Meeting the Needs of Museum Audiences: Can Digital Technology Help?

[Museum] specimens must be prepared in the most careful and artistic manner, and arranged attractively in well-designed cases and behind the clearest of glass. Each object must bear a label, giving its name and history so fully that all the probable questions of the visitor are answered in advance… [Museum collections] cultivate the powers of observation, and the casual visitor even makes discoveries for himself, and, under the guidance of the labels, forms his own impression… [objects] are a powerful stimulant to intellectual activity.[1]

The following words come from a posthumously published essay in 1901 on the future of museums by George Brown Goode, director of the collections wing of the Smithsonian in the late nineteenth century.[2] Today we would probably disagree with Goode’s belief that museum labels could answer “all the probable questions” of an audience. We definitely don’t want our audiences to shut up, and we encourage visitor questions at every turn on a museum’s roadmap. Yet the remainder of Goode’s vision is strikingly relevant when describing the future relationship between digital technology and museums in stimulating intellectual activities. Digital technology, in order to enhance the process of learning–“making meaning out of life”–should help to create history in a careful and artistic manner.[3] It should be arranged with the clearest glass: open access, open dialogue, shared authority, and transparency. It should help to design descriptive “labels” through well-crafted and responsible interpretations that create more questions than answers. In sum, digital technology should encourage each person to make their own discoveries about the past.

Can digital technology help museums meet the needs of their visitors? Can it help ease the conflicting desires for entertainment, socialization, and learning that influence the designs of  all museum exhibits? Is it wise to encourage a sense of “play” in museums, by which one voluntarily travels into a virtual landscape, free from the constraints of time or reality?[4] It is with these questions in mind that I visited the Indiana State Museum and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art to see what role, if any, the digital landscape had in influencing the overall educational mission of these institutions.

First up was the State Museum. There were digital resources throughout its various exhibits, and I felt that the balance between digital technology and primary source objects was mostly solid. I was particularly impressed with the natural history section, where I spent a chunk of time exploring several digital programs. One was named “Earthquakes: Finding the Fault,” which focused on the history of earthquakes and showed how to detect and differentiate various earthquakes with seismic technology. The images and short animations were helpful, engaging, and appropriate for people of all ages. Likewise, my favorite digital technology of the day was a program called “Changing the Face of Earth.” Visitors have the ability to spin a dial connected to a computer simulator, which then tracks nature’s impact on Earth’s geography over time. This “imaginary landscape” successfully incorporated virtual reality with realistic scientific knowledge to help visitors imagine environmental change over 300 million years and establish a sense of “play” within themselves.

However, the digital technology behind the “Amazing Maize” exhibit was less successful, in my opinion. In attempting to describe the genetics of corn, I was entertained and interested, but extremely distracted. At any given point there were three or four computer screens going off with loud speakers at the same time, creating a sense of information overload within me. It was tough to concentrate and understand what was happening. There was an interesting computer program showing how various tribes utilized corn in their societies, but a different map attempting to outline the spread of corn geographically had no discernible key or legend to help me distinguish the color lines marking these migratory patterns. A combination of these two resources would have been beneficial.

Next was Eiteljorg. There were fewer digital resources here than at the State Museum and nothing resembling “gamification,” in my estimation.[5] The primary digital technology used in the museum collections consisted of two computer screens in the “Mihtohseenionki” gallery that played oral histories of people of Native American descent. I though these histories were intriguing, although I found myself more interested in the tangible artifacts on display. I would be curious to see if these basic computer programs could even be considered “digital history” by our standards today. Regardless if they are or not, is it imperative for museums to invest in the newest digital technology available, even at the sacrifice of tangible museum collections, or can they get away with using technology five, ten or twenty years old? What sort of audience should a museum cater to with their digital technology?

For their digital websites, I think both institutions have room for improvement, although the functionality of each was fairly solid. I agree with my classmate Jenny Kalvaitis that the Indiana State Museum’s website is geared more towards public relations rather than educational material. I lament the fact that digital content like “Amazing Maize” is not available in web format. Furthermore, I was disappointed to see that much of the educational resources for teachers was not freely accessible online. Some lessons are downloadable, but exciting educational workshops and programs like “Indiana and the Civil War” and “Pioneer Indiana” are merely mentioned and not elaborated upon. As a teacher, I would want to have access to these materials online. In this regard, Eiteljorg has done a fantastic job of creating a culture of educational transparency, as there is a wealth of freely downloadable material that is immensely useful for all teachers. In fact, I used the resource guide for the “Mihtohseenionki” exhibit last semester for an educational project.

At the end of the day, I had a surprising revelation. To be sure, I am not a digital luddite. I am excited about the future of digital technology and what it can do to enhance the study of history. Yet the two most exciting moments of my day happened when I engaged with primary source artifacts without the aid of digital technology. At the Indiana State Museum, a collection of visually striking rocks were displayed and, even more exciting, I got to touch and feel several of them. At Eiteljorg, I viewed several beautiful pieces of art in the “American West Gallery” in total silence. No computer screens. No speakers. No distractions. I engaged with the paintings on a personal level and gained a new appreciation for Western art. I left the confines of time and reality, I used my imagination, I made discoveries, and I didn’t need digital technology to help me.

How should I feel about this? I interacted with the primary sources in a way that demonstrates my bias for the real and tangible, but I know others may have a bias for the digital and virtual. How do we provide a congruence between the tangible and the digital in a way that enhances both? Can we go too far with digital technology by unintentionally replacing the imagination and interaction created by primary sources? Is digital technology distracting? Most importantly, is it fair to suggest that digital technology could pose a serious problem, rather than a solution, for museums in the future? I am curious to hear the perspectives of others.

[1] George Brown Goode quoted in Matthew MacArthur, “Get Real! The Role of Objects in the Digital Age,” in Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (Philadelphia: Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011), 58.

[2] Ibid., 56. At that time the collections wing was called the United States National Museum.

[3] Quoted from Scott Nicholson, “Strategies for Meaningful Gamification: Concepts behind Transformative Play and Participatory Museums,” 2, accessed February 12, 2013.

[4] These questions were inspired by reading Angeliki Antoniou, George Lepouras and Costas Vassilakis, “A Methodology for the Design of Online Exhibitions,” 2-3, accessed February 13, 2013., and Nicholson, “Strategies for Meaningful Gamification,” 3.

[5] IDEA. “What is Gamification?” Accessed February 13, 2013. “Gamification” consists of “adapting game mechanics into non-game setting — such as building online communities, education and outreach, marketing, or building educational apps.”


7 thoughts on “Meeting the Needs of Museum Audiences: Can Digital Technology Help?

  1. Excellent post, Nick. It’s interesting that although we visited these museums together and focused on slightly different displays and aspects, we nonetheless came back to the central issue of the need to find a balance between digital technology and ‘traditional’ static displays in museums. Beginning the discussion with George Brown Goode’s quote is a wonderful way to frame the issue and nicely captures the struggle for a museum to use technology in a way that does not compromise the central mission of encouraging audiences to ask questions.

    I think it is fair to say that digital history could pose future problems for museums. As with all things, there are good and bad sides to the digital coin. The most obvious problem is accessibility, especially for small museums. As such innovations become the gold standard, we might see smaller, financially weaker museums sacrificing collections buildup to instead focus on acquiring more digital displays or touchpad description plates. However, the desire to avoid such a practice might encourage disadvantaged institutions to pool their resources to purchase digital augmentations, collaborating to both boost collective visitorship without sacrificing their collections.

    1. Thanks for the comment and an excellent blog post yourself, Tim. You bring up some very good questions that museums all around the country are having to deal with right now. Cary Carson has suggested that history museums start thinking of “Plan B” because the current model is not sustainable. The financially weaker museums you speak of are running into serious debt and being shut down at times. So yes, it appears as if digital technology is needed to somehow get people back into the museums, even if that same technology is part of the reason why people are leaving. Finding that balance is key, and I don’t see how integrating digital technology into museums can work unless one looks at the particular circumstances each museum faces with its integration. I wholeheartedly agree that collaboration is key looking forward, perhaps even at the cost of possibly merging several museums together.

  2. Nick, you have some interesting thoughts in your blog piece. When I read back to the Goode quote, the part about letting the visitor make discoveries is most striking. I think that whether someone is all for technology in museums or not depends on the visitor and what interests them about each object. I agree that there is much to learn from objects from engaging with them directly, without technology – otherwise, why would we seek them out in museums? My view is that curators should aid in those sorts of discoveries, but it’s a question of whether technology is the best medium to do so. So, for example, if after looking at a painting and being struck by the brushwork, it’s great to have something with more information about technique for those interested. However, would it be best to have it in brochure form or on a computer screen? I can see pros and cons, and like Tim commented, we need to find a balance and also assess that the medium fits with our goal.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Elena, and thanks for the spelling correction! I got my e’s and l’s all mixed up while writing this post. You make a good point about the role of curators in helping people making personal discoveries, and I too agree that finding a balance of mediums is essential and perhaps not a “one-size-fits-all” solution for different museums. I was struck by how much I enjoyed the tangible artifacts at both museums without the aid of technology, but I realize that a well-crafted technological medium could possibly make my experience better. It just depends on the specific circumstances of a particular museum, and there are no easy answers.

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