rethinking museum technology

If you follow me on Twitter, undoubtedly you were subjected to treated to a barrage of posts in early November. That was when I attended the Museum Computer Network Conference in Seattle, Washington.

From the dance floor: Seattle Art Museum's Remix. Personal photo by Adrianne Russell.

From the dance floor @ Seattle Art Museum’s Remix. Personal photo by Adrianne Russell.

As a first-timer, I wasn’t sure what was in store. My hope was to find meaningful discussions about technology and its applications in museum settings, meet new people, eat really great food and visit fantastic museums. Thankfully, it was all that I expected and more.

I’m encouraged by the fact that it’s taken a while to wrap my head around everything. Allowing time to reflect on experiences and absorb information is something that can be sorely lacking for museum professionals. We’re constantly planning the next program or exhibition or tech project with little pause for introspection or analysis. To be honest, it drives me a bit buggy. Having more than a few minutes to delve deeply into anything related to museum work is a much-appreciated luxury.

The conference theme was “The Museum Unbound: Shifting Perspectives, Evolving Spaces, Disruptive Technologies.” I alternately celebrate and bemoan the rapid pace of evolving technology, so it’s no wonder that these developments are routinely a source of consternation and fascination for those involved in museum work. Love it or hate it, you have to admit that technology consistently redefines what it means to be a museum.

Holland, Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, 1952 audio guide 8 photo Holland, Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, 1952 audio guide 8. Photo by Loic Tallon via flickr.

Holland, Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, 1952 audio guide 8. CC photo by Loic Tallon via flickr.

Museums grappling with technology is nothing new. From 1950s wireless transistor radio audio guides to today’s mobile devices equipped with RFID tags to custom-design visits, museums have always used technology to share collections, increase education, and enhance visitor experiences.

I imagine that the work was as frustrating, challenging, exciting, and exhilarating in the past as it is today. At the MCN Conference, that was very apparent as we oohed and ahhed over tech-based projects and programs while commiserating over the difficulties of finding institutional support (financial and philosophical) for them. From those sessions sprung conversations about expertise and ownership, power dynamics, woefully underpaid staff, participatory design, and communication. Key questions arose: Why is this important? Who are we to dictate what matters? Who says we know best?

Full house for "Google on Trial: Is the Google Art Project Good?" session. Personal photo by Adrianne Russell.

Full house for “Google on Trial: Is the Google Art Project Good?” session. Personal photo by Adrianne Russell.

Museum workers are amazingly passionate and that was definitely on display (museum pun totally intended). Overall, the general feeling seemed to be that technology was one of the most effective ways to flatten institutional hierarchies and bring collections off dusty storage shelves and into the light. That’s undoubtedly noble work. I admire it greatly. I do it professionally.

But sometime around the second day of the conference, it occurred to me: This stuff only has value because we say so. Think about it. Someone’s collection of Bazooka Joe bubblegum comics or Pez dispensers may mean more to them than anything owned by a museum. Yet we (meaning museum folk) are infuriated when people glance at our painstakingly curated, interpreted, and designed exhibition with its fancy tech trimmings and collectively say, “Meh.” To us, it’s the glorious culmination of many sleepless nights, endless meetings, and gallons of blood, sweat, and tears. To everyone else, it’s simply a beautifully wrapped box with nothing meaningful inside.

I had many takeaways from the conference, but as I consider my own work here’s what keeps resonating in my head: We have a choice–either waste time and money on technology that tells people why museums are important to us, or use those tools to facilitate discovery of how museums can be important to them.

In other words: Don’t use technology to show off a huge budget or your latest vanity project. Don’t use technology to keep up with the Joneses or score early-adopter bragging rights. Use it to tell stories. Use it to create magic. Use it to make people care.

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4 thoughts on “rethinking museum technology

  1. Hi Adrianne, it was great to meet you at NCN. You bring up a lot of excellent points. New to the museum world, my background is mostly in secondary education + ed tech where there’s the same issue: It’s always easy to let the tail (sexy shiny tech) wag the dog (content). And you’re exactly right that tech gives us the affordances more easily and deeply integrate visitor response–be it through experience surveys, digital interactives, web, or social media–which will help us tell more compelling and relevant stories for our visitors.

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    • It was great meeting you too! I think it’s easy for anyone in educational-based work to get tempted by the shiny new thing and forget about the reason why you’re doing the work in the first place. We have to strive for balance.

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  2. Hi Adrianne! Thank you for the post. Also we should remember about so-called technology trap when technologies become self-serving.
    I’m interested in the history of museum computerization. I started a project “Ideas for Museums: a Biography of Museum Computing”. The ideas is to collect interviews with those museum professionals who were/are working with ICTs in museum.
    The first video is ready now, you can watch it here (it’s in Russian, but subtitles are provided): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UP4B5ZwgCis

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