Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New technologies in the museum sector

A notable aspect of the recent Museums Australia conference in Perth was the extent of interest in new technologies. From the impact of the NBN to social media engagement, from virtual palaeontology to iPhone apps, there was hardly a parallel session which did not have a new technology paper. This is a significant change from the same conference only a couple of years ago, and judging by the numbers in each session, there is a real demand for knowledge in this area. Perhaps this is partly due to a fact that Michael Harvey, Head of Exhibitions at the Australian Museum, commented on in his paper, that from his experience museum visitors tend to be early adopters of technology and to use social media above the average of the general population.

I gave a paper in one of these sessions on the opportunities for Smartphones in museums co-authored with Seb Chan. This particularly reported on the latest thinking on Smartphone communication technologies, from QR codes, NFC (Near Field Communication), and Google Goggles to wifi (see my blog for more details). But we started by picking up on the recent New Media Consortium's Horizon Project which examined emerging technologies for their potential impact on and use in education and interpretation within the museum environment (2011 Museum edition).

It’s worth repeating some of their key findings which include:
  • Increasingly, visitors and staff expect a seamless experience across devices. More and more, patrons want the experience of interacting with museum content using the device of their choice, wherever and whenever they choose to do so.
  • Collection-related rich media are becoming increasingly valuable assets in digital interpretation. Museums are beginning to see the value in developing formal strategies for capturing high-quality media documentation at every opportunity. Museums are embracing the opportunities provided by rich media to enhance multimodal learning both online and in the galleries. Video, audio, and animations are no longer seen as afterthoughts in interpretation but increasingly as necessary components of an interpretive plan.
  • Digitization and cataloguing projects continue to require a significant share of museum resources. Visitors expect to be able to readily access accurate and interesting information and high-quality media. This requires museums to plan strategically for the digitization and cataloguing of collections.
  • Improving our ability to measure impact using new digital technologies is a critical need. Museums are good at traditional program evaluation, but determining the impact of new technologies on knowledge, attitudes, skills is more challenging.
One of the issues that I constantly hit in major museums, as I talk to them about new technologies, is their reservation about investing in a technology that may soon be superseded. One that I have had my own reservations about are QR (Quick Response) codes. So I was not surprised to read that recent research in New York has confirmed their limitations. In summary it was found that although there was general awareness of the codes, and an understanding of how to make use of them, very few people actually expressed an interest in doing so, mostly because they felt they could access the information/links more easily (and more cheaply) in other ways. Seb has blogged most interestingly on the issue.

Whatever the technology it must always be seen as an enabler, only as good as the content behind it, and the stories being told through it. So it’s good to read in a recent blog by Bruce Wyman, formerly Director of Technology at the Denver Art Museum, that evaluation has shown visitors are getting more from their experiences using technology aid in museums and learning more about artworks than if they did not have access to such. That must always be the driver.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director


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