Tablet Computing in the Museum

Perhaps the most fascinating conference I have learned of since beginning my sojourn into education, technology and museums is that of MuseumNext, a three-day event combining workshops, presentations, user-centered sessions and networking with individuals focused on improving the digital footprint of museums (another strong one is Museums and the Web, but current employment obligations make my attendance unlikely for that, despite its relative proximity).  The first iteration was a workshop held by Nina Simon, formerly a museum consultant and currently director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.  Success was immediate, and in its fourth year the conference has grown into its current mode as a tour de force.

The blog for MuseumNext is a rich compendium of emerging theory mixed with a dash of quantitative study, looking at how modern technologies and what we call Web 2.0 both affect the patron as well as how the patron wishes them to be used in museum spaces.  Of special interest to me was an article about the emerging use of iPads in museum spaces.  The article is a good overview of the short history of museum apps, and the emerging voices in iPad/tablet development.  A few points of keen interest from the article:

  • Those museums developing apps are doing more unique things on tablets than on phones
  • Currently, there is no infrastructure to use the apps as a revenue generator
  • Interactivity needs to be interactive, not just flashy

The last one interests me the most right now.  Interaction is the buzzword of the year for me; how do we create authentic interactive experiences between patrons and artifacts?  This is the premise of activity theory, a theory of learning and knowledge interaction that can be traced to Vygotsky, but more recently is the brainchild of scholars and psychologists such as Leontiev, Nardi, Engstrom and Kaptelinin.  For them, every interaction between a subject and an object is different because of numerous variables:  the subject, the culture of the subject, the culture of the artifact’s setting, the culture of the artifact’s history, etc.  For example, most people see a chair and recognize it as a place to sit.  But does a chair have that meaning in a junkyard?  Does that chair have that meaning when there is a cookie jar on a top shelf and the chair looms near the counter?

My problem with interactive exhibits in museums is that they lack interaction.  Interactive is not a word that denotes authenticity, but instead a pre-determined sequence of events:  at the science center you press the button and x happens, every time, without fail.  We call that interaction…but the event is pre-determined, so the only interaction is the pressing of a button, which is not much better than flashy.

The goal of the next generation of tablet-based apps for museums should be to get authentic interaction between subject and objects.  Researchers have studied human computer interaction for 50 years; there is a great deal of information that suggests predetermined software is the least common denominator for interaction.  Authenticity needs to be as big a buzzword as interactivity.

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