One of the most common questions we get is about the use of computers in museum settings. Are they necessary? Should museums be putting them in to attract broader audiences? Do visitors expect them? Or do visitors come to museums for other reasons?
To find out, we have a few sets of data that we can pull from. In our pro bono work, we have never explicitly asked about technology in museums, while we do have more explicit questions in some of our client work.
In our pro bono field-wide work, our surveys have been broadly disseminated via the e-mail lists of participating museums. So keep in mind that respondents represent core visitors to museums, not more casual visitors. In our study of 40,000+ museum goers, which took place in winter 2010, we asked respondents how they preferred to experience museums. (Click here for a short write-up of what we found.)
For that question, there were three tech-based options: videos, audio guides, and computer kiosks with games, databases, more info, etc. (we generally ask about computer kiosks because it is visible technology that people can picture; supporting technology that isn’t as visible is harder for them to picture and respond to). None of these came in very high. Videos and audio guides did better with older adults than younger ones, largely, we believe, for accessibility reasons (and we have seen this pattern before).
Computer kiosks came in, overall, at only 11% of respondents, and did best with respondents in their 40s (14%). When we look at the data by genre (the type of museum people responded to), computer kiosks do best with respondents from science centers – 18%. It was lower for other types.
So only about 1 in 10 museum-goers prefer computer kiosks overall, and nearly 1 in 5 for science centers. But that doesn’t tell us how the rest really feel. We did have a very vocal minority write in comments about how they definitely do not like computers in museums, but it was hard to gauge how big a group they really were. And that more ambivalent group in the middle could be quite large.
In our client work, we have much more explicit data from both qualitative research and surveys of museum goers. What we have generally found reflects the findings above, in that somewhere around 15% (give or take a few percentage points) of museum-goers say they enjoy or seek out computer experiences in museums. About the same number say they hate computers in museums. Which means there is a big group in the middle who are much more ambivalent, saying they might check it out if they stumble upon them, or that they ignore them but they are fine for others. But this more ambivalent group, along with the computer naysayers, say that computers only really work if they are up-to-date, work well, there are enough of them so that they don’t have to wait to use them, and are clean (as in not germy). They also point out that most museums don’t deliver on these concerns.
In terms of less frequent museum visitors, or those that rarely/never visit museums, we have one rather small sample we can pull from. Turns out, they were not any more enthusiastic about computers in museums than museum goers. Further sampling of non-museum goers is necessary to confirm that finding, however.
That brings us to our conclusions to date. Because there is so much ambivalence, our recommendation is to think of computers as a tool, and nothing more. What is the story you are trying to tell? What is the experience you want people to walk away with? What is the experience people want to have when they visit you? Then think through the best methodologies for getting that story, that experience, across. More often than not, a low-tech solution may be the best choice for what you are trying to do, and be cheaper and easier to maintain. But for the times when a computer is the best way to do what you need to do, then by all means, install one so long as you have the resources to keep it up-to-date, in working order, clean, etc.
But let’s reiterate one important detail: our questions specifically asked about computer kiosks with databases, games, more info, and not about high-tech installations where much of the high-tech stuff is largely hidden to visitors. Most survey respondents don’t know how to conceptualize that, while they can conceptualize computer kiosks. Additionally, we do not have data yet on the use of smartphones in museums.
The bottom line is that computers are tools . . . and that's it. The big thing to avoid is putting computers in solely because of a belief that they are necessary to attract audiences, as that does not seem to be the case. But absolutely deploy them when they are the best method for sharing what you want to share.
What do you think? Do you enjoy computers in museum settings? Or do you think they take resources and energy away from other experiences you are trying to promote? Simply click on “comments” below to share your thoughts (and if you are reading this from your e-mail subscription, go to our blog to comment).