Museums Are Terrible at Using New Technology

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Oct. 10 2012 11:57 AM

How To Make a Spy Exhibit Boring

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

The Spy Exhibit at Discovery Times Square.
The Spy Exhibit at Discovery Times Square

Courtesy Discovery Times Square.

In the status update age, it may be hard to believe, but not every aspect of technology should cater to you and your experience. Museums are especially vulnerable to the dangers of user-centrism, and pressure is increasing for them to embrace the experience economy by offering interactive exhibits that “come alive.” Sure, visitors are learning and having fun, but in the long run, this attitude may threaten the durability of collections—you know, the reason why you go to the museum in the first place.

Today’s museums give the entertainment industry a run for its money. According to the Horizon Report: 2011 Museum Edition—a joint effort between the Marcus Institute for Digital Education in the Arts and the New Medium Consortium—there’s an all-out digital love fest going on. In the near-term, its authors expect extensive efforts to focus on mobile apps. In the next two to three years, they predict “wide-spread adoptions” of augmented reality. Four to five years down the road, emphasis should shift to digital preservation (looking for ways to “future-proof” digital objects) and smart artifacts that “blur the line” between digital and physical things.

To get a sense of whether the digital turn will live up to the hype, we went off to see “Spy: The Secret World of Espionage” at Discovery Times Square in Midtown Manhattan. Although the venue is branded as a “more than a museum”—presumably because it offers shows that assault the viewer with titillating technology—we prefer to see it as a magnifying glass that can illuminate potential museum pitfalls.

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As history geeks, we think declassified CIA artifacts are cool. Who wouldn’t be psyched to “encounter real declassified gadgets revealed for the first time ever from the world's leading intelligence agencies”? A 1960s shoe with listening device in the heel? Awesome. Hollow nickels with poisoned needles? Right on. A massive old-school CIA camera flown around by pigeons? Wish they starred in an animated series.

Unfortunately, the experience was a big letdown. Prior to seeing the artifacts, we had to watch two video displays designed to prime the audience for what’s ahead—videos that would have been better suited for home viewing on YouTube. This strategy backfired, and we each had the same thought: “Plenty of videos exist online. What a waste here.” As we made our way past interactive screens containing information that also could have been archived online, the thought recurred.

Museum scholars have noticed this problem, too. Dirk vom Lehn, a sociologist at King’s College in London and member of the Work, Interaction and Technology Research Centre, and his colleague Christian Heath study how people interact with and around technology when they’re at museums. They’ve observed many instances of digital seduction, in which visitors focus on hand-held computer screens and touch screens at the expense of both original objects and social interaction.

One solution identified by vom Lehn and Heath is for museums to use technical systems that direct visitors toward genuinely social situations. Take Launch Pad, an interactive gallery at the Science Museum in London. It stimulates collaboration by presenting material that groups can not only watch together, but also collectively explore.

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