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On display: Museum exhibits in the digital age

In an era where information and entertainment are readily available through the Internet, museums face a new obstacle: How do they remain relevant when visitors can access content so easily online?  The answer many have found is to redesign their exhibits to be more “engaging” — for example, by adding interactive components so that visitors can participate in the experience.  But to effectively engage many different kinds of people can present a significant challenge.

A logical first question is whether or not museums even have a place in the digital landscape.  In a recent article in the New York Times, Holland Cotter explains why he believes digital art collections — such as Stanford’s own Imagebase — can never live up to real ones.  He cites the inability of virtual reality to capture the size and scope of works; their arrangement in a physical space and the viewer’s ability to examine works from different angles to reveal details, textures and tricks of the light.

The same kind of reasoning applies to other types of galleries as well.  Thus, museum exhibits have at least two major roles that the Internet can’t fulfill.  One, they engage senses more fully than do screens.  And two, they contain specimens: artifacts from ancient cultures, documents from historical figures, rocks from the surface of the moon.  Good displays should capitalize on these unique dimensions, teaching visitors and simultaneously encouraging them to explore.

One of the most successful demonstrations of this technique are the new labels in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which ask visitors to consider various philosophical questions related to art pieces, to ponder why they like or dislike certain works and even to rethink established notions of great art and culture.  In this way, museum-goers are invited both to examine the art and to internalize what they’re seeing.

Yet museums face the additional challenge of appealing to a broad audience, and some interactive exhibits are in danger of falling short.  At the Exploratorium in San Francisco, researcher Toni Dancu works to determine why the overwhelming majority of children in the science exhibits are male.  Part of the reason seems to be that the interactive displays tend to stress competition, while girls are generally more interested in collaboration and storytelling.  Dancu’s Ph.D. dissertation outlines suggestions for making exhibits more appealing to girls, such as including applications to the community and incorporating female role models.  She is planning further research to identify exhibit design choices that appeal equally to girls and boys.

Another change museums are undergoing as they experiment with new interactive exhibits is a subtle but pervasive shift toward extroverted media.  As a child I used to visit the Hall of Life on the third floor of the Denver Museum of Natural History (now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science).  The quiet gallery housed mostly specimens of human organs.  It has since been replaced by Expedition Health, a series of rooms outfitted with screens and activities at every display.  For me, the voices and flashing images, the shrieks of children, the jostling masses of people waiting for their turn at each interactive station, create an intensely overwhelming atmosphere that leaves me little energy to absorb the content of the exhibit.  Why should I put up with these crowds in order to watch videos I could more comfortably see at home?

For introverts, a little bit of quiet and the opportunity for solitary reflection is necessary to focus and to think deeply about a subject.  Exhibits like Expedition Health are hardly conducive to this kind of learning.  Perhaps the exhibit could better appeal to those in need of quiet by including another room with a series of interactive displays that aren’t as fast-paced or hectic.

However, Expedition Health does do one thing right: It creates a personalized experience.  Throughout the exhibit, visitors can keep track of their own heartbeats, gaits, heights and weights, as well as their performance on various tasks.  These records are printed out at the exit for visitors to take with them.  The idea of an individually-tailored experience has also been implemented in other museums in the form of Bluetooth “beacons” that give smartphone users information on what they’re looking at and the opportunity to share images and tidbits over social networks.

Going forward, museums face a plethora of challenges relating to broad audience engagement.  To avoid becoming obsolete, museums should highlight the aspects of their exhibits that visitors can’t get elsewhere, such as interaction with original artworks or specimens.  Above all, they should avoid presuming a short attention span or lack of interest from the audience.  We all have something to gain from a space that engages our minds in novel ways and draws us to consider both the world around us and our place within it.  And for that purpose, museums are indispensable.

Contact Mindy Perkins at mindylp ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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