Art vs. Entertainment: Using Digital Experiences to Amplify Museum Enjoyment

18 Feb

On assignment to investigate the digital resources of local museums, I decided to pick two examples that I knew would be well-funded, but contain very different resources.  The two I decided on were the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) and the Indiana State Museum (ISM).  Both museums offered compelling examples of digital interaction, online and in person, but I felt that the experience I had in each was extremely different. 

At first glance, the IMA does not seem to have an in-person digital component.  Many of the galleries were strictly conventional, with a painting, sculpture, or artifact on display, and a small exhibit label next to it giving a brief background description.  One nearly hidden wall contained a display where one could press buttons to hear selection of traditional Asian music and poetry, but it had limited appeal.  Things changed, however, when I examined the modern art exhibit.  A small part of this section contained practically the only conventional digital interactive material that I could find in the museum—3 iPads were affixed to the wall with headphones leading out, each containing a video interview of an artist discussing his or her featured work.  More interesting, however, were the digital components to be found in the exhibits themselves.  For example, one display featured sound waves drawn out in graphite, with speakers connected to the page.  Visitors were encouraged to tap the pages, which produced unique sounds of vibration according to the depicted sound wave; up to four people could participate in this activity simultaneously, each with their own sound wave.  This design adheres to the principles laid out in Antoniou, Lepouras, and Vassilakis’ article on digital exhibit methodology—visitors to an art museum “expect to learn first, socialize secondly,” and go for entertainment last.[1]  While the sound waves were not terribly entertaining from a gamified perspective, they did provide a method of interacting with and learning about the art in a socialized environment.  I found several other examples of this style of pedagogic, socialized art with digital components, mostly revolving around using videos and visualizations to show the process of art being done.  For me, this approach was extremely effective.  In most of the museum, I felt like a passive observer, simply walking around and looking at the impressive collection on display.  The interactivity of the modern art section allowed me to feel like I was part of the exhibit, not only piquing my interest, but also juxtaposing the stylistic differences between past forms of art and the modern era.  The digital experience felt less like a tacked-on experience to entertain bored children, and more like a functional part of the museum.

 Although the in-person digital experience impressed me, it was quite limited.  The IMA rectifies this limitation with extensive online support.  One impressive feature was the ability to access guided tours through smart-phone devices, a feature I couldn’t personally access due to technological limitations.  For those of us without smart-phones, however, there are still a range of options available online.  The IMA has an impressive social media presence, with a blog, a digital magazine, and a robust Youtube channel.  There are also digital tours, arranged into contemporarily relevant categories, like “LOLCatz” or “Movember,” calculated to catch the eye of digitally savvy and aware visitors.[2]  These articles and quick digital tours are great resources for a range of visitors, whether teachers or casual viewers.

 The second museum I went to, the Indiana State Museum (ISM), handled its digital materials in a more conventional style.  As expected, the ISM had many more digital options to explore, though the vast majority of them fell into the category of either video screens or touch screens that played a video when activated.  These displays typically did an excellent job of accentuating the textual labels, providing relevant information or a visualization of complicated information.  For example, an electronic family tree was accessible in the Lincoln display; when a visitor pressed a button, the portraits slowly lit up, showing where in the chronology each family member entered the picture.  Other notable examples included a 3D planet-shaped screen that could display detailed overlays of solar system objects, a touch-screen photograph archive showing thousands of pictures of Hoosiers from the 19th century to the present, an interactive touch-screen game that required one to perform typical frontier activities, and a ridiculously catchy song/video combination discussing glaciation and Milankovitch cycles.  These displays were often entertaining, engaging, and educational, providing an excellent museum experience.

 The website for the ISM was less exciting in terms of digital content than the museum itself or the website for the IMA.  If one digs into the page a little bit, there is some useful material for educators, but very little for the casual visitor.[3]  Most of the rest of the content on the page is meant to entice visitors into coming to the physical building itself, with newsletters and advertisements depicting feature and upcoming exhibits.  Although this is a valid use of a website, it was slightly disappointing to see the lack of interaction between the ISM and its digital audience.

 Overall, I was impressed with the digital content available from each museum, but more than that, I was intrigued by the use of different digital media to serve different museum missions.  The content at the IMA was integrated into the exhibits—in retrospect, it’s easy to see how a touch screen game or a pop-inspired song could completely detract from the ambience and art.  It’s impressive to see how the IMA has navigated around that, by including exhibits that encourage audience participation, socialization, and play.  The exhibits at the ISM, conversely, were enhanced by the presence of ancillary touch screen and visual media.  This allowed more conventional displays to be used to great effect.

 The website designs of the museums also compliment the on-site digital offerings of each.  The IMA, with its limited digital offerings, and lack of additional on-site information for its exhibits, has a robust web presence that invites audiences to explore a good deal of additional content.  The ISM, by not needing to conform to such rigorous aesthetic standards, has much of this information on-site, and so can provide a more limited web presence that serves to expand the services of the museum to educators and classrooms.

 Even with the above argument, however, there are drawbacks to each museum.  The IMA design, while elegant and interesting, does not provide a great deal of differentiation amongst the exhibits in the museum—essentially, if an audience member does not like how the museum is set up, the digital displays are not likely to change that opinion or offer much of a distraction.  The ISM’s content is largely fueled by videos, with relatively few interactive items.  While these videos largely enhance the exhibits, many audience members do not have the patience to read through the text of the exhibit and sit through several minutes of a movie.  The majority of visitors that I observed passed by the video screens either without stopping at all or, at best, only briefly.  Due to the maintenance costs and initial installation/development costs of creating interactive media, it isn’t surprising that the ISM would adapt a more stable technology, like plasma screens and video content, but it does mean that many of their digital displays are under-utilized by their audiences.  It would perhaps be more useful to post some of these videos online, so that visitors could interact with them at their leisure.  Despite these limitations, however, I feel that each museum has successfully integrated digital content into their museum missions and designs to create a more effective product than what was available before.


[1] Angelika Antoniou, George Lepouras, and Costas Vassilakis, A Methodology for the Design of Online Exhibitions, http://www.sdbs.uop.gr/files/mus-chap-tr.pdf 4.

[2] Termed “Tag Tours,” these digital exhibits also present works of art that are not currently up in the galleries, reflecting the fact that the IMA has far more art than it has space.  This is an interesting opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at the IMA’s holdings.  Available here: http://www.imamuseum.org/interact/tag-tours.

[3] Examples of materials for teachers include pre-visit rundowns of the contents of galleries, so that teachers can prepare their tours in advance (http://www.indianamuseum.org/educators/gallery/gall.html) and several lesson plans based on museum collections, grouped by age appropriateness (http://www.indianamuseum.org/educators/gallery/lesson/).

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One Response to “Art vs. Entertainment: Using Digital Experiences to Amplify Museum Enjoyment”

  1. Tim Rainesalo February 18, 2013 at 7:55 pm #

    Very interesting piece, Noah. Your point about differing institutional missions and aesthetic limitations affecting the on site use of technology and the relatively low-key online presence of the ISM reminds me of several of our class readings in that one gamification glove does not fit all museums. I also appreciated your emphasis on each institute’s mission determining their respective on-site technological offerings. Most of all, your point about visitors’ experiential expectations in an art museum is very astute. It it is sometimes easy for us to forget is that museums, while seeking to challenge visitors to learn, are also somewhat bound by what visitors expect to get from their experience.

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