Museums: pushing the wrong buttons?

Show us the collections - or the Digidog gets it.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

At the Science Museum’s Wellcome Wing, I spent 10 minutes on a video game chasing a dog (called Digidog) and a girl with a ponytail around a video impression of the Wellcome Wing.

I was looking for a camera to take pictures of the video images to put on my personal website. When I chased the dog it barked; when I chased the girl she shrieked, ‘Digidog knows where the camera is’.

Obviously, I was missing the point of this game, as Digidog didn’t seem to know where the camera was. But suppose I had excelled, what would this have taught me? What insight would I have gained?

The game was quite good fun for the first minute, and it’s nice to have a website, but was there anything of any substance in this experience?

The way new technologies have been generally used in museums today has, overall, undermined the quality of museum experience. People going to museums today get a less substantial, less intelligent experience than they did before collections were hidden away and replaced with new technologies.

The problem is not the technologies themselves. In museums, they have the potential to aid the creation of decent exhibitions in a number of ways.

Behind the scenes, digital technologies give us the power to know more about museum exhibits, through the use of scanning, carbon dating, and so on. Recently, a scan of the Egyptian mummy Artemidorus at the British Museum revealed that he had been killed by a blow to the head at age 20. That kind of information adds a lot to an exhibit.

New technologies could help to enhance exhibitions, and help explain the significance of exhibits. For example, at an exhibition of Roman coins at the Museum of Verulanium, St Albans, a computer next to the exhibition contained digital images of the coins, which were linked to a database that explained the significance of the symbols, and gave information on the lives of the different emperors.

New technologies can be used to present archival material that is not normally on display. The British Museum’s Mesopotamia website has photographs from the Egyptian expedition by the archaeologist C Leonard Woolley, who excavated the site of the city of Ur in Mesopotamia in the 1920s and 30s (1).

Museum websites that contain images and information about collections, like the New York Museum of Modern Art, or the British Museum’s Compass website, are great resources. People on the other side of world can find out what the museum has in its collection, find out about the objects, and plan a visit.

But unfortunately, these examples are very much exceptions.

The main problem with the use of new technologies today is that, in general, they are not being used to elucidate collections. Their use represents a turn away from collections and knowledge about these collections, and towards other ends.

Collections form the substance at the heart of the museum. The essential experience museums can offer is confrontation with the real thing, the essential insight they can offer is knowledge about these real things. Yet today, the value of the real thing, and the value of knowledge about the real thing, are being undermined. New technologies have been used to play a key part in this process.

Instead of being used to communicate knowledge about the collection, new technologies are generally being used in three ways – all of which tend to reduce the quality of visitor experience in museums.

1) New technologies are being used to promote interactivity

The idea is that, by allowing visitors to imput data and interact with information, museums can build more ‘engaged’ relationships with them.

But this application is often based on valuing information exchange between museums and visitors – on equal terms. There is a danger, here, of blurring the distinction between a considered opinion developed through the study of objects, and an immediate and uniformed response. This is undermining experts’ knowledge about exhibits – knowledge which is essential to a decent museum exhibition.

One good example are the many ‘tell us what you think’ machines at the Science Museum’s Wellcome Wing, which ask the public to type in their opinions about depression, drugs or genetic testing, and then display these opinions. Curators seem to be saying, ‘you know as much as us, really’. Not only is this not true, it also makes for a poor exhibit – what exactly do visitors gain from giving their opinion?

Another problem with the way new technologies are being used is that their use is often based on the idea of ‘learning through doing’.

If you’re not pressing buttons, you’re not engaged. Some interactive galleries seem to hold the assumption that people don’t have an attention span of more than 10 seconds – that they learn by moving their body in some way, and that they need lights and noise to get them interested. But what about the value of reflection and serious thought, that you can get through the silent contemplation of objects and ideas? You can’t do that when surrounded with flashing buttons.

Interaction often seems to be treated as an end in itself. The objective of the exhibit, and its measure of success, is how many visitors come and whether they get involved. If the visitor is pressing a button, if they are involved in an interactive process, it doesn’t seem to matter what the process is that they are involved in. As long as I build my website in the Wellcome Wing, it does not matter what I put on it (providing it is not defamatory or obscene). I could put utter rubbish up for all anybody would care – the process would still have been a success.

2) New technologies are being used to recreate ‘whole experience’ multimedia displays

In the Museum of London’s recreation of a Roman high street, there is a projection of actors dressed up as a Roman crowd walking past the window.

In the Earth galleries in the Natural History Museum, there is an ‘earthquake experience’, where the floors and walls shake and live earthquake footage is played on a TV screen.

Exhibits such as these re-present knowing as experiencing. Intellectual and abstract knowledge about the exhibits and about science is converted into a version of immediate experience, for visitors’ consumption.

This is misleading. For example, the Museum of London high street Londinium does not give the message: ‘Here is the archaeological evidence about Roman London, these are the intellectual processes we used to try to understand what the evidence told us.’ Instead, it promotes the idea that ‘You are stepping back in time, you are experiencing Roman London’.

New technologies help to give the impression of stepping back in time. But by attempting to give the ‘whole picture’ of the past, these exhibits restrict the role of individual imagination. People need to make their own imaginative leaps about what Roman Britain would have been like.

3) New technologies are being used by museums in an effort to modernise

Museums today are very concerned to cast off their dusty and dull image, and become ‘modern’ and ‘relevant’ to people’s lives. They try to be noisy and exciting and about the ‘real world’.

In his vision for the government’s Culture Online, New Labour adviser and corporate consultant Charles Leadbeater said that museums must compete with Playstation 2 for children’s attention – they must be as exciting, as fun (3). The idea seems to be that these things are part of popular culture, and people like them, so museums should try to ‘be there’.

This represents a rejection of the collection. Objects are seen as dusty and dull, and distant from people’s lives. After all, people don’t come across Sarcophagi in the street, they don’t keep Roman coins in their kitchens, so why would they want to see these in a museum? Surely that’s just boring, or intimidating? It also represents a rejection of knowledge about the collection, where this is seen as too difficult, and not ‘fun’ enough.

These moves towards museums-as-funhouses threaten to destroy the very basis of museums. Moreover, they will not work. Museums will always be a second-rate Nintendo, because they can never truly have fun for fun’s sake – a certain worthiness or desire to teach something will always lie behind exhibits. I don’t play Nintendo, but I imagine that anybody who had would have found chasing Digidog for 10 minutes even more boring than I did.

If used as tool to further understanding of collections, new technologies could be highly beneficial to museums. But at the moment, digital technologies are being used for the wrong reasons, and as such are contributing to the dumbing down of museums.

From a speech in support of the motion ‘This House believes that the new technologies are contributing to the dumbing-down of museums’ at Beyond the Museum: Working with Collections in the Digital Age at the Oxford Union, Friday 20 April 2000, organised by mda and Oxford University Humanities Computing Unit.

Read on:

Putting objects in their place, by Josie Appleton

Museum autonomy: a thing of the past?, by Josie Appleton

Magna – from steel to feel, by Jim Butcher

(1) See archives on Wooley’s excavations on the British Museum’s Mesopotamia website

(2) See the vision for Culture Online

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Topics Politics


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