Not Technology for Technology Sake: public/private engagement with exhibits and exhibitions


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The presentation explores people's engagement with technology in museums, galleries, science centres and heritage sites. It highlights the tension between the interaction with other people and the interaction with technology in museums. By drawing on the current discourse that either over-emphasizes the opportunities offered by technology in museums or argues that "technology ruins" art and people's experience of art the presentations arrives at some suggestions for the design of technology to be deployed in exhibitions.

The presentation was delivered at the Museums and Heritage Show 2013 in London as part of a seminar series sponsored by Electrosonic.

A related paper can be found here:

Published in: Design, Education, Technology
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  • Thank you for inviting me to this event. It’s always a pleasure to talk to designers and museum professionals. For today I have been asked to talk about my research on technology in museums. There’s probably no museum anymore that does not use some kind of technology to enhance their visitors’ experience of exhibits and exhibitions. This development has
  • been driven by what is sometimes described as digital revolution. It involves the dissemination and pervasiveness of digital technology in almost all parts of our lives. Apart from desktop computers at work and at home
  • we engage in communication over the internet, and we do that not only from desktop computers but also while
  • On the move. Laptops, mobile phones and tablet computers allow us access to the worldwideweb where ever we are,
  • In light of these developments museums (of course) also make use of digital technologies. Here are a few examples I studied over the past years: PDAs in an art museum, a touch-screen information system at piece of furniture, a touch-screen system in a science museum, a robot guide and a few gesture-based or camera-based systems. All these systems exploit the opportunities offered by technology to provide people with (multi-media) content related to exhibits and exhibitions, engage people for considerable time with exhibits they otherwise might only glance at or ignore, to offer people a different way to see an exhibit.
  • As many of you know the design of these technologies and systems can be quite challenging. They need to be robust and easy to use by a wide range of visitors, including adults and children, people experienced and interested in technology as well as people afraid of using technology, individuals and groups, etc. Furthermore, these technologies are seen to be successful or effective when they manage to extend people’s dwell-time at exhibits and engage them not only with the exhibit but with the subject matter of the exhibit. That is, the technology needs to facilitate meaning experiences in exhibitions.
  • These challenges for designers put one side new digital technologies come with lots of exciting opportunities and that’s why we think about using them in new exhibitions. They indeed do extend the time people spend with exhibits, they allow curators and educators with novel multimedia ways to communicate with the public. Moreover, the technology can be personalised to the requirements and interests of the visitor, they can be customised for example with regard to the route the visitor has taken through the exhibition. And they can allow people to revisit their visit when at home and people who are unable to visit the museum can access the collection remotely. But one of the main purposes of technology in museums is the possibility that it can enhance people’s experience of exhibits and their learning from exhibitions.
  • And this is what I am interested in here, the possibility to enhance peoples experience and learning from museums.
  • It is notable that when we think about engagement, experience and learning we often think about individuals. The general assumption about aesthetic experiences is that they are made by an individual spectator or viewer who stands in front of and looks at a work of art. The experience of the pieces arises through the engagement of the individual with the work. The aesthetic experience therefore is likened to some kind of sacred relationship between the individual and the museum object. And when technology is introduced into this relationship then not surprisingly concerns are voiced that take an almost meme-like character
  • The meme is embodied in headlines we regularly see in media debates published in newspapers and magazines as well as on blogs etc. The argue that technology distracts from the original object, technology disturbs the experience of the original because people obtain information about the object before looking at it, and people use technology in ways that obstructs others experience. Here are a few examples of such stories:
  • The New Statesman only this month asks: “Are smartphones ruining art?”
  • A couple of years, The Guardian wrote “These Tourist snappers are killing the Mona Lisa”, and
  • The author of the Digital History blog hopes that “web 2.0 does not ruin museums”. This is only a very small selection of a growing discourse voicing concern about the impact of the technology on the museum experience. Interestingly, this discourse largely is largely based on the assumption that museum objects are experienced by individual spectators, who now are confronted with technology that disturbs or ruins the relationship with exhibits. This is fairly surprising considering that every body knows that
  • museums are visited by multiple people at the same time. People come with others, here for instance we see the lady who in the previous picture was on her own is standing next to her partner. And there are people in the museum close where we stand who we have no personal relationship with us. Normally, this is not a problem for us as through our movements we somehow manage, even in busy galleries, to carve out space to look at exhibits, fairly undisturbed. And people respect where each other stand and do not nudge others to stop their engagement with an exhibit and move on.
  • Rather, a careful slow progression through the museum can be observed where people allow each other privacy in their engagement with the pieces and move from exhibit to exhibit without disturbing others or interfering with their engagement with the pieces.
  • The museum visit therefore is a social activity conducted in interaction with companions and other people. The engagement with each piece is with one or more others who jointly look at the pieces and cooperate in their examination of works of art or interactive exhibits. And, when observing visitors exploration of galleries it come over as nicely choreographed event, not a random series of movements and actions. So when you reflect on the nicely organised place that is the gallery that people explore in interaction with each other, through an improvised choreography of action, then installing technology in these environments becomes not a problem of disturbing the sacred relationship between viewer and and exhibit but of intruding in and disturbing this choreography. When deploying technology you want to avoid situations like this,
  • Taken from Tiffany Shlain’s film Connected the Film
  • Technology in museums therefore involves challenges that go beyond impacting the relationship between spectator an work of art. PDAs and Smart Phones….Touch-screen systems….larger displays like projections….
  • The museum experience arises in a social context that is continually changing and being transformed by what people do.Hence, when we design and deploy technology in museums we need to think about, not what it does to the experience of the individual visitor but how it fits in the social ecology of the museums.Designing systems for museum exhibitions always involves design for cooperation between people as well as design to allow people privacy, quiet space, room for their own experience, and the possibility to make unspoilt experiences of the original arteacts
  • Not Technology for Technology Sake: public/private engagement with exhibits and exhibitions

    1. 1. Not Technology for Technology Sake:public/private engagement withexhibits and exhibitionsDirk vom LehnKing’s College + Heritage Show 2013 – Not Technology for Technology Sake
    2. 2.
    3. 3.
    4. 4.
    5. 5. Challenges for Design• Robust• easy to use• Range of visitors and visitor group• Engage visitors• Facilitate meaningful experience
    6. 6. Opportunities• Lengthy engagement• Multimedia communication• Personalisation• Customisation• Remote participation• Enhancing Experience and Learning
    7. 7. Opportunities• Lengthy engagement• Multimedia communication• Personalisation• Customisation• Remote participation• Enhancing Experience and Learning
    8. 8. Enhancing Experience and LearningAesthetic Experience• Individual Engagement• Cognitive Process• ‘Sacred’ Relationship
    9. 9. “Technology Ruins” Meme• Technology distracts from the original object• Technology disturbs the experience• Technology obstructs others’ experience
    10. 10. Digital History Blog:
    11. 11. Visiting Public Museum• Presence of Others• Negotiation/Coordination with others• Privacy
    12. 12. Exploring Museums
    13. 13. Public Museums• Visiting as Social Activity• Cooperation between visitors• Improvised Choreography
    14. 14. From Trailer to “Connected the Film” by Tiffany Shlain
    15. 15. Technology in Museums 1• PDAs, Smartphones& Tablets– Multimedia, personalisable/customisable content– But:• can undermine cooperation• can distract from museum object• Touch-screen systems– Multimedia content– Cooperation ‘impoverished’
    16. 16. Technology in Museums 2• Large projections– Multiparty– But:• Private engagement?• Surprise & discovery• Multitouch-tables– Multiparty– But:• Private engagement?• Surprise and discovery
    17. 17. Discussion• Museum Experience in Social context• Technology can be used to enhance experience for individualsand groups• Design for Cooperation and Private Engagement• Design for social, material and visual ecology• Encourage visitors to use technology mindfully
    18. 18. Thank you! @dirkvl