Monday, August 17, 2009

Are Screens Killing Museums?

Having just returned from SEGD's Sixth Annual Symposium on New Directions in Exhibition and Environment Design held at Cranbrook outside of Detroit, I was very much reminded of Nina Simon's recent post about small "camp-like" meetings instead of conferences.

The SEGD Symposium really was like a design camp with a small group of participants in Cranbrook's idyllic setting learning from each other.

I was fortunate to give a talk during the symposium about "Right Tech." Building upon the notion that museums' strengths lie with the "Triple S" of Stories, Stuff, and Social Engagement, part of my Cranbrook presentation focused on the contention that "screens" are destroying truly interactive experiences in museums. Since my thoughts seemed to elicit about 50% heads nodding in agreement, and 50% gritted teeth in the audience, I'd thought I'd share my "screed against screens" condensed into a top ten list with ExhibiTricks readers:


10) Screens are not "green".
I don't care how you slice it up, screens are not a sustainable design technology.

9) IMAX.
The biggest gateway to "cheesiness" in the museum business.

8) The "death trap" introductory theatre.
Didn't forcing people to sit through a boring movie before they get to the "fun stuff" die out with the 1964 World's Fair?

7) BIG Touch Screens/Touch Tables.
Somehow the technology that looked so cool in the Tom Cruise movie "Minority Report" has landed inside museums. Proof that bigger is not always better.

6) Individual Experiences Instead of Truly Social Experiences.
Screens hypnotize, not socialize.

5) Screens in museums emulate TV or movie experiences.
But poorly.

4) Screens in museums emulate videogame experiences.
But poorly.

3) Screens become the "easy answer."
Since visitors will stare at a screen, even if nothing is on it, screen-based technologies often become our default design choice.

2) Screens often become "electronic labels" or encyclopedias.
Screens often become a dumping ground for huge volumes of text that we would never dare stick onto a printed label.

1) Screens don't age well.
Screen-based technologies and techniques become dated very quickly, but unfortunately don't seem to get replaced as quickly.

What do you think? Are screens destroying museums or are they the last hope for engaging visitors? Feel free to hurl your bouquets or brickbats to us via the "Comments" area below.

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  1. A friend of mine works at the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston, and was saying that the state of the art exhibit that opened a few years ago hadn't been updated so is no longer state of the art. It includes lots of touch screen monitors that people can create their own story on. When he tried to show me how it worked, we had to go to 3 different touch screens to find one that worked! What was one modern and fun became aggravating for the visitor.

  2. What is a screen?
    - a monitor
    - an IMAX theater
    - a touch wall
    - 3D digital theater
    - a scrim in an object theater
    - a cell phone

    All of these are screens, used well can be engaging

    Used poorly can be dreadful

    It depends on the story, the engagemnt and the execution. There is no black and white so the question poses an artifical right or wrong.

  3. Hi Wayne,

    Sorry if you don't like the opening question (which was deliberately meant to be provocative) but to me the points raised about such screen-y drawbacks as social isolation, unsustainability, and (as the first comment above indicates) "new" technologies not "aging well" remain.

  4. First, thank you for outright saying that screens aren't green.

    The best take-aways for me are about the sociability for screens (in that case, sometimes size can matter) and becoming e-labels or the answer for everything. Why leave home then?

    I think what makes a museum strong and sustainable is the WHAT it makes out of the connections amongst their expertise, their collections, and the public's experience/voice. If a screen-based experience can serve that better than anything else, great- but it's the variety of experiences that makes for a great museum visitor landscape.

    I agree that screens don't age well. For me, that's a more nuanced argument about:

    - housing them in a way that works for the exhibit (think of the Denver Art Museum's Side Trip exhibit with the TV)
    - again, appropriate usage of the technology- not everything needs to be a screen, move, flash, or be electrified.

  5. I think you are right saying they aren't green. But then again, you don't need to light a screen.

    I think Wayne has it right though, a screen is just a thing. It's the content. Too often content is an afterthought when it comes to screen design.

    Dumping tons of text onto a screen is just straight out lazy design. Blame the designers, not the technology. It's like saying murals are ruining museums because of they have comic sans on them and the text is pink with a blue background.

  6. @walnut crunch thanks for your comments.

    How about we blame the designers AND the screens?

    As Jared Schiffman astutely observed during the SEGD symposium, computers and other screen-based devices' storage and display capacity are essentially infinite.

    But that doesn't mean we have to try to push an infinite amount of material out to our visitors through those screens.

    My basic problem is not with screens per se, but rather how automatically, and easily, they seem to lend themselves to, if not downright encourage, bad design(s).

    Using lots of screens doesn't automatically make you a great interactive designer, just like having Photoshop or Illustrator doesn't automatically make you a great graphic designer.

  7. Screens have their useful place, but they shouldn't be plastered eveywhere and substituted for a real visitor experience. I saw some interesting screen technologies a few years ago at Siggraph-some image delivery that couldn't be done any other way. But most of the time, museums use screens far too often as label dumps.

    One last complaint about screens-they are not accessible to sight and even sometimes hearing impaired (if not captioned).

  8. One other point: screens are often the default choice for providing interactivity. In a surprising number of (museum) contexts, when the question of interactivity comes up, the assumption is that the only way to provide participation is by using via some kind of media-based (i.e. screen) experience. Sometimes, as Wayne points out, this can be a good choice. But not the default choice.

    I heard someone from MIT speak about media literacy once-- she said that most people under-estimate their own level of media savviness. They think they are much less sophisticated than they are. Their expectations have been shaped by very high-end product-- video games, computer graphics in advertising, film and television. This establishes a baseline that museums find very difficult to reach.

  9. Born in 1970 I grew up with and on television. I think one major concerns I have is a sort of Marshall Mc Luhan issue. The editing and impact a video may, at times, over-shadow the message or corrupt it entirely. I have seen some very problematic uses or what might be considered great museum video work done. I could say the same thing about didactic text panels too, however. I think the greatest weakness a museum has is the sub-standard education the visitors received before coming in and after leaving. A museum can't compensate for a number of years of poor education. I know it sounds hardcore but I firmly believe it. A museum isn't fighting a losing battle but a tough one to be sure.

  10. While all are well-articulated points about the frequent mis-use of screens for didactics/education, nobody has mentioned screens used in the context of art installations and/or for the presentation of video art. But what if the screen is part of the "real visitor experience" of the artwork in question?
    We have hosted (and will host in future), exhibitions for which some artworks -- whether a component of an installation, an internet-based artwork, a video -- are vital components and are presented on television screens (or computer monitors). At times I wish there were other means of presenting such artworks; but to use flat-screen televisions is sometimes the technology used by the artist, sometimes the most practical for the venue, and is typically the most efficient. Further, they are far less costly than using digital projectors. For $500-$1500, one can purchase a "top-of-the-line" flat-screen television which will likely be "out-of-date" in 3-5 years. A top-of-the-line digital projector can cost double, triple ... even quadruple. The amount of cabling to operate a digital projector, the electricity to run a digital projector, and the toxicity of the bulbs are all ghastly.
    Any alternative suggestions? (We've got an exhibition coming up for which we'll need 4 or 5 large flat-screen televisions.)

  11. I don't have any alternates, but If you are using flat screens, a start is to get them from a green manufacturer. The one I'm familiar with is Panasonic but there are many others. It's not like it is a zero impact product, but some manufacturers have put in place worthwhile programs that aren't simply green-washing.

    We've just moved into the HD world and we're at a point where 16:9 screens are going to be pretty standard for a long while. The only game changing tech is OLED which makes screen practically paper thin, and use very little power. Those are at least a couple of years out though.

    If it is a real concern, and green is the issue, look at ISO 14001. Bake the conservation into your organization at every level and you will offset the necessity of power guzzling screens (still probably not as bad as halogen lighting).

    We're probably guilty of over use of screens, but it does allow for frequent updates which, when you are mission based and issue driven, is quite handy.

    Screens do allow for some interesting multi-layering. If people are interested they can dig in and find a wealth of info, but if they want to skim, they skim and still walk away with the core message.

    The problem with multi-layering is that too often it's designed like an interactive CD-ROM from the early 90's. See menu, press button, watch video, press back, see menu, press button, see text, laugh because of whimsical use of comic sans.

  12. Good, lively thread here Paul. I've also gotten frustrated with museums that are screen cluttered. On the other hand, I'm not sure we need to rule out screens altogether since the use of motion pictures of all sorts can add interpretive value and visual interest to other wise static displays. Most importantly, I think designers need to answer the question: What about the use of a screen in this exhibit will distinguish it from anything I can do at home or on my laptop or phone? I think screen-based technologies can be contextualized in interesting ways that diminish the screen-ness and emphasize the story instead. But nobody really needs to go to a museum to watch TV, so simple tube-based strategies are ultimately self-defeating I think.

  13. I used to be more dogmatic about this than I am now, and find myself more in wayne's camp than in yours, paul.

    As far as I can tell, if you want to pass along a sequenced, structured story, with rich beautiful imagery, engaging soundscape, comfortable familiar delivery environment, immersive and potentially emotionally engaging, then you pretty much are talking about movies as the most effective vehicle.

    If you are talking about open ended, unpredictable, phenomenon-based exploration, then screens usually suck.

    As far as large gesture based stuff, we have done tons of experiments with those, and the jury is still out. Generally, they look like more fun to do than they are (think of the first time you played virtual volleyball, you feel like a bit of an idiot waving your arms around). On the other hand, Jeff Han has done some really beautiful work with interactive screens, both multitouch and gesture based (see his video mirror, which is still one of my favorite things ever, and can only be done with that technology.)

  14. Hi Eric,

    Not to be dogmatic, but why not run science film festivals instead of museums?

    If average museum visitors (like the kids in the groups whizzing around, say, the NY Hall of Science) are unlikely to spend more than a few minutes attending to experiences, are movies really the best medium to transmit stories inside museums?

  15. Paul,

    I hope your being devilishly provocative or joking. My response to your "top ten" list.

    #10 - GREEN - weighed against the need to rebuild elements or reprint graphics and then LIGHT them to upgrade an exhibit, screens have a lower carbon footprint and reduce waste

    #9 - IMAX Films subsidize serious study at many institutions

    #8 - A well crafted introductory moment - including media - can invigorate an exhibition experience - not kill it; emphasis on WELL CRAFTED.

    #7 - The most compelling interactive I have ever seen was the touch table at the WAR ROOMS in London. It was a fantastic community experience with multiple participants that is worth the airfare to return to see.

    #6 - See #7 above. GOOD interactives can build community

    #5 - See Note # 8 re: WELL CRAFTED

    #4 - See Note # 8 re: WELL CRAFTED

    #3 - True - screens can become the panacea for lazy experience designers - but a WELL CRAFTED (there is that phrase again) experience can bring information and knowledge to a viewer the exhibition many not have room for. They also translate well to on line viewing extending the museums reach.

    #2 - True - screens can become the panacea for lazy curators (See also #3 above)

    #1 - Nothing is worse than a 3 year old "interactive" with broken handles or worn parts with OLD information in it. I have a 5 year old SAMSUNG DLP that looks great and a 25year old SONY that I simply cannot justify replacing because it still does the job.

    This is NOT 1964 - by the way - and the Worlds Fair was a WONDERLAND that captivated the imagination of a then 8 year old boy. It helped inspire a career in design. I am sorry it is so "over" for you.

  16. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for your responses. On most, we'll just agree to disagree.

    For example, most screen-based installation environments I see are still copiously lit, and still meant to be gawked at, rather than providing true social engagement.

    As for IMAX supporting "serious study" at most institutions --- thanks for the best laugh of my week!

  17. I've been working on exhibits about sustainable energy for the past two years and have been trying to deal with is the overuse of screens. Mainly, our team felt is was hypocritical wasting electricity when we're talking about energy use. That really incluenced our decisions to only use them where there was no other way to either display the info (monitoring output from our rooftop wind turbines), enrich the experience (interactive map that triggers interviews about real world wind turbine decision-making) and be a virtual experience (a wind tubine placement game).

    We used flip labels, tactile graphics and manual interactives where it made sense and added accessibility to the exhibit experience.

    The earlier comment about 3 year old (manual) interactives no working also applies to screens. It's really discouraging to have a dark or frozen screen, especially if it contains the meat of your content. I've seen plenty of children and adults pounding buttions and touchscreens to the point where they break and then walk away.

    We use screens in most of our exhibits, but we really have been trying lately to keep them to a minimum. It's an interesting challenge.

  18. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  19. This is a great discussion. I, too, have some opinions on this topic.

    Overall I agree with depends on how the screens are integrated into the design and if their presence supports the storytelling of the exhibit.

    On a quick point by point basis:

    10) I have to agree with Tony: "weighed against the need to rebuild elements or reprint graphics and then LIGHT them to upgrade an exhibit, screens have a lower carbon footprint and reduce waste" and Walnut: "it does allow for frequent updates...." which also reduces waste.

    9) I don't agree.

    8) I don't agree. A great example of an introductory film is at Monticello. It is informative, moving and sets the tone for a visitor’s entire visit.

    4, 5 & 7) I think it is about how they are integrated into an exhibit and what information is relayed.

    6) What is the difference between being hypnotized by a screen or a text panel? I think that if the content on the screen makes a visitor think, they will walk away wanting to discuss the information they have received. One of the best uses of video/screens is at the Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield, Il. The Civil War Map there is remarkable.

    3) If screens become an "easy" answer, then it is just bad design. It is not the technology that is bad it is the designer.

    2) I think people will read as much or as little as they want. Screens being used as labels allow a visitor to get more infomation if they want it.

    1) Everything gets old.

  20. I'm not sure how exhibitions with screens (that use copious amounts of electricity, have to be shipped to the U.S. from overseas, and contain hazardous substances that need to be carefully disposed of) are "greener" than exhibitions without screens, or with fewer screens?

  21. Paul,
    I couldn't resist responding to your post. See:

    I've asked visitors to post comments to your original story.


  22. I love bomb throwing. It’s good for us. So here’s my “back atcha” as far as “screens” go. My main problem with your original post, Paul, is that you use “screen” to mean any number of things. For most of your dislikes, the screen is just the symptom of lazy design, so picking on the delivery mechanism seems needlessly Luddite, unless you’re really trying to be Luddite, in which case you don’t needn’t hide behind a bunch of reasons. Some people don’t like screens and that’s OK. I don’t like looking at accession numbers on labels, nor donor information. I think they fundamentally detract from the visitor experience of looking at objects. I don’t care whose bequest paid for the purchase of the thing, dammit. I want to know about the thing! I feel strongly about this. Here are my ten responses.

    10) Screens are not "green".
    Agreed, but I don’t think your dichotomy of “screen” vs. “everything else” is not valid. In general, we don’t do a good job thinking about our environmental impact in materials selection. Screens are not green, neither are most graphics we have produced, nor the chemical-saturated building materials we use. We’re getting better at it, to be sure, but we’ve a long way to go.

    9) IMAX.
    Totally disagree. The biggest gateway to "cheesiness" in the museum business is the for-profit blockbuster. The second is sameness. Large-format film is a distant, distant third.

    8) The "death trap" introductory theatre.
    A poorly produced anything is a death trap.

    7) BIG Touch Screens/Touch Tables.
    The jury’s still out as far as I’m concerned. I’m much more worried about their inherent inaccessibility.

    6) Individual Experiences Instead of Truly Social Experiences.
    Um, no. Not if done well, and carefully, with a social experience as a design goal.

    5) Screens in museums poorly emulate TV or movie experiences.
    In the same way that a diorama is a poor recreation of a habitat? Or a reconstructed temple is a poor substitute for time travel?

    4) Screens in museums emulate videogame experiences.
    I hate museum “games” of any stripe, but that’s because they’re usually code for “We need something for those kids, but are too lazy to give it much thought. Kids like games. Let’s make a bad game with the content we already have.” Again, the screen is only the output mechanism for lazy concept development.

    3) Screens become the "easy answer."
    Too true.

    2) Screens often become "electronic labels" or encyclopedias.
    Too true, but I’d add the web and any mobile technology to that list. They’re a convenient cover for not making the hard choices of what not to cover in an exhibition. But they don’t have to be. A decent content strategy can make any and all of the above vital and exciting.

    1) Screens don't age well.
    The actual screens themselves I think age as well as anything we deploy. We’ve still got monitors from the early 90s doing their stuff. The stuff being shown on the screen is a different matter. Where screens don’t age well I find is usually when they’re the focus of attention rather than just a delivery mechanism.

  23. Ed point number four rocks. I like the idea of videogames but I hate their application in most non-pure gaming environments.

    Just like screens, it's not the idea of games that are bad, it's their design. I used to work for EA, that's where they have teams of people chewing up millions of dollars, working 60 hour weeks for a year to release one game. Thinking some flash designer will be able to throw together a "wow" game based on a half-baked idea and a couple of months is quite the stretch. The "kids" using the game are schooled in these million dollar games, so their standards are high. To compete you have to be creative, again, design is king.

    Game design is a skill all on its own. Just like media design is a skill all on its own. Screens and games fail when design is bad.

    I think that point is coming out really clear.

    And what is more green is a question that is really hard to answer. It might seem like no screen is the easy solution, but if you are being fair you need to look at lifespan, energy use (can vary greatly depending on the type of screen and the type of content displayed on that screen), and how often you can change it.

    Looking at a non-screen exhibit, do you use wood? Is the wood eco-certified? What about the paint? What about the inks? How do the cast offs from those manufacturing processes compare to the screen manufacturing processes? What about transportation? Where did it come from, how will waste be disposed of?

    So many people pick the seemingly greener route only to find that, in a real world sense, they've green-washed.

    Our approach to green has not been to limit screens but to build a LEED gold certified building, and then successfully obtain ISO 14001 certification. That is looking at the whole for conservation rather than select parts.

    btw this is walnutcrunch, since everyone else is using names I though I might as well stop hiding.

  24. Paul, it looks like you didn't have the possibility yet to use or play a Reactable. So let me explain - maybe you gonna change your mind about screens...

    The Reactable ( has something other screens don't have: you have to place objects on the screen in order to make it work.
    The objects connect (or not) and various users can play it simultaneously creating a unique soundworld together.
    Originally it was designed as an instrument for professional musicians but as it is intuitive and collaborative we made available a version for museums and other public installations.
    And I can assure you, children and adults are totally fascinated by the Reactable.

    You are right with your top ten list but I think (as you can already observe this on the Reactable technology) screen technology will make an evolutionary step soon. Or let me say it this way: technology is already a step ahead and in a few years, it will replace the screens from you top ten list because, as you said in Nr. 1, "they don't age well".

  25. I work at a natural history museum with a huge and wonderful collection of DEAD stuff. One way I really like to use screens is to provide the living context for static objects (in our case organisms). But keeping it simple is always a good thing. We did a visitor study here that showed people would engage in a "screen" experience if it had about 2 minutes of content (or less), and if a computer interactive they'd only go 2 menu levels deep, never more.

  26. I work in an aquarium with lots of live things. We work on pretty much a 15 second rule for most things and max at about a minute per video. It's good to hear the timing you work with Darcie.

    Our timing is not based on formal study, but cobbling together other studies and our general impressions. With live things there is too much distraction. The screen needs to compliment the live animal not compete with it. They work best when they show a behaviour that can't generally be seen by the public but was caught by the cameras.

    Probably our most popular screen is the spin browser where we photographed 5 different frogs eating. We shot it at 700fps HD and viewers you a metal scroll wheel to move the video back and forth. The frog actions are too quick to see with the eye but the video reveals it. It is always packed.

  27. A lot of what you mention is right I think. But the usage of screens is very acceptable when their content is in line with the rest of the exhibition, e.g. when the shown content can be considered a museal object. When visiting an exhbition about the ways in which Western countries looked at exotic peoples in the 19th and 20th century, an historical documentary about 'scientific' expeditions to exotic countries and their peoples, is a fine contribution to the exhibition.

    Screens can also make certain information more accessible, where other presentation techniques lack behind. Especially at very old heritage sites, screens can make Roman ruins come to live, can make you take a closer look at the fresco's severel feet above you, or they can explain the numerous details in a Jeroen Bosch painting.

    I do not claim that traditional explanation texts and images cannot do the above described jobs, but good screens allow you to combine closer inspection of an object AND provide information at the same time in an 'interactive' fashion.

  28. Paul, thanks so much for your Screed and for calling out designers for using screens in lazy, unimaginative ways. This inspired me to write about my own thoughts on screens in museum exhibits:

  29. Screens are a tool, and it's how they are used that makes them effective or not. Is it the hammer's fault if the carpenter is bad? Any kind of blanket statement labeling a thing "good" or "bad" is narrow from the beginning, and sounds like it comes from a fear of embracing change and available technologies. I've seen some very cool, and engaging stuff and welcome the opportunities to utilize whatever is appropriate and engaging.

  30. @Varin,

    Certainly screens are tools, and can be used well, or, as is often the case, poorly --- which is really the point of this posting.

    Perhaps a more nuanced question for all of those who have been SO upset about the title of this post (and have intimated my fear of technology, the new, etc. etc.) could be: "Are Poorly Designed Screen-Based Experiences Killing Museums?"