INNOVATIVE TECHNOLOGY IS PROPELLING MUSEUMS AWAY FROM THE STUFFY STEREOTYPES OF YESTERYEAR AND INTO THE 21ST CENTURY. SECTIONS OF THE OLD FORT AT THE CONSTITUTION HILL PRECINCT IN JOHANNESBURG ARE BEING TRANSFORMED INTO EXPERIENTIAL EXHIBITION SPACES ACCE
Jo’burg’s Old Fort welcomes new technology to become a 21st-century museum
As meaningful public spaces, museums allow us to reflect on the past and provide an informal learning environment that’s both effective and inspirational. Moving away from a resemblance to zero-fun cenotaphs, museums are employing new technologies to bring exhibition spaces to life.
“The pendulum has swung from the museum as a passive temple to the museum as an active space; from a treasure box to a toolbox,” said Madeleine Grynsztejn, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, USA, in an article by Ashley Lane entitled Facing the Future: How Museums are Embracing New Trends and Technologies.“today’s audiences are no longer looking for a cold ‘white cube’ museum experience. Instead, they crave warmer, shared experiences.”
The visitor upgrade at the Old Fort will showcase an important aspect of SA’S history and journey to democracy through the use of immersive storytelling to engage and educate wider audiences. The upgrade will give visitors a self-guided experience, game-like activities, the ability to engage physically with the history of the site through audio-visual storytelling and the clever use of cutting-edge technology.
“THE CELLS TELL PROMINENT PRISONER STORIES AND SA’S HISTORY, AND ALSO REVEAL HOW FAMILIES OF THE IMPRISONED MUST HAVE FELT.”
THE OLD FORT: IN A NUTSHELL
Previously known as the Johannesburg Jail, the Old Fort is a National Heritage Site. The Fort housed white male political and common-law prisoners, as well as political inmates. One of them was South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo and another was former President Nelson Mandela, the Fort’s only black prisoner, who was interned here twice.
Heading up the visitor experience upgrade is Formula D, an award-winning exhibit design firm whose forte is crafting meaningful interactive experiences that push the boundaries in terms of technology and creativity.
“Many museums in SA struggle to get feet through the door because their traditional way of presenting content no longer works for their audiences,” says Michael Wolf, CEO of Formula D. “We use technology and good storytelling, ask questions and encourage the audience to form their own opinions. At the Old Fort, our intention is to unlock the site’s history in ways that encourage critical thinking for visitors of various age groups and educational backgrounds.”
The upgrade is focused on specific areas at the
Old Fort, each with its own theme, focus story and side story. For example, the cells tell prominent prisoner stories and SA’S history, and also reveal how families of the imprisoned must have felt. Each cell explores a different prisoner’s reality using a variety of mediums, including timeline format, shadow theatre, first-person audio accounts and holographic video, allowing for a rich multimedia experience that’s hugely appealing to the youth.
“The project started with research and interpretation, which then developed into a storyline and finding creative methods to tell the story to visitors,” says Johan du Toit, Formula D’s Senior Product Designer. “We developed ‘ghost’ characters to lead visitors through the site and history. The exhibits and interventions were all developed around these characters. This then became the template on which all exhibits and media were designed and produced.”
According to the Formula D team, designing the Pepper’s Ghost exhibit was probably the most challenging, as it involved a lot of research and prototyping to achieve the desired result. “Pepper’s Ghost recreates a 1:1 scale visual experience of inmate Joe Slovo reading from a letter he wrote to his wife, Ruth First, and walking around his cell. The cell’s also fitted with an audio device, allowing the user to listen to Joe talking to himself about daily life in the Old Fort. With this audio-visual experience, a user will grasp what a typical day was like for Joe Slovo inside the prison.”
Up on the Old Fort’s ramparts, which offer stunning views of the city, two full-scale replica cannons have been added to the north-east and south-west bastions. One of them will simulate the firing of the daily 1pm gun, as reported in history.
In terms of game-like activities, Formula D created the Explorer Game, which enables children to trace a pencil over cut-outs of relevant objects placed around the Old Fort. It’s a fun way of navigating the space, while also serving as a memento to take home.
Another outdoor activity centres on the interactive “heliograph” signalling stations, which allow children to learn about and send their own messages via
Morse Code. “It’s a fun and entertaining way to teach children the methods of communication used by soldiers within the Old Fort’s history,” says the product design team at Formula D.
The new exhibition space will be open to the public at the end of October. Visit: www.constitutionhill.org.za