I know I am not alone in my observation that the quality of technology in museum galleries can be highly variable and too often disappointing in its ability to engage, impart knowledge, or truly enhance visitors’ museum experiences. The recent integration of technology into the Cleveland Museum of Art by the media design firm Local Projects, however, seems to be a shining example of how technology can be effectively used in museums.
Although I have not had a chance to see the installation in person, Co.Design’s assessment of Local Projects’ work paints a brilliant picture (see its blog at http://www.fastcodesign.com/1671845/5-lessons-in-ui-design-from-a-breakthrough-museum#1). Among the five useful lessons noted in the blog, Lesson 4 in particular seems worthy of reiteration: “Looking through the Tech, Not at It.” Research study after research study confirms that visitors value museums for their collections and what those collections show them. For instance, in a recent study for the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, visitors rated “looking at real specimens, art, & artifacts in exhibits” of greatest interest and “using technology in exhibition spaces” of least interest. These findings and others support our conclusion that the interpretive delivery strategies should not come between the visitor and the authenticity of the experience with real objects and specimens, which is what Co.Design so aptly describes when it advises to look through the technology and not at it.
Furthermore, the idea of looking through technology and not at it resonates with our philosophy that museums must think about impact—the intended result of a museum’s work on museum audiences, which, as Randi noted last week, is derived from articulating staff passions, a museum’s distinctiveness, and relevance to the public (see https://rka-learnwithus.com/balancing-mission-with-impact-ii/ ). Technology is not an end, but like collections, a means through which a museum achieves its desired impact. Local Projects founder, Jake Barton, and his team seem to share our thinking. As Co.Design notes, “It was Barton’s own skepticism about technology that made the technology great. His team didn’t necessarily believe that high-tech flare would add value to the museum experience. So they strove to look past the technology.” Hopefully, work such as that of Local Projects for the Cleveland Museum of Art marks a turning point for how museums use technology—introducing technology that does not interrupt authentic experiences with a museum’s collections but truly enhances it.