Let’s Get Digital?

When I think about museums, I don’t typically think about all of the digital technology that creates the most memorable experience. There are so many aspects that are taken for granted when the modern visitor enters the museum, or even before they step in the door. Think about your last museum visit, any type of museum will do. How did you know when it opened? Did you look and see what the exhibitions currently were? If you needed tickets, did you buy them in advanced? Its pretty likely you checked the museum’s website for all of these questions. There is already so much information about a museum ready at your fingertips without even entering a physical building. That doesn’t even begin to cover what digital technology is at play once you arrive at the museum. Things like security, climate control, member services, audio guides, Wifi and so much more are influencing how you experience a museum.

In an increasingly digital/technological world, visitors expect a certain level of the present to be incorporated in the “old world” of museum visiting. For many, museums are meant to be a break with the everyday, a way to transport yourself to another world and time. What is the museum’s place in the 21st century if the visitor has the outside world sitting in their back pocket in the form of a cellphone?  It is not enough to come to a museum and look at objects through glass because nine times out of ten, that exact object can be seen in HD on a computer in the comfort of your own home. Museums are now tackling how to get visitors truly engaged with the objects lining its walls, even if that means bringing the outside world in.


My most recent experience with digital technology in the museum setting was at my last trip to the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) this past Sunday. I didn’t plan on going to the museum that day, and I definitely wasn’t planning on writing a post about its use of technology throughout the galleries but my class discussion in Museums and Digital Technology this week got me thinking about how museums are embracing, or not, the digital age. More importantly, it got me thinking about if this incorporation of digital technology really enhanced my experience at the Museum of Natural History.

Views of the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins crowded with Museum visitors.
The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History

It had been a very long time since my last visit to NMNH and I wasn’t really sure what they had on display so I first check their website (linked above) to see if this was really the museum I wanted to visit that day and just how late they were open.  Already I was experiencing the museum’s first layer of digital technology and interacting with their most obvious digital presence. Upon arrival however, NMNH’s digital presence became a lot subtler.

Throughout the Hall of Human Origins, I encountered signs encouraging me to touch casts and models of different skulls and bones that were found throughout the world. Although not an obvious use of digital technology, some machine had to copy the original bones and then another machine was responsible for fabricating them into a durable material.

As I continued to wander through these galleries I came across a few touch screens that allowed visitors to learn a little more about certain subjects. These screens were not massive of widely advertised; instead they were tucked into the text panels in front of large display cases. They were there as an additional resource if a visitor wanted, but could easily be ignored or overlooked by someone breezing through a gallery.

While I think these touch screens offer an opportunity to learn more, I found some of them frustrating to work with. More often than not, these touch screens were not very reactive and I found myself jabbing my finger at the screen in order to go to a different screen. Instead of being able to easily learn about how lions hunt in the savannah, for example, I spent most of my time figuring out where the screen thought my finger was so I could compensate and click on the information I wanted.  Perhaps that comes with being a very well-visited institution that deals with numerous visitors a week.  Machines get worn out, touch screens often need to be re-calibrated, or maybe there was something on my fingers that made it hard to recognize on the screen. Whatever it was, the interactive touch screens definitely can aid in enhancing a learning experience (if you can get past the potential frustrations).

Of all the screens and models I walked past during my visit, I never encountered a wait time to use or touch something except in the Hall of Human Origin. Right next to the 3D models of our genetic ancestors were two photo booths that allowed visitors to see what they would look like as one of our ancestors with the option to email the image to yourself after. On two monitors in between the photo booths, images of past visitors rotated on the screens with the most notable facial features super-imposed over the grinning faces of visitors. I must admit, I was curious about what I would look like as an ancient human, so I began to wait in line along with about seven other people. After 5-10 minutes, however, I hadn’t really moved in line and the intrigue had worn off so I went on my way and explored the rest of the museum.

The irony of the only place in the museum encouraging a photograph having a waiting line is not lost on me. Instead of waiting in line to get to touch an object, people are willing to line up to take a picture with what is basically a Snapchat filter. What does that say about us a visitors? The notion of “the selfie” has become so mainstream that having a photo to prove that you went somewhere, rather than just enjoying the experience of being there has altered how we interact with the world around us. Instead of trying to break with this notion of “pics or it didn’t happen” and keep the museum visit about interacting with the objects, it seems that NMNH is trying to embrace the digital age one selfie at a time.

I just can’t help but wonder what this means for the museum purists like myself. Will my preference for the object-based learning and exploration be pushed aside for the addition of photo booths and touch screens that might not work?

3 thoughts on “Let’s Get Digital?”

  1. Hi Amanda! Your frustrating experience with the various facets of digital technology at the NMNH sounds much like what I have experienced with some museums in the past as well. I also worked at NMNH last summer, and in wandering through the museum several times during my time there found some of the technology lacking due to whatever reason. Even though I am not totally against technology in museums, I am one of those people who prefer to engage with the collections objects directly, not through some sort of interactive, when I visit museums. And since the NMNH is a popular place for kids as much as it is for adults, I think the museum is taking on more and more digital technology in order to entertain the upcoming generation (who are becoming more and more used to having technology in their lives). Although it is rather sad to see some people taking more of an interest in photos than objects, it does reflect how many of today’s museums must adapt to technology to draw visitors, or risk losing them altogether. I wrote in my blog post this week about my visit to the Manassas Battlefield National Park in Virginia this weekend, and noticed the site overall lacked the forms of technology you would see in museums such as NMNH. As a history and collections geek, I obviously enjoyed it without the technology; however, the park was not very crowded, even though it was a weekend with nice weather, and the majority of the visitors were middle-aged or senior adults. And then there were those who were just enjoying a walk or jog through the park. I’m wondering now, as I didn’t before, if the type of audience and lack of visitors overall to the park on a weekend may reflect the impact technology (or lack of in the Manassas Battlefield’s case) is having on museums and historic sites as well. Definitely a scary thought for us who love viewing collections themselves!


  2. I had a similar experience at the National Museum of American History’s newest exhibition Object Project. The technology in the space is intriguing but not very user friendly. It was hard to understand and work the interactive. I wonder if the constant upgrades and fixes is worth the ‘visitor engagement’ aspect of the narrative.


  3. Hey Amanda! I like that you pointed out the role of digital technology in the tactile skull experience–not something we would generally think of as technology, but you’re definitely right! The photobooth concept seems really cool to me, and I don’t think that those two types of interaction will require mutual exclusivity in the future. I think people will always want to touch and feel things, and that will always be provided–it is a major sense after all! I wonder if having a snapchat filter would actually have achieved the same aim as the photobooth. Part of me wants to say yes, and that it would enable even greater accessibility, and the other part of me says that maybe people want an experience that they can’t necessarily get on a normal day. Even though the photobooth concept is kind of moot at this point considering our smartphones, it’s “novel” and fun for people to enter a designated space–a space still provided by the museum.


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