Friday, January 14, 2011

The Myth of Multitasking: Museum Media Messages

The weakest possible argument for layers of excessive multimedia mayhem in a museum environment?  Here it comes: "Just look at young people texting, listening to music, and doing their homework all at once.  The current generation is just more media savvy, and better equipped to multitask than previous generations, so we need to design our exhibition environments accordingly ..."


This rationalization (or slight variations) continually shows up in museum listservs, conference sessions, and even professional books when media dense projects are presented. 

This despite the fact that research continually shows that multitasking and distracting environments actually decrease people's ability to concentrate and learn.  Even if you conducted formative evaluation to find out whether people want such dense environments, many multitaskers feel that they are actually much better at handling multiple tasks than they really are.  "Heavy multitaskers are often extremely confident in their abilities," says Clifford I. Nass, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. "But there's evidence that those people are actually worse at multitasking than most people."   Perhaps a better term would be "multiswitching"  than "multitasking" because it better encompasses the rapid changes of orientation and focus that occur in the brain.

If museums would like visitors to learn about a few things (hopefully!) as they wander the galleries, then why are they often deploying design and technology strategies that actually work against such educationally-minded goals?  That I think is an emotional rather than a rational question.  Even the most hidebound Museum Director seems only too willing to invest in "shiny new toys" (4D Theaters!) with the hope of creating a technological siren song designed to lure visitors in.  Unfortunately, forcing museum visitors to try to attend to multiple information streams at once often leaves only a hazy memory of sensory effects behind, rather than clear messages that remain after the museum visit is over.

Before I'm accused  of being a Luddite, let me say, with apologies to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not the message --- the message is the message.  I certainly think media-rich museum environments employing digital technologies can be compelling and wonderful.  But before you get hung up on how many touch screens you can fit into your new visitor center, think first about the messages you want to send, and the range of options for sending those messages.

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