I just read Paul Orselli’s provocative blog post Are Screens killing Museums? (on ExhibiTricks) along with a barrage of posted comments. I agree with many of the points made, and while others have already suggested some positive things about “screens” in museums, I couldn’t help but make my own top ten explaining why “screens” are important to the visitor experience. (Originally, I was going to post this as a comment, but it got a bit too long, plus I wouldn’t have been able to post the “anti-video drome” image on the left.)
Before I get to the list, I want to preface this by saying that computers are not a replacement for many of the things that museums do. “Screens” shouldn’t be used to replace traditional visitor experiences, but rather to supplement them, enhance them or to create new ones.
Here are some of the qualities (and potential qualities) that screens have…
10.) Screens can extend the museum mission beyond the museum walls. Web-based exhibits are available to anyone in the world, 24 hours a day. Granted these types of activities are not a replacement for a visit to the museum itself, but online exhibits provide a cost-effective way to connect large numbers of visitors.
9.) Screens can act as more dynamic graphic signage. Dynamic exhibits can have dynamic signage. Digital signage can contain animated explanations and interpretive materials. Content can also be easily changed and replaced. Cheap computers or solid state media can be used.
8.) Screens can connect visitors with large collections. Most museum collections are so large only a fraction of the objects can be on display at any given time. Collections software can provide visitors (in the museum or on the Web) with access to the entire collection.
7.) Screens can bring the outside world into the museum. Most people won’t have the opportunity in their lifetime to see a solar eclipse or to travel to Antarctica, but through Webcasts (or other remote feeds) these events can be shown on the museum floor or can be observed via the Web at home or school.
6.) Screens can help visitors see things that normally can’t be seen. Objects that are too small, too large, or too far way can be displayed on a screen. Likewise, screens can show things that happen over long periods of time (timelapse) or can show information or data in new ways that help visitors understand complex systems or relationships.
5.) Screens can provide dynamic feedback. For exhibits where visitors are interacting physically: sensors, computers, and screens can provide important feedback, enhancing the visitors understanding of the physical forces that are at play. For example, exhibits can measure everything from the angle of objects, pounds per square inch, watts produced, and other physical characteristics.
4.) Screens are ubiquitous or soon will be (so why wouldn’t we try to take advantage of that?). Museums can connect with visitors on their own mobile devices (iPhones, iPods, Netbooks, mobile phones). This can happen on the floor or via the Web. Visitors can interact with materials at the museum in “real time” or outside of the museum at their leisure. Deeper and more personal connections can be made.
3.) Screens are cheap. There is little need to spend the money on “professional grade” technology, when consumer grade screens and computers will do the trick. Graphic panels and physical exhibits can be expensive and much less flexible than computer screens used for digital signage, for example.
2.) Screens can help promote social interaction. Our multitouch table is a social hotspot. Multiple museum visitors can interact simultaneously and visitors frequently talk with each other about what they are seeing and touching. Also, on the Web social networking applications and social software tools are being utilized by museums, deepening their connections with visitors (and potential visitors).
1.) Screens can be physical. Were entering the era of physical computing. Multitouch and other gestural interfaces are just emerging, but they will change the way we interact with information and digital objects. More immersive exhibits will allow visitors to interact physically with dynamic software programs that can enhance their understanding of the physical world.
Sadly, computers and screens are not very green. The industry is improving, but quick obsolescence and the use of toxic materials makes this very challenging. Still, a major improvement for screens, is on the horizon. The widespread use of LEDs to backlight to LCD monitors is coming in just next couple of years. This innovation will cut electrical consumption by more than half and dramatically improve the life of screens.
If you have comments about my “10” or Paul’s, please post comments back on Paul Orselli’s ExhibitTrick blog.