Museum Technology – engaging, interpretive

16 Feb

I’m going to take a slightly different spin on this blog post on technology in museums.  Besides looking at technology in place at Conner Prairie, I also want reflect on a technological component of an upcoming exhibit at the Eiteljorg Museum. I am especially interested in how technology can encourage learning, hinder or enhance an experience, and engage or distance a visitor.

Morgan's Raid

Courtesy of Conner Prairie

When I visited Conner Prairie in the fall, I went into their interactive experience about Morgan’s Raid.  I came out with mixed thoughts and am glad to finally have the chance to sort them out here.  After reading the article “A methodology for the design of online exhibitions” I learned the concept of “museumness,” or what perceptions visitors bring about the type of experience they should get from various types of museums.  Learning is correlated with stereotypical museums, and “when an institution is not seen as a museum, the visitors expect and wish to be primarily entertained.” [1] Looking at Conner Prairie in light of that, as well as considering their main audience (families and children,) I have the feeling that what I expect from Conner Prairie is different from what their focus is.  They probably place a greater emphasis on entertainment (making history fun), whereas I went there to learn.

That brings me to their Morgan’s Raid experience, where visitors are shut into a storeroom with costumed actors, holograph actors, and shaking shelves.  I was surprised by this experience since technology was missing from most of the rest of the museum, and suddenly it was very present.  Rather than offering a clear break between past and present, like another building which showed a video in a modern room, the Morgan’s Raid experience was still presented within the context of “being” in 1863.  What was (what I had previously just considered) a theme park experience doing in a history museum?

Like many living history museums, I’m sure Conner Prairie must always walk the line between historical accuracy and modern interpretations, education and entertainment.  The Morgan’s Raid experience was definitely an experience – it attempted to be accurate and educational in the facts presented, but in an entertaining way using modern technology.  Its multi-sensory presentation could also engage audiences of various learning styles, and I believe that experiences are great ways to learn. I think it was successful in what it set out to do, it was just not at all what I had expected from a living history museum and my perceptions of what living history museums do, which is to create a distinct past moment in time.  In that way, I’m not sure whether I felt more engaged or more distanced by the Morgan’s Raid experience.

In a different example, I want to look at the use of technology at the Eiteljorg Museum, which has very different considerations in incorporating technology than Conner Prairie.  As many of you know, as part of my internship at the Eiteljorg Museum I’ve been working on the upcoming exhibit “Guitars! Roundups to Rockers.”  This exhibit will look at the development of the guitar and the diversity of music in the West, focused around the more than one hundred guitars we’ll have on display.  Though guitars can be visually striking in many ways, they need to be heard to be experienced.  In order to interpret guitars, one must understand how they’re played and how they sound.  This means that technology is vital in telling the story of guitars in the west.

But what is the best way to do that?  After deciding not to use much ambient sound, the curators were especially interested in the potential of QR codes, iPods, and iPads, so I did some research into other museums using these technologies.[2]  In the end, the curators and new media coordinator decided on iPods in the exhibit after considering ease of use, accessibility (lending devices rather than having to bring your own), cost, the possibility of reuse, and the simplicity of production. The choice was also made to focus mainly on songs rather than videos, which also could have brought up copyright issues and the need for Internet streaming. I’d be happy to expand on any of these points.  Besides the iPods, there will also be iPads displaying video of guitar-playing techniques.

The final product on the iPod will be similar to an audio guide, letting you listen to songs along the way, but the interface allows for photos and sometimes video to display on the screen as well. Though technically meant for interpretation and education, I’m sure the songs will also be entertaining.  There might be a risk of having visitors understand the audio as only entertainment, but on some songs, the curators plan to record short sound bits explaining the importance of the song, which I think is a good approach.  This also fits into the high “museumness” of the Eiteljorg.

I hope that you can all make it to the exhibit, which opens March 9, and I’d like to hear your thoughts about the iPods.  Do you think they are easy to use?  Are they well integrated into the exhibit? Another aspect that we considered is that exhibits are often meant to be social experiences.  Larger devices like mounted iPads or motion-activated sensors that beam music into a restricted space allow for multiple people to experience their content simultaneously.  However, individual audio tours could be distancing, especially if one keeps their headphones on the entire time.  Let me know whether you notice any feeling of isolation because of this.  I’ve clearly learned from the theoretical planning aspect of this, so it will be interesting to see whether  its implementation aligns with our goals!

Let me now briefly touch on the online presence of these two museums.  Conner Prairie’s web site again focuses on the experience of the visit, allowing one to “plan their adventure.”[3]  It provides visitors with background information about Prairietown, the various characters, what activities one can do there, historical information like period games, as well as available food.  The web site serves its audiences, providing information needed for family visitors and for schools.  This educational component is very important and good preparation for a visit, allowing one to be able to already go in asking questions.  Likewise, after a visit one can also explore more about the time periods and look at historical documents.  They also encourage visitors to connect with them through well-maintained social media and blog posts providing more information on the museum and its offerings.

The Eiteljorg’s web site also offers important information needed (exhibitions, hours, events).[4]  Though their social media presence is current, connective features on the web site, like a blog, are less so.  While they provide curriculum information for teachers and families, there is much less information on museum content and its context.  I think that the free form of Conner Prairie means that more information can be helpful in structuring a visit, whereas the Eiteljorg’s exhibit format is more straightforward.  However, while the Eiteljorg focuses on what actually happens in the museum, Conner Prairie also allows for engagement outside of the museum and for more further learning opportunities.

The Eiteljorg has a much different approach from Conner Prairie in its technology use, partially because it is working within a traditional exhibition format rather than a more interactive type of learning experience, partially because the audience is different, and partially because technology is meant to serve different purposes for interpretation and education.

[1] Angeliki Antonio, George Lepouras and Costas Vassilak, “A Methodology for the Design of Online Exhibitions”, 4.

[2] I don’t want to go into all of the ideas I came across, but The Brooklyn Museum is one museum leading the way in terms of utilizing technology and social media.  Read more about some of those initiatives on their blog:


5 Responses to “Museum Technology – engaging, interpretive”

  1. jkalvait February 17, 2013 at 1:16 am #

    Elena, I appreciate your insights about the new exhibit at the Eiteljorg. I am curious, did they decide against QR codes? And will the museum be providing the iPods for visitors to use?

    I also liked your examination of the Morgan’s Raid exhibit at Conner Prairie. The immersive environment offered in the storeroom with holograms was different. I think that it creates the emotional reaction that many living history sites try to invoke in their visitors. However, it is ahistorical in a way. One of my favorite things when I went was the telegram/email feature. I think that Conner Prairie will be a living history site to watch for our purposes. They are re-inventing themselves with a focus on technology and innovation.

    • Elena February 18, 2013 at 6:54 pm #

      Thanks for commenting! Yes, we did decide against QR codes. Though I could be wrong, I think the thought was that QR codes mean you have to have: a) a link to an online file and b) visitors with devices to scan them. It seems like iPods would be able to do this more simply by just having all the music in one place without depending on an Internet connection, and if we’d have to rent out something with a QR scanner anyways for accessibility, then why not just have iPods. So yes, there will be iPods to rent out, similar to an audio guide device.
      I didn’t bring up the Conner Prairie telegram, but thanks for mentioning it! I think it is something that engages you in a different way than most of the rest of the museum, and the space it’s in is also more interpretive than the more historical schoolhouse in Prairietown.

  2. xtinexby February 17, 2013 at 1:55 pm #


    I, like Jenny, was very interested in your insights about the up coming exhibit at the Eiteljorg and your reflections on our visit to Conner Prairie. It seems to me that these are both examples of ways that technology is allowing museums to take what they would traditionally present and go one level deeper. The Morgan’s Raid exhibit allows the visitor, to some extent, get the feeling and sense of actually being in a specific situation, not just a time period. Technology has allowed them to tackle the experience of being raided during the Civil War and present it in a cost-efficient manner (not having to pay numerous actors to be there every single day). Similarly, the use of I-pads and QR codes will allow an exhibit that should in all rights be focused on sound, not just visuals, to really come alive in a way that it couldn’t have in it was presented 30 years ago. Technology in this case will hopefully aid deeper understanding.

    • Elena February 18, 2013 at 6:57 pm #

      Thanks for your thoughts! I think it’s interesting to make the distinction between a situation and a time period. For situations, you do need more complex interpretation, and I had never thought about the fact that to stage it (live) would probably require lots of extra work daily as well. There is something about being limited to the storeroom that is immersive – you can’t get out!

  3. Elena February 18, 2013 at 1:18 am #

    Reblogged this on Musings on History.

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