Friday, 26 November 2010

The Making of the Museum of the Dead

Are panda jokes in bad taste? How likely is the extinction of cats? Are double entendres acceptable in E-Learning?
The Museum of the Dead has been a fascinating, and occasionally troubling, experience. Here are some lessons I learnt along the way.

Chasing a dream

When an idea is distinctive it’s often hard for people to grasp, as they have little to compare it with. Think about Being John Malkovich. I’ll bet that was harder to pitch to the studio than Due Date.

I’ve never seen mock-obituaries used to make readers think (and I’ve gone looking). I can only the odd example of using comedy to communicate a serious issue. And when did you last see a university dabble in twisted Gothic imagery?
All this originality created obstacles for the museum. Some people loved the idea with a passion. Others looked at me with incredulity, pity, and  - occasionally - fear. The approach of The Museum of the Dead certainly closed a few doors.
Thankfully my teammate and I had vision. We could picture the finished website in all its glory. This energised us. All projects require vision, but we need deep reserves to see off-the-wall ideas to completion.
I’ll bet that behind every Edward Scissorhands there’s a director with vision who had to fight a thousand battles. But aren’t you glad Tim Burton did?

Soul music

From the earliest stages we were after a spooky, playful atmosphere. James, our contact with the design agency, decided some music was required. What a revelation! I discovered that music has real evocative power. It makes a huge difference to the user’s experience in an interactive.
But remember - music needs to be strong, varied, and come with a mute button.

Fictional learning

You may be an experienced creator of fiction, but for me, with a career spent in online learning, it was new ground. I’m used to dealing with facts and explanations. A project steeped in fantasy rang all sorts of alarm bells.
Our academic consultants were understandably nervous about this idea. Some of the obituaries were clearly ludicrous - such as the domestic cat. But others, like the koala, were more plausible. How could we signpost the fiction without destroying the world we’d worked so hard to create?
As a university, we have a responsibility to teach people truth from error. I was acutely aware of the damage I could bring to The OU’s reputation.
Eventually my boss came up with a solution. She suggested we ask visitors to guess how much fact was in each obituary. This feature clearly highlights that the Museum of the Dead is a fictional enterprise. The rating buttons also add interaction to a rather reading-orientated enterprise: they force people to evaluate and reflect on what they're read
I suppose we could have made all the obituaries outlandish. But there’s a powerful bittersweet humour in obituaries such as the giant panda and the atlantic cod. The spectre of extinction lurks behind the laughter.

Museum of the Dead trivia

  • It was inspired by...  Tim Burton, Douglas Adams, Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry
  • It was nearly...  a book - an old iron-bound collection of writings.
  • We had to leave out... the pigeon obituary
  • Did you notice... that the museum is housed within a whale skeleton?

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