Jun 152014
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Victoria and Albert Museum entrance

Technology is changing the way museum and gallery exhibits are displayed and viewed

I like to visit museums and galleries when I travel. In our modern, digital age, the idea of spending time in a museum may seem boring or old-fashioned, but museums, art galleries and tour companies are increasingly making use of technology to enhance their exhibits and the visitor’s experience.

This spring I visited the Hollywood Costume Exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum. The exhibit is on tour from Londons’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Costumes are displayed on mannequins and dress forms. Information is displayed in a fairly traditional manner, text printed on easel-like stands in front of the costumes. However, television screens scattered throughout and integrated into the exhibit bring a more modern touch. The screens feature costume designers, actors, and directors talking about the costumes and the films. What an appropriate way to provide information about something so integral to the movie experience.

Although quality has improved, headphones have been used for years to provide personal commentary at museum and art exhibits and are no longer a leading-edge use of technology. However, I encountered an interesting twist to this concept when my sister and I visited Mesa Community College Rose Garden. The garden is a large outdoor area accessible to the public at all times. In place of a headphone system, which wouldn’t be practical in this environment, posts at 11 stations throughout the garden list a phone number and a station number. I called the number on my cell phone, punched in the station number, and put the phone on speaker so both both sister and I could hear. A recorded message provided information about that section of the garden and directed our attention to specific roses.

A touch screen is mounted in front of the huge Boar and Bear Hunt Tapestry, circa 1425 – 1430, covering one wall of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The screen contains a photograph of the tapestry. Visitors can zoom in on any part of the tapestry and obtain information about the story depicted in that section and the threads used.

Tablets are becoming standard equipment for tour guides. On a historical area walking tour in downtown Winnipeg, Manitoba, our guide used the tablet to show us past photographs of the architecturally significant buildings we saw and photographs of historic events in the area. On a tour of a nature preserve in Arizona, our guide used a tablet to show us pictures of the preserve in other seasons and various stages of the plant life we saw.

Museums and galleries are now creating apps for your mobile devices to augment more traditional ways to experience their offerings. I learned about the Time Tremors app at the Art Gallery of Ontario from Sarah Pittard’s blog Solo Mom Takes Flight. The app is aimed at children aged 6 to 12. You turn on the app when you enter the museum and select one of four missions. You are then given clues and directions to navigate through the gallery. You can read about Sarah’s family’s experience with this app here.

What other interesting and innovative uses of technology have you discovered at museums, galleries and historic sites?

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  53 Responses to “Technology and Traditional Museum Exhibits”

  1. Donna, I think the use of interactive displays is important to attract kids to museums and galleries. Headphone tours available in different languages also make a lot of sense. I like the Ashmolean at Oxford which does a lot of live shows but also recently put on an exhibition of modern audio / DJ equipment but interspersed old record players, radios, phonographs etc throughout the display.

    • The ability to provide headphones tours in a variety of languages is great. The Ashmolean exhibit sounds interesting.Reading your comment reminded me about a fantastic visit to the Museum of Moving Images in London. Sadly, that museum shut down in 1999.

  2. I remember as a child going on field trips to the museum of natural history and being fascinated by dinosaurs; like every other child then and now. My imagination took over and I was transported back to the correct era and from the information provided I was able to assume the role of caveman and observer. It was all very romantic and real to me. Such is the power of a healthy imagination. We all know what it is like to read a book and then see the movie. I believe there is a place in museums for interactive displays and in fact think it is the only way to keep them as centers for education; to get the kids excited and engaged. However, emphasis must be on the flexing of imagination and the individual results that a child will come up with. That is what is really engaging. When a child can transport themselves to another place.

  3. I like guided tours if they are done right – meaning with an interesting narrator, even background noises to make it more authentic. I toured Alcatraz with an audio tour and it really brought it to life.

    • I agree about them being done right. Sometimes a guide can be distracting or annoying. I’ve found most audio tours to be pretty good. You also have control over which parts to listen to and which you don’t.

  4. Personlly have always visited museum when I have travelled for work. By far the two most amazing museums I have visited are the one in Cairo where Tutanchamon is displayed and the top one in Mexico City. Spent a lot of time in both of them because they were absolutely fascinating.

  5. Donna, I haven’t been to a museum in quite some time and the smaller ones in our community don’t have all the interactive technology described by you. I do know that some of my grandchildren 5- 10 years old, in the Toronto area, are so proficient at using technology that for them it would enhance the experience.

  6. I would have loved to have seen the Hollywood Costume Exhibit! We are both museum nerds and art gallery geeks and always check for new places to visit on our travels. When an exhibit is particularly fascinating it’s great to have the opportunity to find out more and delve more deeply into the subject. Technology has enabled us to do just that.

  7. I love museums as well Donna. Technology is probably a plus for the younger visitors but I am still just as happy reading a bit of information about a display on the old tag mounted next to it. . .but then I am such a Techno-Dino I belong in a museum – on display!

  8. I love museums! When I travel, I always try and find a few because I think it really helps define a culture. I do love the new technology when it comes to these displays and like Paul, I hope it will encourage our youth to be more curious about history and other cultures. Here in Charleston we have a plantation (Drayton Hall) that is dedicated to preservation, rather than restoration. What remains standing today is exactly how it looked at then end of the Civil War. Preservation vs restoration is a whole philosophical argument that I won’t address here…Laugh! But Drayton Hall now has a computer version of what the plantation would look like if it were completely restored. I thought that was cool! Sort of like the best of both:)

    • Preservation vs restoration is an interesting discussion. Some of the local houses/museums I’ve visited went through periods of being rooming houses or abandoned. Without restoration there wouldn’t be much to see. I like the idea of seeing a plantation as it looked at the end of the Civil War and contrasting that with a computer image of what it would have looked like before the war. Powerful.

  9. One of the most interesting museums I’ve visited was at the Four Seasons Lodge in the middle of the Serengeti. Many of the exhibits were interactive and they were geared for tourists of every age.

    • I love museums that have exhibits geared to all ages. I’ve been to art exhibits where there are 2 sets of information available on the headphones – one for adults and one for children. I sometimes listen to the children’s version.

  10. Great post, BTW!!!

  11. I guess I am from the old school and I love museums and I don’t know of anything I would use that would include technology. I do a lot of traveling and enjoy the history of other countries that you are able to see in a museum. If the youth of today are not interested they are missing out. I don’t know if technology would make a difference in the young making an effort to visit one.

    • I know many youth who are interested in museums, technology or not. But I think that good use of technology (not just for technology’s sake) can enhance the experience for both the young and the older visitor.

  12. I’m a big fan of museums, but tend to not bother with the headphones and meander myself. But this is really interesting to read of the different ,creative ways that museums are using new technology. I was not aware that was the case, so I’ll be on the look out next time I go. Thankyou.

    • I wasn’t particularly aware of the use of technology myself until I noticed it in a couple of instances and then started paying much attention elsewhere. I sometimes use the headphones and sometimes not. It depends on the exhibit, but I have found the information I listen to enhanced my experience.

  13. I’m so glad that museums are keeping up with technology. As a kid I hated going to museums but as an adult I really appreciate them and want my kids to appreciate them too. I think tech is one of the best ways to do that since our kids are so tech savvy. I’d love to see more apps like the one Sarah described!

  14. I love the audio guided tours. They are especially helpful when I’m visiting a foreign country and the information is in English. Having that gives me the ability to move at my own pace and I love that. 🙂

  15. I love museums and I don’t think they are old fashioned at all! I think that learn more at a single museum while traveling than I did in high school or college course. I am grateful for the headphones that provide me information in English when I’m visiting museums in foreign countries.

  16. I love using headphones in museums, since they block out the distracting noises surrounding the exhibit. It’s so nice to go at your own pace and I hope more museums will adopt them. The sounds of Alcatraz can’t be mimicked by a guide.

  17. Yes, isn’t it amazing at how advanced museums have become? They may be exhibiting old or ancient things, but they’re featuring them in a whole new way!

    I never was big on museums until I started travelling. Now, I find a visit to some of the museums to be a highlight of some city visits. Especially the chocolate museums!

  18. Museums? I could wander through for hours any day of the week. Every day of the week! And the interactive exhibits may be designed to capture the attention of children, but I just love them myself

    • It’s fun to be at a museum and see the smiles on adults as they use the interactive displays geared for children. Although not of the displays were geared only for children, my husband, adult daughter, and I had a lot of fun with the displays at Vancouver Science World last fall.

  19. I’ve noticed a lot of interactive displays (usually in the form of touch screens) in the museums that I’ve visited in the past three or four years. I am not the biggest fan of audio tours, but tend to give them a try every second or third museum I visit. The Alcatraz one was great. The audio tour of Frank Lloyd Wright houses outside of Chicago threw me for a loop until I figured out how to properly pause and advance the dang thing 😉 My favorite museum so far has been the new Parthenon museum in Greece. It’s set up to mimic the design of the original which brings the impact and scope to a whole new level.

  20. Hi Donna,
    I remember taking my daughter to ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) in Toronto a few times as she was growing up. I was most interested in piece of mosaic tiling from Nebuchadnezzar’s time. Very fascinating! Many museums do not allow photography.

    • You are right – many museums do not allow photography. Other allow it in sections, often without a flash. It is also best to find out a museum’s policy before pulling out the camera.

  21. I too love museums and always enjoy them best with a tour/guide of some sort. My husband and I are working on our list of must visit museums. He can’t resist anything with history to it. I like gardens and sculptures. It’s all good! Thanks for sharing

  22. I think anytime they can use technology to bring history and art to life it’s a good things We went to a whale museum that had us walk though a small room using echolocation as a whale would with the echolocation sounds. Whale would hear. It definitely made it more real for us.

  23. This for me is a reminder that I need to start visiting heritage sites more. I have been stuck up in work and study that I have not had the time. I will be giving feedback soon.

  24. I love using the guided headsets at a museum and going at my own pace. I guess it’s only natural that alone with the rest of us they get more and more tech savy. For me I suppose it depends on the type of museum. I like to spend time thinking about what I’m observing, it will be nice to be able to opt in for more information when you want it.

    • It is nice to go at your own pace. I’ve had several guided tours that were wonderful, but you don’t get to linger in areas you might want to explore more deeply.

  25. These are very interesting museum tour innovations. I’ve done a similar one with my iPhone and am looking forward to experiencing some of these other options. Sounds like it will also keep our expenses down.

  26. I enjoy visiting museums of historical or cultural importance. It feels like traveling in a different era. Inclusion of technology in museums is a must these days. It is justified due to the fact that young minds are attracted more towards these stuffs.

    • Use of certain types of technology is a way of life with younger people. I think museums can look at using technology not just as way of engaging young people but finding ways to enrich their exhibits and the experience.

  27. Hi Donna! I found you via BHB at LI.

    I’m not surprised that technology has wended its way into museums. Technology seems to be everywhere these days!

    I’ve not visited a museum for years, so I don’t have firsthand knowledge about what’s going on, but I think that it’s great that even “old” places can be “renewed” via technology!

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