Museum-going alert: According to the National Endowment for the Arts, overall museum attendance fell from 2002 to 2012. More alarming still, museumgoers 75 and older were the only demographic to increase over that same period.
Clearly, the museum world has a millennial challenge: Namely, what do the world’s great institutions need to do to engage a 21st century, screen-addicted generation? How do you integrate new technology into something as classic and physical as the museum-going experience?
Digital displays may well be the answer. But when it comes to digital, museums for too long have been caught between charges of gimmickry vs. their own existential need to appeal to a younger and more tech-savvy generation. Their solution to-date has been to trot out blockbuster pop culture shows, which have been accused of pandering to audiences, given their subject matter: retrospectives of fashion designers, pop stars, film directors and animation studios.
Meanwhile, on the technology end, museums' output has seemed as tentative as a junior high student at his first school dance. The tools that have been used -- kiosks, touch tables and pre-recorded audio tours from existing organizations -- have often taken a narrow-minded approach.They've give "museum tech" a bad name.
Fortunately, however, the chilly relationship between technology and these institutions has begun to thaw. A recent report from the Association of Art Museum Directors detailed 41 museum projects using digital technology -- from social media and mobile apps to in-gallery interpretation and behind-the-scenes collections management -- in creative and adventurous ways to make collections more accessible and engaging.
Over the past few years, a number of museums have begun to install “beacons,” a new form of Bluetooth technology that tracks patrons as they wander around galleries and enables museums to send personalized messages to their devices. An enormous opportunity, then, exists for manufacturers of beacon hardware and designers of bespoke, location-aware technology to design products that integrate into the museum environment and work with existing museum apps, as well as monitor beacon battery life levels.
The danger in some of this, however, is that too much technology will plug people back into their own little screens. Like the bar in Brazil that designed a special beer glass to curb anti-social phone use, museums need to be bigger and bolder in their thinking. They need to get people away from the small screens -- Instagram treks and selfie hunts -- and get them interacting with the space as well as one other. (Science museums, with their intuitive, hands-on topics, are especially good at this.)
One answer to the question of museums and digital tech is to accept that the story of art, culture and history is a continuing conversation that people want to be part of. Recently, the Museum of History El Paso launched an exhibit called DIGIE (Digital Information Gateway In El Paso), a first-of-its-kind exhibition in the United States. DIGIE takes the form of an enormous, 36-foot-long, five-foot-tall touchframe smart “wall” that enables visitors to “walk” with their fingertips through El Paso’s streets and neighborhoods, from the city’s birth to the present.
The exhibit’s vast collection of public and personal archives and photos cascade into interactive 3-D cityscapes that can be explored geographically, historically or thematically, according to an individual museum-goer's pace and preference.
DIGIE engages the youngest demographic of museum-goers in Texas in a riveting new fashion, and gives them the ability to learn about their local heritage in a fun, nonlinear and hands-on way that is highly relevant to their age group. The city wall further allows each museum attendee to leave his or her mark -- to become part of the fabric of El Paso’s story -- by uploading their own photos, comments, memorabilia and more. Since launching in February of this year, the wall has helped double the museum’s audience attendance.
So, for any companies out there looking to offer digital updates to physical spaces, it would be wise to take note of specific technologies powering an installation like DIGIE. One of the technologies that enabled the El Paso experience, for example, is a new generation of infrared detecting touch systems developed by PQ Labs. Unlike the capacitive touchscreens seen in most mobile phones, this infrared system has enabled simultaneous interactions by many visitors right across the 36-foot display.
Having worked with a number of local and international museums myself, I think it's clear that they need help from people like us: tech companies, start-ups and entrepreneurs. Many companies don’t realize it, but museums are a market ripe for innovation. There’s no need to fear the reputation of the world’s great institutions if you can help them bridge the gap between the physical and the digital.
Here are some ways small businesses can approach these unique, historic institutions to help them make the digital leap:
1. Know a museum's audience.
Museums fulfill an important public service obligation while also competing with general entertainment attractions. Understanding and embracing both sides of that equation is key.
2. Look to the future.
Museums serve different publics -- the audience of today and generations of tomorrow. It’s an important fact upon which museums will base their digital decisions. Technology that leverages existing archives while also adding them is sure to catch any curator’s attention.
3. Plug visitors Into group experiences:
It’s vital to remember that museums are shared experiences. When looking through proposals for digital exhibitions or kiosks, the last thing that museums want are ones that simply enable patrons to be alone together.
4. Don’t offer catch-alls.
While museums have similar needs, offering a similar solution isn’t good enough. Each space is a unique opportunity for tech. Go on field trips, study the archives, map out the blueprints. One-sized fits all solutions won’t cut it. Do your homework!
5. Keep screens in perspective.
We interact with technology through displays so often that we start to think that screens are the technology. But that’s simply not the case. There are plenty of ways to engage visitors without the need for yet another screen. It’s up to people like us to think them up!
It is indeed a brave new world for museums. And it’s up to people like us to guide them through it. If you have a solution that can meaningfully help a museum, consider this a wake-up call.