Case Study: Bringing Humanity’s Past to the World
At the time of this writing, the National Museum of Kenya has opened its searchable, digital experience of its collection of human fossil remains. Kenya is home to the most extensive and oldest collection of the fossil record of human ancestry in the world, much of which is on physical display at the Nairobi National Museum in Kenya’s capital.NMK’s collection of artifacts of human origin is vast; there are literally thousands of individual fossil remains of human ancestors across the family Hominidae- the many species that include our direct precursors in the homo genus and the primates that shared and preceded us on Earth during our evolution into homo sapiens. The collection is so numerous that it’s never on public display all at once- many individual specimens are being actively studied, on loan to universities and other researchers, or are still in the process of being preserved or restored. Recently, NMK partnered with Digital Divide Data to archive, digitize, and manage the huge amounts of data, still evolving, that their collection represents.
NMK approached us to give design guidance on an ambitious project- creating a digital experience that would include a searchable, visual library of the collection, giving context to the pieces, where they were found, and otherwise connecting remote visitors to the wealth of knowledge that NMK’s collection represents.
Our work consulting with NMK on a UX for this project is a classic example of the design challenge posed by a lot of content. Sometimes the challenge in UX/UI design is in providing enough information or context; sometimes it’s in making that content clear or accessible; in NMK’s case, it was beginning with a large pool of available, relevant, valuable content and creating an experience that funneled this meaningfully. There’s plenty to see, read, and understand- enough to be overwhelming and just plain impossible to consume in a single visit or experience.
As with prior projects, we began with an action lab to assess NMK’s brand values. Just as in a commercial endeavor like a startup or large corporation, a public-facing government organization like a museum or research agency has an identity, and therefore a brand, that needs to be effectively communicated to inspire trust, respect, and interest.
As we explored NMK’s values, important elements emerged:
National Pride. Kenya is justifiably quite proud of its position as the “cradle of humanity,” and of the efforts of its scientists and academic community to collect, catalog, and preserve the priceless record of modern life’s past and evolution. The success of the NMK museum system is seen as a reflection of the Kenyan government’s investment in education and of the culture’s valuation of history.
Academic. Some museums place a strong emphasis on the accessibility of their collections to laypeople and the general public, with a focus on presenting their content in a “fun” way. While NMK’s various satellite museums do present a large amount of their collection in an appealing, tourist-oriented way, it was clear that NMK wanted the digital experience to be at least as focused on academic visitors: students, researchers, and experts in the field, as well as curious visitors or people investigating the topic of anthropology in general.
Contemporary. The Kenyan government has only very recently become involved in directly investing and elevating educational standards on a national scale; currently, about 39% of Kenyans are illiterate, mainly those in outlying areas far from the capital, and there are wide disparities in educational outcomes the government is striving to address. The NMK represents Kenya’s most highly educated professionals, the academic “cream of the crop,” and the organization values a modern look and feel that is apace with and comparable to global academic organizations and museums. With NMK’s values in mind, we began to design a general outline of UX elements for them to consider. Two concepts emerged as strong elements of our design proposals: Context and Concision.
With NMK’s values in mind, we began to design a general outline of UX elements for them to consider. Two concepts emerged as strong elements of our design proposals: Context and Concision.
Context. Even with a focus on technical detail and academic rigor, an important element of converting the collection into a digital experience was contextualizing each piece- clearly illustrating where and when they existed, and how the animal’s life affected the lives of ourselves or our ancestors. This included understanding where each item existed in the geological record- besides telling how old something is, a valuable element of context is in illustrating how deeply buried it is, and where it lies in the earth relative to other, connected artifacts.
Concision. A principle design challenge in NMK’s case was decided on a balance between presenting relevant, accurate information (which they had plenty of), and presenting it in a digestible way- bearing in mind the emphasis on academic rigor while simultaneously offering an attractive, engaging experience.
Dig through time. We kept the time relationship between the collection pieces to provide context, by suggesting the different strata as you dig deeper. A vertical representation of geologic time with carousel-type search elements proved to be the most effective way to be didactical about the concept of millions of years.
Color Palette. The colors used on the website reflect the color palette that you see on the ground in Kenya, which are also part of the identity of the Museum.
3D-views. Users will be able to rotate most of the collection items, trying to bring the users closer to the experience of appreciating the items on-site, at the museum.
We additionally suggested various ways that items could be presented in combination with other media. NMK’s collection contains thousands of human and animal remains that all share Kenya as their origin, and as such have been represented throughout the entirety of the culture’s history in their arts, music, and self-representation. We offered some examples of what a collaborative exhibition- developed with a mobile platform in mind- could look like with the collection’s items existing alongside cross-discipline work from art and music students as well.
Designing for Place and Time
Just as in our branding work with The Shaker Museum of Mount Lebanon, designing for a museum has many considerations. The identity of the museum’s organization itself informs its brand and image, as well as its priorities; the subject, quality, and scope of its collection determines the challenges in representing it; the demographics, motivations, and profiles of its visitors set the expectations for language, depth, and “curb appeal.”
We’re proud to have contributed to National Museums of Kenya’s work in bringing the vital history of humanity’s origins to the Kenyan people and the world at large. What message do YOU want to bring to the world? Our design work reflects our mission of inclusion and quality- say hello and let’s talk about the story you have to tell.