The Tour Guide Chronicles

High Tech/Low Tech in Today's Museums

Posted: February 22, 2013

Sometimes new technology drives museums to think, in my view, backwards. They think, "Hey, this is cool," and then they try to find a visitor experience that uses that technology.

I go to these museums and I'm reminded of a childhood friend's house. His father had bought a wood router a few years back, and their home was filled with cute signs and wooden knickknacks. At some point the father had grown bored with the tool, but the house was still filled with clutter that, I'm guessing, nobody in the family really wanted in the first place.

I've seen technology fads come and go in museums; only occasionally do these new tools actually deepen the visitor experience. Often a new piece of whiz-bang technology actually distracts and distorts the experience.

The more promising approach for museums is to think about what experience they are trying to create and then to explore all the tools available to support that experience.

Of course, every museum is different. Cutting edge technology often makes sense in a science museum. And I've loved the impact of social media on museum communications. (Check out our cool Instagram account, by the way.)

For example, watch the amazing video of this forty-foot touchscreen wall at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

How cool is that thing? It's cool. Perhaps it's a piece of art in itself. I really wonder, however, if it's bringing their visitors into a deeper connection with the museum’s works of art. It's intended to support visitor-designed tours, handing some of the curatorial "authority" to the public. That's a fantastic goal, to be sure. But will visitors actually create these tours? Will they take each other’s tours? Does it even matter? What will we think of this video wall in twenty years?

Nina Simon has written an extraordinary book on participation in museums, The Participatory Museum. Dozens of the innovative museum experiences she writes about are simple and low-tech. Here's an example (not from Nina's book): The Cleveland Museum itself gave out paper hearts on Valentine’s Day weekend, inviting visitors to place them in front of their favorite works of art. Over the weekend the most beloved works gathered piles of paper hearts. Some objects had only one or two hearts, but the notes on them were impassioned…. Isn't that sweet?

Eastern State Audio TourI'm blessed to work in a building that is extraordinarily rich in visual impact and human stories. I like to think that our job here is mostly to keep out of the way, telling visitors the fascinating stories of this building, giving them the tools to explore the ruin, without drawing any more attention to our efforts than absolutely necessary. A smart, engaging tour guide and a simple, clear sign here at Eastern State beat a touchscreen wall every time.

This is all on my mind because, after years of resisting it, I finally agreed to update our audio tour players with video screens.

Erica, our Senior Specialist in Collections, and I are assigning images to go along with each stop of the audio tour (53 stops in total these days, including two really great additions for 2013). We're keeping the images simple, not changing them too often on the screen. We don't want visitors to think they'll miss something if they, you know, look up from their screens. But with literally thousands of photos of this old building, we thought the time had come to put more of them in front of our visitors.

TowerCam!And there's other technology at Eastern State. Our TowerCam! exhibit puts high-definition cameras in the guard towers, since there's literally no other way to give visitors that view. We added QR codes to our Prisons Today signage last year; visitors with smart phones can now link to the most current statistics in international rates of incarceration. We believe that's a valuable service.

Please drop me a line if you're enthusiastic, or concerned, about the use of new technology at Eastern State. Have you seen great examples of technology at other museums? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Sean Kelley
Director of Public Programming
sk@easternstate.org