“Out of Order”: The Pitfalls of Digital Technology in History Museums

This “Out of Order” sign is from a science museum, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen similar signs in history museums. Photo Credit: TripAdvisor

My colleagues and I have been discussing strategies for creating interesting museum exhibits. Our museum suffers from many of the same issues experienced at other historic sites: too much text, broken digital technology, outdated content, and a lot of head-scratching about the best path moving forward. During the discussion a suggestion was made to include more digital content in the form of interactive video and audio exhibits. While I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea, I raised a few concerns along the way:

Digital Technology Breaks Down Quickly: From a financial standpoint, digital technology can create new roadblocks for museums. Say what you want about textual exhibit panels, but it’s fair to point out that in most cases those text panels are going to last a long longer than the fancy interactive touchscreen video you just purchased for tens of thousands of dollars. How many times have you visited a museum and you saw a video screen that wasn’t working and an “out of order” sign in front of it? The catch-22 of digital technology is that despite its fanciness and potential for meaningful learning experiences, the technology will break down, oftentimes sooner than later. Any site that invests in this technology must also invest in ongoing maintenance and eventually replacement technology.

It’s also worth mentioning that despite the allure of digital technology, there’s no guarantee people are going to interact with it in a museum space, or that the people who interact with it will get something meaningful from the experience. One example that Andrea Jones pointed out on Twitter was that the use of videotaped oral histories in museums can be isolating and “anti-social.” Digital technology can separate groups as they visit a museum and could ultimately prove to be uninteresting to visitors who either lack the time or simply don’t know the purpose of the technology. In sum, museums have to really think about the intended audience and develop a meaningful strategy behind their digital content.

It’s Too Loud in Here! Our site’s museum, as it currently stands, has no audio descriptions or videos that produce loud noise. But let me tell you, have I ever been to some loud museums before! The role of acoustics in museum exhibit design is always a hot topic within the field, and I admit that some of my hesitation about new technology comes from the potential sound consequences that could adversely affect visitor experiences. I have been to a good number of museums that had things like background audio, videos being played in a loop, and touchscreen computers with loud noises. Sometimes there are exhibits with all three and more going on at the same time. One example is the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which I previously wrote about here. While I enjoyed the museum for the most part, many of the exhibits are way too busy with loud music, looping videos, and visual effects all going on at the same time. At times the noise around me was very disorienting and prevented me from focusing on the exhibit content. Hearing the same video ten times in a row in an exhibit does not make me want to stay in that space and learn more.

What’s Unique About Your Museum Space? I gladly admit that I am a reader. I try to read as much museum text as I can, and I like to spend a lot of time in each room/exhibit of a given museum (my wife usually has to keep me moving when we go to museums together). Not everyone feels the same, and I do believe museums should offer a variety of experiences within their spaces. But what makes museums memorable and unique as tourist destinations? It’s their collections. What will people remember from visiting a given museum? Is it the fancy technology or exhibit text they’ll remember the most, or will it be the unique artifacts and material culture that can’t be seen anywhere else? For many people, the answer will be the latter.

To be sure, I believe digital technology has a place in history museums. But I think technology has to be used in service to the museum’s most unique aspect, which is its historical artifacts. Everything has to point back to the unique content of the museum. When I do museum education programs with students, I don’t share videos or have them read a bunch of text. I have the students look at pictures and artifacts (and what I call “the big words” such as exhibit titles that help orient visitors to the museum content) as a foundation for facilitated dialogue and audience-centered education. Students can read or watch a video about history at home. But when they’re at the museum, they’re seeing content that can’t be seen anywhere else. I want to highlight the collections and use that as a guide for my education programs.

Cheers

P.S. Happy 15th Amendment Day! The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on this day 150 years ago.

2 thoughts on ““Out of Order”: The Pitfalls of Digital Technology in History Museums

    1. Thanks, Andrew! Connected to this discussion is the importance of making exhibits accessible, and a lot of crazy tech all over the place could really hinder a person’s experiences in the museum.

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