Tag Archives: Mattress Factory

The future of mobile interpretation redux

Eh, just because I can’t get enough of this particular subject, I thought I’d do another quick post ’bout mobile interpretation in museums. As I was gearing up to write the Future of Mobile Interpretation paper for this year’s Museums and the Web conference, I did a few informal surveys via both Twitter and Yammer to see if my gut feelings on multimedia/audio tours were even close to correct. The interesting side effect of this “flash survey” was that I found that microblogging platforms were a really interesting means of acquiring quick survey results, if you’re not interested in being particularly scientific (perhaps I’ll post more on that subject in the future). Primarily, though, I was pleasantly surprised at the thoughtfulness (and pithiness, given the format) of the responses. I thought I’d post them here, since some of my Twitter peeps have expressed some desire to see the results of my survey. So basically, I asked the question, “To those of you who don’t pick up audio guides in museums, why is that?” A random sampling of the responses follows:

Most people and especially younger ones carry in their pockets much more powerful appliances (i.e. cellphones)… I can do much more about getting intersting information with a blackberry, palm or iphone by typing in name of the artist or work or genre in wikipedia.

With audio guides if you are wearing headphones, then you are disconnected for a time from the person you came in with, while you otherwise would be possibly discussing the artwork. I think there is something to audio guides being exclusively one way interaction device, apart from entering numbers.

audio guides make a museum experience feel too solitary.

Talking too slow for saying too little.

Cause I like to do things at my own pace, choose which info to absorb (I rarely read entire labels), and hear the surroundings.

Not usually for the main collection, yes for special exhibits, if it’s free and the crowd isn’t nuts. Probably because of where the guides are handed out – at the controlled entrance to the special exhibit. generally, special exhibits have a single path, so i’m thinking linearly & the guide can build a narrative, whereas in the main [galleries] I like to wander and anything gleaned from the guide will be a one-off. That said, if the guide was, already in my pocket in the shape of my mobile phone, I’d be more likely to call up info on a particular piece in the main [galleries].

I’m not usually at a museum by myself, and I want to have a shared experience with whomever I’m with. Headphones disrupt that.

Because I don’t like things in my ears.

I think we can glean a few things, even from a small sample like this one. The first (and I point this out in my paper) is that museums really don’t know much about this new audience. What studies have been done (in particular Peter Samis’s excellent survey of visitor response to the Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint interpretive devices) are largely analyses of visitor preference between given devices, and don’t therefore tell us much about the majority of our audience that never picks up a device in the first place.

The follow-on from this, then, is of course that museums don’t yet know whether the approaches they currently employ in the development of interpretive technology strategies in galleries will produce results that satisfy this new audience. Given that most multimedia handheld devices in museums still employ what is basically an audio tour model adapted to a new device, my assumption (particularly in light of the kinds of responses like the ones above) is that this will not be the case. It’s time to figure out a new way.

Before I leave this post to go catch up on some Battlestar Galactica, I thought I’d point towards a few interesting resources. The first is a post from New Curator with a discussion about iPhone apps that might be useful for museums. Another is the Museums and Mobile Adoption Survey by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Of particular interest to me were the responses to the “Are you evaluating visitor usage of the device?” question. And lastly, but never leastly, the Mattress Factory dudes have made excellence happen again in the form of an aggregated MF Twitter feed viewable in the MF’s gallery space. Aside from this just being a great idea, I point to it because I mentioned making something similar to this available via handheld devices in the MW paper, and it’s nice to see this already happening. Word.

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What’s the most important function of museums?

This video, which was posted by the Museum Association, was brought to my attention by the frequently-awesome New Curator blog. It asks a simple question–what is the most important function of museums?

New Curator’s answer to this question is “To provide meaning.” My wonky answer was “to provide a stage upon which a multiplicity of interactions can occur.” Feh. In the end, Jeffrey from the Mattress Factory had the best answer: “to provide more questions than answers.”

Although Jeffrey’s answer is clearly better than mine, I think we’re both talking about the same thing—museums can and should be a forum in which experiences of all kinds might take place. I don’t feel, however, that this is the conversation that is occurring in museums. Instead, museums are working hard to define themselves, often, in one of two ways: as a repository of “real” things, or as an aspirational/inspirational/educational experience. Ugh. Why do both of these all too common definitions (most of the responses in the video above break down into one or the other of these two answers) drive me nuts? Well, I’m glad you asked.

The museum-as-repository-of-real-stuff meme always feels false to me. It feels less like a statement of purpose, and more like a fall-back position. With other media outlets increasingly taking on much of the traditional function of museums, namely that of dispensing cultural information to the masses, museums have to feel threatened. Trying to stay relevant, they therefore retreat to the one thing that the Discovery Channel can’t offer—access to the actual objects. “Come visit the museum; it’s the only place you can see a Rembrandt up close! (P.S., don’t touch the art.)”

This line of thinking, therefore, tends to limit the range of “authentic” experiences one might have exclusively to those in which you are in the presence of the object itself. It also tends to devalue any other types of possible experiences. A breakthrough in understanding can happen anywhere; for a museum to focus its efforts on ensuring that those breakthroughs only occur inside its walls is suicide. Even for an institution as large as the Met, only a small percentage of our potential audience will ever be able to set foot in the building.

And, to continue in this crotchety vein, I’m not sure that museums-as-cathedrals-of-learning-and/or-inspiration is the right definition, either. The implication is that the stuff we have in our building is by definition good for you, and by experiencing it, you are a better/more educated person. The problem with that idea is that it devalues the art itself by implying it’s worth is merely as a means to an end (sort of like the whole “listening to Mozart makes you smarter” idea that was so popular a few years back). It also reinforces the idea that there is but one appropriate perspective from which to look at art. As long as museums cling to the idea that their opinion is the inherently right one, as opposed to one in a constellation of possible perspectives, they’re sunk.

I don’t mean to say that either of these ideas are necessarily bad–you should be able to go to a museum and see objects, to be inspired, to get edumacated. But to define any of these activities as the primary purpose of museums is to ensure that museums become less and less relevant over the next ten years.

The museum has to become a different type of entity, one in which the opportunity to see objects in real space, close up, is but one of many possible experiences. Museums have to get out of the business of being the organizers and curators of content, and into the business of providing as many content streams as possible. Put as much out there as possible, and leave to the public the business of finding meaning. It’s no longer a museum’s job to define which experiences are valid and which are invalid.

It comes down to how museums wish to define themselves. Are they waiting repositories of potential experiences, or are they custodians of objects and controllers of opinion?

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