Using Tech of Today to Present the Past

New technology has presented modern historians with unique problems that their predecessors never had to face. They are in a never-ending battle for the public’s interest in a world filled with iPhones, Apple Pay, and Amazon delivery drones. The pervasiveness and accessibility of technology has also influenced the people that museums exist to serve. A blog post on Museum Blogging examined the new challenges museums are facing in reaching out to the millennial generation. The answer to this dilemma is obvious, although implementation is much more difficult—museums must embrace modern methods to better serve their communities. Over the past decade many historians came to the same conclusion, and because of that, many museums are doing a remarkable job of implementing new technologies and techniques to help them reach a broader audience.

A recent step taken by museums to help them reach a younger audience is improving exhibit design, flow, and diversifying the ways that information is transmitted to museum guests. In Public History: A Textbook of Practice, Thomas Cauvin references scholarly work published as recently as 2014 focused on cutting-edge exhibit design practices. In Mickey Mouse History, Mike Wallace recounts his visit to Ellis Island, and discusses his worries that some visitors may not fully experience the national landmark, simply because they do not go to the exhibits in the intended order. To figure out where planning and reality diverge, some museums are employing the use of eye tracking technology to evaluate where patron’s eyes first look in an exhibit. An interesting study by the Indianapolis Museum of Art tested the feasibility of implementing wide-spread eye-tracking technology in museums.  Basically, they found that current eye tracking technology wasn’t extremely effective in uncontrolled settings like a museum gallery, but it still proved useful in controlled studies. Another element of exhibit design that has taken a new direction in recent years is undoing the “tyranny of objects” that has often permeated exhibits (Wallace). Audio accounts, video recordings, augmented reality, and other innovative ways of conveying information are starting to replace the textbook on a wall approach that has been prevalent in museums for decades.

Another factor that disconnects museums from their modern communities is the tendency to focus on distant issues with little bearing on the lives of local people. Of course, there is still tremendous value in learning about the struggles, successes, and daily lives of people that lived 500 years ago, but sometimes institutions use this as a cop out. It is often easier to talk about issues separated from us by time or distance than to confront the problems in our own neighborhood. Wallace aptly observes that museums are often “more comfortable talking about tropical rain forests in Brazil than toxic dumpsites in their own back yard.” It seems that observing a problem that happened 50 years ago is much less scary than acknowledging a current problem that we may have had a part in causing.

Arguably, the most significant way that museums have succeeded in reaching the younger generation is by the implementation of new technologies and social media. A New York Times article published in 2006 noted the increasing popularity of museum audio guides published in the format of podcasts, and in more recent years the amount of podcasts devoted to improving the museum experience is simply staggering. Another technological frontier being explored is interactive apps that act as tour guides through a museum. In coming years, apps will likely surpass podcasts in popularity among museum patrons because of their accessibility and ease of use.

Even if guests don’t have a smart phone, many museums allow you to access audio content by simply calling a phone number on your cell phone.  Social media is also being harnessed in nearly all museums to help promote new exhibits, interact with the public, show off interesting items in the museum, and more. Twitter is a platform that many historians and museums have successfully adopted, and many popular museums around the world have millions of followers on the site.

Museums may be shrines of the past, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot use cutting-edge technology to communicate to their audiences. In fact, to capture the interest of the new generation, using modern exhibit design, presenting relevant issues, and tapping into new technologies may be the only way to continue successfully engaging the community. It seems that over the past decade museums have made a conscious effort to implement new technology, and now that decision is paying off.


One comment

  1. historyaf · January 24, 2017

    This was a great read! You have a real talent for writing blog posts. I like all the extra research you included on current technologies (like eye tracking) being tested in museums. I’m also interested in how museums and archives are implementing new technologies, so this was fun to read.
    I have nothing else to say but keep up the good work!



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