Archive for May, 2013

I know I am not alone in my observation that the quality of technology in museum galleries can be highly variable and too often disappointing in its ability to engage, impart knowledge, or truly enhance visitors’ museum experiences.  The recent integration of technology into the Cleveland Museum of Art by the media design firm Local Projects, however, seems to be a shining example of how technology can be effectively used in museums.

Although I have not had a chance to see the installation in person, Co.Design’s assessment of Local Projects’ work paints a brilliant picture (see its blog at http://www.fastcodesign.com/1671845/5-lessons-in-ui-design-from-a-breakthrough-museum#1).  Among the five useful lessons noted in the blog, Lesson 4 in particular seems worthy of reiteration: “Looking through the Tech, Not at It.”  Research study after research study confirms that visitors value museums for their collections and what those collections show them.  For instance, in a recent study for the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, visitors rated “looking at real specimens, art, & artifacts in exhibits” of greatest interest and “using technology in exhibition spaces” of least interest.  These findings and others support our conclusion that the interpretive delivery strategies should not come between the visitor and the authenticity of the experience with real objects and specimens, which is what Co.Design so aptly describes when it advises to look through the technology and not at it.

Cleveland Museum of Art gallery  Image courtesy of Co.Design

Cleveland Museum of Art gallery
Image courtesy of Co.Design

Furthermore, the idea of looking through technology and not at it resonates with our philosophy that museums must think about impact—the intended result of a museum’s work on museum audiences, which, as Randi noted last week, is derived from articulating staff passions, a museum’s distinctiveness, and relevance to the public (see https://intentionalmuseum.com/2013/04/10/balancing-mission-with-impact-ii/ ).  Technology is not an end, but like collections, a means through which a museum achieves its desired impact.  Local Projects founder, Jake Barton, and his team seem to share our thinking.  As Co.Design notes, “It was Barton’s own skepticism about technology that made the technology great.  His team didn’t necessarily believe that high-tech flare would add value to the museum experience.  So they strove to look past the technology.”  Hopefully, work such as that of Local Projects for the Cleveland Museum of Art marks a turning point for how museums use technology—introducing technology that does not interrupt authentic experiences with a museum’s collections but truly enhances it.

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Insider Out

I’m not a museum evaluator, but I play one on television; at least that’s what I tell people who ask me what I do for a living.  As the Business Manager at Randi Korn & Associates, I don’t have the educational or employment background of my colleagues, but I do have a long-standing love of museums – I had to name my favorite museum (and why) when I interviewed here.

New Yorker Cartoon SteinbergSo, in order to do my job effectively, I had to learn a few things about how museums operate and what museum evaluation is in order to function. Just as Steinberg cleverly shows here how New Yorkers view the world, those in the museum field may also have a skewed perception of their domain from the inside; this poster hangs on our office wall to remind us to “think outside the museum.” Here are my top 5 “surprises” from the outside.

Surprise #1: Who knew that museums had goals and objectives when they put up all that cool stuff? Laugh if you will, but before I came here, I didn’t realize there is more to an exhibition than putting like things together. Now that I know, it’s given me a whole new dimension to explore when I visit a museum.

Surprise #2: There’s a whole world of people conducting research on/in museums.
Being a process person and a big believer in constructive criticism, it’s good to know that, not only did the museum have a purpose when it put this stuff together, but someone is actually gathering information to make it better!

Surprise #3: Wow, I work with really smart people!
Not really surprising, because the museum field is loaded with lifelong learners and people who are naturally curious. And evaluators are really curious, otherwise they would not have the desire to probe and probe further, and question how and why.

Surprise #4: I was evaluating museums, I just didn’t know it.
Invariably, I always had a lot to say after visiting an exhibition: short little me (4’ 10”) couldn’t see through the crowd; I didn’t realize I was going in the wrong direction until I found the orientation panel at the end; this interactive was really cool; etc. etc. How refreshing to learn someone might actually be interested in my opinion!

Surprise #5: Gee, people have some odd opinions to share!Narwhal Horn
I keep a file of amusing interview and survey responses. The winner so far is, when asked if they had anything to add about their experience in the museum that day, the interviewee said “There were no beets in the beet soup!”  You can have the best exhibition ever, but visitors will remind you how they value every aspect of their museum encounter.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, my favorite museum is the Cluny in Paris. Because it has a narwhal horn on display. Go figure.

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