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January 27, 2009


D Dexter

I don't think your results have anything to do with technology at all. I think the real issue is whether someone prefers a conducted tour -- albeit electronic -- as opposed to a "freelance" visit.

New Curator

How was the question framed? As in, what definition of "technology" was used?
I would only put forward the idea that people under 30 are "less sensitive" to what technology is and would probably think that "more technology in museums" means more screens playing videos/interactive touch screens/etc or another hand held gadget, and not noticing smaller, more subtle technological changes.

Also, maybe those under 30 feel that a massive video screen billboard next to an important piece of culture would make it less "sacred", not that they "need a break".

Susie Wilkening

Thanks for the comments. The question in both surveys asked how Core Visitors to museums preferred to visit museums and historic sites, with a list of options. The two options given in the graph were the technology options, and were among the least popular. Guided tours with actual guides were somewhat more popular, and self-guided experiences were significantly more popular.

So the numbers tell us . . . part of the story, which is that younger respondents are less likely to prefer technology in their visits. Written in comments tell us a great deal more. Such as the moms who come to the museum specifically to get their children away from the video games and televisions at home. Or the young adults without children who come to the museum to get away from all the technological craziness of their lives.

Yes, there is a sense that a big billboard might make it less "sacred," as pointed out in the comment above, but those comments came from respondents of all ages. Instead, we are seeing a shift that technology is great in many, many applications (including on museum websites and museum visitor centers), but that, for younger adults as well as older adults, museums are one of those places to escape those screens and instead have places of respite that have the real and the authentic.

Does that mean do away with technology in the museum entirely? Not necessarily. It does mean, however, to think very carefully about whether it adds to the experience or if it instead creates dissonance and distraction (as well as unnecessary expense!).

Lindsey Baker

Here is my response as a Museum Visitor: I am a 25 yr old female without children. I avoid technology in Museums, mostly at all costs. I avoid TVs, Computers, Screens, etc. I don't know why. It might be because I want to slow down when I go to the Museum, but I probably would not have thought of that before I read this blog.

That being said, as a Museum Professional I always feel the need to see what the technology is and how it is being used. But whenever I deviate and turn to the screen, I have my Museum Professional hat on, not my visitor hat. I'm thinking of how it is plugged in, who probably turns it on every morning, whether it works consistently, etc. I rarely if ever look for the content of what is being shown.

I can not explain my dislike of technology in Museums, but I can honestly say that I am a 25 yr old who doesn't want to see a TV in the exhibit area.

Mary Ann Colopy

All too often the technology is broken and outdated. How many museums have a full time tech person for displays? Touch screens don't work, or the navigation within a program is flawed. Kids know what is cutting edge and museums don't have the $ or nimbleness to do it. Making things easier to see and hear doesn't need high end stuff--how many installations put the labels at knee level, so it is impossible for the engaged visitor to read. Of course older adults who want to get info are going to go for the audio tour-that's the only way to get the most info, and they have learned that thru years of gallery going. Observe the kids, they are txting, phone pix taking, they haven't abandoned the technology for one sec as they experience the museum, but it is on their terms.

Susie Wilkening

Both Lindsey and Mary Ann have great insights here. Lindsey speaking honestly as a member of a young generation that seems to be continually plugged in, but not necessarily wanting it at the museum. And Mary Ann, who makes an excellent point that, for kids, the technology at a museum is usually outdated or broken, making it something to ignore. There is another point here as well, however. Mary Ann notes that the technology may be on their own terms, as they are still texting, taking photos, etc. But on their own device and in their own, personal way. Similarly, while at a historic site technology may be a sign of dissonance, that does not mean visitors don't want their cell phones to work. Technology then is on the terms of the visitor, and set by the visitor. Interesting.

And because I was asked about the table at the Detroit Institute of Arts: In the European Decorative Arts section they took a white table and projected onto it from above an image of a table top. You see people (bewigged, in costume, from above) smoothing the white damask tablecloth. Push the button, and an amazing silver centerpiece comes out and is filled. Then four place settings, and you can sit at one of the place settings. Basically, it is an aristocratic French dinner, showing how the pieces in the cases would have been used. Yet the perspective is that you are at the table, being served all of this food, so it pulls you into the narrative and makes you look at the place settings, serving dishes, etc. a different way. Awesome. Fantastic use of technology (though it is actually very low tech).

C Dornfeld

Taking an audio tour closes off the world around you. Young people use communication technology to facilitate increased socialization, not less. They would not want to use a technology that eliminates their ability to share the experience with friends. And Mary Ann is correct - often the audio tour is outdated or broken.

The data only shows young people don't like audio tours. It is quite a stretch to use "technology" as a synonym for "audio tours".

Jesse Shore

I acknowledge that audio tour devices are technology but they don't occur to me when someone speaks of technology in museums. For me 'technology' invokes the engaging interpretive possibilities of well designed (and maintained) interactive ehibits, audio-video experiences, computerised and other information points and similar. I rarely use an audio tour device as I find the audios (and videos if the handheld device has a screen) too linear, making me feel captive to the pace of the narrative. The fast forward button doesn't provide the control that I seek when I want to get through the slowly spoken and frequently overly long stories. I am more patient with narratives when I chose to listen or watch an audio or AV presentation in a theatrette or by an exhibit.

I appreciate seeing interpretive information distributed through a historic site using other methods such as well designed labels and the occasional information point where a range of snippets of information can be accessed. I favour being in control of the pace of information being presented to me (other than the times I give myself over to the story-telling experience).

The dining table at DIA is wonderful and from your description it is clear they could have done more with it to make it highly interactive. As this type of museum interactive rapidly becomes more sophisticated it is possible that repeat visitors' will come to expect regular updating of content and even cleverer experiences.

By the way I couldn't find reference to the dining table on the DIA website. I found a images of it on a couple of other Detroit based sites.


At the risk of sounding ignorant, I have to admit that I can't figure out what the OHM and CT acronyms used in the chart legend mean. (And when I tried to follow the "Connecticut Cultural Consumers" hyperlink to see if it was defined there, I kept getting redirected to the blog front page rather than a specific entry.)

As someone tasked with developing an audio tour for a historic site in the next couple of months, this does give me some interesting food for thought as I try to envision the potential users. I wonder if anyone can recommend any other literature that specifically addresses visitor reactions to, or expectations of, audio tours?

Jen Eifrig

Here's my take on the technology in museums finding. First, I'd like to say that all of those who have commented on Reach Advisors' finding make excellent points; well done, everyone.

To briefly distill those points I came up with the following list:
- Verisimilitude is key. Anything (audio, video, computer, text) that interferes with the "realness" of experience is disruptive or off-putting (especially if it's broken!).
- Museums are separate spaces in which visitors expect to act differently than they might elsewhere.
- That being said, visitors want to be in control of their experience. Interpretation that provides a one-way path through the experience is less satisfactory than options that allow multiple points of entry and exit.
- Museums provide an arena for visitors to interact with other people. These may be people they came with, people working for the museum, and/or even people who are only fictionally present as part of the experience.

Does anyone agree or disagree?

James Chung, Reach Advisors

Sorry about the confusion on the use of OHM and CT, Leslie! Since you're certainly not the only who missed the prior references:

- OHM stands for data from a survey of 5,000 core visitors to 13 Outdoor History Museums.

- CT stands for data from a survey funded by the Connecticut Humanities Council of 4,400 core visitors to 24 Connecticut cultural institutions.

Our fault about the confusion over the use of acronyms! We realize that not everyone is able to follow our past posts, so that prior context isn't always there. And we realize that legends on graphs have to be fairly compact, but we didn't have the time to expand on the legend in the blog post.

I don't mean to digress, but perhaps it's worth sharing with everyone a bit about the process for this blog. It's a tough balance of trying to be as thorough as possible given how much stuff there is behind every post, tempered by the fact that we're trying to whip out a post a week amidst a workload where our the needs of our clients have to take precedence in order to keep doing this stuff, tempered once again by trying to make sure we keep these blog posts a quick read! But even when we're hamstrung and can't load everything into a post, we hope that you still find it useful. When we miss something, however, we certainly want to hear!!!

As for the links to Connecticut Cultural Consumers, it goes to a page that has all of the posts on that topic since we realize that not everyone reads every post, or might want to see a post in context of other posts on that topic. We're hoping that the clustering helps those who want to dig deeper on any topic, although once again, we always want to hear from readers whenever we can make this blog a quicker and more relevant read! Thanks for sharing your comments Leslie!

Museum Audience Insight

Hi Dornfield, you're absolutely right that the use of the word "technology" isn't a synonym for "audio tours." At the same time, it might not be fair to say that the data only shows that young people don't like audio tours. That's most likely a key driver here, but the question wasn't structured specifically around audio tours. We found the open-ended responses that accompanied that question to be rather interesting, as Susie highlights in one of the prior comments in this thread. One thing we certainly have learned in the research and this thread is that this is a rather interesting and deep topic that we'll continue to examine in further research!

You also had another interesting comment about how "Young people use communication technology to facilitate increased socialization, not less." Right on the money. If time allows, perhaps we'll post some of our various insights on that topic, and that also will be a topic for which we'll be continuing further research. Right now, we're in the midst of a client project involving communication technology to engage more students and young adults in helping plan a new museum. Perhaps we'll be in a situation where we're allowed to share some of those findings publicly somewhere down the road.

Thanks for your comments!

Museum Audience Insight

Jen, I can't quite admit to saying that I would've thought of the word "verisimilitude," but those were great comments about verisimilitude, separate spaces, control and interaction. You asked if people agree, and we're finding that you're right on.

We look forward to continuing a real conversation...whether in a separate space like a blog...with multiple points of entry and exit...interacting in many ways. Now that I think of it, I stated writing that last sentence just to toy around with your points above, but I now concur even more that those points are really important for thinking about how many people now are engrained to act (as well as engage with a museum).


I am an avid museum visitor, a professional and the mother of a 13 year old. Regarding the use of technology in a museum, I find its success is based primarily on 1) whether or not it physically works, 2) it’s ability to make a connection with the content being presented, regardless of age or familiarity with the subject matter, 3) it being easy enough to learn quickly and 4) it making me feel like I’ve achieved or learned something.
When you think about it, each interactive has a lot of competition with the other objects and activities in the museum and one only has so much time to spend in the institution. If something does not work or it’s operation isn’t clearly understood – I’m not only moving on, but I’ve also missed an opportunity to connect.
My experience with kids and teenagers is that they don’t really care about “technology for technology sake”, even the ones who are hard core gamers. What they care about is the experience, not just the technology. My son and I have gone on museum trips with his friends to what I feared might be a boring experience for them – no technology or interactive visitor participation whatsoever – and they absolutely loved it (Philadelphia Mint and the Mutter Museum). I’ve taken kids to places where they thought the audio tour was fantastic (Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia). And I’ve also taken kids to places like the Liberty Science Center where there is a lot interactive technology and they thought it was boring! And these are kids who love science and technology.
I believe there are many external factors that affect a kids level of interest in technology in a museum, like parent participation and even, believe it not, peer pressure from other kids in the museum at the time. If my teenage son only sees a bunch of little kids playing with an interactive, chances are he won’t try it on his own.

J. Springer

Another possible reading of this data is that older museum visitors may be more inclined to seek "expert" guidance--the museum "voice of authority"-- regardless of what form it comes in (digital, print, etc). Younger people are often more comfortable than their elders exploring museum exhibits and constructing their own meanings.

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