Keeping it Simple in the Exhibit.

“…I’m of two minds about museum apps. On the one hand, they’re great for enhancing a visit with all those flashy gadgets that kids love so much. It’s yet another way of beating museum fatigue while actually learning something. On the other hand, it’s a grand distraction. A good museum can spark the imagination without needing extra technology.” – Sean McLachlan, “Going to the Museum? There’s An App for That!”

McLachlan’s quote essentially sums up my visit to Harvard’s Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. In conjunction with the temporary exhibit Time & Time Again, How Science & Culture Shape the Past, Present, & Future, the Harvard Museums launched the Time Trails app. Partially a wayfinder application, the primary function of this tool is to better connect visitors to specific objects in the collection. It definitely made finding the museum easier. More than once I have found myself wandering around the campus looking for the Harvard Museum of Natural History despite my numerous visits, so I was rather pleased to not have to go searching for a museum I had never been to before. A+ for destination-finding, however, the functionality of the app goes little beyond that. Honestly, I am beginning to wonder if any exciting museum apps exist or if I just have incredibly bad luck with choosing them. As the quote above states, using the app during the visit turned out to be a giant distraction and completely took away from the museum experience. I was so focused on trying to use the app to enhance my experience that I became disinterested in the collection and felt like my time had been wasted (no pun intended). There are several aspects of why this app was a failure that I would like to discuss.

There are two floors to the museum. The first floor contains the permanent collection of scientific instruments and gadgets. The cabinets are packed and can be a bit overwhelming. There are not a lot of labels, so I was often left wondering what the purpose of a particular instrument was. This is where the app should have swooped in to save the day. The app is laid out section-by-section, giving an image of each cabinet or large object, however, there is not a whole lot the user can do with it. Users are able to tap on one or two objects within each section, only to bring up a lengthy description and history from the collections database. The text is small and uninteresting; what is the user supposed to engage with? QR codes are littered throughout the first floor that keep prompting visitors to download the app to learn more about how specific instruments in the collection related to keeping time. That would be a very interesting concept to explore if that app actually had the capabilities to do so. There was no interaction between the app and the collection to be had. At one particularly irritating point in the visit, the app prompted me to “come closer to learn more” (see image below). As I stepped closer to the glass, waiting for some interactive element to pop up on the screen, nothing happened. I was simply being directed to a standard object label. Frustrated, I headed upstairs to the temporary exhibit.

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Since the app was created to compliment the exhibit, I assumed that there would be more features to tap into. No such luck. The temporary exhibit was not even featured in the application. I began to wonder if Harvard Museums created the app just for the sake of doing so, since there seemed to be no purpose to this whatsoever. The museum also has a collections app and online database where all the objects that are highlighted can be found, so the purpose of this particular app is lost on me.

I gave up trying to have a positive media moment in the museum. The phone went away and I breezed through the exhibit, still frustrated and not truly paying attention to what I was reading or looking at. That is, until I reached the last segment in the exhibit: Time Out. After that exasperating experience I was more than in need of a time out, a quiet moment to myself away from technology. That is when I finally achieved a positive, and simplistic, media moment. The segment emphasized the importance of taking a break and embracing relaxation. Time is valuable but everyone needs a moment to sit back and relax. A comfortable chair and small table were set up, with a notebook and pen waiting for the next visitor to use. A set of noise-canceling headphones were plugged into the wall and a playlist was posted next to it. Ranging from Mozart to Metallica, the list of song emphasized that fact that everyone achieves relaxation in different ways. I sat and listened to a few songs, not paying attention to the time and taking a minute to look around the exhibit space again. Time is truly a wondrous thing to conceptualize and reflect on. There is not always a need for new technology in an exhibit. Museums need to think about what their visitors will really connect to, rather than just trying to impress them with a multitude of apps. Sometimes, keeping it simple is best.

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Source: Sean McLachlan. “Going to the Museum? There’s An App for That!.” Gadling. http://www.gadling.com/2013/08/14/museum-apps/. Accessed October 8, 2013.


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