The Role of Technology in Museums

There is no doubt that technology is becoming central to the museum experience. With tools like beacons, iPads, touch screens, and haptic interfaces (to name just a few), technology provides museumgoers with detailed information, customized viewing experiences, and precise location mapping services. Further, technology can be used as an accessibility tool to make the museum experience more inclusive for visitors with disabilities such as hearing loss, visual impairment, Alzheimers, and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Given the necessity of these tools and the success of their uses, it would seem that technology is a critical element that will help propel museums and other cultural institutions into the 21st century.

That said, the use of digital technology in museums is often seen as a double-edged sword. The readiness and willingness of museums to embrace new technologies is exciting, yes, but it also begs the question: does technology really belong in museums?

The Cons

I ask this question because there are many arguments against the use of technology in museums that persist even as we, as a society, have come to accept the everyday use of technology as a way of life. For starters, museums are typically viewed as a place of refuge. For many, they are a sanctuary, inviting visitors to wander through vast expanses of timeless masterpieces and rare artifacts undisturbed by the distractions of our busy lives. They allow visitors to reconnect with themselves, find peace within, and feel both intellectually and mentally refreshed. While some believe that technology enhances the museum experience, others feel that the constant distractions associated with most modern technological devices detracts from this reflective experience.

In addition, the overuse of technology is known to have serious negative side effects, including “shifts in cognitive processing, shrinking attention spans, delayed or deferred social skill development, and drops in fundamental literacy skills.” What’s more, some Millennials have difficulty distinguishing between digital worlds and reality, and sometimes even prefer the digital world, pointing to a digital dependency. In my opinion, this raises an important consideration around the idea of offering physical vs. digital experiences: since museums have historically offered physical experiences, does the incorporation of digital elements compromise the integrity of the museum experience?

There are also several practical arguments against the widespread incorporation of technology in museums. On a fundamental level, the almost ubiquitous presence of technology perhaps points to an overreliance on technology in museums. Museum blogger Mike Murawski questions whether museums as a whole are sacrificing their core mission and values by adding more resources and staff that revolve around technology, rather than the essential functions of collecting, preserving, and interpreting. Murawski approaches this issue by calling for a meaningful balance between “unplugged” and “plugged-in” experiences, pointing out that when museums promote personal human interactions with their collections, whether digital, tactile, or otherwise, they have the most public value. Likewise, blogger Emily Shuster stresses the importance of using the right technological tool in museums. Shuster argues that touchscreens, for example, act as a distraction rather than an informative tool, since they provide an experience that visitors can already get at home. To put it simply, they have lost their charm. Instead, technology-based interactive experiences should promote creativity and meaningful interaction. The trouble is, technology advances quickly and is expensive to implement. In science museums especially, exhibits have a tendency to stick around for a few years. Thus, museums run the risk of installing expensive interactive activities that are costly to maintain, and, in a few short years, become obsolete.

The Pros

So far, I’ve presented a lot of cons for using technology in museums: the inherent distraction, the enormous expense, the costly upkeep, and the overall effect of the over-usage of technology on us as humans. Now, let’s talk about the good.

First, technology attracts younger audiences. The Louvre experimented with this approach by implementing Nintendo 3DS as its primary audio guide system. The 3DS format is not only familiar (or shall we say, virtually indispensable) to younger visitors, but it also incorporates noteworthy features like location mapping and 3D viewing. Initiatives such as this are especially critical considering that museum attendance dropped by 5 percent from 2002 to 2012, and audiences 75+ were the only age group that saw an increase in attendance.

Second, technology can serve as a way to bridge the gap between museums and Millenials. As a Millennial myself, I can attest to the fact that much of our lives revolve around technology. By embracing and enhancing the same tools that Millenials use on a daily basis, museums can offer seamless experiences that mimic everyday interactions. Along these same lines, technology makes use of devices that are already on hand, and provides a way for museums to increase audience engagement. A study by the New York MoMA found that 74% of visitors came to the museum with a mobile device already on them – why not take advantage of that? As museums fight with Netflix and Candy Crush for captive audiences, technology can help to bridge the gap and drive audiences. Google Art Project represents a prime example of the power of technology to enhance the museum experience: rather than deterring attendance, the Project actually drives it. The opportunity to view priceless works of art online acts as a “teaser”, rather than a substitute – visitors are compelled to visit the museum in order to see the “real thing”.

Examples of Google Art Project's archived images depict detailed information paired with high quality images.

Third, museums of the 21st century are about more than the transfer of knowledge from curator to museumgoer. Instead, they are participatory and audience driven; therefore, the use of technology should reflect that. For example, museums are turning to beacons to provide enriching experiences. The technology allows users to opt in or out of collecting as much information as they would like about a piece, movement, style, or artifact. This serves the dual function of allowing users to participate in ways that mimic other everyday experiences, such as sharing reactions with followers or leaving a review online, as well as allowing users to craft their own experience. As such, the technology helps to shift the transfer of knowledge from one that is top-down, as was emblematic of the 20th century, to something that is horizontal and community-driven, allowing for communication and dialogue between curators and audiences.

Striking a Balance

As technology continues to innovate and become embedded in our everyday lives, it is clear that its use in museums has the potential to provide wonderful, engaging experiences. At the end of the day, the question is no longer whether technology belongs in museums, but rather, how can museums ensure that technology supports, rather than overshadows, the overall museum experience? The important thing to remember is that museums should strive to maintain a balance when offering digital experiences. As such, designing a state of the art website is not as important as designing a service that fits the overall service the museum delivers. Finally, as museums think about what sort of mobile service to offer, it is equally important to keep in mind that mobile culture should focus on innovating the audience experience, not the technology. The use of technology can be a powerful tool to increase audiences and drive engagement, but it should be strategic. Rather than incorporating technology for the sake of it, museums need to identify what service they are offering, who it will serve, and how the audience will benefit from the experience.

Banner image by ProtoplasmaKid; in-text images by shannonpatrick17 and Google Art Project (public domain). Licensed under Creative Commons.