Three Myths About Technology in Museum Experiences

Three Myths About Technology in Museum Experiences

Read Time: 7 minutes

When you mention “multimedia” to some museum professionals, certain narratives immediately come to mind about what that might be in a museum experience.

Assumptive narratives such as: multimedia is all screen-based, too much technology is in children’s museums, interactive exhibits break down often, technology becomes obsolete fast, and it’s expensive and difficult to keep the content fresh. These narratives come from museum professionals’ own experiences of interactive exhibits in their organizations, from what they hear from colleagues and what they read about in the industry press. While these assumptions are understandable, they are not necessarily true. Below are three myths about technology in the museums, along with ways to expand your thinking about them.


Myth #1 — Technology is all about screens!

For many applications—large-scale media walls, touch tables, kiosks with collection and narrative content—screens are a very effective interpretive tool. While “pictures-under-glass” touch screen is one of the most common interfaces for human-to-computer interaction, it is a pretty poor metaphor for the rich choreography of our varied sensory interactions.

Screen-based interactive media exhibits inhabit the floors of myriad museums throughout the world. In traditional exhibits, they display more in-depth content than is found on exhibition panels and labels, can be responsive to different learning styles and levels of interest and offer a rich visual and dynamic dimension to a collection or a topic.

However, screens are just one of a multitude of technologies that can be used for visitors’ museum experiences onsite and online. Along with virtual and augmented reality, there are haptic devices (that allow visitors to tangibly feel the experience), directional and ambient sounds directed by motion and image sensors—even interpretive options using air, heat, scents and vibrations. One such experience involves drawing the visitor’s blood and using biomedical technology in a radical new approach to a science museum experience—the “Blood Wars” exhibit at the Science Gallery Dublin.

To use their description, “Blood Wars is an interdisciplinary art and science experiment being conducted in different locations around the world by artist/researcher Kathy High. Blood Wars is also a tournament between different people’s white blood cells as they vie for dominance in a Petri dish. Using human blood samples drawn by professional phlebotomists, Blood Wars creates series of battles, where the cellular ‘winner’ of each match will go on to fight the next participant.”

Haptic interfaces are another great way to connect the physical experience to the virtual one. In a research project created by Disney Research (Pittsburgh, Penn.), a haptic interface allows people to slide their finger across a topographic map displayed on a touchscreen and feel the bumps and curves of hills and valleys, despite the screen's smooth surface. This is done with the aid of a novel algorithm created for tactile rendering of 3D features and textures.

Of the five senses—touch, sight, hearing, taste and smell—sight and touch are the most commonly used in interactive exhibits. “The Art of Scent” at the Museum of Art and Design (New York) breaks that mold, by being amongst the first museum exhibitions to focus on the olfactory. The Art of Scent examines the design of perfume as a significant creative practice and how the advent of new technology has led to unprecedented materials and processes.

In one of the galleries, visitors enter what seems to be an empty white space punctuated by a series of twelve indented alcoves. Visitors are invited to lean into the wall, where sensors trigger the release of a scented stream of air. Enhancing the experience, the organic wall surface pulses with sound and ghostly text projections.

Another promising interpretive approach would be hybrids, where two or more senses are engaged to create a unique experience. “Voice Array” is an art installation by artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer; this uses haptics combined with augmented reality. Lozano-Hemmer describes it: “As a participant speaks into an intercom, his or her voice is automatically translated into flashes of light and then the unique blinking pattern is stored as a loop in the first light of the array. Each new recording pushes all previous recordings one position down, and gradually one can hear the cumulative sound of the 288 previous recordings. The voice that was pushed out of the array can then be heard by itself.”

The “conversational interfaces” pushes boundaries and holds both great promise and challenge; this type of interface combines RFID tagging with artificial intelligence and machine learning. The first known installation of this kind was for the Museum of Tomorrow (Rio de Janeiro). The promise of machine learning and artificial intelligence is an unprecedented level of engagement with visitors by connecting them dynamically to the content and collections according to their learning style and type and level of interest. The challenge is how to handle privacy concerns. While controversial, if done right, this holds great potential for museums.  


Myth #2 — We can’t do it because….

All museums have a finite amount of resources, from staff and funding to technological capabilities—all framed by the organization’s business and educational goals. Most exhibits are developed over a three-to-five-year period and are created out of what museum staff believe is possible.

In an environment of rapidly changing audience needs and interests—the desire for multi-pronged ways of experiencing the world (corporeally, augmented and virtually) and through social media—to be remain relevant, museums need to rethink their strategies for how they employ technology in exhibits.

This could mean coming up with increasingly rapid, dynamic exhibit and educational design processes, making more dynamic connections between on-floor exhibits and online experiences, and busting assumptions about what’s possible. With these changing dynamics, it is no mystery: museums have to change.

Many museums, especially ones that are mid-size and smaller, rightly believe that there are media and technology experiences that they cannot afford to build and maintain by themselves. Thinking outside the box. or as we at Unified Field like to call it, “thinking without a box,” allows the consideration of building projects in partnership with not only other museums but also libraries, higher educational institutions and corporations that have aligned interests; finding ways to create dynamic content and negotiating ongoing maintenance and content contracts.


Myth #3 — We have a focus on STEM education and want to expand our audience

It is key to our nation’s success to educate more engineers, scientists, architects and mathematicians through STEM education. For many museums, science centers in particular, the focus is on STEM education. While important, this focus leaves out a sizable percentage of museum’s potential visitor growth and inclusivity.

According to the US Bureau of Labor, there were nearly 8.6 million STEM jobs in May 2015, representing 6.2 percent of U.S. employment. Expected to grow to over 24 percent in the next few years, STEM careers still represent only a relatively small percentage of the US workforce.

The question remains how does a museum or science center integrate some level of STEM education into its exhibits and programs for people who are either uninterested in science and math, or perhaps are even opposed to them? From our experience, we’ve found that getting people engaged in activity requires matching their level of interest and creating demographically appropriate emotional resonance. It then becomes easier to slip in STEM components, like the way magicians use misdirection to shift your focus, while the real trick happens in the other hand. This could take the form of interactive games or location-based interactives that engage visitors outside the museum’s walls, creating value-added content that visitors can use in their daily lives.



Research has shown that middle managers and focus groups are terrible at considering original ideas. Unless, of course, they have the opportunity to develop their own ideas first.

Getting the full benefit of the promise of technology for the museum experience means going beyond your assumptions of what technology can and cannot do, being open to original ideas, holding ideation sessions. And, it means looking for the right partners, who can develop and sustain exhibits and programs, dispel the myths about technology and open a whole new world of possibilities.



STEM Occupations: Past, Present, And Future - Bureau of Labor report



Creative Destruction Series: Introduction

Creative Destruction Series Part 01: Palpitations on the Slopes of Technology

Creative Destruction Series Part 02: Designing for Plurals, the Evolving Audience

Creative Destruction Series Part 03: Relocating Humanity

Creative Destruction Series Part 04: A Curious Stepchild of Inbound Marketing

Creative Destruction Series Part 05: Automated Design

Creative Destruction Series Part 06: Embracing Serendipity in the Digital Age

Creative Destruction Series Part 07: Three Versions of "US"

Creative Destruction Series Part 08: 12 Strategic Predictions for 2017

Creative Destruction Series Part 09: The Mythology of Online Searches

Creative Destruction Series Part 10: The Need for Data Literacy

Creative Destruction Series Part 11: SXSW At First Glance

Creative Destruction Series Part 12: Contemporary or Conservative? The 2017 Frieze New York Art Fair

Creative Destruction Series Part 13: Autonomous Cars in a Future of "Wayknowing"

Creative Destruction Series Part 14: Three Simple Stories About Power

About Eli Kuslanskyand Unified Field

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