Making Match the Money

Earlier this year, the museum opened its very first money gallery for children, Really BIG Money. In addition to amazing objects (many displayed in inventive ways), one of the exhibition's main attractions is an interactive game, Match the Money. Today, the game is available to play both on the museum floor and online anywhere in the world. In a recent interview, we gained new insights into how the game was made and the lessons learned from its development from three members of the exhibition team: curator Ellen Feingold, exhibits technology specialist Geoffrey Moore, and exhibit developer Julia Garcia.

Really BIG Money is a unique exhibition in that it's intentionally designed for young children. Before we talk about the Match the Money game, can you tell us a little about the exhibition as a whole? What inspired you to put young learners front and center?

Ellen: Really BIG Money is the Smithsonian’s first money gallery for children, and it complements our permanent gallery called the Value of Money, which opened in 2015. Both galleries feature objects from the National Numismatic Collection, which is a global collection of more than 1.6 million diverse monetary objects.

I am the curator of this collection and, after becoming a mom in 2017, I started to think more about how our museum could make numismatics more accessible to children and useful to educators. I asked myself what I would show my daughter to develop her interest in money and realized it would be the “really big” money: the heavy stones and plates, the long tail feathers, the tall blades, and the huge hyperinflation banknotes. From early on in the project, I knew that if I wanted to see the museum create an exhibition that was truly for young learners, I would need to build partnerships with our expert educators and exhibit developers.

Two screenshots from the Match the Money game. On the left, the game’s mascot, an illustrated Resplendent Quetzal bird, snoozes as he waits for the player to begin playing. On the right, a player is given three objects to match with “I am” statements.
Screenshots from the Match the Money game

Match the Money is an interactive game that gives visitors an alternate way to learn about—and play with—the exhibition's objects and ideas. Why did you decide to build a game for Really BIG Money?

Julia: Everyone, especially children, learn more by doing and making their own meaning. Match the Money, like all the activities in the exhibition, reinforces the concepts and ideas that are presented alongside objects in the exhibition’s cases.

The Match the Money game is just one of the ways that young learners can explore the exhibition's objects and ideas from afar. Elementary school students can practice their “See, Think, Wonder” routine by observing the Resplendent Quetzal bird in this video from the museum's HistoryTime series.

Match the Money was developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. How did that shape (or reshape) your plans?

Geoff: When we began planning for this game, the idea was to have players move physical blocks around on a table. The position of the blocks would be read by a sensor in the table and trigger content on a display.

When the pandemic hit and the museum closed, the consensus among the Smithsonian museums—and the museum industry as a whole—was that the reliance on touchscreens was going to have to be eliminated wherever possible. We did lots of research and development, exploring how we could make all of our touchscreens touchless. Since this was still in the early planning stages, we quickly pivoted to making Match the Money a touchless experience as well.

Two large screens topped with video cameras play the loading screen for the Match the Money game.
Match the Money as it appears in the exhibition “Really BIG Money”

The Match the Money game currently exists in two places—both the physical exhibition in Washington, D.C., and online, on the museum's website. Did the game change as you made plans to share it in two very different environments?

Geoff: The biggest changes, for me, stem from the fact that, unlike a mouse, touchscreen, or trackpad, a motion-sensing system is always tracking a user’s hands; they don’t have to actively click on something. In the web version, there is a button in the lower left corner of the screen. In the gallery version, we found that players would just naturally let their hand rest in the lower left corner while they played—inadvertently pressing that button again and again. I had to move the button to a different point on the screen so that players needed to make a conscious effort to hit it.

Match the Money was built “in house” by museum staff. Is that the normal process? Did building things internally present any unique challenges—or benefits?

Geoff: Among the Smithsonian museums, this is not a common practice. Most interactives of this kind are contracted out. The greatest challenge is simply staff time and resources. At this time, I am the only one on the museum’s staff who does this type of interactive development, and I also have other responsibilities. This also means that we’re not like the contractors we could hire who have different staff members who specialize in different things. I have to be a jack of all trades.

But there were certainly benefits to building Match the Money internally. The biggest was the flexibility it provided. If the team agrees on a change we want to make, I can make the change, and it’s updated in the gallery the next morning.

We developed the game using standard tools, which also have benefits and trade-offs. For example, the game engine that powers Match the Money assumes that the game is going to be installed on someone’s personal device, with all of their saved personal preferences.

Changing the language in the game isn’t too difficult. But, since this game also has a screen reader for people who are blind or have low vision, it also needed to be able to read the screen with an English or Spanish voice and quickly switch between the two. Every accessibility solution I could find assumed the user would just set the language setting on their device and leave it. I had to modify an existing accessibility plugin to allow changing the screen reader language from within the game.

The real-life Resplendent Quetzal bird from the museum’s collections posed alongside the illustrated version of the same bird soaring through the air with sparkles in the Match the Money video game.
One of the most popular objects in "Really BIG Money" is “Fred,” a Resplendent Quetzal bird. You can compare how Fred looks in the exhibition (right) to his virtual avatar in Match the Money (left). (NU.70088.0001)

You mentioned working with visitors and testers as you were developing Match the Money. How did working with those groups change your plans?

Julia: To clarify our methodology, we tested with visitors (children who walk into the museum) and User Experts (a specific group of people with disabilities, who provide feedback to Smithsonian museums, to make experiences accessible for all). Both the online and in-gallery versions of the game were tested by Expert Users. When we were testing with children, we brought along pictures of all the objects in the exhibitions, as well as the clues that could be used to identify them. Children were invited to match the clues to the object. We then had them prioritize the objects from most liked to least liked. Their choices helped us narrow down the list of objects that appear in the game. That's also how we discovered that “Fred” (our nickname for the Resplendent Quetzal bird on display in the exhibition) was so popular.

Geoff: The biggest lessons I learned here were in the difference between me testing something, and an actual user testing it. I don’t want to say our first User Expert testing of the web version was a disaster, but it was certainly a rapid introduction to just how little I knew about the difference in how a sighted user uses a screen reader testing it, and how a low-vision user uses it. I had already done a lot of testing with the screen reader, and it worked pretty well for me. Our first User Experts tested it and could barely get it to work at all! But, from this rocky start, we learned an incredible amount. I was able to go back to the drawing board and get it working much better.  This is a huge lesson that we are now proactively applying to other exhibits: the screen reader isn’t tested until it’s tested by a User Expert.

Julia Garcia is an exhibit developer in the Office of Audience Engagement. Jordan Grant is a digital experience specialist in the Office of Audience Engagement. Ellen Feingold is the curator of the National Numismatic Collection and project director of Really BIG Money. Geoffrey Moore is an exhibits technology specialist in the Office of Building Renovation and Exhibition Services.

Really BIG Money was generously made possible by Michael Chou, the Howard F. Bowker Numismatic Projects Endowment Fund, and Bill and Dianne Calderazzo, with additional support from Jeff Garrett, Robert L. Harwell II, and John F. McMullan.