Bringing history alive through Gibson Group's interactive technology

Bringing history alive through Gibson Group's interactive technology
Museums don't have to be solely the silent domain of dusty exhibits in glass boxes. Visionaries such as our own Gibson Group are challenging that notion, updating the concept of what a 21st-century museum can and should offer. Who said history had to be boring?

Museums don't have to be solely the silent domain of dusty exhibits in glass boxes. Visionaries such as our own Gibson Group are challenging that notion, updating the concept of what a 21st-century museum can and should offer. Who said history had to be boring?

"From the people who didn’t bring you Whale Rider or Once Were Warriors.” That’s how cannibalistic comedy Fresh Meat was billed in the teasers, and might have left you wondering just who those people were.

They would be Wellington-based Gibson Group, also behind other top programmes such as Flight of the Conchords, Insider’s Guide to Love/Insider’s Guide to Happiness, and backch@t. But far from simply making quality films and TV shows, Gibson is also an innovator in the world of museums, which might seem somewhat random until you speak to chief executive Victoria Spackman.

“At our core we’re storytellers,” Spackman says. “That’s the core of what we do on both sides of the business. Obviously it’s much clearer in film and TV but with museums it’s still a story – what do you want people to understand when they come and see this exhibition, what do you want them to take away, how are you going to tell that story in a way that isn’t just words?”

victoria spackman and dave gibson of gibson group

Victoria Spackman and Dave Gibson of Gibson Group. PHOTO: Mike Heydon

Formed 35 years ago by current chairman and producer Dave Gibson, the company started out doing mainly corporate and educational videos. Eventually, it expanded into museum video and installation projects, led by Allan Smith (director of exhibitions) and today the visual attraction side accounts for around half of the business.

Spackman came on board six years ago as legal and business manager straight from South Pacific Pictures, and was promoted to CEO this year (she also sits on the board of the Screen Production and Development Association and is chair of Bats Theatre). She leads a core staff of around 20, which grows and shrinks on a contract basis depending on what projects on are the go – a film production will easily swell ranks to 100, for example.

If you ventured down to the New Zealand business showcase at The Cloud around the Rugby World Cup last year, or to the iconic Outrageous Fortune exhibit at Auckland Museum, then you’ve seen the Gibson touch at work. Daring to push boundaries is what the company prides itself on – such as the OurSpace exhibition at Te Papa (pictured below), which featured two simulator rides. The Deep Ride placed punters into a virtual submarine pod that explored underwater volcanoes, while the High Ride took them around New Zealand by way of leaping off buildings and the more typical Kiwi pastime of riding down hills on pieces of cardboard.

Gibson derives half of its revenue from international work, and has in fact built two French museum attractions from the ground up. In 2001 it won an international design competition to build La Paleosite, a visitor centre at a spot where Neanderthal remains were discovered. All the exhibits were designed and built by Gibson; visits are personalised through a smart ticket that gathers demographic information about each person and customises their interactive visitor experience accordingly. The other, Oyster City, is a tourist attraction revolving around the famous oyster producing region of Marennes, including a variety of immersive show spaces.

Interacting with history

What’s really got people buzzing, though, is its TouchHistory technology. Its multi award-winning flagship project can be found a little further afield – Denmark, to be exact – as its name, Vaeggen, suggests.

You can, quite literally, reach out and touch history through the interactive outdoor wall, which millions have done since its launch. It consists of a 12-metre screen allowing viewers to navigate a 3D version of the city of Copenhagen through thousands of archived images. Gibson developed and built the touch screens and related plug-and- play technology for the Museum of Copenhagen, drawing on its archives. Punters can also upload their own media directly to the wall and share items with friends and family from it. Navigation is simple and intuitive – stroke across to move, tap to interact and go deeper.

Spackman describes the project as a bold move from museum director Jette Sandahl (who had only just returned to Denmark at the time). Sandahl was looking for a “substantial and innovative” outreach initiative, and issued an international tender that Gibson responded to – and subsequently won the bid for.

“She took, in hindsight, quite a lot of risk pushing such an innovative project through with government money, basically. So she was magnificent. The city of Copenhagen was fantastic in their support of her and of us.”

gibson group touchhistory vaeggen wall copenhagen denmarkGibson collaborated with local architects and designers, both for practical reasons and to authentically capture the Danish aesthetic.

“The Danish are very proud of their design, so we would have been foolish to try and take design into Denmark. And we were very lucky – we met some fantastic designers who we’re still working with in Denmark, great guys and gals. We work with locals to make sure that we’re complying with local regulations and to make sure we are building something the locals feel is theirs. There’s no point building something that they think is outrageous and foreign and they’d never connect to.”

The idea was born not out of a Eureka moment, she says, but grew from a series of conversations.

“It’s one of those things – the idea kind of comes from the pressure of creating the idea and then figuring out how to make it. We tend to come up with ideas and then sit around going ‘okay, how do we make this happen?’ – which has paid off,” she laughs.

“We’re also a diverse bunch of people so we’ve all got our ear to the ground in disparate ways about what’s going on and who’s doing what and what we can learn from. We’re conscious of learning and keeping abreast of what’s going on. And we all watch a lot of telly. It’s part of the job.”

Museums: not just dead places with old stuff

Today, we’re used to having full control in an age of ubiquitous personalisation. Of course, there are some traditional areas where that’s still far from the norm – education, for one, and museums, for another.
Spackman says modern audiences are used to “going deeper” and museums need to cater to their expectations.

“There’s a real attempt at connection in a lot of places to ensure that museums are not dead places with lots of old things and glass. That they are responding to modern audiences and they are opening up to the diversity of modern audiences, and trying to help people understand their place in the world from many different points of view rather than the ‘one true story’ point of view as has been the point of view of some museums,” she says.

“I think people who’ve run museums are understanding that people who come to museums don’t all come from the same point of view and they’re not necessarily just going to just absorb what they’re told by a curator. They want to explore more, find out more, challenge those assumptions – and I think museums are grasping that.

“Museums still have this inherent obligation to the public where they need to hoard material for the future, but they also need to connect with modern audiences, so it’s a healthy tension.”

gibson group international visual projectsSmart use of technology can, in fact, help to preserve the integrity of precious historical items in a museum’s archives.

“There’s all manner of material that’s recorded and sitting in museums that no-one has access to, for good reason. Access can deteriorate those items quickly – exposure to light and air and moisture isn’t good for anything. So that material is only exposed as much as it can be.

“What TouchHistory can do is provide access to that material in a way that doesn’t threaten that material any further than is necessary, and allows people to search and explore material in ways that is interesting to them, without being led by a curator.”

The technology isn’t just restricted to a museum context – it can be harnessed by anybody with a large collection of information, be it commercial or non-commercial, particularly when there is a lot of high-quality visual material associated with it.

“What it does beautifully is it helps people explore and get excited about visual material,” says Spackman.

“For example, something like rugby, that’s got a long history in New Zealand and a lot of data and is something that people are interested in.”

The Vaeggen wall has won two MUSE awards for outstanding use of media and technology in museums worldwide, including the supreme prize, as well as the 2011 United Nation World Summit Award for e-Culture and Heritage. It also knocked out the ICT category at this year’s New Zealand Innovators Awards. So it’s no surprise there’s interest from all quarters, from New York to Cairo to El Paso.

“We’ve got conversations going on almost all continents,” says Spackman.

Things are busy on the film and TV front, too, with a number of movies in development, and a documentary series – Prison Families, which explores the implications of having a loved one incarcerated – due out next year.

Plus, keep an eye out for The Graduation, a co-production project with Korea that’s just been signed off – believed to be the first since a film co-production agreement was officially sealed by both governments in 2008.