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Digital engagement in museums

January 3, 2013

Digital technology in museums – as an interpretation tool and not as an object in itself – has often promised revolutionary possibilities, only later for the revolution to stumble and become evolutionary improvements.  The reasons for this are as complex as they are numerous.  The technological interface is often to blame, it’s rarely as intuitive or as powerful as we’d like, the output usually supports an exhibit and is not centre stage (and is often underwhelming as a result), while museum budgets simply can’t match those of their private sector gaming counterparts in creating wholly immersive universes, nor are they intended to deliver such an experience.  But museums themselves are also to blame, many are conservative institutions who see themselves as guardians of knowledge and their understanding of themselves as learning institutions is limited to the dispensation of this knowledge, although any understanding of learning theory would give you so much more work with.  At the same time, interpretation companies delivering technology outputs are more likely to be designers rather than educators, but it should be noted they are also responding to a brief from the museum itself.  There are also other factors that need to be taken into account, footfall and space issues for example.

Jake Barton of Local Projects works on some exciting and challenging projects that use technology in museums, most notably the 9/11 memorial which is about as complex and emotive as they come, but also many others.  He talked recently at Wired 2012 about his work in and out of museums.  Here’s his talk and it’s well worth watching as it shows how more enlightened institutions are pushing the use of technology toward participatory experience.

There are truly some really great innovations here along with some which are more akin to the old fashioned model of using technology to deliver specialist information – a glorified audio guide perhaps.  But I do think it’s interesting to note that in the first two projects presented (and despite the huge investment to create an immersive experience through technology) Barton places no attention on the desired impact or learning outcomes for visitors.  Even with a project as significant as the 9/11 memorial the focus is on design and telling stories from those who experienced that fateful day, but I’d also be interested to know what the 9/11 memorial team itself want their visitors to take from the experience (other than raw emotion), a truly complex and engaging subject in its own right.  It’s interesting to note that in Barton’s final two examples, when the technology itself is taken out of the museum there are significant impacts that improve the quality of life for the local community which can be easily articulated.  What an amazing achievement.  But if NYC can use technology to give communities increased opportunities to communicate and control what they want, why can’t museums?

What does this tell us about the role of technology in museums? And about museums in general?  Should we surmise that technology in museums is merely for engagement’s sake, that museums aren’t really interested in a deeper and transformative impact for individuals or their community, or they just won’t give up curatorial power?  It would be foolish to answer those questions based on only one talk given at a technology conference, but it does raise the question as to whether museums need to do a much better job of using technology to deliver transformative learning experiences, or at least find ways to articulate the impact of their investment on individual visitors or their communities.

One of the enduring images I have of museum engagement is of visitors prodding at touch screens, enthusiastically at first, then frustratingly as they realise the experience is a one-way dissemination of information that has little connection to their lives, then giving up entirely and ignoring any other touch screens in the rest of the exhibition for the same reason.  I can’t wait to see what a good museum can do with one of these, they cost only $70 (£50), and so maybe they will help facilitate a deeper engagement, outcomes and impact for museum visitors, if only we can step out of currently existing interpretation models.

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