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Exhibitionist Technology

Hungry for eyeballs, museums go high tech-and face a rogue’s gallery of costs and costly mistakes.
January 22, 2003

The words bubble up with the water, float to the edge of the fountain, tarry, and spill out to dance over the floor. Children watch the aphorisms in the pool then jump on the words underfoot.

“Something happens when they see the movement of ideas move across their bodies and across the hall. They discuss these ideas,” says Chet Manchester, creative director of the Mary Baker Eddy Library at the Christian Science Plaza in Boston. Like many other museums and educational institutions, the library is using advanced technology to better communicate with the public. The challenge: to keep the latest in computer controlled displays, modeling, and media from overwhelming the intended message, all while staying under budget.

Tremble: your whole life is a rehearsal for the moment you are in now.
- Judith Malina

That’s one of 800 quotes displayed by a network of five computer-controlled projectors, which uses matrices of moving mirrors to send the words swimming about the hall. The centerpiece of the library’s Hall of Ideas, the system was designed by Small Design Firm, a Cambridge, MA consulting firm that specializes in interactive displays. An information technology staff, already in place to support the world headquarters of the Church of Christ, Scientist and its newspaper the Christian Science Monitor, keeps the exhibit up and running.

But even with a shared support staff, the costs are staggering. The Hall of Ideas, together with renovations to other exhibits including a walk-through globe called the Mapparium, cost more than five million dollars-not counting the buildings. John Carney, principal at Krent/Paffett Associates, the Boston design firm that coordinated the work, says that while a traditional museum exhibit may run $200 to $300 per square foot, the high-tech variety starts at twice that. From there, he says, “the sky is the limit.”

“One of the things museums have started to realize is that they are competing with all the other entertainment options that people have,” says Emily King, who manages the Tomorrow’s Indiana exhibit at the Indiana State Museum. That competition is why the Museum of Indiana spent $1.5 million on the exhibit, which asks museum goers to consider issues that might confront their state in the future. A third of the price tag went to Cortina productions, a film company based in McClean, VA that developed story lines and video; the rest paid to outfit a 32-seat theater with state-of-the-art video feeds and a touch-panel feedback system. The result: presentations on topics such as genetic engineering that pause at selected points to ask audience members what the characters should do-whether, for example, to clone a deceased family dog-and resumes to enact hypothetical consequences of their choice.

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

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