Category Archives: Technology

The Museum Network

Social media has changed the way we communicate with one another.  Museums have to tap into this world of user created content to engage and expand its audience.  Today’s techno savvy museum audiences are no longer satisfied being passive consumers of content, they expect to be part of the creative process.   Social networking sites, such as facebook and twitter, bring together like-minded individuals and provides them with an outlet to share their likes, dislikes, opinions, thoughts, feelings, and outbursts with the rest of the internet.  Museums in the 21st century can use these technological tools to gather its audience on a global level and create a community around its collections and educational mission.

Facebook, with its more than 500 million members, is now the unquestioned ruler of social networking sites on the planet.  Most people log on to their facebook page to stay connected with their family, friends, colleagues, and online groups.  Numerous museums have their own facebook page as a way to pass along information to those in its network.  Museum like MoMA in New York (604,000 followers), The Met in New York (360, 000 followers), the Philadelphia Museum of Art (115,000 followers), and the Smithsonian Institution (74,000 followers) have large facebook followings.  Yet, those numbers appear miniscule when you compare it to that of some of today’s household names, such as Lady Gaga (22 million followers), Barack Obama (15 million followers), and the Jonas Brothers (5.6 million followers).

Twitter is another social networking site museums utilize to send out news on the information superhighway.  The micro-blogging site allows ones’ followers to receive, read, respond to and forward these 140 characters or fewer blurbs.  While 140 characters may not appear to be enough to covey a meaningful message, it is amazing just how much it can get across.  Like facebook, twitter is a powerful tool to inform followers about exhibitions, programs, event, and general news.  However, these blasts of information are limited to those who chose to subscribe to your feed.  Some museums have done well in cultivating an online presence via twitter.  The MoMA has some 360,000 subscribers to its feed, the Met has 150,000 subscribers, the Smithsonian has 219,000, and 22,000 people subscribe to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s twitter feed.

The inherent benefit of using such social media tools and website is it invites the museum visitor to join the conversation.  With each facebook post and tweet, followers have a place to comment on what is being said by the museum.  Now the museum’s constituents are able to have new and substantive conversations and learning experiences with the museum without having to be within the museum’s walls.  Asking a question, posting a picture, or a adding a video are popular ways to use these tools, since they are great ways to engage the audience, spark a discussion, bring attention to the museum’s collection, spotlight the day in history, feature an emerging artists and much more.

And isn’t creating this conversation what museums aim to do?

Playing with modern technology… or lack thereof?

When we think about “modern technology” in museums, the first things that come to mind are shiny LCD televisions, interactive ipad-like touch-screen tables, or perhaps a cell phone audio tour.  These are perhaps great ways of engaging the already tech-savvy visitor or showing the public that museums are still relevant in the age of the internet, but how modern does this technology have to be in order to engage the visitor in a meaningful and educational way?

I recently went to the visitor’s center at Great Falls National Park in Great Falls, Virginia. Unlike the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum, this visitor’s center was very sparse in terms of the most modern and up-to-date technology, with the exception of a few LCD televisions mounted on the walls. In fact, the very first object that you walk into is a giant topographical map, which visitors are encouraged to touch.

As you enter the exhibit area to the right of the map, on the wall exists a typical timeline that could be found in a nature center. The timeline explained the geological features of the area, the Chesapeake Watershed, as well as the parks pre-historic history.  Right below this timeline are some castings of animal footprints… which are available to touch. Rounding the corner in front of a large window stood four mannequins in period clothing. On a stand in front of them was a button, so I pressed it. Suddenly a spotlight shown on one and a voice came out of the speaker behind me; a voice began to narrate a story about this gentleman’s life in Matildaville.

Push the button and they'll talk to you! WOW!

The left wall contained a cut-out shape of a trolley, with more buttons

Trolley Wall

This time, the visitor was encouraged to pick up one of the phones on the trolley to hear an oral history account of someone who had actually ridden on the trolley to the Great Falls Amusement Park. If you couldn’t understand or hear the speaker, cards with the text of the recordings were located under the phones.

Oral History Telephones

As began to make my way out of the exhibit, another display board challenged visitors to think about the actions they would take in order to preserve the park and the natural environment of the region. The picture is self-explanatory.

After having this experience, I reflected upon my own experience as a docent, remembering that people like to press buttons. And touch things. Especially in areas where touching is “not allowed”.  This is the way in which many people make sense of their world. Children do this through play, whereas when we become adults we find ourselves in the situation where touching objects and our surrounding environment isn’t always appropriate. The Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia is almost entirely dedicated to play and states on their website that “Play offers an emotional outlet, develops the imagination and creativity, and cultivates problem solving skills.” However, they don’t limit their playing environment to just children. Adults have the chance to participate in play activities through programs such as Parents Empowered by Play and Portable Play Programs.

Even science centers are still making use of low-tech to make their point (and doing a great job of encouraging play in the process). The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego, California uses “simple” materials such as sand, water and magnets to demonstrate geological phenomena on a small scale in their Earth Exposed exhibit. One of their newest exhibits- Block Busters! , allows visitors to try their skill at engineering with KEVA planks. According to their website, visitors can challenge themselves to create the following:

“Spirals” – Make a structure using spirals. How many different types of spirals can be made? How can the number of layers be designed in different ways to complete a revolution?

“Impossible Structures” – Build a structure and remove some of the planks to create a sculpture that could not be built from the ground up, such as an eagle or hexagon uprights.

“Think Like an Architect” – Build a tower as tall as yourself! Add patterns and structure to make it more beautiful or interesting.

“Minimalism” – Build a sculpture using only ten planks or objects with only the most essential elements –i.e. an airplane with three planks.

An added benefit to this exhibit is that the adult visitor can become just as engaged as the child!

Reflecting back to the trip to the Gettysburg National Military Park and Museum (see Engaging the Visitor through Touchscreen Technology), I have to admit that I was personally more engaged by the touch tables than by the objects on display. Conversely, I feel as though I were more engaged by my experience at Great Falls. Each visitor will experience something different than the next, however, I have to wonder if incorporating modern technology into exhibits might mean that if we cannot find that balance, we re-define what “modern technology” means altogether.

Websites and Kids

It’s easy to assume that kids these days, with their rap music and their cell phones, are going to be most interested in first interacting with a museum through its website. Unsurprisingly, online exhibitions and games are often targeted at a museum’s younger visitors (sometimes through a specifically named “Kids” section, sometimes not), but are these always helpful? I would argue that a poorly done Kids section–and even website in general–could very well be worse than no kids section at all.

One of my favorite examples of a Kids section that just doesn’t make the grade comes from Boston Children’s Museum, an organization near and dear to my heart. While the museum offers an aesthetically pleasing and engaging website, there is something lacking in the Kids online games section–mostly, online games. When I first accessed the site two years ago, it didn’t even have Our Green Trail, which I will say is a slickly designed and well done game about conserving energy, advertised with kiosks throughout the museum itself. And while Our Green Trail is well designed, it takes time, and effort, and may not draw in a casual visitor, especially one more interested in a quick flash game. The other two games featured are Construction Worker and two e-postcards, and, to be completely honest, I would say it’s generous to call either of those games.

In other sections of the website, it’s clear that Boston Children’s Museum has many exciting exhibits on site, but their online play just doesn’t reflect this. Compare with the Fun and Games section from the National Museum of Play in Rochester. While there aren’t many more games than there are at the BCM website, they are all truly games, with a range of subjects and appealing designs. This is what one would hope for from a museum dedicated to play, but it’s also what one would hope for from any online games section.

When looking at museums and technology, critics often bring up technology for technology’s sake–that is, shiny gadgets that don’t serve to enhance the content of the museum. The problem with websites could be the opposite, especially when it comes to children–an outdated or unappealing website may serve to convince young visitors that even the most exciting museum is uncool, out-of-touch, or old-fashioned. With institutions that already often trouble with a stodgy reputation, it’s important to make sure that attempts to stay with the times actually are with the times, and with the speed that technology moves, it’s all too easy to fall behind.

The Mobile Museum


How can museums reach its visitors when they are unable to visit the museum?  They can reach them on their cell phone!

Mobile devices such as smart phones, iPod touches, and iPads provide an instant connection to the web virtually anywhere, and it is this type of technology museums can turn to in their efforts further reach its clientele.  The 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition, which “examines emerging technologies for their potential impact on and use in education and interpretation within the museum environment”, identifies mobile technologies as one of its “key trends” (The New Media Consortium, 2010).  It may seem like everyone has one of these devices, but not just yet.  Nielsen predicts that, by mid 2011, there will be more than 150 million smart phones in use in the United States, half of the predicted 300 million mobile subscribers (The Nielsen Company, 2010).

So how can museums take advantage of this technology?  Museums have to provide the necessary information visitors are looking for, along side media-rich content they look forward to, with the speed and ease today’s “anytime, anywhere” mobile users increasingly expected.  One way museums try to reach this audience is through mobile apps.  A search of Apple’s App Store came back with more than 200 museum-related mobile apps.  For instance, the American Museum of Natural History in New York developed apps to engage, enhance, extend, expand, and even entertain museum visitors when they are unable to be at the museum (http://www.amnh.org/apps/).  Another approach to reaching the mobile audience is through websites created for web browsers on mobile devices.  These mobile sites, such as Air and Space’s (mobile.nasm.si.edu) and the Brooklyn Museum’s  (www.brooklynmuseum.org/mobile/) mobile users can access the museums’ vital information regarding visitation, exhibition, directions, and events quickly and easily on their phone.

Museums can also take advantage of the ever-increasing functionality of cell phones, smart phones, and other mobile devices to provide media-rich content.  The development of cellular networks are making media streaming, watching videos, and downloading content to a mobile device easier and faster than even.  Creating videos, and sharing them via YouTube.com and its smart phone app, can help museums take visitors beyond the general museum experience.  Several museums, like LACMA (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTsTY9t-fN8) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxxqcsCa4-4) have YouTube channels which highlight their interpretive and education oriented videos.  Podcast and video podcasts can easily be downloaded, through a variety of sources such as Apple’s iTunes app, in a matter of seconds, and then enjoyed anywhere.

Engaging the Visitor through Touch-Screen Technology

Interactive technology in the museum is a growing trend and one that continues to develop as museums take a more audience-centered approach. Many museums already employ the use of video screens or push-button audio experiences (speeches, music, etc.). Recently, I have noticed rising numbers of touch-screens making their way into exhibits, which can provide an excellent supplement to the visitor experience.

One such example is at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum & Visitor’s Center, in which I was fortunate to visit last week. Touch screens were located throughout the main gallery and were primarily located in areas in which visitor’s could benefit from further interaction. At one location, topic being addressed through the artifacts was the “everyday” life of a soldier. The touchscreen activity focused on becoming familiar with different types of bugle calls (such as reveille, et al). After hearing the different types of bugle calls, the visitor had the option of taking the “challenge” which involved listening to a series of bugle calls and having to identify the name of each one.

Here are some high school students interacting with a similar touch screen experience on the topic of flag signals.

The very last touch screen at the end of the gallery allowed for the visitor to further explore the Gettysburg Address. One had the option of exploring a digitized version of the original text (photo), or they could search a more “readable” version of the document with optional reference guides explaining the meaning.

Some would argue that having technology like this takes away from learning from the actual objects in the museum and worse, leave those in collections management feeling like their efforts have been negated. If a visitor spends more time watching a video or in front of a touch screen without even a glance at the objects, then yes—this is a problem. However, I think that finding the right balance of interactive technology and presenting in such a way to supplement the experience is not a problem at all. If it engages a certain demographic that would not normally be engaged or it provides a further avenue for self-directed learning then the museum and the visitor both benefit.

Online Exhibits at NMAI

I’ve been looking at online exhibits as my primary source of technologies used by museums. At their best, I think online exhibits can be an excellent resource for those unable to come to a museum. At the same time, these exhibits can end up coming off as little more than an unrelated collection of images and curatorial details. The online exhibits at the National Museum of the American Indian run the gauntlet between these two extremes.

The museum has 35 online exhibits, most of which seem to be online adaptations of exhibits that were once in the museum. It’s unclear to me how much information may have been lost from the original exhibition; for example, in the very slick and easy to navigate First American Art exhibit, objects are divided into various categories, including “emotion” and “movement,” and each category has its own paragraph describing the ideas behind the section, and links to objects with further curatorial information. I have to wonder, though, if there was further information clarifying why one pair of shoes would be classified under “intimacy” and another under “vocabulary.” In some ways, as interesting as the exhibit is, it raises more questions than it answers to me. Although if I were in a museum, looking at the objects, I might not have more questions, the very nature of the online exhibit makes me feel as though I should have a multitude of links available to all the further information I require–wikipedia style, if you will.

On the other hand, an exhibit like The New Old World: Antilles presents its artifacts in such a way that I know exactly what I’m expecting, and I feel as if I have completely sufficient background to appreciate the photographs presented, and recreates some of the feeling of going through a gallery full of photographs. Both exhibits make me want to learn more and increase my interest in the museum, but the first also makes me feel somewhat cheated, as if they aren’t using the full capacity of the online gallery.

I encourage everyone to explore the NMAI’s online exhibitions–I find it to be a great way to preserve exhibits that are no longer housed in the museum, and an interesting, if not always fully realized, expansion of the museum’s existing collections.