Discipline and Play: Examining the digital environment of Indianapolis museums

16 Feb

This semester, I have repeatedly returned to considering how new technologies and my work as a public historian interact. To write this blog post, I examined firsthand how this happens in Indianapolis. Two of the most well-known Indianapolis museums, the Eiteljorg and the Indiana State Museum, were the subjects of my analysis. Both of these museums have a strong presence in the community as well as a developed website online. The strengths and weaknesses of both the websites and the physical exhibits of these two museums highlighted for me issues of technology in different disciplines, as well as the purpose of a museum website.

OmniGlobe at the Indiana State Museum

OmniGlobe at the Indiana State Museum

In person, the Indiana State Museum had a much stronger digital component then the Eitlejorg Museum. The Eitlejorg, focused on American Indians and Western art, has little in the way of digital components. A few exhibits had screens that provided digital content, but the majority of the galleries were technology free. The Indiana State Museum, on the other hand, had numerous examples of digital tools to engage the visitor. The most notable instances were in the permanent natural history exhibit and the temporary exhibit on corn. These exhibits had numerous options for learning and exploring science and nature through digital tools. What stood out most to me in both of these museums was the difference between the digital environments based on the subject matter of a museum. The Eiteljorg, focused on art, had the smallest digital content. The science related areas of the State Museum were filled were technological tools for learning. The history focused areas of the State Museum on the other hand, had notably fewer digital tools. The contrast between their temporary science-based exhibit on Corn and their brand new exhibit on the Lincoln family was striking. These differences based on discipline beg the question: Should digital tools have a place in every discipline? The article, A Methodology for the Design of Online Exhibitions argues that visitors expect a different level of “museumness” based on the subject matter of the museum.[1] Although it may be that a visitor expects more exploratory technology in a science exhibit, I would argue that there is a place for more technology in both history and art museums like the Indiana State Museum and the Eiteljorg.

The Indiana State Museum and the Eiteljorg both have fairly similar websites that are geared primarily towards driving traffic to their physical location. The Indiana State Museum, from what I can discover, only provides short well-organized text descriptions of what you will find at the museum and what you need to know about the museum. They do appear to be developing a section about their collections, but currently there is almost no way to engage with the museum from the website. In my opinion, the Eiteljorg has a slightly stronger online presence, although, like the State Museum, their site serves primary to provide written descriptions of the Museum. There are two components that make this website stronger for me: the presence of a limited number of pictures from their collection, as well as information about image reproduction rights; and a blog about what is happening at the museum. Both of these aspects allow the visitor to engage to some extent with the museum from their home, though primarily the website still drives traffic to the physical location. I recognize that many institutions do not have the resources to develop an online exhibit such as what the before mentioned article outlines. However, I think these websites could improve on their ability to draw visitors to their museum (which seems to be the websites primary purpose). The main way I think this could be accomplished is through “motivating participation through joy.”[2] Bringing some aspect of play, exploration, and discovery to these websites could go a long way towards improving the digital presence of both of these museums.

My visits to the Indiana State Museum and the Eiteljorg Museum- both online and in person- helped me to examine some new considerations in the intersection of technology and public history. Both of these museums have good digital environments, but neither one of them are truly great. Viewing these museums with the goal of critiquing their digital technology allowed me to ask new questions: Should the subject matter of an exhibit play a role in how much digital technology is used in an exhibit? Is there a way for websites (which are intended primarily to direct traffic to a location) to utilize more concepts of “play” to provide a stronger web presence? These will be questions I will continue to ask and develop answers to as the semester- and my career- continue.

I welcome any comments you might have on these two questions or your own experiences with the digital environment in museums.

[1] This article defines “museumness” as the visitors perception of how well a space conforms to what they consider to be a typical museum. It argues that the less museumness is expected, the more entertainment a visitor is looking for and the greater the museumness, the more the visitor expects education. Angeliki Antoniou, George Lepouras, and Costas Vassilakis, “A Methodology for the Design of Online Exhibitions,”DESIDOC Journal of Library and Information Technology http://www.sdbs.uop.gr/files/mus-chap-tr.pdf (accessed February 15, 2013).

[2] IDEA. “What is Gamification?” Accessed February 15, 2013. http://www.idea.org/blog/2011/10/20/what-is-gamification/.


One Response to “Discipline and Play: Examining the digital environment of Indianapolis museums”

  1. Elena February 18, 2013 at 6:31 pm #

    Christine, I think you bring up a good point in whether technology use is more fitting for different disciplines. It might be what you want to get out of the museum’s content. For science, which I think is so much about concepts, technology can be a good way to explain them. For art, it’s often about the physical objects themselves, which can be viewed in an unmediated way. You’re right though that there are still many other ways to add to learning about art, and more web site material would be a good way to do so. Since history exhibits are a mix of concepts, objects and narrative information, I wonder what the most effective role for technology in history museums would be.

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