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Rethinking the “Remaking” of Museums

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on December 4, 2013 in Science in Museums |
by columnist Cira Brown
A couple of weeks ago I attended the 41st Annual Museum Computer Network Conference in Montreal, Quebec. A strange name, perhaps, but the organization has been in existence way before personal computers… even before the moonlanding! I was very excited to attend, especially since everything was museum related! It was 5 days of nonstop technology show ‘n’ tell, from both museum staff members and designers and developers from around the world. While I managed to avoid [meta] museum fatigue, it was still a whirlwind experience of learning about countless technological strategies, digital toolsets, education and evaluation frameworks, devices and experiential design.
Museum practice goes hand in hand with The Next Big Thing, and practitioners require an ever-expanding set of skills, many in the technological domain. Sure, we could say that museum people are simply a bunch of nerds, but I’d like to think we’re past branding “new media” as “geek out”-worthy. In fact, while it gets the general point across, I feel the term “new media” has become increasingly vague and meaningless. I feel we’re reaching an inflection point where the media isn’t the predominant message – it’s a means of interpreting and distributing content and engaging with an audience. Effectiveness should trump novelty, and it finally appears to be doing so. Having a dedicated museum app or a touchscreen display in the gallery is wonderful, but these devices need to be held to the same educational litmus tests as their analog counterparts. It is the museum’s role to employ all types of media – “new” and “old” – to meet their educational goals.
I found this perspective to be common among those at the MCN conference. The theme of the this year’s conference was, fittingly, Re:Making the Museum, as technology is often cited as the harbinger of change in this field (though when was the last time you saw a museum conference that didn’t implicitly reference change?). However, I think a better summation would have been The Museum Remade (Re:Made?), as I was struck the amount of projects that were not only completed, but accompanied by extensive evaluation and usability data. Surprisingly few proofs of concept or proposals were presented, a shift from conferences held as little as three to four years ago. While there was obviously a sample bias in the population in attendance, I was nonetheless impressed by the apparent degree to which technological initiatives were valued by their host institutions – not only in sponsoring them, but extending their usage into a long-term plan incorporating continued collaboration and evaluation. This investment and valuation of technology in the museum space is essential for its effectiveness. In my next column, I’ll be reviewing one of these “remade” museums, or rather, exhibitions: the newly-opened Hall of Human Life at the Museum of Science here in Boston.

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