Thursday, June 24, 2010

Screened Out: Preferences for Technology in Museums

I asked Susie Wilkening from Reach Advisors to summarize some of the data from their latest research that could apply to exhibit developers and the use of technology in exhibitions. (A larger version of the graph shown above can be found by clicking here.)

She kindly agreed, and here is her guest post:

We live in a tech-heavy world.  Screens are everywhere, including airports, restaurants, gas pumps, backseats of SUVs, and perhaps furtively pulled out of pockets during children’s soccer games.  Earbuds are in place at work, on commutes, and even when walking dogs.  For many, it is difficult to imagine going a day without logging in and tuning it at some point.

And then there are museums.  

People come to museums for lots of reasons.  To learn something new. To relax.  To socialize.  To see something beautiful.  To unplug . . . literally.  To drag their kids away from screens.  To take the earbuds out.

The museum as antidote to our tech-heavy world?  Perhaps.

In Reach Advisors’ latest study, over 40,000 core visitors to museums were asked how they prefer to experience museums and historic sites.  Turns out, interpretation solutions involving screens, earbuds, or cell phones were not high on the list.  In fact, for some audience segments, they were decidedly unpopular.

Let’s see what the data says.  First, the counterintuitive part.  When it comes to audio tours, videos, and movies, older respondents were significantly more likely to say they prefer them than younger audiences.  That’s right.  Older audiences like them better than younger ones.  Respondents over 70 are well over two times more likely to prefer audio tours than respondents in their 20s or 30s.  And older respondents are much more likely to enjoy video clips and movies.
And then comes the other important part.  Computer interactions, whether more information, databases, even games, were even less popular, this time across-the-board.  Only 11% of respondents said they preferred experiencing museums and historic sites with computers.  It peaks, at nearly 14%, for respondents in their 40s (statistically hardly a peak, by the way.)

While we didn’t ask respondents why they did (or did not) choose certain interpretation methods, some respondents told us anyway.  Here are some sample comments:

        •  Quality family time that isn't centered around electronic
            equipment is something we could all use more of. 
            We are forever grateful for this activity.

        •  When there are screens around, exhibits tend to become
            things children observe, rather than participate in.

        •  Too many . . .  screens or videos distracts and detracts. 
           Adults and kids alike are just stunned into information
           overload.  Museums are not for information downloads. 
           They are places to encounter/experience something out
           of your ordinary . . .  in my view, different media have to
           be thoughtfully integrated into exhibits.

If the majority of core visitors generally do not prefer technology in museums, is there a place for it?  If it is well-integrated, then we still think so.  One of the most effective exhibits I have ever encountered is the virtual dining table in the European Fashionable Living Galleries at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  It truly deepened my appreciation for European porcelain, and it was thoughtfully integrated in the exhibit.
But the data also tells us that we don’t have to do technology because we feel we have to.  Or because our visitors expect it.  Turns out, many don’t.  Instead, it allows us to step back and decide if the technology we are considering genuinely adds to, and deepens, the experience for our visitors.  If it does, we still think there is a place for it.  If it doesn’t, well, it might be best deployed elsewhere (a website?  YouTube?) or scrapped entirely.

There is one final caveat.  Our survey respondents were core visitors to museums, solicited through museum e-mail lists.  They don’t represent more infrequent visitors.  Those individuals may, or may not, have wildly different perceptions of the value of screens and technology in museums.  We hope to find out some day.

But when it comes to our core visitors, overwhelmingly they do not prefer high-tech interpretive solutions.  Instead, they want what museums have been providing for generations:  real experiences through exhibits, hands-on activities, and the cool stuff we have kicking around.   I, for one, find that reassuring.

Susie Wilkening is Senior Consultant and Curator of Museum Audiences at Reach Advisors.  For more information about Reach Advisors’ latest study of museum-goers, please visit their blog.

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