The American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts is a treasure trove of new media. In my experience, history museums tend to lack successful media moments. Whether the content is dry (please, let’s get creative!) or worse, there is no media in any format to be found, history museums can often miss the mark. American Textile, however, scatters media throughout the museum. It does not overpower the visitor but rather offers many opportunities for experience enhancement, if the visitor so desires. Media moments are never intrusive and are tastefully placed within exhibit spaces. In fact, American Textile has so much to offer that audio and video need to be broken down into two separate critiques. Here, we will address the main audio component: the cell-phone tour.
The cell tour is standard – dial the number and enter the stop number. For those of us who prefer to use our own device, this is perfect. This format also makes the tour easy to access on any phone model. The audio tour was developed in collaboration with the United Teen Equality Center and features teens from the city reading the stop script, as well as offering their own opinion of objects. This in itself shows visitors a commitment to working with all members of the community, and it provides teens the opportunity to develop something for a cultural institution. In the future, I would love to see more collaborations between these two organizations. Additionally, I would love to see teens work on refining the cell tour and perhaps work on an app-based tour.
Dialing the number at every stop can get tedious because the same introductory message greets users every time. The audio quality itself is not the best (perhaps the local university could contribute to this collaboration and offer studio time and professional recording devices). It can be difficult to understand some of the stops because the audio is too low or the sound levels fluctuate. The content varies stop-to-stop. Most of the time it is interesting and provides facts beyond the label text, as a good audio stop should. Other times it rehashes label information but depending on what type of museum visitor you are, that could be good or bad.
While additional information is good, the most engaging content is the teen opinions of objects. They often say what most visitors are probably thinking about an object, but would never say to museum staff or the person they are visiting the museum with. Most opinions make the user chuckle, but more importantly they make the user stop and reevaluate the object they are looking at. It gives adults users a different perspective. For younger audiences the audio tour commentary is a good conversation starter for those who might not otherwise be engaged in museum content. In fact, I would almost rather have a teen audio tour with only their observations and interactions with the object rather than a snippet of opinion and a good chuck of museum-written content. For example, stop #11 features a teen observing a historic bathing suit. He accurately observes: “It looks more like a nun’s outfit than a bathing suit.” The comment was followed by an explanation not of the historic piece of clothing, but of a contemporary swim suit that Olympic swimmers use. I tuned out after that. The teen’s comment, however, make me look at the bathing suit more closely and numerous questions popped into my head concerning the piece of clothing. I wanted to know more about it, about the evolution of swim wear, and what that says about society. It was not museum-written content that sparked that line of questioning but a teen’s keen observation.
Museums and teen collaborations should happen more often, and new media is a good bridge between the two. Often times teens feel unwelcome in museums because there does not seem to be much there for them. Marketing this tour as something by teens for teens, as well as offering other opportunities for museum engagement, would be a step in the right direction. Teens can probably teach museum professionals one or two things about new media, and it is time that museums start opening their doors more frequently to this audience. An online article states:
“Ensuring children of all ages feel valued and welcomed at museums and other cultural venues is crucial. These teenagers will be the next generation to be elected into office – if we don’t make them appreciate museums now, it might be too late when they are running the country.”
New media can foster that appreciation and hopefully more museums will take note from the American Textile and begin to include teens in their programming process.
“Why have museums forgotten the teens?” http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2011/dec/19/museums-teenagers-engagement, Accessed Nov. 25, 2013