It seems funny that in the “information age” when museums are trying so hard to add a digital dimension to their galleries that I heard a Grandmother say to her grandchildren that they were “forbidden to touch the digital screens” in the Wild Planet gallery of the Australian Museum. I noted that the children were behaving badly and were fighting over the touch screens but the issue was really about the Grandmother’s frustration at the children not seeing her view of the museum space. She was trying to tell them about the specimens and wanted them to study each object and the text panels on display but instead they ran ahead, excitedly looking for the next touch screen and were not engaging in the way that she wanted them to.
Does it matter? Yes and No. Yes, it matters that the Grandmother has misunderstood the benefit of the touch screens and the intent of the Australian Museum curators who used them to provide context and enhance the visitor connection with the taxidermy objects on display. Perhaps she has also misunderstood what the children were doing with the screens – that they were using them to learn. No, it doesn’t matter because visitors arrive at the museum with their own agendas and personal experiences and expectations of the visit regardless of what is presented by the museum and the original intent of the museum curators and designers who created the exhibition.
Jordan Shapiro’s article on on Kids and Screen Time talks about the changing attitude of the American Academy of Pediatrics towards screen use and the fact that they found no real problem with children having unlimited screen time because technology is “the way of the future” and that “digital content can enhance the learning experience”. However the article does not discuss the kinds of issues that families worry about – like screen addiction and the overuse injuries occurring in some children who do not seem to be able to self regulate their use of digital devices. For many families, TVs and screens occupy a fair chunk of their children’s day, and so a trip to the museum is actually an opportunity for a different kind of experience with the family interacting with one another in a fun, learning environment.
I’ve read some interesting articles on the subject of digital museum exhibits and audience engagement. Two articles in particular from 2014 that I have linked to are related to each other and extremely relevant when considering the use of digital engagement tools in exhibitions. The first is a blogpost from the V&A in London by Andrew Lewis titled – What can we learn from watching groups of visitors using digital museum exhibits? This post considered research carried out at the V&A and Natural History Museum in the UK, using direct observation of visitors within both museums as discussed in – “Cross-disciplinary frameworks for studying visitor experiences with digitally mediated museum exhibits”. The research was carried out by Theano Moussouri and Eleni Vomvyla of UCL Institute of Archaeology and Sara Price and Carey Jewitt of Institute of Education Culture Communication & Media (London Knowledge Lab) Institute of Education.
What I like about the research is that it isn’t just counting the numbers of visitors entering an exhibition. It is based on observing visitor behaviour with a range of digital exhibits and collecting visitor feedback to extract concrete evidence about the motivation of visitors interacting with digital displays as well as their experience in finding meaning from the digital tools being used in the exhibition. Such information can then be used to tweak an existing exhibition or inform the design of a new exhibition with digitally interactive components.
Audience research and visitor surveys are important feedback mechanisms for any museum or gallery serious about their digital engagement strategy in the twenty first century.