Summer 2014
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Summer 2014: Technology in Museums

  • Museums, Technology, and Their Sometimes Awkward Embrace By Dan Yaeger, Executive Director, New England Museum Association
  • Finding the “Best Tech” for Your Museum By Paul Orselli, Chief Instigator, POW! Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.
  • “Low Tech,” Not “No Tech” By Janice O’Donnell, Executive Director and Robin Meisner, Exhibits Director, Providence Children’s Museum
  • Big Impact, Low Cost: Tech Tricks for Small Museums By Carrie Midura, Programs & PR Manager, Andover Historical Society
  • Social Media and Museums: A Collective Memory and a Collective Challenge By  Josephine Patterson, Director of Marketing and Public Relations, MIT Museum



Museums, Technology, and Their Sometimes Awkward Embrace

By Dan Yaeger, Executive Director, New England Museum Association

Charles Thurston Thompson, 'Exhibition of the Photographic Society of London and the Société française de photographie at the South Kensington Museum, 1858', 1858. Museum no. 2715-1913, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Technology has become a shibboleth to us in the museum profession. We desperately want to seem relevant, which means we feel compelled to adopt the latest technology in our institutions or at the very least maintain conversational fluency with technological subjects. So we attend seminars, webinars, and workshops. We scan tech blogs. We research what others are doing in their museums, concerned we might fall victim to a technology gap.

In many ways technology has also become a fetish to us in the museum profession. It is a concept that we imbue with magical powers: technology is the key to solving our problems. It will allow us to do more with less, attract more audiences, expand our horizons. It will make us smarter and more beautiful. What’s not to love about that?

But the term “technology” has become so pervasive that it is almost meaningless. When we talk about technology in a museum context we can be talking about many things: exhibit hardware, collections software, augmented reality, virtual reality, educational enhancements, visitor engagement, social media, new media, facility management tools, and so on. Technology comes in many flavors.

For these reasons it might be helpful to examine the relationship between technology and museums over time, how museums have adopted technology, and the inherent tension between technology and museum experience.

Technology Exhibited
It’s no surprise that museums came of age during the Industrial Revolution. The burgeoning middle class had a burning aspiration to become upper class and this meant learning a thing or two about art. Museums became places of education and social climbing. In addition to art, though, the middle class was powerfully interested in what was propelling their new-found wealth: technology. Exhibitions of technology in museums and elsewhere were important ways for the public to experience the latest and greatest.

Photography was one of the first technologies to be explored in museums. Less than a decade after the emergence of the camera in the 1840s, England’s Victoria and Albert Museum began collecting photographs. The V & A hosted the world’s first museum photographic exhibition in 1858, displaying more than 1,000 works as both objects of art and as demonstrations of applied science. The so-called “Dime Museums” were also early adopters of photographic technology, displaying photography equipment and offering visitors souvenir photographs by practitioners as illustrious as Matthew Brady.

Perhaps the most renowned celebration of technology was at the Centennial International Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia. More than 20% of the American population at the time (10 million visitors) were given their first look at technologies such as Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, the Remington typewriter, the automatic screw machinery of the Waltham Watch Company, and the Corliss steam engine. The Franklin Institute helped organize the exposition and the exhibits went on to form the Smithsonian’s National Museum (housed in the 1879 Arts and Industries building).

This enthusiasm for technology exhibition continued with the 1909 creation of the Newark Museum as “a museum for the reception and exhibition of articles of art, science, history and technology,” in founder John Cotton Dana’s words, and Henry Ford’s 1929 brainchild, the Edison Institute, today The Henry Ford, which highlighted the simple life of America prior to the Industrial Revolution and the complex technological outpouring after it. Today, tech museums proliferate throughout the U.S. and the world. New England alone hosts 72 technology-related museums according to the recent IMLS census.

The Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, 2008

Interestingly, this proliferation of tech museums comes at a time when the public’s appetite for technology exhibitions has waned. Many of these museums are relatively obscure institutions struggling for visitation (I know because I am formerly the director of one); most feature technological relics, not new technology. Compared with our 19th-century forebears, we are less in awe of technology because today technology is everywhere, behind the scenes and central to our lives, at once vital and banal. Who needs to see new technology exhibited in a museum when we experience it every day?

Google is the modern deconstruction of the historical museum/technology relationship. We once came face to face with technology through museums and exhibitions. Today, we experience exhibitions from afar through Google Art Project and navigate our museums virtually through Google Indoor Maps.

Technology as Tool
In addition to being presenters of technology, museums have been avid consumers of technology. As technology has evolved, museums, like all businesses, have used it to improve operations. In this sense the term “technology” is most closely related to its Greek root “techne,” meaning art or skill. Technology is a tool for the business end of museums.

How has it helped? We used to dig through file cabinets to find object records; with today’s databases we gain access through a couple of mouse clicks. At the end of the day we once meandered through the museum shutting off lights and locking doors, chores now automated through chips and sensors. High-definition cameras and motion detectors keep artifacts safe; shoe manufacturing technology keeps security guards comfortable. Climate control extends the life our collections. Social media and the Web have revolutionized the way we access audiences. And where would curators be without the search engine?

It is said that the hallmark of innovation is doing things faster, cheaper, and better. Certainly museums have experienced this through their adoption of technology in operations. On-demand lighting saves energy. Marketing budgets are spared costly advertising and printing bills. Mobile apps mean fewer docents and remote cameras mean fewer guards, though while this may be cheaper to the museum it is arguable that it is better.

Of course, these technological tools come at a cost. Database systems can be phenomenally expensive and can require extensive staff training. Hardware and software become obsolete seemingly months after purchase, necessitating constant recalibration of tech plans. Social media, done well, demands staff attention across all departments, which impacts productivity in other areas. And what price do you put on checking email and texts while you’re vacationing?

Technology as Magnet
Most current discussion about technology in museums is about technology as a means of attracting and engaging audiences.

Without a doubt, technology has changed the visitor experience dramatically in many museums. The trend toward ever-increasing interactivity has led us from audiocassette tours and laser disc kiosks to smartphone apps, augmented reality, iPad displays, and crowdsource technologies, all promising to bring the visitor a closer connection with the museum product.

Almost every department dealing with visitors has gotten in on the action. Exhibit design is the most conspicuous, with all manner of chip-based devices driving the experience forward into the elusive state of “Wow!” The education department raises the bar with apps that facilitate deep dives into subject matter, plus interactive games that help make learning fun. Visitor services employs apps that empower museum patrons to convey immediate reactions to their experience in a feedback loop that enables quick calibration of programs and exhibits. And of course every department eyes social media activity to grasp the visitor mindset and push information out to audiences.

The pinnacle of the technological climb (as we know it so far) was reached last year when the Cleveland Museum of Art unveiled Gallery One, a physical space and virtual interface that propels the museum into the forefront of digital experience. Gallery One features real Picassos, Rodins, and the like, which visitors can explore in detail through digital activities. A 40-foot collection wall, the “largest multi-touch microtile screen in the United States” (according to the CMA’s breathless promotional copy), allows visitors to explore 3,500 objects from the museum’s permanent collection and create personalized tours on their own mobile device. Facial recognition software prompts visitors to compare their visages with works of art. CMA has delivered the “Wow!” for sure.

These developments are exciting for a museum field that’s examining its product and reinventing itself to conform to audience expectations. Museums using technology to amp up their visitor experience say very clearly, this is not your parents’ museum. Disconcertingly, museum attendance has declined across the U.S. over the decades since we’ve introduced technology to engage audiences. Time will tell whether newer generations of technology will reverse this trend with a new generation of museum visitors.

There is an aspect to the technology/visitor experience relationship that feels like a Faustian bargain. It’s an arms race of sorts, with Cleveland’s Gallery One staking a claim that other museums are surely at this moment strategizing to outdo. Whether or not this is detrimental to the field, one thing is clear: once a museum commits to riding the technology wave, it has to keep its surfboard on the crest. Moore’s Law suggests that technology grows old quickly, so the cutting edge that wows a museum visitor today becomes ho-hum tomorrow. 

Technology vs. Authenticity
There is an inherent tension between technology and museums because museums offer authentic experiences. With technology the experience is always at least partially virtual. Collections-based museums present art and artifacts that have an aesthetic, scientific, educational, or historical reality. Historic houses and sites offer unique sensory and intellectual experiences that transform the past into a concrete present. Even museums without collections or significant sites can provide visitors with genuine experiences of learning, fun, and togetherness. It could be said that authenticity is a museum’s true competitive advantage.

So the question is whether technology enhances or diminishes that competitive advantage. The answer depends on what the museum is trying to accomplish.

If the goal is to entertain, technology is an obvious enhancement to the museum experience. The International Spy Museum in D.C. is a load of fun not just because of its intriguing collection of Bondesque objects, but because for an hour or so game technology lets you become a secret agent. If the goal is to educate, technology has opened up many new avenues through which the average visitor can learn. If the goal is to persuade, many museums have successfully used multimedia to buff their subject’s image, instill patriotic pride, or elicit tears.

But if the museum’s goal is to facilitate an experience of authenticity, technology may be a distraction, depending on the visitor. Not to get too metaphysical, but people bring their own interpretation of reality to any experience, so “authenticity” can be a moving target. The completely manufactured experience of Disneyland lies on a continuum: it is authentic and meaningful to some (enough to return year after year for another hit of contrived reality), while others feel the experience is utter manipulation. Some people are oblivious to the contrivance and therefore enjoy it unreservedly, some people consciously suspend their judgment of the contrivance and therefore enjoy it with reservations, and some are consciously aware of the contrivance and reject it.

Using technology to mediate an otherwise uncontrived experience between authentic objects and conscious individuals is doomed to fail. A masterpiece or historic site or jaw-dropping landscape just doesn’t need a technical intermediary to be fully appreciated. Technology alone cannot produce a transcendent experience with sublime aesthetic beauty or historical imagination or the “aha” moment of creation. Only the real, the actual, the authentic can accomplish such things. That’s why museums, with or without technology, will always have a future.

Photo Credits:
Charles Thurston Thompson, 'Exhibition of the Photographic Society of London and the Société française de photographie at the South Kensington Museum, 1858', 1858. Museum no. 2715-1913, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, 2008