The forces of interaction are conspiring to make museums more engaging

As a child I was taught that museums could be divided into two broad categories: venerable institutions of cultural learning and “touch me! touch me!” museums, where children ran around like feral beasts, yelling and pressing every button in sight. This dichotomy spoke to my parents’ desire to avoid screaming children (other than me, of course) and their understanding of what museums were for and how one should behave within their walls. If you wanted interaction, you could go to the gift shop.

Times have changed. Museums now have more stimuli to compete with; interactivity is no longer a sop to children. Was it ever so? Moreover, digital and interactive art grows more common by the year. Museums, reports Steve Lohr in The New York Times, are therefore making concerted efforts to adapt to and embrace the “digital first” mindset. Their efforts reflect changes in our understanding of what should be exhibited and how such items should be exhibited.

With regards to the former, technology allows museums to display a wider range of offerings. The Smithsonian is using 3-D scanning to offer visitors new angles on the gunboat Philadelphia, The National Portrait Gallery uses 3-D scanning to reproduce masks of Abraham Lincoln’s face, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” exhibit used animations to bring gown construction to life. Literally and figuratively, these exhibits use technology to find new angles on their subjects.

New spaces and tools foster engagement on the visitor’s terms. 

How, then, are museumgoers to navigate these exhibits? Lohr points to the increasing number of museums using technology to supplement exhibits: apps that display additional information, allow you to sketch what you see, and find a personalized path through museums. Interactivity used to take the form of guided tour headsets, clunky add-ons that imposed a proscribed path through exhibits. You engaged with the museum on its own terms. The new spaces and tools that Lohr writes about foster engagement on the visitor’s terms.

Good museums recognize and embrace the symbiotic relationship between what is displayed and how it is displayed. Paola Antonelli, MOMA’s senior curator of architecture and design told Lohr, “We live not in the digital, not in the physical, but in the kind of minestrone that our mind makes of the two.” You cannot put an interactive installation in an environment designed to stymie and constrain interaction. Thus, when we talk about the architecture of museums we are also talking about what can (and should) be exhibited and when we talk about what can (and should) be exhibited we are talking about the architecture of museums. As with the “touch me! touch me!” museums of my youth, the built environment and exhibits it contains are coconspirators in eliciting specific reactions.

H/T New York Times Image via Flickr