Reimagining our relationship with the Australian environment

Great Southern Land Gallery

Two young women interact with a platypus exhibit in the Great Southern Land Gallery at the National Museum of Australia.

Great Southern Land is the National Museum of Australia's most significant gallery redevelopment since its opening in 2001. It tells the story of Australia as an ancient continent shaped by connected, biodiverse forces.

This permanent exhibition uses digital interactives to encourage visitors to actively reimagine their own relationship with the land. Based on initial ideas by exhibition designers Local Projects, Art Processors designed and delivered these six one-of-a-kind digital experiences. Each deep dives into a unique aspect of the Australian environment, from the flora and fauna, to seasons and CO2 levels. 


Challenge

When the National Museum of Australia approached us to create digital interactives that bring to life stories of the continent’s environment, we knew this was going to be both a technical and creative challenge. 

For nearly a decade, people have worked on ideas for the broader vision for the museum, including this exhibition. How could we distil the incredible wealth of knowledge of curators, scientists and experts into interactives that a visitor could play with, while taking away a deeper understanding of a topic? 

Central to our challenge was balancing being informative and credible with offering a digestible and enjoyable experience. To do that for the many different audiences – from children and families to scientific experts – was no small feat. 

As each of the six experiences we developed is completely unique, there was a level of complexity involved in managing all our trusted suppliers – including specialists in 3D animation (Blair Bourke worked on Platypus), animation (Josh Trotter worked on Pathways), illustration (Jac Nguyen worked on Pathways) and composition (Phil Stroud worked on Ice Core and Pathways).

The COVID-19 pandemic added a further challenge as these one-of-a-kind digital experiences needed thorough testing and iterating to ensure they were engaging and user-friendly. They need to inspire visitors as standalone experiences but also within the wider context of the exhibition and the other interactives. 

Two young women interact with the platypus exhibit in the Great Southern Land Gallery at the National Museum of Australia.
A young woman interacts with the Iconic Species exhibit in the Great Southern Land Gallery of the National Museum of Australia.

Approach

With so much potential content, we were determined not to fall into the trap of trying to cover too much, resulting in being overly didactic or prescriptive. Instead, our aim was to give visitors the opportunity to explore crucial but bite-sized topics not just with words but with actions. “We wanted to give people the opportunity to explore with their hands to discover how all the elements of the environment are interconnected,” explains Jamie Houge, our project manager for this gallery development. “It’s a kinetic, playful journey that’s also emotive and beautiful.” 

To hit on the idea we wanted to explore in each interactive, we first listened to all the scientists and subject matter experts, absorbing as much information as possible. Then we went away to brainstorm options, before coming back to the National Museum of Australia team to present and discuss ideas. 

These were designed and refined the whole way through production. To ensure accuracy and diversity, we worked with expert organisations, from the Bureau of Meteorology and The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation to First Languages Australia. 

Testing with real people on real hardware, in-situ, is vital to building an inspiring journey through a gallery. When we couldn’t be as hands-on as normal due to the pandemic, we got creative. We have a prototyping space at Art Processors HQ that was pushed to the limits for this project. A large touchscreen was rigged up to carry out a base level of testing on the complex technology. We went further to test the content, setting up lo-fi versions of each interactive, for instance cutting out a piece of MDF in the relevant shape with a projector attached to it. We also used video chat to run through scenarios with real people, including young children. 

There are hidden Easter Eggs within the Pathways interactive. If you hit the right combination, the touchtable is taken over by a beautiful animated sequence related to the topic, such as a pod of swimming whales.

Two young women look down at a digital interactive in the Great Southern Land Gallery at the National Museum of Australia.

Solution

We created six experiences spaced throughout Great Southern Land. When visitors approach each one, they have no idea what it's about but through exploration and play they discover new ways to see the Australian environment, and their own role within it. The experiences include: 

  • Platypus On a digital aquarium-like, semi-circle display, visitors interact with a 3D-animated platypus. State-of-the-art motion-tracking technology picks up people’s body movements and gestures to create a natural experience. 
  • Iconic Species This collaborative drawing app invites  young visitors to find out more about Australia’s most well-known species, and share their own creations. 
  • Pathways This touchtable shows an interactive satellite view of how seasonal events, such as temperature, ocean currents, and migration patterns, change over a year. Visitors use their hands to explore how natural elements are linked by intersecting pathways, rhythms and flows that characterise Australia and its seasonality.
  • Ice Core On this interactive table, visitors look into different moments in Australia’s history, including their own birth date, and see the impact of rising temperatures and CO2 levels over time. Users project forward to test out future scenarios and how their actions may impact climate over their lifetime and beyond.  
  • Heartbeat Light and audio bring to life graphic illustrations of iconic Australian life, like kangaroos, kookaburras and wild brumbies. With a four channel stereo mix of real sounds sourced from across the nation, visitors feel as if they are in the environment. For instance, desert flies circle and swarm around the space and magpies swoop overhead. 
  • Conclusions Made of an interactive touchtable, projection and soundscape, during this experience, visitors locate a place in Australia that is meaningful to them, customise it, and share it on a huge map and projection featuring other visitors' contributions.  
Two young women interact with the Ice Core exhibit in the Great Southern Land Gallery at the National Museum of Australia.
Two young women interact with the Conclusions exhibit in the Great Southern Land Gallery at the National Museum of Australia.