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Museums turn interactive, birds and all

The birds of paradise are a group of 39 outrageously feathered tropical species with enough colors to rival a rainbow.

A Wilson's bird of paradise from the National Geographic exhibit of bird photography.
A Wilson's bird of paradise from the National Geographic exhibit of bird photography.Read moreTIM LAMAN

The birds of paradise are a group of 39 outrageously feathered tropical species with enough colors to rival a rainbow.

They are captured in photos and videos, some of them for the first time, in a National Geographic exhibit now on display at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

So with all that eye candy on hand, why is a group of younger visitors playing a video game?

Children strut, flap their arms, and bounce as a camera tracks their movements to see how well they mimic an avian courtship dance.

In museums these days, interactivity is the watchword for exhibit designers seeking to boost attendance. Science museums have long featured exhibits that visitors can touch and feel, but increasingly, museums of all stripes are doing so, enabled by the growing sophistication of touch screens and other technologies.

If well designed, such exhibits can teach better than a block of text.

"Nothing can be static anymore," said Dewey Blanton, spokesman for the American Alliance of Museums in Washington. "Things have to move."

At the Baltimore Museum of Art, visitors use a large touch screen to explore the apartment of the Cone sisters, where they housed their art collection before leaving it to the museum.

And at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, videos are displayed on 13-foot towers in the Native American Voices exhibit. As visitors approach within a few feet, a sensor detects their proximity and the towers are converted into interactive touch screens, said Josh Goldblum, founder of Bluecadet, the Philadelphia design studio that created the display.

The Birds of Paradise exhibit, at the academy through Sept. 1, consists primarily of eye-popping photos and videos captured during 18 National Geographic expeditions to New Guinea over eight years.

It also includes 29 preserved bird-of-paradise specimens from the academy's own collection - 23 in the main first-floor exhibit space and six more upstairs in the museum's library, said Nate Rice, manager of the academy's ornithology collection.

But the interactive component is big.

In the dance game, "Dance, Dance Evolution," players seek to match moves with an animated bird on the screen. Their accuracy is tracked with a modified Kinect camera system from the Xbox video game console, said Alan Parente, lead designer of the exhibit for National Geographic.

Onlookers also can push buttons to vote for their favorite dancers. The moves are taken from actual dances performed by the parotia, a group of six bird-of-paradise species, Parente said.

In addition to the dance game, there is a large touchscreen game called "Ready, Set, Evolve!" Players vote on tail feathers and other traits, much as a bird might choose attractive features in a mate, and then watch the screen to see the creatures evolve over millions of years.

The exhibit also includes a life-size recreation of a camera blind, like the kind that National Geographic photographer Tim Laman used to conceal himself in the trees. Visitors can press the shutter on a camera equipped with a telephoto lens.

Parente said interactive exhibits need to offer more than what people experience on a smartphone or tablet.

"A simple touchscreen interactive isn't all that exciting to people anymore," he said. "You kind of have to up the ante."

Laman and Cornell University biologist Edwin Scholes also recorded the birds' calls. Among those in the exhibit are the brown sicklebill, whose call sounds like a machine gun and is said to have scared soldiers during World War II, and the curl-crested manucode, which emits pulsing beeps that evoke water cascading down a drain.

The videos depict some of the male birds' elaborate mating dances. One video, of the greater bird of paradise, also depicts what comes afterward if the female is sufficiently impressed.

It's a "good morning to be a greater bird of paradise," Scholes says drily in the voice-over.

Even the birds can be interactive.