Museloop’s app that it created for Israel Museum. (photo from Museloop via Times of Israel)
How do museums and other purveyors of history attract visitors and make the past relevant, especially as people come to expect more and more digital experiences?
Perhaps surprisingly, Werner W. Pommerehne and Bruno S. Frey recognized the problem more than 36 years ago. In their article “The museum from an economic perspective,” which was published in the International Social Science Journal in 1980, they stated:
“Museum exhibitions are generally poorly presented didactically. The history and nature of the artists’ work is rarely well explained, and little is offered to help the average, uninitiated viewer (i.e., the majority of actual and potential viewers) to understand and differentiate what is being presented, and why it has been singled out. Accompanying information sheets are often written in a language incomprehensible to those who are not already familiar with the subject. There is no clear guidance offered to the collections, and little or no effort is made to relate the exhibits to what the average viewer already knows about the history, political conditions, culture, famous people, etc., of the period in which the work of art was produced.”
Keren Berler, chief executive officer of Israeli start-up Museloop recently put the problem into current perspective. Younger visitors, she noted in an Israeli radio interview this past June, find museum visits passive and boring. She said, especially when seeing museum art exhibits, young people need something more to draw them into what they are seeing. So, her company has designed a museum-based application for iPhone and Android use. The application includes games, such as find-the-difference puzzles, plus information about the artist, all of which will hopefully make the visitor better remember the art and some facts about it.
Interestingly, in describing the games, two of the attributes she mentioned were competitiveness and the ability to take “selfies.” Children as young as 8 or 9 years old can use the app on their own, but younger children would need an adult to assist them.
Right now, the Museloop app focuses on Israel Museum’s under-appreciated (read: under-visited) permanent art collection. This exhibit includes the works of a number of “heavies,” such as Marc Chagall, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. The goal is to make the experience so appealing that young visitors will then want to visit other museums. Since Israel Museum is paying the start-up for the development and use of the app, visitors benefit by having free use of it.
In contrast, Tower of David Museum has its own in-house digital department. This department has developed its own applications for heightened exhibit viewing.
According to Eynat Sharon, the head of digital media, her department takes into consideration the visitor’s total museum experience. This experience consists of three overlapping circles: the pre-visit, in which a person visits either the museum’s website or mobile site; the actual physical visit; and the post-visit, in which the person digitally shares with friends and family on Facebook, Instagram and other social media what they encountered at the museum. The museum’s technical equipment and apps may be rented by museum visitors for a small fee.
Are these new applications then to be applauded? Some people still need convincing. Last year, art critic Ben Davis reflected on news.artnet.com, “For many, many viewers, interfacing with an artwork through their phone trumped reflecting on its themes. In effect, now every art show is by default a multimedia experience for a great portion of the audience, because interaction via phone is a default part of the way people look at the world.”
Dan Reich, who is the curator and director of education for the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Centre, said, “Personally, I am not big on technology. You end up with lots of button-pushing but not necessarily a lot of education. As a museum, we are pretty low-tech. We have an audio tour of the permanent exhibit, several stops in the museum where you can press buttons and hear testimony, an interactive map and – more recently – added an interactive screen entitled ‘Change Begins With Me,’ which deals with more recent or contemporary examples of hate crimes and genocide. We have been digitizing our collection of survivors’ testimonies. We have testimonies edited to different lengths. Generally, survivors like to be recorded, knowing their words are being preserved.”
And recent comments on TripAdvisor show that museums don’t necessarily have to be high-tech to succeed in their mission.
Visitors, for example, gave the St. Louis Holocaust Centre high marks.
Other Holocaust learning centres, however, have started taking current technology through uncharted waters. The USC Shoah Foundation now uses holographic oral history. According to Dr. Stephen Smith, the foundation’s executive director: “In the Dimensions in Testimony project, the content must be natural language video conversations rendered in true holographic display, without the 3-D glasses. What makes this so different is the nonlinear nature of the content. We have grown used to hearing life histories as a flow of consciousness in which the interviewee is in control of the narrative and the interviewer guides the interviewee through the stages of his or her story. [Now] with the … methodology, the interviewee is subject to a series of questions gleaned from students, teachers and public who have universal questions that could apply to any witness, or specific questions about the witness’ personal history. They are asked in sets around subject matter, each a slightly different spin on a related topic.” One educator confided that, while the technology is “creepy,” the public apparently likes it.
So, how do museums cope with the possibility that the medium in and of itself becomes the message? In other words, how do museums keep their audiences from being distracted by the technology? At the same time, how can museums survive financially if they follow goals that differ substantially from those of visitors, funders and other supporters?
A few months ago, Canadian entrepreneur Evan Carmichael offered guidelines at an Online Computer Library Centre conference. His suggestions seem applicable to museum administrators as well: express yourself, answer their questions, offer guidance, involve the crowd, “use your audience to create something amazing … create an emotional connection, get personal, and hold trending conversations, go to where things are happening, be there.
Time will tell whether the advent of museum-related high-tech will realize Don McLean’s 1971 tribute to Vincent Van Gogh’s art: “They would not listen, they did not know how. Perhaps they’ll listen now.”
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.