I don’t know if it was attending the Museums & the Web conference back in April or just simply recognizing the amount of time I spend navigating technology issues in the museum, but I recently have had a good old-fashioned “freak out” when it comes to museum tech. Touch screens, apps, MOOCs, mobile-optimized web design, iPad tours, Hangouts, social media, photo sharing, Vine, Instagram, YouTube … EEK!
The budgets and staff support for technology at museums seem to be growing and growing, with some museums investing more in a single technology project than other museums have in their entire annual operating budget. I’ve certainly been an advocate for this shift in 21st century museums — don’t get me wrong. As a museum blogger but also as a Director of Education, I have truly come to understand and appreciate the benefits of online engagement and the use of technology for interpretation and learning. But when I head into the galleries to facilitate a learning experience, technology often falls away and I find myself focusing entirely on the analog elements of museum teaching.
Earlier this year, I was invited to give a public talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego as part of their “Outside Perspectives” program, so I decided to grapple with this issue in a public forum. The main risk here was that I have not fully formed my own ideas and position about the role of technology in museum teaching and learning — but I was excited to throw out a series of raw questions and spark a conversation that would no doubt help me shape my own ideas and thinking. Here is a link to the SlideShare of my PowerPoint:
The title of the talk kicked everything off with a rather false dichotomy between “plugged in” and “unplugged” museum experiences and the preferences museum visitors might have — even assuming that these experiences are separable in some way. But the real core questions I wanted to deal with were:
- Are we becoming too reliant on technology in museum education?
- As we focus more and more on digital and online experiencea, are we sacrificing any of the human-centered elements that have been at the core of museum education for more than a century?
- If your museum lost power, how would that affect the learning experience in the galleries and across programming?
During my visit to the MCA San Diego, they had the Lifelike exhibition on view at their La Jolla building. So in preparation for my talk, I took some time to explore the online and digital side of people’s experiences with this exhibition — even adding my own Instagram photos and Vine videos to the mix — and presented these incredible layers as part of my talk about the “plugged in” experience. I also brought in to the conversation a series of technology projects gaining attention in recent years, including Google Art Project, online courses and Google Hangouts via museums like MoMA, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One and the ArtLens app (showing this project always gets some oohs and aahs), and the Rijksmuseum’s new website.
During my talk at MCASD, I stopped to open the floor for conversation and audience thoughts about the balance between plugged-in and unplugged engagement in museums, and whether we rely too much on technology. And even after presenting a series of eye-popping, meaningful, transformative technology-based projects and experiences in museums, the audience largely seemed to place more value on the analog and non-technology-based social experiences they have (or develop as educators) in museums. And I am reminded of the human core of my own gallery teaching practice — a core that was highlighted so perfectly by Briley Rasmussen’s post on this site last year after the Getty’s decision to cut its education teaching staff. In her post, Briley boldly states:
“When art museums support their collections through personal human interactions, … moments of humanness and ‘unselfing’ occur. This is when our collections shine and are the most profound. This is when we have real public value.”
So with these raw questions laid out, I’m curious about other people’s thoughts. Are museums becoming too reliant on technology and the internet? Are we sacrificing any of our core values as we dedicate more and more resources and staff to technology initiatives? How can we create a meaningful balance between the “unplugged” and the “plugged in” as we move forward into the 21st century? Join the conversation below.