Museums Are Terrible at Using New Technology

What's to come?
Oct. 10 2012 11:57 AM

How To Make a Spy Exhibit Boring

Museums are using technology to create spectacle, not spark learning.

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If done well, technologically inspired group interactivity can go a long way to giving visitors a sense of purpose—that they are experiencing something important that home browsing doesn’t make available. That can help mitigate Arianna Huffington’s concern that giving social media pride of place in museums can diminish curiosity and discovery.

Museum cartoon.

Cartoon by John Mix.

But interactivity isn’t an end in itself when it is presented as “some eternally present, unceasingly entertaining, Chuck E. Cheese-like arcade,” as philosopher Justin Erik Halldor Smith has fretted. At the spy exhibit, we were subjected to a cheesy smoke and laser challenge—stumbling over simulated tripwires and learning nothing in the process. Barney Stinson of How I Met Your Mother would find the razzle dazzle legendary. But he’s a fictional character, and a shallow one at that.

The Horizon Report notes that modern museum-goers won’t accept being viewed as passive receptacles of knowledge deemed important by curators and museum educators. Accustomed to Google and Twitter, they embrace democratized knowledge and are ready to “find, interpret, and make their own connections with collections and ideas.” But the curators of the spy exhibit must have missed that memo, because while they focused on threats to the state, they failed to spend any time on one of the most pressing issues of our time—surveillance of average citizens. Time will tell if the presence of tech that sparkles instead of sparking inquiry will make it easier to distract visitors who are satisfied to see artifacts detached from politics.

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One more wrinkle should give museum fans pause. In order for museums to honor their institutional commitment to housing original objects for research purposes, they must foster concern for artifacts that extends beyond their educational and entertainment value. Otherwise, future generations—including historians—won’t be able to access invaluable material. Keeping the wow factor up can be expensive, and if opportunity costs arise, it might seem sensible to sell off archived works that aren’t crowd-pleasers, or, worse, let them dissolve into the abyss of neglect. Razzle-dazzle simulations that can be saved on tiny hard drives could appear more desirable than larger, vulnerable analog collections.

To safeguard against this possibility, museums need to do a better job at reminding patrons of their full mission. When telling an artifact’s story on a label or on a tour, a guide could share a few words about its recent history—how it was acquired and restored, what it takes to keep it safe. Perhaps even before entering an exhibit hall, visitors could be told why the room is cold or lights so low.

Go to museums—have fun, be amazed, and, by all means, learn something. Most importantly, be impressed by the presence of some pretty awesome things even if they don’t light up or move, and appreciate the commitment required to safeguard this presence for others.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Evan Selinger is an associate professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. He is also a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology. Follow him on Twitter.

With more than 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, John Mix currently is the senior data and systems analyst with the International Rescue Committee.

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