Museums need to go all-in on cutting-edge technology. They need fancy, new interactive platforms and flashy, cool videos to attract new visitors and members in our digital age.
At least that’s what I thought before I interviewed Julianne Snider, the assistant director of exhibits and collections at Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum and Art Gallery. In our recent discussion, she provided me with a somewhat different perspective.
“Our strength is we have the original products,” she said. “We have the real objects, and people really do like to see real objects. We have specimens from localities that don’t exist anymore … these specimens not only have historical value, they have scientific as well as aesthetic value. Some of them are really quite spectacular.”
The EMS museum showcases collections of rocks, minerals, fossils, ceramics, metals and old scientific equipment, and the art gallery has an array of paintings and sculptures from around 1900 to the mid-20th century.
To build buzz around their century-old topographic maps and further public knowledge about the school’s research, Penn State’s EMS museum added an augmented-reality sandbox, which projects topographical maps onto the sandbox surface. The addition was directly tied to the museum’s mission, and it was compelling not only for students — the museum’s primary audience — but for just about any demographic.
Although the museum includes interactive elements about tornadoes, seismology and other scientific areas of study, the leadership believes its strength ultimately lies elsewhere.
“Having some interactives is great: Interactives can be a lot of fun, and you can learn a lot from them,” Snider explained. “But the downside of interactives is if you’re trying to keep up with commercial technology, it’s not going to happen. We just don’t have the budget and technical resources. It’s that balance of finding out how we can present what we know and what we have in an interesting, innovative way.”
That’s where modern museums, particularly smaller ones, can thrive, she said. Their knowledge of history in a given field and unique collections of artifacts are a differentiator for museums that compete with many other organizations for the public’s attention. Those will always have considerable value as long as museums find ways to stimulate physical and intellectual interaction with the right audience.
Moreover, museums can leverage a different kind of technology — social media and digital platforms — to share those things beyond their walls. Those tools are mostly free and easy to use, and don’t inherently favor massive organizations over small ones. When it comes to building an audience, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube are leveling the playing field.
By Jason Dorow