How can Museums Move into the Tech Age

Posted October 21, 2014

Technology in museums isn’t new. Media has been an active part of the museum experience for many years. Technology has become part of the visitor experience — from the website to the guided tour — and it has become part of exhibits. It is not an understatement to say that cultural institutions have a hard time keeping up with the fast-paced development of tech and applying it to their visitor experience.

Mobile, wearable, augmented reality, virtual reality, each of these new forms of technology are impacting the daily lives of millions of users. Museums want to be involved in the change, incorporating the experiences into their exhibits and offerings. In reading about this new digital landscape for cultural institutions, I came across several ideas that highlight considerations for adopting and building tech for museums.

Writing on the Victoria and Albert Museum’s blog, Head of Digital, Kati Price wrote:

I think it’s dangerous to assume the best starting point is technology. It’s people: some of the most enduring, compelling innovations come from looking at what people want, and at their latent needs… museums, as social institutions, really need to think about people first. Too often we end up with solutions looking for problems.

It’s also about getting the basics right. On the museum conference circuit I hear from peers about exciting new apps and gallery interactives, yet often they don’t have responsive websites. It’s easy to get distracted by the latest technologies, while neglecting the fundamentals, like making it easy for visitors to find your opening times while they’re on the move.

Kati is calling attention the basic principle of: museums are repositories of artifacts and information for people. They don’t exist for technology’s sake. If an institution were to implement a VR installation, it must fit within the museum’s scope and mission.

Danny Birchall and Mia Ridge wrote about technology beyond the web for the Guardian blog and posed some great questions.

Museums are scattered with the remnants of past technologies. Audiences may be unaware of the ethernet ports lurking behind a kiosk, but display screens that don’t respond to their touch often baffle younger visitors. These legacies remind us of the inescapable fact that technologies and audience expectations move fast while museums move slow.

How can we hang on to some of [the] great principles[of changing technology] while staying open to all the possibilities that post-web technology offers? How should we work with our peers outside the sector to help our organizations see past buzzwords and spot lasting changes in audience expectations?

It would be simpler to adopt an off-the-shelf experience for mobile, augmented reality, virtual reality, or any type of wearable, but that would depart from relevant. Technology moves fast. We are used to that. The slow pace of institutional change may have to be embraced so institutions don’t become tech fossils before their time. Museums, even as we are speaking of them as tech developers and producers, are physical places. Their pace is architectural, academic, and knowledge contingent. But changes are on the horizon in useful interactive museum technology.

One possible example was developed by computer scientists at Bristol University. They have developed interactive, semi-transparent mirrors that allow people to ‘touch’ objects with the reflection of their fingers. They have entitled their project, “Through the Combining Glass.” The program tracks users’ movements across the transparent mirror and uses augmented reality to project a likeness of the object moving as if it were being touched. The ‘objects’ can then be rotated, turned, and basically examined as if the user were picking up the artifact.

The program has variations in use, but the goal is to put a greater level of interactivity into the visitor’s experience. They would be able to see the original artifact and interact with the virtual version in the same place. Removing the glass between the visitor and the artifact has the chance to inspire more relevance, engagement, and enjoyment.

As we are asking these technology-based questions, other questions about the nature of the museum need to be taken into account. Assuming that a museum is a place of preservation and display of objects, what happens when technology, or other interactive programming, allows people to engage with the objects. Does this turn the museum into a place of interaction, a portal, a game, a learning tool? Do we need to design for the next museum instead of around the idea of the museum as it stands now?

These questions and many more will be part of the next generation of cultural institutions. Museums will have to adopt a more responsive way of testing technology in place, failing fast, and moving onto the next solution. Whether or not this is possible, and the way in which it is, will be aided by outside consultants that can develop and test a plethora of ideas. The future is a space wide open with possibility. We are looking forward to the next age of museum interaction.

Read the Bristol University writeup of “Through the Combining Glass.”

Ian Lewis Campbell

Join The Conversation