Art museums and technology

In their fierce competition for the vast pool of entertainment dollars, art museums are attempting to use technology to reinvent themselves.  The theme-park-ization of museums is replete with interactive attractions and high-tech gewgaws.  On the surface this sounds, if not exactly winning, reasonable.  After all, what could be more natural for our (so-called) cultural leaders than to provide technological leadership as well. Although this theme-parking strategy might sound reasonable, in actual practice it’s disastrous.

First, museums grossly misread the public they are trying to attract–that vast, uncultured multitude with dollar bills falling out of its pockets.  While it might be true that Mrs-Average-Non-Museum-Goer doesn’t know the difference between Caravaggio and, say, Beuys, she has been spending her entertainment dollars on electronic gadgets since the turn of the century–at least. The library of music, movies, videos, and books on her smart phone dwarfs most museums. For this ‘user’ the interactive exhibits at the museum-as-theme-park are cringe-inducing and–worst of all–quaint.

Which brings me to my second, related, point. While it might be natural for self-anointed cultural leaders to anoint themselves as technology leaders too, museum directors need to get a grip.  The pace of technological change is accelerating rapidly.  Art museum staffs that ascribe technological leadership to themselves be-clown themselves: technology is a problem for art museums.

Not only do their high-tech ‘marvels’ fail to hold their own against even garden-variety apps, museums routinely fail basic usability. To give just one example: a museum installed a high-tech, self-serve parking ticket dispenser. Visitors to the parking garage press a button and take a ticket–what could be easier? Except that there isn’t an actual button on the ‘museum-quality’ device but a nearly impossible to decipher ‘hotspot’ instead. Attendants, who are supposed to check visitors out, stand outside their booth and press the hotspot on the ‘self-service’ device for those entering. Visitors attempting to leave must wait while the attendant dispenses tickets to the line of baffled arrivals. The artful-looking and expensive device is actually counterproductive.

Mrs-Average-Non-Museum-Goer does not go to the museum for interactive entertainment. For that she has Netflix, Twitter, Pandora, and Candy Crush Saga. No, she goes to museums for culture, for the stuff that uplifts and inspires–you know, the stuff museums are supposed to provide. It’s unfortunate that museums are rushing to downplay their strengths while attempting to compete in areas where they have no chance.

Many art museums have fallen behind the times both in their view of technology and their target audience. Very 20th century–quaint.

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