As we move further and further into the digital age, museums hold something that is becoming a rare commodity—real objects and artifacts. It may be hard to believe, but one day, many tangible objects may be obsolete, the way that printed photographs and airplane tickets are becoming scarce items. Instead of going on “digs,” future archaeologists may primarily use computer-driven devices to search for clues of our ancestors. In the distant future, I can imagine that museums will be magical places where people can see “the real thing.” …But wait, maybe they already are?
This is my third reflection—informed by what I have learned about museum visitors in all my years studying them. I have found that there are many reasons people visit museums, but I believe the primary reason, one that we may take for granted, is that they want to see “the real thing.” A common question heard in museums is, “is it real?” especially in regard to bones and historical objects. I have heard it in our research, but you have probably heard it too, or said it yourself while walking through a museum. Why do people ask this question? What underlies the need to know if something is “real.” As museum goers, can’t observing a replica of a dinosaur skeleton or a 17th century Dutch ice skate tell us just as much as the real thing? Maybe so. But there is just something about being in the presence of authentic artifacts and objects that is thrilling; maybe it has to do with feeling connected to other people, to the past, or to other parts of the world. Professors David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig say it best in their landmark 1998 national study, The Presence of the Past: “approaching artifacts and sites on their own terms, visitors could cut through all the intervening stories, step around all the agendas that have been advanced in the meantime, and feel that they were experiencing a moment from the past almost as it had originally been experienced—and with none of the overwhelming distortions that they associated with movies and television, the other purveyors of immediacy.”
Whenever studying museum visitors, I come face to face with their sense of wonder about and desire to get close to (even touch) real objects. Whether evaluating text panels, interactive exhibits, touch tables, or ideas and concepts, visitors will usually keep coming back to the objects. As museum professionals, it is sometimes too easy to forget the centrality of the object when you are knee-deep in trying to interpret and contextualize something. We can get lost in these various mediums of interpretation, but visitors will usually remind us what they are really there for. For example, I was doing a study for a museum and historic site last year in which we were testing ideas for high-tech touch tables intended to convey information about the historic building the museum is housed in. I had gotten so wrapped up in testing all the information, that I had mentally pushed aside the museum’s biggest asset, the historic building it resides in. But visitors brought me back when they practically skipped over my questions about the touch tables and rather, kept circling back to the building itself—its authentic and tangible sense of history. Of course that is what they wanted to talk about and why they were there. This isn’t to say that interpretation of any kind is futile. But I believe it is important to keep reminding ourselves, as museum professionals, that interpretation should be used primarily to help visitors make sense of the objects and artifacts they are there to see—it’s really that simple.
The very reason I work with museums is because of my own sense of wonder and astonishment when it comes to objects and artifacts. Yes, I love studying people and how they learn and make sense of experiences, but I could do that in many different settings. I chose to do it in museums because of my own belief that we can learn so much from studying “the real thing.”