Making Physical Spaces Your Own Through Technology

June 2018

Sections of the Berlin Wall


While ambling through a few museums on a recent trip to Washington D.C., it was apparent to me how all types of design influence our emotional and cognitive impulses to make us decide and act in different ways. As a museum-goer in our nation’s capital and observer of other patrons, I can testify to the fact that participatory interaction with environments, displays, masterful works of art and one another was not only the new normal, but refreshing. User experience (UX) designers, with empathy in mind, have brought new access and vitality by closing the gap between people and objects in their environment. A museum can now be a setting that is alive with community engagement that enables growth.

Donald Norman, whose credentials include being director of The Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego, co-founder and consultant with the Nielsen Norman Group and a long-time advocate of user-centered design, once stated, “It is not enough that we build products that function, that are understandable and usable, we also need to build products that bring joy and excitement, pleasure and fun, and, yes, beauty to people’s lives.” Knowing your audience (in this case, cultural knowledge seekers), and what will delight and educate them makes interaction with environments powerful and memorable. That starting point—knowing your audience and their preferences—will also help you to create compelling communication and interaction for any industry. 


Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald’s official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, and Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington

A must-see at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., is Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald’s official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama. On the day of my visit, the doors of the museum had just opened and already there was a collective enthusiastic energy in the long line that formed for an up-close view of President Obama’s stunning portrait. As each person reached the head of the line, it was selfie time for all, with President Obama’s portrait as the backdrop. (To my surprise, taking photos is encouraged at this museum, which humanized interactions with all of the works on display by allowing users to share and live stream their experience.) The non-traditional Obama portraits stir the imagination and offer a contemporary take on portraiture. And who doesn’t love seeing a Gilbert Stuart painting? Here you can gaze upon NPG’s $20,000,000 investment in the life-size portrait of George Washington.



The broadcast antennae from the top of the World Trade Center, the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery, daily front pages from newspapers from all over the world

The Newseum, also located in Washington, D.C., was built by The Freedom Forum and its space was conceived by exhibit designer Ralph Appelbaum and architect James Stewart Polshek. The Newseum’s mission is to increase public understanding of the importance of a free press and the First Amendment. It has positioned itself as a leading champion of free expression in the world today. It’s considered one of the most interactive museums in the world, consisting of seven levels with 15 galleries and 15 theaters. 

Prepare for a barrage of sounds, visions and technology, which make the museum more experiential. There’s a mixed bag of all-things-media such as: the broadcast antennae from the top of the World Trade Center; the Berlin Wall Gallery, whose eight concrete sections are one of the largest displays of the original wall outside Germany; the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery, which features photographs from every Pulitzer Prize-winning entry dating back to 1942; news coverage of the civil rights movement; the impact of social media on news; and an abundance of daily front pages from newspapers from all over the world. A graphic display of a global map reminds visitors that only 13% of today’s world population live in countries where the press is free.

Modes of knowledge acquisition have changed due to technology, and learning environments, like museums, are adapting to the demand. Admission to many of the museums and memorials in Washington, D.C., is free. I plan to return later this summer to tour, rather experience, a few more of these gems.

—Maureen Joyce