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“Slow Museums”: Back to Basics

Whiz. Bang. Tweet. The current buzz in museum exhibition design focuses on using interactive digital technologies, social media, augmented reality, and audiovisual-rich immersive experiences to deliver content and to engage visitors. Exhibit designers and museum educators are eager to embrace state-of-the-art tools and toys with the hope they’ll enrich the museum experience.

This trend comes at the cost of losing the reflective spaces and authenticity that, more and more, only museums can provide. Museums are one of the few educational spaces where visitors can come into contact with real objects—a painting or an artifact—and disconnect from our overdigitized world for an opportunity to simply look and think. “Museums are about collections,” said Sir Neil Cossons, a leader in the United Kingdom’s museums and cultural-heritage community. “It is this that distinguishes them from all other places of learning and scholarship, research, education, enlightenment, and entertainment.”

It wasn’t long ago that museums existed only as “cabinets of curiosities” for royalty and the extremely wealthy. Maintained as private collections of natural and archaeological oddities, they served primarily for bragging rights. Soon thereafter, and for the last hundred years or so, museums became centers of research and public access to our shared cultural and natural histories. Only recently have museums evolved—with the help of current technologies—to “individualize” the user experience, where exhibits transform the visitor from passive spectator into active participant, where people are encouraged to find and share their personal relevance to the exhibition content.

This is not altogether unreasonable. In a report of the National Research Council of the National Academies, informal-learning guru Beverly Sheppard identified personal relevance as a key to an “excellent exhibition,” and wrote that “immersive and direct sensory experiences” and “rich interpretive materials,” including audiovisual elements, are among successful exhibit techniques. They’re used in art collections, zoos, natural-history galleries, children’s museums, and science centers.

Still, there’s a bandwagon mindset in the exhibit-design world, where museums quickly embrace new display techniques and pedagogies through instinctive beliefs and popular trends. What we’ve ended up with are exhibit spaces that, instead of housing treasure troves of real artifacts with simple interpretation, are overloaded with bells, buttons, and blinking screens.

One argument for filling exhibits with lots of multitouch screens and smartphone-friendly apps is that they attract more young patrons, those most at home with digital technologies and short attention spans. But there’s little data proving that young museum-goers expect or need high-tech gizmos to enhance their visitor experience. And if the idea is that museums can use technology to compete with entertainment and recreation venues in attracting youth culture, as is sometimes suggested, it’s a losing battle. Museums will never have the money or mechanisms necessary to battle with the likes of a Disney World or an Apple Store in developing and using state-of-the art wizardry.

Museums are also incorporating more digital tools to deliver more and deeper interpretive content. But this goes against what museum experts already know, which is that visitors tend to retain less factual content and more contextual, according to John Falk, coauthor of Learning from Museums. Exhibits that provide endless amounts of information just aren’t very effective.

This is by no means a suggestion that museums abandon high-tech exhibits and revert to some sort of cold, nostalgic vision of days gone by. Rather, it’s an encouragement to exhibit developers and museum specialists to design spaces that provide reflective downtime, access to tangible objects, and a reasonable expectation of how much information a visitor can or should take in during an ordinary two- to three-hour museum visit.

In the spirit of the Slow Food movement, perhaps there’s a need for “Slow Museums,” where we can periodically step away from the computers and devices that fill our lives and interact directly and thoughtfully with artifacts and ideas. As exhibition designers, we should not blindly follow the trend unless there’s a proven reason to incorporate high tech beyond flash and attention, and commit to collections and story-based design solutions. As visitors, we should take advantage of the respite that “old school” museums offer and patronize those institutions.