- Written by Stephanie Allen Stephanie Allen
- Created: 29 November 2015 29 November 2015
I must declare that I make this blog post with some trepidation. I know that this topic is not on-trend with the popular/populist movement in museums. That said, I am not an old stodger, who is completely lacking in tech skills -- the opposite, in fact. My career depends on digital technologies: the creation and maintenance of museum databases for collections, exhibitions and digital assets; I manage several web sites and multiple Twitter accounts. Technophobe, I am not.
In this age of mobile technology it has become increasingly difficult to find a space where you can return to life before the ubiquity of mobile technologies. A museum would seem the ideal place to immerse yourself in the nostalgia of a bygone era. A quiet, reflective, contemplative space. Not necessarily so.
More museums are working in earnest to capitalize on digital technologies to provide opportunities for deeper understanding to existing visitors, to reach new audiences and to engage in 2-way communication. These are certainly worthwhile pursuits but at what cost? I often think back to an extremely visceral experience I had at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. As a social historian with a particular interest in the role religion played in medieval England I was drawn to the case with the small ivory diptychs which sat in the middle of a semi-circular gallery at the beginning of the Medieval section in the European galleries. I thought to myself it was a bit silly to put such small items with such intricate detail at waist level. I knelt down to look at the exquisite detail on these magnificent objects. Then suddenly music swelled and I was immersed in a medieval plainchant which come from nowhere and enveloped the small gallery. As I looked up to see where the music was coming from, I realized that I was on my knees looking up at a magnificent altar piece with small personal devotional items immediately in front of me and the semi-circular gallery was reminiscent of the apse in a Medieval church. I still get chills when I think of that moment. I am not religious but sometimes the right combination of ingredients allows for a truly spiritual experience in a gallery.
I doubt that I will ever regale an audience about the time I scanned a QR code in a gallery or used my phone as a vehicle for an audio guide or label text. We all know that that the road towards implementing technology, for its own sake, will lead to a path of outdated, broken ideas and stale technology in galleries who lack the budget to maintain the cutting edge.
As more galleries are incorporating video kiosks, qr codes, wi-fi I worry that we are at risk of losing those opportunities. I agree that to deliver content in a relevant, accessible way makes sense, but what we have to offer should go beyond what visitors expect. By delivering it in the same method they do their banking, buy their books, watch tv it puts our exhibitions on the same level. Our galleries and exhibitions are more than the sum of their parts or the method of delivery. People have come to expect technology, so let's give them an experience they don't expect.