Museums, Technology, and Engagement

cleveland-museum-of-art
Collection Wall at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Gallery One. Photo credit: Local Projects

Last week in class, we discussed audience research, visitor study, and evaluation. These endeavors are essential in keeping the museum close to the pulse of their audience. While there are many ways in which museums collect and use this information on their visitors, the goal is to improve the experience for everyone. Museum staff tasked with this job of looking at the day-to-day operations and interactions between visitors and the collection must extract raw data, piece it together to understand something, and then develop a plan to create a more meaningful experience for future visitors. This is by no means an easy task and there aren’t really any shortcuts or cheap options. It is hard work.

Whether it is the marketing department trying to pitch the right exhibition to the perfect audience or the advancement department trying to generate accurate reports for grant applications or the curatorial staff brainstorming on what the next big project should be, the museum as a whole wants to not only meet the expectations of its visitors but surprise them by surpassing their preconceived ideas of what a museum visit might hold and pay out. Dr. John H. Falk outlined five types of museum-goers with distinct motivations for their visit:

  • The Explorer
  • The Facilitator
  • The Experience Seeker
  • The Professional / Hobbyist
  • The Recharger

Now you might identify yourself with one of these categories—or even more than one—but even if you don’t, I think that we can agree, for the sake of this blog post, that this is a pretty good list. Falk, with Lynn D. Dierking, also claims that these types of visitors are seeking meaningful experiences in the Personal, Sociocultural, or Physical aspect of their lives. With this framework for identifying visitor types and motivations for coming to the museum, the question becomes this: How do museums engage with and help to create meaningful experiences for its visitors?


A broad and simple answer to the question of how to build opportunities for enriching knowledge and memorable experiences in museums can be summed up in one word: Interactivity. No matter which type of visitor you are, you have a reason for going to a museum and expect to take something away. Embracing the idea of interactivity is an efficient way to increase learning, fun, and a sense of community. The Oxford English Dictionary Online defines interactive as:

1. Reciprocally active; acting upon or influencing each other;
2. Pertaining to or being a computer or other electronic device that allows a two-way flow of information between it and a user, responding immediately to the latter’s input.

Both of these definitions are important for museums considering interactive elements in the institution and exhibitions, especially in the digital age. Experience-based learning is a concept that many museums are employing to achieve meaningful experiences for their visitors. The basic cycle consists of the visitors preexisting mind full of memories and views of the physical world and how they interact with it. Within this cycle, perception and direct experiences play off of one another in order to create lasting meaning.

If we choose to look at both definitions of interactive separately, it would be easy to apply the first to the traditional museum and the second to the museum in the digital age. The key to both, though, is reciprocity or a two-way flow of information; The museum and its visitors should benefit each other simultaneously. When employing interactive technologies and/or elements into the museum, one should be aware of the line between Education and Entertainment—as well as when to blur that line.

Figuring out how to be playful in a museum is important. Visitors want to be entertained and/or educated. Basically, they want the most bang-for-their-buck in both scenarios. Some institutions are blending these two basic motivations for visiting the museum and attempting to create a sort of environment for “edutainment.” Hands-on exhibitions, dynamic and responsive technology, and letting go of their complete-image-control are a few ways in which museums are embracing this sentiment.

At the end of the day, museums are still the repositories for cultural history, but they don’t have to be exclusively for elegant formal wear events, horn-rimmed academics, or starving artists seeking inspiration. The fundamental key to not only surviving but thriving in the digital age is to engage your audience in novel ways without sacrificing any of the tried-and-true pillars of the museum experience.

Keep the paintings on the walls and the objects in their cases, but find ways to give visitors the opportunity to go beyond the walls of the museum with the devices in their pockets. Keep the guards in the galleries to ensure the safety of the collection and those who wish to experience it in person safe, but create spaces that encourage open discussion and chance encounters with like-minded folks. Keep the integrity of the work displayed the primary focus, but make it accessible to all visitors and encourage them to create memorable and meaningful experiences with it that can grow into new perspectives out in the world.

mark-klett-and-byron-wolfe-two-boys-with-striped-shirts-bright-angel-point-grand-canyon-2010
Matt Klett and Byron Wolfe, “Two Boys with Striped Shirts, Bright Angel Point, Grand Canyon” (2010)

Reading List 9/7/2016
Maria Roussou, “Learning by Doing and Learning Through Play: An Exploration of Interactivity in Virtual Environments for Children” in Museums in a Digital Age, edited by Ross Parry, 2010. pp. 247-265.
Ted Ansbacher, “Making Sense of Experience: A Model for Meaning-Making,” NAME Exhibitionist vol. 32, no. 1 Spring 2013.
Mike Murawski,The Moon Belongs to Everyone: Embracing a Digital Mindset in Museums” CODE | WORDS: Technology and Theory in the Museum on Oct 23, 2014.
Stacey Mann, Jennifer Moses, and Matthew Fisher. “Catching Our Breath: Assessing Digital Technologies for Meaningful Visitor Engagement” in Exhibitionist vol .32, no. 2, Fall 2013.
Anand Giridharahas, “Museums See Different Virtues in Virtual Worlds,” New York Times, Aug. 7, 2014.
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