Technology in museums – less is more!

The drive to 'engage' patrons with gadgets strips museums of their innate wonder.

Wendy Earle

Topics Culture

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The experience of going to a museum often feels a little engineered. A heavy curatorial hand leads you through an exhibition and it’s hard to resist reading the panels of information contextualising and explaining the art or artefacts on display, rather than come to your own appreciation of them. Audio guides offer to fill in gaps in your knowledge and give you expert insights. Sometimes glistening screens nearby beckon you to see more. It’s as if invisible curators, like waiters at a feast, are holding out ‘cutting edge’ technological platters of additional, no doubt tasty, morsels, when all you really want to do is get straight to the main course.

I have fond memories of wandering around the Courtauld Gallery or the British Museum as a teenager, gazing at the exhibits and wondering about them, with only minimal labels to guide me. I cultivated my budding interest in art – ancient and modern – by buying postcards, colourful Thames & Hudson books, and the like. I felt like I was on to something that was somehow worthwhile, linking me to a bigger world which I was growing up into.

A trip to the wonderful Museum of Cairo a few years ago allowed me to relive this experience a little. Its voluminous halls were lined with dingy display cabinets, packed with archaeological artefacts from Ancient Egypt, displayed with very few labels. The Tutankhamen treasures, behind secure walls, were displayed with equal (if slightly more polished) simplicity. With no information coming between me and the objects I was looking at – from phenomenal gold, enamelled and stone-encrusted headpieces to (literally) piles of basic agricultural implements and fishing spears – I could really enjoy an unalloyed sense of connection with the past, with human existence in a different world. It was the first museum I had been to in a long time where I could honestly call the experience ‘breathtaking’.

This makes me wonder about the purpose of the increasing investment museums are making in new media technologies, all in order to ‘engage audiences’. In the summer, an opinion piece on the CNN website, ‘Why I hate museums’, attacked them for not trying harder to appeal to audiences, claiming they were often dull and demanded too much effort from visitors. Deliberately provocative and possibly tongue-in-cheek, it generated a defensive response from the museum sector – both among those curators who resist the demand for flashy interactivity and those who embrace it, with the UK Museums Association leading the pack.

A recent article in the London Evening Standard by Michael Dixon, the director of London’s Natural History Museum, celebrates the power of technology to bring ancient fossils back to life. To a certain extent, Dixon is right – it is amazing what can be done when the curators and technologists collaborate in applying their expertise. But Dixon’s enthusiasm ignores the fact that technological reconstructions can obviate the challenge many visitors enjoy in museums: working some things out for themselves. Technological reconstructions often make it appear as if curators already have the answers, even though their reconstructions are based on elaborate guesswork and the answers are not absolute.

This obsession with new technology is based on the patronising belief that engaging the public means geeing them up and making the museum experience ‘fun-filled’ and purposefully ‘enlightening’. Even more pernicious is the belief that grabbing the young, before they know any better, will create future audiences.

Mobile devices are the latest preoccupation. A report commissioned by the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) recommends extending the V&A’s ‘mobile services and products’, arguing that ‘the motivations and needs of your audience will be key to selecting and designing successful mobile services just as they are in other areas of museum activity’. A recent survey on ‘digital culture’ found that museums are behind the rest of the cultural sector in embracing digital technologies for public engagement, but they are keen to catch up.

The current Big Thing is ‘museum apps’. Recent examples include Artshaker, launched in October by Fondation Beyeler, which allows you to manipulate works of art from the foundation’s collections on your smartphone or iPad, reforming them in different artistic styles. Its purpose as an educational tool, as its creators claim it to be, is a mystery to me. And as a bit of fun? Where’s the fun in changing Monet’s beautiful ‘Water Lilies’ into a ‘surrealist’ smudge? Tate Online also offers apps to engage children, such as ‘Race Against Time’. I’m no gamer, so I can’t say if it’s any good as a game, but to me it looks as if Tate is hijacking the platform to push a medicinal dose of art history down young people’s throats.

There are a lot of good things that new technologies have brought to museums. For instance, putting gorgeous photographs of museum artefacts online offers the possibility of seeing things that you might never get to see in real life. However, on the whole, I think museums should hold back on ‘audience engagement’ shenanigans with mobile technologies and social media, and accept that museums are not to everyone’s taste.

Museums do themselves no favours by trying to compete with the multimedia attractions of contemporary culture by imitating them. Museums should allow those who want to enjoy the sheer pleasure of seeing the wonderful things that people have created and discovered in the past get on with it, without the distractions of modern gadgets. When it comes to technology in museums, less really is more.

Wendy Earle is impacts and knowledge exchange manager at Birkbeck, University of London, and the convenor of Institute of Ideas Arts and Society Forum.

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Topics Culture


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