The issue of how effectively to present information digitally – what Wyman et al. call “digital storytelling” – turns out to be surprisingly complex. Wyman et al. highlight a number of questions we should ask ourselves, but there are two things I’d like specifically to focus on.
The first relates to their idea that “technology is a last resort” (466). They explain: “Rather than saying ‘Let’s create an iPhone app for kids to explore art,’ ask the question, ‘What is the best way to show the artwork […]?’ The answer may be the same, but when we ask the core question, we often find simpler (and possibly better) solutions” (465). This is the danger when we are presented with new and exciting technologies – especially ones that are tied to specific commercial products which have lots of marketing money behind them – that we first feel obligated to use a particular technology and then try to figure out ways to use it. (We see this in education, too: “We needed more technology in the classroom, so we bought some iPads. Now figure out how to use them in your lessons.”) Wyman et al. emphasize that this may lead us to solutions that are not optimally cost effective, noting that a printed display panel may be just as effective as a rather more expensive digital display for a given purpose.
There is another issue, though: platform dependence. A massive amount of content has been developed for obsolete platforms using proprietary technologies. Somewhere I have a really awesome interactive atlas from the ’90s that I never got to play with because it only ran on Windows 9x but we used NT4 at work in those days. The likelihood I could ever get it to run on a modern Windows system – much less any other platform – is minimal. Things are even worse when institutions pour resources into developing iOS apps (i.e., apps for iPhones and iPads) which Apple might break at any time via an OS update. Unless you have the budget to hire a developer to rewrite the app every time Apple tweaks iOS in yet another undocumented way that breaks your app, you’re basically committing to something that will only be useful for a year or two – and even if you do have that developer, by using proprietary technology like iPads you’re still committing to something that will almost certainly be entirely useless in a decade, much less two. (Imagine what you would do today with an interactive exhibit on an 8-bit Nintendo cartridge, for example.)
On the other hand, another question that Wyman et al. only hint at is whether or not a digital exhibit is useful to display on-site in the museum. I have seen exhibits which, in the interest of being “interactive” (or of being cutting-edge in the use of “technology”) provided nothing that I couldn’t get at home on my couch. That is, why go to a museum to fiddle with an interactive “exhibit” on a kiosk when I could interact with it on my laptop if you just put it on line? Or, why go to a museum to watch a video instead of watching it on line? (Heck, most of your visitors probably have nicer AV setups at home than your director will allow you to buy for the exhibit anyway.) I would suggest that what we go to the museum for is the blue whale that they refer to in the introduction. A Web site can never convey to me the size of a blue whale the way standing next to a full-size model of one can. If we’re using digital media in the museum itself, we should be asking ourselves what this does that a Web site or a YouTube video doesn’t – how can we give the blue-whale experience?