A successful exhibit can take years to plan and execute, and much can go wrong. Lisa Neal, editor-in-chief of eLearn magazine says that exhibit designers must consider three things when looking at technology: how can it reach people who will never get to the museum, how can it improve the experience of visitors, and how can it enhance the exhibits. As an example of what to avoid, Neal remembers a recent visit to an art museum in Florence, Italy, where a computer sat in one corner. “It was just stuck there-it wasn’t tied into the exhibits,” she says. “Even the physical appearance of it was so uninviting.”Poor implementations are not the only technology trap. Rapid advances in consumer electronics, telecommunications, and special effects in video and movies create a public that is increasingly sophisticated and even jaded. In the drive to impress, museums can measure the half-life of developments steadily declining, and it takes little time for “gee-whiz” to become “so what.” Touch screen kiosks flourished in the 1990s, but, says Carney, “they are cumbersome and can shut you off from people around you. We’re seeking ways of delivering content without having obstructions and cumbersome technology that you have to carry around with you.”
Some institutions integrate technology in clever ways. Thirteen National Marine Sanctuaries offer amazing underwater experiences-to relatively few people. A firsthand visit requires a scuba dive, “a very elitist, yuppie thing that not everyone can afford to do,” says Lisa Jaccoma, vice president of public affairs at the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration in Mystic, CT. “Yet we have this wonderful asset that most of us have paid for but have never seen.” So the institution recently started streaming live underwater video over Internet II to create an immersive environment for visitors, with a viewer-controllable mobile robot operating the camera.
It’s smart, and expensive, with the robot alone costing $250,000. “The hard thing about technology, and I learned this with great pain: it’s easy to integrate technology when you can afford it,” Jaccoma says. “The fundamental difference for non-profits is that they probably need technology more than anybody, and they’re probably least able to afford it and to afford the talent to put it together.”
While museums with such resources are the lucky exception, the rest may take comfort in another quote found floating across the floor of the Mary Baker Eddy Library:
Intelligence complicates. Wisdom Simplifies.
- Mason Cooley