The future of the museum experience

<span property="schema:name">The future of the museum experience</span>

The future of the museum experience

    • Author Name
      Kathryn Dee
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    Museums have been mainstays of the cultural and public life of any city since the 18th century, offering their visitors a portal into the past; a glimpse of the products of human struggle and ingenuity and knowledge of the natural and manmade wonders of the world.  


    Their main appeal has always been its ability to be a satiating meal for the mind and the senses, making the viewing of art and artifacts both a personal and shared experience. Museums give the abstract concepts like history, nature and identity a sense of tangibility – visitors are able to see, touch and experience the things that inform the culture of a place and contribute to the formation of the world as it is today.  

    Recent advances in technology affect museum experience 

    Museums have caught up with advances in digital technology, most notably with the surge in use of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technology. Internet of Things (IoT) technology has also proliferated in use, usually through apps installed in visitors’ smartphones that interact with strategically-placed beacons within the museum. Gamification, information, social media sharing and experience enhancement are the most common uses for digital technology in museums.  


    Even for institutions that, for the most part, deal with antiquities and the recent past, integrating advances in digital media with exhibits and the overall experience of the museum is necessary. “Museums, offering a portrait of the world in the past or in the artist’s imagination, have to understand how humans interact with the world around them now and in the future in order to succeed in connecting with their audience.”  


    For those who have a genuine interest in seeing art, artifacts and other showcases of culture the way they are, in their “true” context and without the enticement of digitization, this may seem as more of a distraction than an enhancement of the experience. This is especially true in the more traditional art museums, where their main draw is in providing art enthusiasts the optimal experience of seeing a masterpiece. Every element of the museum experience plays a factor in the viewer’s consumption of the artwork – the placement, the size of the exhibit space, the lighting and  the distance between the viewer and the artwork. The personal context of the viewer is also integral to the experience, as is history and information about the artist’s process. However, to purists and formalists, too much intervention, even in the form of supplementary information, can delay the incredible quality of seeing how various elements come together through one’s imagination.  


    Still, existence of museums is intrinsically linked to their ability to engage the public. What good are fabulous galleries, artifacts and installations if they are unable to draw in visitors of all levels of prior knowledge, from both near and far? Connecting with both the museum enthusiast and the museum novice seems like the obvious thing to do for museums to stay relevant, especially in a world where Instagram, Snapchat and Pokémon Go have normalized the use of adding filters or augmentations to reality. Constant connectivity to the social network is also an aspect of daily life that, while intrusive to taking in the full experience of being in a museum by transporting one’s attentions, it’s now become essential to public life. An uploaded photo about one’s time at The Met can now be considered equivalent to talking about it to the person next to him. 


    The quest to be digital is a double-edged sword for museums. Place-based augmented devices like VR and AR allow users to experience a plethora of sights and sounds without relying solely on the characteristics or the contents of the place itself, adding to or modifying real sensory input. This begs the question of why someone would have to trek to a specific place for the experience of seeing objects that may possibly be replicated virtually or digitally, perhaps from the comfort of one’s own home instead. As in the case of any technology rapidly becoming more accessible and affordable to the public (already becoming the case with AR), the thought of VR taking over our daily lives and our ways of seeing can be seen as too sci-fi and too disruptive, for better or for worse in the case of museums that pride themselves on a real experience with real things.