The success of Coyote descriptions developed for the Museum of Contemporary Art’s website led the team at the MCA to think about ways that visual descriptions could be used beyond the web, and about how descriptions originally written for people with impaired vision might be of interest to sighted visitors as well. We were excited to consider the ways in which Coyote descriptions support interactive learning experiences for visitors and about inviting new communities to participate in knowledge-making.These explorations led to a discussion with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation about developing a scavenger hunt using visual descriptions as clues.
Scavenger hunts have long been a popular activity in museums for school groups and families. They are social, explorative, and rewarding, encouraging visitors to move throughout the galleries. A scavenger hunt has been a regular feature of the MCA’s highly regarded monthly Family Day event. In recent years, museums have also used scavenger hunts to engage adult visitors, using gaming concepts to support competitive or teambuilding activities. Our goal was to build a simple interface to offer a series of Coyote descriptions to initiate a search for a work or works described in the Coyote software.
We believed that the project, a novel take on an offering that has already proven popular, also had strong pedagogical value. Reading a description and seeking it requires visitors to visualize, fixing an image of something before seeing it. Visualization is one of the key skills taught by museum educators. The project is of interest across disciplines as well, with potential value for teachers of language arts (expression, interpretation, and vocabulary). We were excited by the potential to create different kinds of scavenger hunts for different age groups, and challenged by the idea that descriptions can be tailored to visitors with different vocabularies, levels of knowledge, or even languages. Our program staff were interested in developing a layer of peer-to-peer description and finding that would allow one member of a group to write his or her own descriptions for others to find, or that would require one member to draw a described image for others, who would use the drawing—rather than the description—as a clue. The project addresses a need commonly expressed by our Learning team for “self-serve” offerings for school groups that cannot be accommodated by our popular but oversubscribed school visit programs.
Our proposal to the Knight Foundation was for a one-year project with a number of interrelated activities:
1) We wanted to shift the Coyote software model from a local implementation integrated with a museum’s web content management system to a cloud-hosted solution that could be used by cultural organizations of all sizes. Removing the barrier of hosting and maintaining the Coyote software would, we imagined, make it much easier for our colleagues to participate.
2) The Coyote data model, originally developed for the description of images only, needed to shift to accommodate real-world objects.
3) The team wished to study game mechanics to understand how to make a description-based scavenger hunt “fun” to play.
4) We planned to develop an mobile phone interface to the Coyote software that would contain the clues (descriptions), hints, and responses, as well as a leaderboard to encourage competition.
5) Our goal was to recruit other Chicago cultural organizations to provide descriptions for a handful of works and to welcome visitors to a prototype live scavenger hunt at locations throughout Chicago. To do so, we would have to provide training in description, teach our Chicago colleagues to use the Coyote software, and promote and manage a daylong competition.
The Knight Foundation awarded the MCA a museum technology grant in early 2017, and the Prime Access Consulting team got to work immediately on the Coyote 2.0 software modifications, while the MCA group recruited a star-studded group of local game developers and gaming experts to attend a one-day workshop to discuss the competitive potential of a game based on using descriptions for finding objects in a museum space. After the gaming workshop, the MCA team developed a paper prototype for a description-based scavenger hunt that was used successfully at Family Day during the fall and winter of 2017–18. The development and MCA teams converged around the design of a simple interface for the Coyote software that, based on a player’s location, provides an opportunity to identify works in gallery spaces or on museum grounds. Players can ask for hints that cost them extra time on their final score.
The MCA, along with its partners the Chicago Cultural Center, the Graham Foundation, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, held an inaugural live scavenger hunt on October 6, 2018, a grey fall day in Chicago.