Digital Exhibits – Museum Exhibits, Digital Tools, and Case Studies

The readings for this week focused on the creation of digital exhibits and how museum exhibits evolved during the twentieth century.

In his book Do Museums Still Need Objects? Steven Conn looks at the changing role of museums in the U.S. from their golden age in the nineteenth century through the twentieth century. Looking at each of the six kinds of museums first envisioned by the early Smithsonian visionary George Brown Goode – art, natural history, history, anthropology, technology, and commercial – Conn shows that though the architecture of the museums, their teaching aims, and their communication styles have changed that museums remain central to the education of Americans and the development of a public sphere for civic identity. While he laments the loss of the centrality of objects, the move from general education to youth entertainment, and the overall retreat from infrastructure of public engagement in American society, Conn still believes that museums play an important role in bringing large cross sections of the public together.

Though this book had its interesting moments, such as teaching about the demise of the commercial museum as a museum type and the weaknesses of repatriating objects, overall I found it muddled. Conn lost track of his central question, “do museums still need objects?,” in his tangents about public good and architecture which were never brought back around to dealing with this issue. Perhaps if Conn had considered museums into the twenty-first century or looked to the digitization of their objects and catalogs he would have come to different conclusions about the continued centrality of objects.

While Conn focused on museums exclusively, Krugg focused on digital tools exclusively. Stephen Krugg’s Dont Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability is a manual for beginner and amateur web-designers. It goes through the basics of design standards with the goal of making sites more easily understood and used by visitors. In order to achieve this Krugg stressed the importance of frequent user testing. Other important elements of websites emphasized in this book were that they meet accessibility standards for users with disabilities and that they be considerate to your users – meaning that they answer those questions which are most important to the user in a way that is straightforward. These last two points stood out to me as key takeaways from this book because I do not always think of them in my own designs, but I should. This book will be helpful to show the nuts and bolts of how to make a successful digital exhibit with regards to form, while the articles for this week focused on content.

The article “Digital Storytelling in Museums: Observations and Best Practices” by Wyman, Smith, and Godfrey uses their experiences at Second Story interactive studios to outline some of the core challenges to museums in the digital age and ways to overcome them. They acknowledge museums’ hesitation to embrace new technologies and social media, but say that the true issue at hand is how to best frame their content in a way that is most useful and desirable to their virtual and in-person visitors. The rise of the virtual visitor means that experiences are no longer very tied to venue, a huge shift in the museum world and a realization that could have helped Conn’s argument. The authors outline a series of strategic and tactical recommendations (pp 465-467), with the greatest takeaways being that having a clear message about what you would like to communicate and choosing the right tool, not necessarily the flashiest tool, will lead to the most successful projects.

The article “Enhancing Museum Narratives with the QRator Project: a Tasmanian devil, a Platypus and a Dead Man in a Box,” looks at the QRator project to show how mobile devices and interactive labels can be used to create new user generated content and new learning opportunities. These new technologies allow people to experience objects in new ways. This happens both by allowing them to have access to more content about the object through the web, and by contributing their own information. Despite fears from staff about graffiti, this user generated information was on topic and relevant 83% of the time. One potential weakness of this project is its reliance on information sharing through Twitter, which is not embraced as a tool by a cross section of the entire population.

In the article “On Air, Online and Onsite: The British Museum and the BBC’s ‘A History of the World,’” the authors look at the project “A History of the World” which used 100 objects from the British Museum to tell the story of the history of the world. This project featured in museum exhibits, radio broadcasts, a website, social media voting campaigns, and the capability for visitors to nominate their own personal objects for consideration through partnerships with BBC programs such as “Antiques Roadshow.” With these many varied approaches of forums through which to experience the project, the exhibit was hugely successful, reaching up to 1/3 of the UK’s population and shows the possibilities for learning from a truly dynamic exhibit.

Both of the articles this week which focused on developments in science museums, “Iterating for Visitors at the Exploratorium” by Eric Socolofsky and “Museum Games: Some Strategies for Achieving Project Goals” by Elizabeth Goins, focus on the importance of user testing throughout the life of the project. In looking at science museums neither of the authors seem to think that this museums overwhelming appeal to children over other audiences is a problem the way that Conn does.

The reading from Contents Magazine which stood out to me in connection to this week’s readings about digital exhibits was Sally Whitting’s article “Digital Archives and the Content Strategist.” This article argues that content strategists should think of themselves as archivists for digital projects, mining information and presenting it to users in the most straightforward, helpful way possible. It also argues that archivists should think of themselves as content strategists with regards to digital archives, asking more active questions about curation instead of passively thinking about what visitors want alone. Showing the interaction between these two seemingly different professions reveals the ways that traditional, object based institutions can move into the digital realm without completely abandoning tenets of the profession.

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