Welcome to the tech age. Gone are the days of traditional classroom blackboards and floppy disk drives. Say hello to Smartboards, iPads and cloud technologies. Lost on a family road trip? Why struggle with unfolding and refolding your expansive collection of maps when you can easily take out your cellphone and select a navigation app?
Today, digital interactivity is commonplace, easy and expected. And the museum industry is no exception. In an attempt to compete with the high-tech lifestyle of today’s visitors, museum professionals are outfitting their exhibitions with the latest and greatest in digital interactive experiences.
Technology and interactivity can play a valuable role in creating a layered visitor experience, helping patrons better understand an exhibit’s mission by engaging the senses or using new modes of teaching. The museum’s interactive components can help visitors form a deeper understanding of a particular topic.
However, how do we as exhibit professionals ensure the effectiveness of our interactive technology? How do we evaluate the value of our programs during the visitor experience? Countless factors can influence the evaluation of an interactive, but museum professionals need to take into account three key considerations when developing a new interactive program
1. It’s Not You, It’s Them.
As museum professionals, we need to recognize the inherent flaws of our digital interactives. Once a visitor decides to engage with an interactive, he becomes a curator himself, charting his own course of decision-making and interpretation. He has the choice to hit “next,” to choose one page or another, and ultimately, when to walk away. By introducing an interactive into a traditional exhibit design, the museum risks the user exploring only those issues of interest to him. Effective interactives create points of relativity between the user and the content, but we still want our visitors to have the opportunity to new areas of interest.
2. Let’s Be Exclusive.
Let’s be honest: Technology isn’t for everyone. As a millennial, I’m expected to understand the complexities of the Cloud, be an active proponent of mobile apps, and smirk at people who prefer laptops to tablets. Yet, I’m the 20-something who gets a headache when thinking about the Cloud, can’t fathom working with anything but a complete computer, and doesn’t understand why someone would want all of their information on their cellphone.
The same barriers present themselves with digital interactives. There is no way to make interactives fully accessible because they are inherently exclusive. Sometimes older audiences (or techno-morons like me) shy away from digital interactives, fearing that they won’t be able to operate them correctly. Case studies (McManus, 1988; Melton, 1972) argue that visitors spend more time in galleries that have interactives, but is a visitor’s time well-spent if he is spending it figuring out how the interactive functions?
Other audiences—frequently younger visitors or techno-geniuses—opt out of using interactives because they find them “out of date” or “unexciting.” Finding the balance between these two extremes is difficult. When creating interactives, we must acknowledge the limits of their outreach.
3. The Big Why?
Despite their limitations, digital interactives do provide museums with new opportunities to create experiences. As museum professionals, we must be aware of the variety of potential audiences that may encounter our exhibits and create experiences that engage different types of visitors. Digital interactives allow us to reach out to these audiences. However, digital interactives need more than a functional purpose. Interactives need to be integrated within the exhibit design so that they complement—and do not compete—with the traditional elements of the museum display. Design an interactive that augments the other elements of the gallery, and the whole experience is more interesting and inclusive.