When the distinguished Commission on Museums for a New Century, organized by the American Association for Museums (AAM), met in 1982 with the purpose of studying and clarifying the role of museums in American society, it had already recognized technology as a major force of change in the museum community. The AAM predicted that “high technology brings a ‘high-touch’ reaction – an increasing need for individual choice and human interaction-” and warned that “museums could both affect and be affected by the electronic age… [particularly] in the way they choose to use communication technology in their exhibition halls and educational activities.”
At the time of the publication, technology was quickly evolving, but there is no way that these experts could have predicted the way that technology would permeate all aspects of everyday life. Wireless communication devices, computers and the internet were all in their infancy, and the 1984 publication primarily focuses on broadcast mediums (radio and television) and the basic use of computers for creating databases of museum collections. In a 1982 survey conducted by the Art Museum Association of America they found that 68% of the 362 responding at museums were not using computer.
The commission for Museums for a New Century suggested that “some members of society are ill equipped to benefit from the coming of the information age.” For many adults, museums offer respite from the ‘high-tech’ era and allow them access to objects that are no longer commonplace. A 2008 publication by the AAM, Museums and Society 2034 (M&S2034), reported that there are “indications of a longing for a retreat, particularly among women over 50 years old, a sentiment that [they] expect to expand as technology advances.” With a large increase in the number of post-retirement adults, M&S2034 noted that these “[Baby] Boomers constitute a large talent pool working its way towards the golden years of volunteerism.”
Although the post-retirement volunteers –as part of the board, volunteers or as visitors—are significant to the operations and sustainability of museums, they perpetuated a growing generational divide, which contributes to a decline in museum attendance. Despite the commitment from the AAM to address the social and cultural trends influencing museums over the last half century, the 2008 Survey of the Public Participation in the Arts showed a downward turn in attendance since its previous survey in 2002 and a large decline since the first survey in 1982.This leads us to question whether museums can be all things to all people.
Will museums alienate their existing constituency of post-retirement adults if they integrate technology into their museum exhibits? Can museums sustain themselves as a destination for education and entertainment for young adults and children without integrating technology into their existing exhibit spaces? Do museums have a future if younger generations grow up with only episodic exposure to learning in the museum setting?
In all instances, the answer is a firm NO. The educational value of the exhibition is minimized if the delivery is inconsistent with young peoples' preemptive learning patters, the concepts are not relatable or do not engage the visitor. Psychologist Dr. Jim Taylor says:
“We as parents must look long and hard at the relationships that our children are developing with technology as “digital natives.” This juncture in our society’s history is critical because, due to the rapid pace of technological change, we simply can’t know how these wide-ranging influences will impact our children or our society. To bury our heads in the sand would be irresponsible at best and catastrophic at worst. We must recognize that there are heightened dangers and heightened opportunities in all that this wired world has to offer.”
By approaching education in a museum setting using popular mediums for education and entertainment (I.E. home and portable web devices), museums can capitalize on emerging technological and social trends that are fitting with the mission and vision of the museum community.
In many ways, the museums have already begun to incorporate emerging technological trends into museum operations, which are compatible with the perpetually impoverished state of museums: digital storage is practically free, the World Wide Web creates unlimited opportunity to expose individuals to museum institutions and social media sites allow museums to generate a virtual community forum. Museums are also well-suited to benefit from the emerging creative renaissance as “incubators of the creative process,” which emerged as a result of the growing variety of creative outputs (I.E. Digital Photography) and marketplaces (I.E. Amazon).
Simultaneously, Museums have begun to shift their approach to learning by dispensing with antiquated traditions. The red-velvet rope has been removed in most museums, and there is a growing variety of hands-on exhibits, physical demonstrations and living-history programs. These types of participatory programs allow museum-goers to immerse themselves in the experience. M&S2034 describes this as an emerging structural shift in which consumers, particularly those under 30, have an increasing desire to drive the narrative; a trend attributed to the video gaming experience.
There are unlimited opportunities for museums to integrate technology into their exhibit spaces, and much to be gained by making sure that the exhibits are entertaining for young people. The success of the Children's Museum of Science and Technology (CMOST) in Troy or the Imaginarium in Plattsburgh, are great examples of the success that can be had when families look forward to a museum visit as an entertaining way to spend the day. Museums should not resemble a McDonald's Playplace, but thought needs to be given to strike achieve balance with the high-tech/high-touch reaction.
This article is adapted from a larger paper “Reinterpreting the Role of Museums in the 21st Century,” presented by Andrew Alberti at the University at Albany's “History Lives!” conference, celebrating 30 years of Public History at the University at Albany. “Digital Storytelling” posts feature suggestions on cheap and easy ways to integrate technology into your museum. You can find more here.
Photo courtesy Virtual Watervliet by the Shaker Heritage Society.