelling, which normally leads to the creation of spaces that utilise digital interactions and increasingly so, through new advancements in tangible interface designs [2].

We would normally assume that digital experiences designed by museums for their audiences are centred around a visual way for users to interact with data and information. In most cases today, the common interaction between the visitor and data is not very innovative. The user presses a button on a keypad to play audio, collection websites are just a digitalised catalogue or a screen which simply translates artworks hung up in a gallery on webpage in the form of a ‘virtual museum’. But what would it mean for museums to think innovatively and radically change the way the visitor interacts with an exhibition through the use of new tangible interfaces?

An example of a museum using innovative ways to interact with their artefacts using tangible interfaces comes from the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, where museum designers have created a wide range of tangible interfaces including a pen where you press one end of the pen to the artefacts label to virtually ‘collect’ that artefact, you can then use the pen to activate these artefacts on screens and view them in more detail in other parts of the museum. They have also developed Tangible Earth, the world’s first interactive globe that dynamically represents various aspects of the Earth.

Physical engagement with museum artefacts can play an important role in to helping visitors to gain a deeper understanding of information on display. Museums are seeing a growth in technologies that use augmented reality, augmented virtuality and tangible interactions, with the aim of creating new interfaces that seamlessly integrate with the physical world, and that require visitors to interact with museum pieces in a similar way to interactions they would have in the real world [3].

Not only do these new technologies offer a whole new world of possibilities for museums and art galleries but, tangible interactions have great potential to provide a means of bringing performances and participatory activities such as music concerts, cooking classes, dance recitals and street theatre that have a physical presence in the real world into the narrated story world [4].

The use of tangible design within a cultural and heritage setting is opening up new ways of storytelling and enabling cultural and tourist organisations, researchers and historians to share knowledge with a wider audience, whilst at the same time telling the story of our past, present and future in an engaging, fun and accessible way.


[1]       J. G. Sheridan and N. B. Kinns, “Designing for performative tangible interaction,” Int. J. Arts Technol., vol. 1, no. 3/4, p. 288, 2008.

[2]       O. Media, “Designing for the Internet of Things,” p. 265.

[3]       D. Duranti, D. Spallazzo, and R. Trocchianesi, “Tangible interaction in museums and temporary exhibitions: embedding and embodying the intangible values of cultural heritage,” in Libro de Actas – Systems & Design: Beyond Processes and Thinking (IFDP – SD2016), 2016.

[4]       J. H. Chu, “Designing Tangible Interfaces to Support Expression and Sensemaking in Interactive Narratives,” in Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction – TEI ’14, Stanford, California, USA, 2015, pp. 457–460.

[5]       http://radar.oreilly.com/2015/02/designing-a-future-of-immersive-tangible-interaction.html Accessed: 20/11/2018

[6]       https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5V6AlRZ9Gbs Accessed: 20/11/2018

[7]       https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGDT_gkW0_0 Accessed: 20/11/2018

Title image from: https://ideum.com/portfolio/cooper-hewitt

Author: Bobbie Bailey

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