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Will Technology Kill Museums?



This is still real. While, obviously, technology has not killed museums, I think that the tech advances are increasing so rapidly that we cannot be sure what lies ahead in just the next 5-10 years.

Here's a piece I wrote back in 1996. Some of the observations I made 21 years ago are already already quite dated because our world and society march forward. I do know this: Talking to my 18 year old daughter's boyfriend about music, I'd asked him if he wanted to try some pretty powerful software I have in my home office. His response was, "No thanks, I just use my phone." The point is, his phone app could not approach the capabilities found in my desktop software, but he didn't care! The issue will not be Authenticity or Right and Wrong...it will be Relevance and Identity.

Will Technology Kill Museums?

Every Visitor’s Dream for their Museum Experience:

You’re about to spend an engaging and wonderful afternoon in the galleries. You wander from room to room, viewing and contemplating the richness of the experience. You’re comfortable in the extreme; not too hot, not too cold. The wandering does not cause you the fatigue you always felt during other visits. If fact, you are so relaxed as you absorb the world around you, it seems that you have learned more during this visit than ever before. And isn’t that what a museum experience is about? Learning and growing in understanding? The children are hungry so you stop to enjoy a small lunch. After eating they want to run around and play as children do. You let them and no one stops them from having their fun or gives them severe looks. As they noisily romp, you ponder a new work on the wall in front of you. You decide to get much closer in order to examine a small section of the piece. No security guard asks you to stand back. How exciting this is! The very moment you want to explore the medium and technique, you realize the museum has provided this information to you…just as if the gallery was yours alone. The intimidating feeling you had during your last visit is gone. One of your children, doing research for a school project, asks if they have information on other works during that period in history. With very little effort, you find where the museum has provided this information and your young student is pleased with the rewards of her visit. As you decide to leave the museum, the children actually want to stay! You tell them you had a great time and learned so much today that you might come back tomorrow!

…And you did it all from the comfort of your home on your personal computer. Every visitor’s dream could be every museum director’s nightmare.

Relevance for Audiences

Every museum director, right now, needs to ask him or herself, “What does my museum mean to my visitors? Have I truly made it accessible?” Why on earth would anyone want to travel to a museum and experience inadequate parking, confusing admissions policies, condescending staff and volunteers, puzzling maps and layouts, nonexistent signage, too-small label text, and inadequate information and assistance? Is authenticity the reason? A common remark overheard in countless art museums is “Is that the real one?” or “That’s not really a Monet, is it?” Obviously, coming from a museum background, I feel there is no comparison between a digital image and the authentic work. The “Aha!” experience sought by so many museum directors and curators is important to me as well. However, many visitors, obviously a high percentage of first-time museum visitors, do not even expect to find the authentic piece. If authenticity isn’t a conscious prerequisite for their visit, then was it a necessary requirement for their enjoyment, education, or experience?

Walter Lippmann, in his piece, The Museum of the Future, published in The Atlantic Monthly, said this:

I wonder whether the directors of museums will not have to come to grips with the whole complicated question of copies of works of fine art. One can imagine, I venture to think, that the museum of the future will have two departments—one the sanctuary where the unique objects, the irreplaceable relics, are preserved and exhibited for the veneration and the enjoyment of those who make the pilgrimage; the other department in effect a library for the student, the scholar, and the amateur, where they can find, as in any library, collected in one place and readily accessible to them various editions of the unique objects which are scattered in the sanctuaries all over the world.[1]

Mr. Lippmann made these comments in October of 1948. His thoughts on the future of museums seems to have an eerie ring. Marble sanctuaries holding the prizes while duplicate images are made available to the masses. This could easily describe modern museums providing web access to their sacred collections. But, access for whom? It is interesting that he groups scholars with amateurs, suggesting that even “true art lovers” might welcome some convenience and ease of viewing.

Look for the Trends

The question is this: Can your museum survive in the future if your audience dwindles down to the educated and outgoing, the “regular museum goer”? How many people do you know would rather stay home to watch a football game on television than actually go to the stadium because it affords them a better view, private use of a restroom, and snacks on demand? How many people do you know are paying their bills on-line via their personal computer rather than get involved with the drudgery of writing checks and licking stamps and envelopes? A study conducted by Crain’s Chicago Business found that when asked whether or not a respondent would consider banking by computer, 43% replied yes. The study went on to show that the major impediment to the complete success of online computer banking was older customers.[2] I believe as the next generations mature, comfortable with the role of computers in their lives, this will change. How many people do you know are beginning to order their groceries by placing a call with their computer and selecting the exact items they want to have delivered to their door? Peapod, the computer delivery system based in Chicago tripled revenues in 1994 alone and is expanding into Boston, Detroit, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Columbus, and Cleveland.[3] How many people do you know conduct research on-line, tapping the vast resource of the Internet to find facts and figures, avoiding the legwork of traveling to the library? The statistics for Internet visits to the Virtual Library Museums Page are telling. In August 1994, the first month they began to tally visitors, a total of 3,459 “hits” were recorded. A hit is the Internet vernacular description for a visit. In September of 1996, 50,878 visitors stopped by the museums page to browse, an increase of 1,470%![4] Will technology kill museums? Only if museums let it.

Is it finally time to pay attention to the visitor? Is it finally time to take every effort to make the museum visitor feel welcomed, informed, and comfortable?

Choices for my Leisure Time

Countless studies have been published acknowledging the competition for reduced leisure time. Juliet B. Schor estimates that working hours for the average American are already longer than they were forty years ago and, if the present trend continues, we will be spending as much time at our jobs as Americans did in the nineteen twenties by the end of the century.[5] How we allocate the small amount of time we do have for leisure becomes a critical choice. There is strong competition to be the activity du jour. The cultural world is rapidly expanding with new and exciting forms of mass-media and, for many people, there is as much chance they will take their children to a mall, park, or movie as take them to a museum. What is considered cultural activity for many people is growing with choices and as the number of “cultural opportunities” increase, the chance that museum visits will be pushed to the fringe is very real. The period of time between 1991 and 1994 was called “Dark Days” by Crain’s with regards to the fall off in museum attendance. Siting that Chicago’s premier museum’s were losing their fight for leisure dollars, the article goes on to say that the drop in attendance, in some cases, threatens funding.[6] It’s problematic to fall back on the old cliché of validity, “But a museum is important!” Ask any development officer about the increased competition for the charitable dollar. What social ill, desperately asking for needed relief isn’t important? If people do not visit museums, and visit repeatedly, will they be as inclined to offer the necessary financial support? There is a very serious trend emerging with foundation support that is related to how well an organization serves its visitors. Foundations are beginning to wonder whether it is correct to come to the aid of ailing organizations. Major museum funders are now requiring museums to serve their communities through comprehensive program strategies and tackle their own deficit problems.[7] When a visitor does come through our doors, museum directors need to do everything possible to provide ample reasons for a return visit. Many a glorious afternoon in the galleries has been obliterated by a thirty second incident with an insensitive employee or non-user-friendly rule. It should be close to effortless, from the perspective of the visitor, to enjoy and be educated by a museum. For example, it is certainly much easier to stay home and catch a very stirring program on The History Channel than gather up the kids, search for directions and ticketing information, and travel to the history museum.

New Audiences

The need for new sources of revenue means paying attention to new audiences and may mean embracing new forms of delivery. There is a telling metaphor about transition and adaptation that applies to museums. I heard it at the first-ever AAM Visitor Services seminar in San Diego in the spring of 1996. Don Adams, formerly of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village and now with the new Automotive Hall of Fame, put it this way.

Years ago, when the railroads were the most powerful corporations in the country, if they had thought of themselves as being in the transportation business rather than only in the railroad business, they would have owned the airlines. Museums need to understand that they are in the experience industry.

Will we stand idly by, heads buried in the sand, telling ourselves “We are in the museum business…we are important!”, while technology delivers new and thrilling ways to see the world? We cannot allow technology to kill museums. We must use it as a vital resource and tool to sculpt the museum experience. Museum directors need to uncover the distinctive mix of treasures and technology. They need to use technology as the informational tool to support the wonders in their care which cannot be fully experienced on a high resolution monitor. Dr. Elizabeth Broun, Director of the National Museum of American Art, had this to say to the Smithsonian Commission on the Future:

In the third century of our national experience, art could at last find a meaningful place in American life, if we can use the objects of the past and the technologies of the future to make the right connections. Instead of “trickle-down” culture, people could search through our incredibly diverse collections to find that peculiarly rewarding match that occurs when we see in an artwork something we ourselves have understood or experienced. At last we have the means to make art available to a democratic society in which individual experience, not hierarchical systems, can find expression.[8]

Slow Changes

Here is one risk in embracing new technology too quickly: We may forget about meaningful low-tech concerns like serving our visitors. Many major museums have talked about how to improve their operations and make them more visitor friendly, but have they accomplished that aim? Take a look at the 1991 study to research the validity of using focus groups to learn about visitor reactions. The J. Paul Getty Trust put together Insights: Museums, Visitors, Attitudes, Expectations to show how listening to visitors’ comments about their museum experience would help in determining a correcting course of action. How many museums have really progressed in fixing what are perceived as impediments to a museum visit? More than a few curatorial jaws dropped when visitors were heard commenting on the severe lack of readability of museum labels. Now, five years later, how many labels have you seen that are easily read without doing what one visitor coined as “the museum shuffle”, two steps forward, lean, two steps back, two steps sideways, two steps forward”, etc., ad nauseum. When asked “What difficulties did visitors encounter during their museum visits?”, focus group participants replied with answers any front-line staff or volunteer could tell you:

  • “It made me real nervous not knowing where I was going.”

  • “There was no background information.”

  • “I don’t have time to research that. I expect them to do that.”

  • “You don’t understand the vocabulary”.

  • “It’s impossible to find your way around…There’s no good flow. In industry and business, you’d never allow that.”[9]

Empathy in Planning

Think of that last statement. Web pages use devices called links. No matter where you are in a virtual museum, you can merely point to highlighted words to get to anywhere else you’d like to go. At every stopping point there is a short selection of options to help the virtual visitor move around, certainly a clear advantage over stumbling through a real museum. How many museums have improved the way visitors must work at figuring out where to go? Signage in art museums can border on non-existent. In one museum during my consulting I saw a problem where every day, visitors walked up an outer staircase that led to a locked door…thinking they were headed to the main entrance. When I suggested strongly that only proper signage would alleviate the problem, I was told by museum officials, “The architect doesn’t want signage on the building. He wants people to discover the entry.” So while the very people responsible for managing an organization open to the public vacillated, front-line employees were walking up the stairs helping young mothers with strollers return back down a difficult stairway that led nowhere. Discover a doorway? I have an alternative: Why not make it easy for the visitor to move around, get information, fulfill simple human needs, and let them discover the art?

A common concern for museum educators is how much information to provide. What content? What source of delivery? At what level of education should the supporting information be directed? This is where technology can be a valuable tool for museums. Viewing a work and being able to access whatever further information about the work you choose can provide the best of all worlds to the museum visitor. Imagine using a computer screen to access data files with critiques, history, explanations, maps, and even direct Internet access with hyperlinks to other works not on display or owned by the museum. Computers on the web are sophisticated enough to know the sort of information a visitor usually requests so that, by default, that information is displayed immediately. The visitor, however, can opt to pick and choose what supporting information they wish to see by a few mouse clicks or key strokes. Mass data storage means background information of varying levels can be made available and accessed by choice. Museums have the ability to match whatever a virtual museum can provide with an enormously powerful advantage, the authentic object.

Generational Change

To keep museums a vital part of the lives of coming generations, we must invest as much time and resources as required to cultivate new audiences. The NEA’s study, “Age and Arts Participation” (1996) seems to show that our older, typical museum audiences will not be automatically replaced with the next generation.[10] How will we work to involve this younger generation and make them feel a part of the museum experience? Tom Bradshaw, from the Research Division of the National Endowment for the Arts, in his work Counting on Audiences: The State of Arts Participation Research, discusses the anticipated decline in arts participation for the next generation. Noting that now, more than ever, increased participation in the arts is conducted within mass-media, he states,

“…Baby Boomers, the first generation to be raised in the television era, may be substituting this form of arts participation [mass media] for attendance at live events.”[11]

That is our generation. Now, let’s look at the future generation we hope will support museums. We all know of youngsters, or are parents of youngsters, that can find their way around a computer better than some adults. The World Wide Web is an attraction for young teens presenting instant pen-pals and a wealth of content. This next generation will be the first to grow up in the personal computer era and museums need to be ready. Certainly, the use of computers as public tools in museums will help, but it starts with a more basic approach. The addition of computers as informational resources can match the level of access offered by a virtual museum, but how do we compete with the convenience and comfort of viewing in your own home? A student will not come in to a museum to use the technology installed as a part of the experience if he or she does not feel welcomed. Museums must now, finally, give the highest priority to the servicing of their visitors. I was in one major art museum talking with an older volunteer at an information desk located in the children’s area. There were two school groups nearby and they were making a bit of noise, as children will do, which seemed to annoy the volunteer. One young student about twelve years of age approached the desk and reached for a museum map. I watched in disbelief as the volunteer swatted the counter loudly while she ripped the map from the student’s hand and gave him a stern look. As the student went back to his group, sure to tell of his encounter, she turned to me and proudly said, “I never let them have maps. I’m saving us money!” In attempting to engage new, younger audiences to become museum visitors and supporters, it may not be technology, or the lack thereof, that kills museums. We may end up doing it ourselves.

[1] Walter Lippman, “The Museum of the Future”, The Atlantic Monthly,Vol. 182, No.4, (October 1948), 70-72.

[2] Beth Healy, “High Tech, No Tech: A Tale of Two Bank Customers: Why On-line Banking is a Way Off”, Crain’s Chicago Business, 4 March 1996 [On-line, America On Line].

[3] Patricia Gallagher, “Peapod Shucks Shell; Ameritech’s Investment Will Aid Growth”, Crain’s Chicago Business, 26 September 1994 [On-line, America On Line].

[4] The Virtual Library Museums Page can be found at http://www.comlab.ox.ac.uk/archive/other/museums.html. It is sponsored by ICOM, the International Council of Museums, provides a comprehensive listing of museums resources, and continues to show increased attendance. The producers of the page, as of December 1996, estimate it is being visited an average of 1,700 times a day, for a monthly average of 52,700 hits.

[5] Juliet B. Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline in Leisure, (New York: Basic Books, A Division of Harper Collins Publishers, 1992), 1.

[6] Joanne Cleaver, “Museums’ Dark Days: A Three Year Falloff in Attendance”, Crain’s Chicago Business, 10 April 1995, [On-line, America On Line]. The statistics published showed the following: Adler Planetarium, down 33.8%; Shedd Aquarium, down 18.3 %; Chicago Historical Society, down 14.1%; Art Institute, down 13.6%; Museum of Science and Industry, down 5.4%; Field Museum, down 5.2%.

[7] William Grimes, “New Tack on Grants and Arts: Do or Die”, The New York Times, 5 August 1996, [On-line, America On Line].

[8] Dr. Elizabeth Broun, “The Future of Art at the Smithsonian Institution”,(remarks to the Smithsonian Commission on the Future, Washington, DC, 1994.), [On-line, America On Line, accessed 6 November 1996]

[9] Insights: Museums, Visitors, Attitudes, and Expectations, (The Getty Center for Education in the Arts, The J. Paul Getty Trust, 1991), video.

[10] Richard A. Peterson, Darren E. Sherkat, Judith Huggins Balfe, Rolf Meyersohn, Age and Arts Participation With a Focus on the Baby Boom Cohort, (Santa Ana: Seven Locks Press, 1996), 8.

[11] Tom Bradshaw, “Counting on Audiences: The State of Arts Participation Research”, Arts.Community, [On-line at http://arts.endow.gov/Community/, accessed 9 October 1996).

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