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