We’re not there yet, but technological leaps are rapidly making possible remote access not only to images and texts about collections, but also to audio and video guides and even to conversations with museum professionals and fellow museum lovers through social media.
The consensus among experts is that the field is still in the R&D phase, testing strategies and new technologies to learn which approaches will best serve museums’ missions. But all agree that museums inexorably are moving into the brave new virtual world.
Here’s one example. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture won’t open until 2015, but the museum is working on an application that will let people look through their phone cameras at the future site on the Mall and see a ghostly image of the building as it will one day appear.
“We’re thinking of making imaginary exhibitions with images of works in the collection,” says Nancy Proctor, the Smithsonian’s head of mobile strategy and initiatives. “It will probably take us a year to pull this off, but I think it’s going to be very, very cool.”
The National Postal Museum may issue an app that enables users to point a smartphone at the new stamp commemorating Owney, the 19th-century mail train dog, and see a 3-D version come to life barking and dancing.
Only a few museums have the resources to develop bells and whistles, let alone cutting-edge “augmented reality.” The vast majority have Web sites offering only basic visitor information, exhibition synopses with a few images and perhaps collection highlights.
“The world of art has been relatively slow at embracing all things digital. I think it’s going to be an explosion in the next two years,” says Marc Sands, director of audiences and media at the Tate in London, which has one of the world’s most robust digital programs.
The Tate is launching a redesign of its Web site in November, introducing a new content management system that integrates social media so users can send out content immediately on Tumblr, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and other vehicles. Newspapers already do this, but it’s a big step for museums, Sand notes.
Yet, the road map to the digital future remains a work in progress.
“Museums are no more certain than other industries about the potentials and what the outcomes will be,” says Maxwell Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, an innovator in the field. “I see it as an experiment.”
Progress is hampered by the diversity of often mutually incompatible user devices, software platforms and interfaces. Museums are often thick-walled buildings with imperfect broadband and Internet access. And there are chronic shortages of time, money and staff. Moreover, living artists often restrict online reproduction of their works for fear of unauthorized and commercial replication. And no one knows what visitors need and want in terms of digital enhancements to the museum experience.