Digital, live and in person

18 Feb

With my JagTag in one hand, and one of the many complimentary tickets to the Indiana Historical Society (IHS) that have been gathering dust on my desk in the other, I set out to explore, compare and contrast the digital presence at these two nearby museums. I came away feeling vaguely discouraged about the whole experience.

As others here have noted, opportunities for digital engagement at the Eiteljorg are fairly limited. I spent what I imagine is an unusually long time exploring the interactive digital tools I happened to encounter. The first example I found was tucked away in the corner of the basement near the stagecoach reproduction in the R.B Annis Western Family Experience. I came away with a lot more knowledge about stagecoaches than I expected, but I almost certainly would not have spent the time I did had I not been “on assignment.” The main reason for this is that much of the material was presented as if from a book that had been digitized. There were some dynamic features, but the level of interactivity was limited by the tool itself; the screen was a non-touch monitor, and the interface consisted of an arcade-style trackball and “start” button. I spun and clicked through most of the content, gleaning details about the history of stagecoach construction , the logistics of running a stage line, and the experiences of travelers along the stage west to Deadwood.

I found the audio clips representing the travelers’ experiences to be unevenly detailed and somewhat mystifying, in general. They were not exactly fluff, but they didn’t tell much of a story either. The content was there, but I’m not sure what the overarching theme of the interactive was. I got the sense that, aside from providing this interactive element for parents to pay attention to while their kids played on the physical stagecoach, or with the other nearby activities, there was no reason for the kiosk to be there. Even the position of the kiosk was curious: the excellent diagrams of the various parts of the stagecoach were presented in great detail, but in order to see the physical counterparts to the diagrams just a few feet away, you had to turn around 180 degrees.

The three other kiosks I located at the Eiteljorg were physically similar to the stagecoach feature, but were focused on Native American culture and geography. Two of the kiosks were little more than menu screens for video clips, but the Mihtohseenionki (the People’s Place) digital installation in the Native American Galleries on the 2nd floor incorporated maps in a way that had real potential, especially for highly visual learners. Here again though, I felt the narrative was buried in the tool rather than highlighted by it.

The Indiana Experience at the IHS is one of the many prized jewels in the collection of that august organization. I have spent a good deal of time exploring the various pathways available to visitors interested in understanding Indiana’s past, and have had good experiences and bad. On the unabashedly positive side, I think the level of attention to detail in the curation of the Indiana Experience provides a benchmark for similar projects at organizations with mainly paper-based collections. The exhibit designers effectively leveraged the collections in order to provide broad coverage of a variety of themes in Indiana history. At the same time, there is nothing about the Indiana Experience that couldn’t happen in an online setting were it not for the organization’s extremely cautious disposition with regard to providing access to high-quality scans of their materials on the Web. This exhibit is clearly set up to accommodate large school groups, which is great for schools with the resources to visit, but irrelevant for students at schools unable to do so. Another concern I have about the Indiana Experience as a feature of school visits is the lack of time allocated to deep exploration during those visits, or opportunities to follow up on the experience once students have returned to their home communities.

Most of what the IHS and the Eiteljorg offer on-site would work just as well as elements of their respective websites, although my own experiences elsewhere (and my classmates’ blog posts here) demonstrate that this doesn’t have to be the case. I think it’s important that museums and other institutions get past the issue of how to use technological bells and whistles to drive admissions numbers, and think about how to use technology to fundamentally enhance (and differentiate) online and on-site  visitor experiences. I think it’s possible for institutions to do so, but when well-funded organizations such as the IHS continue to be preoccupied with getting physical visitors through the door, I wonder how organizations struggling to maintain staff and pay the bills can be expected to take the lead.


One Response to “Digital, live and in person”

  1. angelabpotter February 19, 2013 at 10:42 pm #

    I think this is a really interesting concept. I think small projects can be technologically rich when they conceptualize the needs of the “digital visitor” from the beginning. I think the “Baltimore ’68” project we looked at las semester in Prof. Labode’s class. That small project has had a lot of reach and impact. I sensed a lot of resistance last night to the notion of “digital visitors” in class last night. Funding challenges tend to turn people inward, instead of looking outward. Interesting perspective as always.

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