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Secret life of (digital) butterflies: How Method helped make Auckland Museum's biggest-ever digital exhibition soar

Auckland Museum has debuted its biggest-ever digital exhibition. And behind all the cutting-edge tech of Secret Life of Butterflies is digital agency Method. Managing director Sam Ramlu has a chat about how the company helped bring the butterfly exhibition to life. 

It’s safe to say folks have mixed feelings about most bugs – but there aren’t too many people who can’t stand butterflies.

At least, we can assume that’s part of the reasoning behind Auckland Museum’s new Secret World of Butterflies exhibit. The exhibit, which opened at the museum this past Saturday, features thousands of stunning butterflies from around the world.

OK, great. Butterflies. Big deal. But believe us: it’s a whole lot more than that. And it’s pretty cool.

Much of the kaleidoscope of colour and patterns in this family-friendly exhibition are brought to life – and made more real than real life, if we’re being honest here – thanks to tech, a large part which was created by Method.

Ramlu says what Method helped create was a “life-size magical digital garden teeming with butterflies and plant life, where you can see your own butterfly creation come to life,” which sounds nothing if not intriguing.

“We were asked to pitch an idea that would help create a more immersive experience for customers as part of the exhibition,” she explains. “We had a handful of ideas we pitched actually! From motion-controlled butterflies to mini drones to an AR anatomy experience. The one that they loved though was our idea of a living digital garden with customised butterflies. Simple, but also beautiful and effective.”

As much of a technical feat as that is, Ramlu says the technology isn’t as complicated as it might sound. “[It’s] a little bit of magic and a bit of smart programming,” she explains. “We created the garden using a game engine, so it acts very much like an animation in a game. Then the butterfly customiser is an app that sits on a kiosk and talks to the garden. You can simply stand back and watch what goes on in the garden, and discover some of the little surprises we’ve added in. And you can also get involved by using the kiosk to customise your own butterfly and add it to the garden.

“It’s been a bit of a dream project really – such a tangible, interactive idea that you can see immediate feedback on. And we’ve all been so invested in creating an environment that’s true to life – the butterflies have been modelled meticulously and the garden was so carefully put together to make sure the elements not only fit in with each other but were relevant to a butterfly’s natural environment. The museum team have been awesome to work with and, naturally, we’ve learnt a lot about butterflies – like how some can taste with their feet and some butterflies drink from mud puddles (called puddling).

“We worked with Auckland Museum quite closely and have relied on their expertise in the exhibition space, while they’ve been great at listening to our advice on the style, UI, and animations. We also conducted a couple of rounds of testing with them and then with children to see how the user journey played out. This helped us tweak the journey slightly to make sure it was as simple as possible – definitely one of the things we’ve found is that people don’t read!”

According to Ramlu, the project took between eight and 10 weeks to complete in terms of time actually spent on it. “Funnily enough the timeframe being so long was a bit of a challenge as it meant we had a lot of stops and starts,” she says. “The biggest [challenge] for us was the connection between the kiosk and the garden. We wanted it to be absolutely seamless between the user creating their butterfly and then it being added to the scene. The team have done such a great job here – it’s so immediate that it feels like magic. 

“Also creating a believable and realistic environment while also ensuring the garden was interesting and felt like it is truly alive. So, while we used AI to create our live garden we’ve added a bit of flexibility and rules on how we want it to act. Then there was a certain bird we had problems with – trying to get it to do something in particular. You’ll need to check out the exhibition to see what we mean.”

Speaking of seeing the exhibition, Ramlu says she’s impressed with how it’s all turned out. “We’re seeing both kids and adults gasp out loud in surprise,” she says. “It’s so great to be able to see that type of joy on someone’s face and then know that we’ve had a part in it. Personally, I was most nervous (and excited) to take our son (he’s four) to see it – I wanted to make sure we got his seal of approval. And, thankfully, he loved it, so much so he said it was the best part of his weekend. So, we’re pretty stoked.”

She says more. “We love that tech can enhance the human experience and add value to it, rather than replacing it. Walking through the exhibition it’s been set up perfectly – you see the butterflies themselves and learn a little about the anatomy, and then you get to have a little play yourself with the interactive components. I think tech in this instance has brought that experience to life and added a sense of magic and wonder. You can get much more immersed in the experience than you would with just traditional elements. It’s really tactile as well.”

The question now is if other museums will get as creative when it comes to tech-driven exhibitions like Secret World of Butterflies. Ramlu hopes so. “In the past year we’ve visited a few museums and exhibitions in the US, and it’s surprising how little there is,” she explains. “I thought internationally they’d be ahead of the game, but apart from a couple of isolated examples, I haven’t seen too much. What we’re seeing more of is almost a specific exhibition that showcases creative tech rather than it being naturally brought into existing exhibitions, and the latter is what I’d like to see more of. But it’s definitely changing, and I think we’ll start to see a lot more of this – watch this space!”

Interactivity is a big aspect of the tech on display at Secret World of Butterflies. For instance, apart from Method’s digital garden, visitors can zoom in on a digital Monarch Butterfly, crawl through a large-scale caterpillar, take a butterfly selfie and become the body of a butterfly via an Anatomy Digital Touchscreen, and more.

According to Auckland Museum staff, this is the biggest digital experience that has ever come to the museum. Along with Method, the museum also collaborated with Workshop e to create the digital user experience. Bespoke Post Awere engaged to deliver the sound design within the exhibition.

“This exhibition is made possible by the generous donation of Ray Shannon’s entire collection of 13,000 butterflies in 2008 and is supported by the R.T. Shannon Memorial Trust,” says  Tumuaki chief executive Dr David Gaimster. “Ray Shannon was a war veteran and collector with a passion for exotic butterflies.”He says more. “This exhibition supports one of the key goals in our five-year strategy to engage every schoolchild and become a vibrant place for learning, enabling young people in particular to realise their potential.”

The butterflies are displayed in no fewer than 111 trays, and will change out twice during the show, with 333 trays featuring some 6,000 butterflies over course of the exhibition.

“The exhibition highlights Auckland Museum’s world-class natural sciences collections. It’s an opportunity for our curators and scientists to share their knowledge and these taonga with the public,” says David Reeves, Auckland Museum director of collections and research.

An illustrated children’s book – also called Secret World of Butterflies – has also been created to accompany the exhibition. Full of fascinating facts about butterflies, it is written by Courtney Sina Meredith and illustrated by Giselle Clarkson, in partnership with Allen and Unwin.

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