Dynamic Digitization: Technology’s Role in Two Indianapolis Museums

18 Feb

When I visit a museum, hands-on experiences with the past through interactive exhibits often leave the deepest impression. As institutions dedicated to making the past come alive for visitors in ways books cannot, gamifying exhibits is one of the most effective ways to reach young audiences. This is especially true when attempting to explore subjects and areas where man’s direct role is rather limited, like the formation of igneous rocks. Yet implementing this technology can be far from easy, and complicates issues of accessibility and the need to balance traditional and novel experiences. After visiting the Indiana State Museum and the Eitelljorg Museum of Native Americans and Western Art in Indianapolis, I have more respect for the difficulties of successfully implementing digital technology. There are some spaces where digital gamification is certainly informative and it has potential to augment our experiences in new and interesting ways. But does it always need to be used? And although including it in your museum space certainly helps (if done correctly), it does not do to neglect the institute’s online presence, for this can sometimes make up for the site’s lack of digital engagement.

The two institutions form an interesting contrast. The Indiana State Museum makes great use of digital technology to augment its science and natural history gallery. In the “Finding the Fault” exhibit, visitors navigate and explore the different varieties and geological circumstances that lead to the formation of a volcano, complete with illustrative animations. Clickable key terms help clear up any possible misunderstandings of words and case histories provide specific instances where a certain kind of volcano occurred in the past (some of them in Indiana.) Other displays offer visitors the chance to examine an archeological dig and answer questions based on what they see.

This gallery also showcases digital history’s potential to help us overcome traditional limitations One of the historian’s most pressing problems is imparting a sense of place and personal involvement in the past. This is especially true when discussing pre-human history. I may understand the basics of evolution and geology, but they remain largely abstract concepts. In “Changing the Face of the Earth,” a turntable allows visitors to alter a digital representation of a landscape (both forward and backward in time) showing the progression from ocean, to mountain range to glacier to river to desert. A corner display lists the years as changes take place, imparting a sense of the time it takes for these changes to occur, regardless of the speed the dial is turned at. Such an impressive display gives users the power to engage with the past in a way static representations almost never can.

Continuing through the museum, although I viewed several other elements of engagement, none of them fit into the digital category. And I found myself wondering; did they need to? For example, in the “Hoosier Heritage” gallery, the focus remains on traditional displays of objects accompanied by text descriptions and a few running audio logs that helpfully contextualize the scene. All of these do an excellent job of giving the viewer a sense of place and historically mindedness within time (and perhaps remind us why the past is better studied than lived.) These exhibits, while lacking much of the digital gamification seen in the previous gallery, managed to be just as immersive.

Coming from such an interactively stimulating environment to the comparatively low-key and traditional Eiteljorg Museum provided an interesting contrast of experiences. My initially suspicions that I would find little in the way of digital engagement in the galleries quickly proved correct. As an institute concerned primarily with displaying art, quiet portrait halls and static displays of tribal sculpture, clothing and folk art dominated much of the space. This is in part by design; the goal of the Eiteljorg differs from its neighbor in subject matter and approach. Although the Eiteljorg’s galleries lack the running audio and video displays that make the ISM so interactive and engaging, this makes for a more introspective and contemplative atmosphere and I initially considered the lack of digital technology to be a positive.

But then I realized my scope was too limited; digitization does not demand flashing lights and booming voices. Even the “Changing the Earth” display at ISM depends on imagery alone to make it’s point. What’s more, this lack of technology actually limits our ability to engage with the art beyond personal opinions about the picture. We may appreciate on a visual level, but without some way of communicating the importance of the piece in its local and national context, we cannot fully appreciate its worth as a historical artifact. Having a downloadable App to allow people to view the history of each painting and where and what it represents in the context of Native American history (perhaps specific to a tribe?) offers engagement without sacrificing atmosphere.

While the Eiteljorg proved more limited in physical exhibit presentations compared to ISM’s, their online presence is much more engaging, including links to Youtube videos advertising upcoming events, downloadable podcasts of interviews with notable Western and Native American historians and artists and even a blog. The ISM’s website is comparatively lacking, serving mainly as a source of online advertising for exhibitions and events. This is disappointing considering it misses the opportunity to cement the museum’s truly interactive nature by exploring similar displays through online games and help to augment ‘traditional’ exhibits

Scouring these two museums showed me the contextual strength of using digital technology to gamifiy exhibits. But success also depends on properly embracing, or perhaps challenging, public preconceptions of what digital history in a museum should look like. Some may be swayed by the ISM into thinking that effective digital engagement depends on physical interactive displays within the exhibits—but these do not work for every subject, nor are they financially viable for every museum. And while museums are often looking for ways to bring visitors through the doors with technological innovations, designers must consider what audience they are trying to attract and whether appealing to visitors more open to digital engagement is worth possibly alienating those seeking a more ‘traditional’ experience.

Public access to this technology is also an important issue, as this directly impacts the effectiveness of your technology. Although we can assume the majority of people have access to smartphone technology, what are we to do for those that do not? Gamification forces us to be cognizant of the fact that our choices will produce winners and losers among visitors. Despite this, as we’ve seen, abstaining from this technology does more harm than good. But should a museum consider risky financial investments in digital technology in the present to ensure future success? Having witnessed the proliferation of smartphone technology, I’ve no doubt it will eventually become as universally necessary and culturally expected as texting is now, so visitors will eventually expect more from museums. Funding these innovations may be risky, but as the Eiteljorg’s website demonstrates, an online presence can make up for offline limitations.

I began by asking if digital history has a place in every exhibit and, in writing this post, I’ve come to understand that, yes, if implemented correctly and carefully, it has the potential to enhance every experience. Overall, the key takeaway here is the need for balance. While digital gamification can prove very enlightening, we should strive to use it in ways that benefit the exhibit and guard against over-saturating a space to the point that it negatively impacts visitors’ experiences. And while we should not let digital engagement overshadow the value of hands-on physical interaction with objects, the power of digital gamification cannot be denied.

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4 Responses to “Dynamic Digitization: Technology’s Role in Two Indianapolis Museums”

  1. MDKenny February 18, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

    I agree with you about the disconnect between the ISM website and the museum itself. You also point to the fact that museums use interactive digital exhibit elements as a way to boost admissions; I find myself wondering if the basic, no frills, informative website is designed to drive traffic to the physical site as well.

    • Tim Rainesalo February 18, 2013 at 6:49 pm #

      It is certainly possible that’s one of the reasons ISM’s site is so bare-bones compared to the Eiteljorg’s. However, I would think that a more interactive web presence would be more effective in driving traffic toward the museum. It could also be as simple as the State Museum being so confident in their word-of-mouth reputation that they feel little need (or have smaller funding available) to boost the interactivity of their website.

  2. Elena February 18, 2013 at 6:48 pm #

    Tim, I think you’re right that technology can take so many varied forms. It is key to to have “engagement without sacrificing atmosphere.” There are many ways now that technology is well integrated into exhibits so that we don’t even really think of it as technology. I’ve commented on some other blog posts about this already, but I think it’s good to allow for further exploration into the museum content, and if it’s art, like at the Eiteljorg, maybe the best form is indeed very limited in the gallery, but then expanded online or in a separate space.

  3. ngoodlin February 18, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    I agree completely with your conclusion about being careful not to over-saturate. As I argued in my post, it’s crucial for a museum to be aware of how various kinds of digital media will interact with their preexisting aesthetic and mission design. The kinds of media that work so well in the State Museum would likely detract from the exhibits at the Eiteljorg. In thinking about the assignment this week, I was reminded of the exhibits at IHS (which I didn’t do because I’m already so familiar with it)–each of their “You Are There” exhibits represents a blend of extensive research derived from their collections plus digital technologies plus an interactive audience portion. I think that kind of integration is successful because the planners at that institution took the time to think about how their collections could work with digital items.

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