Digital Tools and Museums

I found that Wyman et al arrived at some interesting conclusions in their article “Digital Storytelling in Museums: Observations and Best Practices”. The early part of their paper, before they give their Suggestions, Strategic Thoughts, and Tactical Thoughts, is the highlight of the article for me. These initial sections explored the manner in which the shifting relationship between people and knowledge is mediated by technology. This is all good because they logically highlight how technological shifts have affected the practices of exhibition and curation at museums in recent years. Specifically, I found that their assertion to “let technology disappear from view and reassert content and experience as the focus for the visitor” (465) to be particularly provocative. Wrestling with the paradox of being able to interact with technology at any point during the museum experience, while at the same time hiding technology and prioritizing content and experience leads to productive avenues of thought for designing exhibits. Walking the tight-rope of deciding when to put technology in immediate view and facilitate interactions, or camouflaging technology so that it is hidden but present if needed, is a useful way to think about using digital tools in curation and exhibition.

Where their analysis requires further sharpening, however, is the latter portion of their article where they outline their opinions regarding the best practices for museums. Firstly, I fail to see the difference between “suggestions”, “strategic thoughts” and “tactical thoughts”. Why create three distinct sections when they all seem to provide advice regarding the use of new media in museums? This just adds an unnecessary element of organization. This is a minor rhetorical pet peeve but I believe that museum specialists, who spent their professional lives making communication as clear as possible, should be more cognizant about how they use language.

Next, I found that they seem to provide conflicting advice. On page 466 they write in bold – “Technology is a last resort” on this same page, also in bold, they write “Use technology as a design element”. So when should museums use technology? My point here is that museums have thrived for hundreds of years without using touchscreens or websites. The Indian Museum in Calcutta, which claims to be the oldest museum in Asia, got its website in 2012 (which hasn’t been updated in the past year), still houses all its exhibits in dusty Victorian cabinets, and makes no use of computational technology whatsoever to engage its visitors. This museum isn’t even fully air-conditioned. Yet this archaic institution continues to attract visitors by the droves. Neither incessant summer heat nor the monsoon floods have kept the throngs of visitors at bay. The point that I am trying to raise is quite simple – if museums want, they can hire struggling artists to design exhibits via old-school paper and pencil methods. At any stage, museums have the ability to not use digital tools; they’ve been doing so for a long time now and they’re quite good at it. Perhaps this suggestion could have been better phrased and thought out. I feel like the writers want to caution against the use of technology that shifts attention away from the content. We return to my initial criticism about the appropriate use of language.

On the whole, reading this post got me thinking about how I can use my training in DH to work in museums. I think that the self-imposed restriction that most grad students have is that we limit our career to the academy. By studying DH we can expand our horizon to work in other institutions like museums, archives, libraries, galleries, or even in industry.



I'm a first year English MA student interested in the digital humanities, critical and cultural theory, and postcolonial studies. Follow me @paramajmera

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