Anyone who has visited a traditional museum knows the drill—visitors dart around a cavernous building while dodging docents, staring at out-of-context displays and squinting at tiny placards. While some museums still operate on this antiquated model, many others are adopting active, engaging forms of instruction that appeal to a younger, more technologically advanced audience. This new focus on technology and experiential education is the key to keeping museums relevant in today’s changing world.
Museums and their purpose
All museums are primarily educational institutions. The subject matter may be art, architecture, history, culture or industry, but the goal is the same: to ensure that visitors leave the building with a broad, basic understanding of the museum’s topic. Museums are also places of cultural, artistic and historic preservation; they celebrate and explore specific historical time periods, native cultures or artistic movements. These institutions then attempt to turn that preservation into excitement and a desire for further education. All museums, whether traditional or interactive, brick-and-mortar or online, share these fundamental objectives.
Museums and innovation
Increasingly, museums are realizing that new, interactive technologies can help visitors understand and remember important exhibits. The Chickasaw Cultural Center, an Oklahoma Native American museum, features a technologically advanced and immersive exhibit called the Spirit Forest. This 2,500 square foot artificial forest uses 170 lights and 60 sensory effects to recreate a day in nature, from sunrise to sunset, in a mere 20 minutes. Visitors can tour the forest and watch from under the trees as the artificial day fades into night. The Spirit Forest employs technology to immerse visitors in the Chickasaw world, generating excitement about the people’s history and way of life.
Museums have done more than simply display technology; they’ve also used that technology to bring people together in shared learning experiences. The Center of Science and Industry (COSI) in Columbus, Ohio, includes a new exhibit called Adventure in the Valley of the Unknown. In this sprawling, interactive installation, visitors work in groups to unearth an ancient culture by deciphering languages, navigating mazes, interacting with animatronics and finding visual clues. At both COSI and the Chickasaw Cultural Center, new technologies are facilitating interactive group learning.
Some museums are even reaching beyond their physical buildings and using the Internet to expand their audience. The Art Institute of Chicago (ARTIC), for example, has taken its collection online. Users can browse the collection by area of origin, time period or genre. Each visitor can even compile and curate an individual digital collection populated with his or her favorite works. The Institute encourages visitors to share their collections with friends, family, students and teachers. ARTIC is using its virtual collection to spread excitement about art to people who may never visit the museum’s physical location.
At first glance, museums may appear slightly outdated, or even archaic. However, these institutions of learning are evolving by embracing interactive educational technologies. Exhibits such as the Spirit Forest and Adventure in the Valley of the Unknown are engaging visitors in new and powerful ways, while online resources are expanding museums’ audiences. Today, museums are using advanced, immersive technologies to remain relevant to a changing world.