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
I’m so glad that to hear that museums aren’t all succumbing to the pressure of our hyper-interactive infotainment culture. It works for some – sure – and they should continue. But my favorite museums are the ones that unabashedly (and relentlessly) immerse me with the real goods, without relying on gimmicks to engage me.
The Vasa warship museum in Sweden has always been my favorite museum for that reason. While it’s a unique situation, it’s authentically interactive without even trying. You walk into their dimly-lit, temperature controlled building, and the smell of old wood and tar begins to waft around you. Once your eyes adjust to the light, the massive real-life ship appears in front of you. Almost close enough to touch. Small vignettes line the perimeter of the exhibit, and multiple tour options are available. It’s not the most cutting edge stuff, granted. But I was there as a 9-year-old, again as a 14-year-old, and again in my 20s. And every time I was awe-struck. I could keep going back to the same museum, and different parts of the exhibit spoke to me each time. That’s longevity, for ya.
It must be really hard for museums to appeal to everyone equally. But they best serve our society just by being their authentic selves. Don’t chase trends; chase hearts. Plant the seeds early and we’ll keep coming back. Limit screens and automated interactions. Instead, invest in good exhibits and good people – tour guides and volunteers – who can make an experience last a lifetime or be more forgettable than yesterday’s lunch.
For decades Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh had 2 African shrunken heads. I have not seen them in over 30 years. Pure PC of course.