institution: San Diego Natural History Museum
category: Exhibition Media or Experience
In August 2016, the San Diego Natural History Museum (theNAT) opened the Eleanor and Jerome Navarra Special Collections Gallery, a new permanent space dedicated to showcasing the holdings of its research library and rare book room. The core exhibition of the new space, “Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science,” uses library collections to highlight the role of amateur naturalists in the history of science. One of the books on display is the “Flora Londinensis,” an 18th-century botanist’s groundbreaking attempt to publish an encyclopedia of all the plants found within a ten-mile radius of London. To illustrate the plants, the author hired talented artists with backgrounds in engraving, watercolor painting, and textile design, and trained them in botanical illustration. The result is a detailed picture of plant life at a particular place and time. Since only one page can ever be on display at a time, theNAT created a virtual “Flora Londinensis” that visitors can use to page through and examine 50 of the 800-page volume’s most beautiful illustrations.
This publication is unusual because, unlike similar works of the time, the plants its documents are not exotic beauties collected but rather common grasses, ferns, and plants typically considered to be weeds. But the quality of the illustrations is remarkable, and the ability to magnify the images to extremely high resolution and move them around the screen allows users to appreciate the talents of these botanical illustrators who brought out the loveliness of thistles and dandelions. Users can also read the detailed descriptions of each plant on its facing page. This book is one of the few works featured in the exhibition published in English—most are in Latin—and while some of the characters of 18th-century British English are archaic, it is modern English, and visitors can read about the plants’ anatomy, habits, uses, and toxicity. A scrollbar offering a menu of thumbnail images lets users navigate to specific pages or to the beginning or end of the book. The programmers sought to preserve the feeling of paging through a real book; as the virtual pages turn, the book “settles” as its spine shifts to accommodate the weight distribution of the pages. The image scans also preserve idiosyncrasies of the book itself, such as the bookplate inside the front cover and the imprint of the ink from the title page on the facing page.
Visitors interact with the program on a 32-inch Elo 3201L interactive digital signage touchscreen, mounted in landscape orientation at a 60-degree angle on a 30-inch-high tabletop to meet ADA accessibility standards. The large monitor allows for a pair or social group to experience the activity together; stools are available so that visitors have the option to be seated. The program runs on an Alienware X51 R3 computer secured in a custom-built housing that also serves as the mount for the screen.
Additional information (e.g. special considerations or additional context)
The exhibit team conducted user testing at multiple points during development of the interactive. This process informed all aspects of usability, particularly the ultimate design of the “zoom” feature. We learned that while most younger adults and youths intuitively used their fingers to pinch-and-zoom without prompting, many older adults did neither and needed to be cued. In response, we added an icon that mimes pinching-and-zooming the first time it appears, but then doesn’t appear again once the user has learnt this function.
Media production: Martin Baumgaertner, Thon Lorenz
Content: Margaret Dykens, Erica Kelly
Graphic design: Lydia D’Moch
Image digitization: Michael Field, Balboa Park Online Collaborative, Smithsonian Libraries Digital Collections
Licensing: Renato Rodriguez
Media housing fabrication: Kim Blackford
Project management: Beth Redmond-Jones, Bradley Tsalyuk