Designing a Hybrid Exhibit

Bryce Li
14 min readOct 21, 2021

Environments Mini Studio Project 1, Fall 2021

Create a temporary (3–4 week) exhibition featuring an artist (or issue*) currently on exhibit at one of the three museums. The client wants at least one piece of the artist’s work to be on display, but they also want to use digital technology to enhance the visitor’s experience in ways they are not currently doing. Consider how technology can augment content, increase learning and/or make the museum experience more interactive.

Meta-meta cognitive foreword: I plan for this project to take a different form of documentation, one that is acted out more as a diary compared to my other entries. It’s namely brought on by a change in response to the methods of documentation required by this class, which aims to use metacognition as a way to maintain motivation, monitor internal and external distractions, and sustain effort over time (See syllabus for a better explanation).

Tuesday, Oct 19th: Visiting the Miller ICA + Carnegie Museum of Art and picking a theme

Visiting places

When looking at the Miller ICA (the place that we’re designing for), it had only just dawned on me how small this place really was. I originally thought, “Hey, maybe there’s a divider in the room that can be removed!” in an effort to comfort myself. Based on the models that everyone had made in the previous mini, I was not prepared to see such a small exhibit. But in its size, I also noted the versatility of the space itself as the medium of telling a story. This was not your huge white wall exhibition like the MOMA, and this space knew it as it guided me around a busy floor that felt crammed. However, this may have been a byproduct of the choice to split the exhibition space into two halves: one white side, and one black side. I liked this choice for it’s cognitive values, as it separates the introduction to the artist alongside functions like bathrooms from the actual content of the exhibition. This imaginary demarcation is also marked by a sign, indicating a transition from being prepared to going into the art itself (bottom right).

Note: In hindsight, I realize that this corner space (top left) feels much more different when making a model or looking at floor plans compared to what it looks like in-person. I agree with the exhibition designer in that the back area should be left as is: it looks messy and best functions as a space separate from the main exhibition area.

I also made a surprise visit to the Carnegie Museum of Art one Wednesday morning when I ran into Anthony on my way back from a class on Craig Street. As we visited, neither of us found a really great artist but we had an interesting conversation. As he talked about his vision with a set of sculptures involving projection onto them, I began to think about if that would really serve the purpose of displaying them. We came to an interesting question/goal: how can we display art in a way that doesn’t distract but meaningfully auguments it? Clearly, there was a point where too much could be done that would overwhelm things, and there was a point where not enough context could be given. Additionally, as this is E, we don’t really want to make it terribly boring either with a printed index card next to each painting.

Picking a topic

This part was pretty hard for me. I broke down what the anthropocene (an option of this assignment) was, which was difficult to pinpoint. Did it begin on July 16th, 1945, when we covered the earth with distinct nuclear isotopes? Did it happen when we changed the biosphere to our gains during the first agricultural revolution ten thousand years ago, or the second one forty years ago? Additionally, I mapped out topics of the anthropocene on a grid, with the vertical axis being my excitement and the horizontal axis being the fittingness to the assignment.

Eventually, I settled on the issue of microplastics on the basis of excitement and relevance, combined with the primal fear of the unknown (let me elaborate: the possible links to endocrine disruption and microplastics are terrifying, especially as it might just be the tip of iceberg).

Thursday, Oct 21st: Moodboarding, storyboarding, and research

In this spread, I developed initial concepts. One thing I wanted to start off with was the act of discovering and measuring microplastics, something that is typically hidden from view. Additionally, I wanted to experiment with the concept of scale with these plastics, as they range from micrometers to centimeters and have different effects. Scientists use a combination of methods depending on the size to measure these, ranging from naked-eye observations, dark-field microscopy, to infrared spectroscopy. As the viewer would explore, they would gradually encounter larger and larger microplastics until they could start connecting them to real-life components. This way, people could realize direct connections to the wasteful objects that they consume.

However, in my talk with Peter and Ray Pai (separately), we all agreed that stopping at the products was not enough. Do consumers even have a choice? Or is it more an issue with corporations promoting planned obsolescence and putting plastic in everything to lower costs? At the same time, consumers can be blamed as the source of pollution for “not recycling” and “not eating vegan”. The more you think about it, the more that’s definitely not true. People did fine back in the 50’s without disposable goods. How could this be addressed?

One bit of inspiration came to me in the Resnik dining hall. I saw something familiar pinned up on the wall in this food-serving area: a Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch pamphlet. The last time I saw this was in, like, 2019: on the other side of the country. Was it really that influential? I realized that it would be cruel to lay out this horrifying information about consumerism and pollution to a Miller ICA visitor and not give them a way to do something about it. Ideally, this solution would be something that resonates with the visitor (maybe something personalized, so they could intimately incorporate it with their life).

Metacognitive reflection: In hindsight, this storyboard was a good exercise to communicate a relatively complex journey– both for myself to understand my own thoughts better, but also very importantly to help others critique my work. This reminds me of work for another class– while my teammates insisted on creating a rough mockup, in the end, storyboarding allowed us to get better feedback due to the fact that the person critiquing us didn’t get caught up in the details.

When storyboarding, I aimed to transition this into a sequence that people would be expected to see. It incorporates the main concepts that I explained about above. Some additions include the incorporation of an entrance with plastic coming out of it to draw in a viewer. On top of that, I imagined using a The annotations correspond to their respective grid spaces. I am thinking to redo this storyboard, as it only show static snapshots instead of any transitions between states.

In this moodboard, I wanted to show the experience of looking under a microscope and detecting the microplastics themselves. I liked the high contrast needed in a microscope– it’s needed to identify the different types of plastics, especially when machine vision is needed. I also picked examples when there are lot of small elements coming together.

Tuesday, Oct. 25: Parti diagrams and model making

In class, we looked at parti diagrams as a way to map the experience of a spatial interaction to a storyline that a visitor could follow.

My first iteration of the diagram had the user go around the entirety of the length of the walls– however, I think that this could be very awkward to navigate, as they would have to traverse more space to get to the rest of the content that they missed at a split off.

I eventually made an adjustment to this, after talking with a friend– this revised design left the rest of the walls blank. As a result, there would be less backtracking and the path would not be a true split.

Left: original parti diagram, right: adjusted about a day later

On the left, this version of the Parti diagram was inspired by a suggestion that Mihika made– possibly moving the flow of objects onto the wall so that users are guided more linearly throughout the exhibit. Although this was desirable, this would also possibly mean that the microscopes would be mounted on the wall, which might lose the hands-on approach suggested by microscopes on the ground.

Peter suggested a possible workaround to improve the flow while retaining a open space for these microscopes. This final Parti diagram uses a lifted wall that users can walk around and experience the same things regardless of the direction that they approach the exhibit.

Left: 2 days later, Right: 1 week later

In this final Parti diagram, I added thickness to the walls to differentiate between the path of the user and the walls. Additionally, I changed the color scheme to better fit with my presentation.

When making my model, I also aimed to make it feel cleaner on both the inside and outside by using a rabbet cutter. I also changed the material of the floor to that of a reflective acrylic sheet that I laser cut. As a result, I was able to make the area feel more open.

At this point, I was very conflicted in how my floor would come together. Originally, I envisioned a floor with plastic underneath it. I was having difficulty finding textures for the floor, as it was hard to find such isolated amounts of trash all put together. Additionally, microplastics are invisible– it would be redundant to see this through AR as proposed in my storyboard. In class, it was suggested to have a layer of land or water on the ground and for the microplastics to be revealed separately. I decided instead to use large, coasting microscopes that would reveal things under this layer. As a result, it would create a tangible physical and spatial relationship between two planes of observation– that of the immediately visible world, and that of the hidden microplastics inside.

Seeing my classmates using p5.js, I decided to experiment with creating different scales of microscope particles. However, this would be very small and nearly unrecognizable if presented in a real scale.

Metacognitive reflection in hindsight: Now, I realize that this coding section was a bit of a waste of time. At this point, I was in a bit of a rush to think about the big picture when trying to get a ground printed in time for a critique at the time.

Thursday, Oct. 28: Prototyping and TinkerCAD

Over the previous week, I was struggling with making a surface– how would it be an appropriate scale if I included real landscapes? Would it look boring if I just included a texture of water? As a result, I think that one way to circumvent confusion of scale is to make the medium of microplastics into something abstract. That way, people could be less caught up within the real details and focus on the microscopes.

I wanted to explore flowing water using this in the form of a floor projection. Looking at another code example, I learned about the idea of using perlin noise to create smooth curves. Since these are individually tracked as particles, I can modify the velocity to move it away from “microscope” area, which was really a cursor for prototyping. Initially, I used a constantly-changing source of noise that made the flow of these “rivers” evolve over time. I also introduced a “shimmer” by modifying the blue hues based on the velocity, which made the model feel more dynamic.

I also combined this floor with my microscope, with the footprint of the microscope masking the microplastics. This was pretty technically hard to pull off, as I had to learn to draw on separate layers in p5.

Additionally, I wanted to experiment with how the position of the movable microscope could be tracked. Although a overhead camera would be more accurate and smooth, for the sake of prototyping and completing an assignment in a reasonable amount of time, I decided to use a method utilizing triangulation with ultrasonic sensors (any method of distance measuring would work here, as long as there are at least 3 sensors). You can explore the Tinkercad model below:

In this desmos link, I graphed an algebraic derivation of the equation used to calculate the position. I also used this model to test and verify my Tinkercad prototype.

My final equation takes the input of three circles, with width from w⁰ to w², height h⁰ to h², and radius r⁰ to r². Pretend those are subscripts. Below are the four possible generated coordinate pairs that each must get tested against the original inputs.

Given additional values a, m, and b for simplification.

You can also find a realtime interactive preview of my floor projection.

Tuesday, Nov 2: Digital model making

Today, we used Sketchup to model our exhibits. Although I’ve used sketchup since 2015, I’d still like to share the house that we made as a demonstration in class:


Eventually, I worked on bringing everything together in my sketchup model. One of the more interesting things was the usage of large textures created in Illustrator or photoshop– this really brought together the signage that I had designed.

It was also super interesting to see how my model would look at eye-level, as it really contextualized the state of how individual components would come together. Additionally, it helps keep a check on scale– seeing text at eye-level is different from working on a tiny physical model from a bird’s eye view.

Metacognitive reflection: I also thought about possibly bringing this model into Unity– however, the time required to set up the lighting and bringing in my p5.js work into the engine could possibly greatly outweigh the benefits of communicating light. By moving stuff into Unity, I could distract from my design…

Thursday, Nov 4: UNITY!!!!!

I lied. In hindsight, Unity is effective for this specific application because it involves a lot of gradual and dynamic lighting in a low-key lit environment. As a result, it would better communicate this instead of an evenly-lit sketchup model.

Importantly, Unity lets me look at dynamic lighting and to integrate my floor graphics into the same context. I flipped a coin to decide if I was going to spend the time integrating this into Unity, and I eventually used a looping screen recording of my work that was textured into the ground. Funnily enough, this project was actually pretty low-code when importing into Unity– most of the lighting settings and texturing were configured manually. The only code that I used was a reused script for moving a camera around in a first-person perspective.

How does it feel to move around this exhibit?

I also had an interesting time with light-emissive materials. Importantly, the usage of lighting can be used to draw attention and guide a visitor. I was inspired by the gradual usage of light by James Turrell– his gradations for me were beautiful in how value and hue subtly changed throughout his compositions. For me, there was more contrast involved here and more graphical constraints to work with than real life.

However, I brought my inspiration into this lighting by creating things like a glowing panel that would invite visitors to interact with its contents. Additionally, I changed the colors of my walls from an even black on every side to white walls everywhere except for walls that had content on them. This allowed a natural light to flow in from “outside” (which I mocked up with a glowing emissive white void). This also created a subtle gradation in the entrance area from light/high-key to dark/low-key that indicated a shift in the mood of the exhibit.

Tuesday, Nov 8: Preparing a presentation

I incorporated a lot of lessons in creating engaging presentations from interviews and our C Mini 1 presentation. The biggest lesson was to not only keep the presentation simple, but to make it readable in the flow of a verbal presentation. For example, the slide below has a common theme: “What are some core aspects of microplastics?”, which is answered by the the lines of text on the right as they fade in individually when I speak.

Speaker notes for this slide:

So what are some core aspects of microplastics?

(reveal bullet point) Well, firstly, they’re everywhere– we have found plastic at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, and plastic fragments in the placentas of unborn babies.

(reveal bullet point) Additionally, they’re dangerous– for example, Microplastics carry endocrine-disrupting chemicals throughout our systems that reduce fertility, cause obesity, and cause cancer.

(reveal bullet point) Thirdly, due to the difficulty of detection, they remain invisible and are still in the process of being studied by the scientific community, as they have only entered the mainstream a decade ago.

(reveal bullet point) On top of that, they come from tangible objects and corporations that constantly blame us for not using plastic straws while creating unfathomable amounts of waste themselves.

(reveal bullet point) But finally, microplastics can be reduced– through collective action and conscious choices.

Metacognitively reflecting, I could have spent less time on creating the presentation and more time on presenting it.

nImportantly, a good presentation needs practice. I recorded myself several times when presenting and changed a lot of subconscious behaviours, such as freezing into place, swinging on the podium out of nervousness for some reason, and speaking too fast,

If I had more time, I would practice this presentation more than two times– an ideal amount of times to sound well-versed and natural with speaking times with my presentation skills would require at least 6 rehearsals.