BLOG POST: To Touch It or Not: Inserting Technology Into Museum Learning – Ariel Liu

Ariel LiuIn recent years, the adoption of several hands-on interactive technologies has taken many ‘Do Not Touch’ signs out of museums. These tools have made so-called ‘boring’ and ‘unapproachable’ documents and displays more accessible and available. In some cases, however, they can overshadow the authentic objects they are designed to make appealing, leading visitors to ignore the significance of the actual artefacts and making museums somewhat like an educational theme park. On the other hand, one can also argue that this is hardly a bad idea. Museums are places many of us visited as children, and places to which we return when we have children—like Disneyland, only with shorter queues and fewer nausea-inducing rides.

The imbalance in museum budgets—particularly the large expenditures on technology—has been discussed and debated in many museum-learning studies. How does one increase young visitors’ engagement with a museum, anyway? The traditional kid’s activity handout pales beside an interactive interpretation station—after all, which would the average ten-year-old prefer, a word search about a naval battle or a computer game giving him the chance to sink his classmates’ armadas? There is no disputing the fact that we live in a digital world, but one persistent question is whether we employ technological devices to their full potential as learning tools. Several large public museums, such as the Ashmolean museum in Oxford, the Natural History Museum of London, and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, have spent enormous sums on reconstruction and renovation, including millions budgeted for technological innovation and collaboration in an effort to ‘update’ the museums and increase visitor attraction. But how much of an impact have these changes rendered, and how much do visitors learn from these devices? Many researchers have remained sceptical that technological devices can fully enhance authentic objects—if you can be inside a real spaceship, they argue, why go to the fake one?

Of course, not every museum has a real spaceship, and even those that do may not permit visitors to play inside them. In many museums, new technologies make it possible for visitors to virtually interact with artefacts unavailable to the public. For example, many artefacts in the Churchill Museum in London are far too delicate to touch—consider the damage that could be done to Winston Churchill’s school report, letters, and childhood photograph if visitors were allowed to handle them. What the museum did was create a huge digital table consisting of document from Churchill’s life, thereby allowing visitors to safely browse through them. Thanks to technological innovation, the doors to the old ‘cabinet of curiosities’ can be opened and its contents examined, if only virtually.

At the end of the day, the question is not whether a museum should use technology or not, but rather how technology can be best employed, which depends on the collection, the exhibit, and the curator. Learning in museums should be informal and experiential. Museums are not places to test one’s memory, nor simple theme parks, but research institutes. Still, research is most effective when shared, and sharing this knowledge with visitors by using technology somehow still seems more exciting

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