There is general agreement that the fundamental task for museums is to expand and enhance digital presentations of their collections. “Most of what museums have learned about collections is still in file drawers,” says Anderson, who notes that audience demand “is coercing curators, registrars and archivists to get that information out of the file cabinets. It’s making museums do the work they should have done for the last 100 years.”
And as museums add digitized images, texts, audio and video to their online databases, they also are connecting with audiences through social media and exploring mobile applications accessible on smartphones. In other words, there is a lot of chatter about chatter.
(Courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art) - The Indianapolis Museum of Art developed TAP, a new Web application that allows museum visitors to use their iPod Touch or iPhone for behind-the-scenes footage, audio expert interviews and musical selections.
“We seem to be shifting from the museum being the source of information to wanting to have input about visitors’ thoughts and observations,” says Elizabeth Merritt of the American Association of Museums’ Center for the Future of Museums.
The proliferation of social media such as Facebook and Twitter promotes personal engagement and live conversations. “I’d like to see projects that use technology to make museums better social places,” says Nina Simon, executive director of the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz, Calif.
Activity cards at her museum encourage visitors to select a sculpture, photograph it and send the image as a gift with a message about why they are bestowing it on the recipient. “It’s the museum experience as shareable,” Simon says.
Along the same lines, for an exhibit of photographic portraits of famous Latinos by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the Brooklyn Museum installed kiosks that record videos of visitors explaining what their heritage means to them, then uploads them directly to YouTube. An iPhone app enables them to do this outside the museum as well, says Shelley Bernstein, chief of technology. How such projects will alter the educational character of museums remains to be seen.
The in-gallery experience is likely to be profoundly transformed, though no one knows precisely how. Perhaps many visitors, especially younger ones, would love to be able to stand in front of a painting — say Bellini and Titian’s “Feast of the Gods” in the National Gallery — and have the image automatically appear on their smartphone screens with an overlay identifying each of the depicted figures. Perhaps they want to tap on menu items for in-depth information and to hear a curator via their earpods discuss the work and its creators.
This sort of experience is within grasp for museums. Some already come close, and for others it seems less a question of “if” so much as “when.”
The Smithsonian surveyed visitors to the Mall in summer 2010 and found that about 30 percent had phones that could run apps. And, according to the Pew Research Center, by 2015 more people will access the Internet via mobile devices than via computers. The American Association of Museums calculated in December that only 5 percent of museums had smartphone apps, but one out of three planned to introduce some mobile technology this year.