Does Digital Technology Belong in Children’s Museums?

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Does digital technology belong in children’s museum exhibits? This question draws enthusiastic responses…and more lukewarm ones. In “From Cautious to Pragmatic: Wrestling with the Issues,” a recent article in Hand to Hand, museum director and blog author Rebecca Shulman Herz and IT manager and operations director Ari Morris discuss their sometimes aligned, sometimes opposed approaches to using digital technologies with family audiences.

Their conversation arose out of an ACM survey to our members about digital technology practices. While some respondents were enthusiastic, others expressed concern over 1) the appropriate use of the right technology for the right reasons and 2) the cost and maintenance of hardware and software.

Rebecca begins by admitting her wariness of digital technology. She fears “that we are using this technology to solve the wrong problems, or jumping on a bandwagon without considering the long-term challenges. … Sometimes we end up creating something fun and interactive but fail to address the learning goal.”

Rebecca illustrates her point by recounting her young daughter’s experience at a jewelry and photography exhibit at New York’s Museum of Art and Design. Rebecca’s daughter loved the exhibit’s auto-selfie booth and spent most of her time there – though the booth contributed little to her understanding of the exhibit.

Ari enumerates a few other potential drawbacks. “Digital screens can isolate the visitor, robbing them of the inherently social experience of a children’s museum.” He adds that they can distract visitors from engaging more tangibly with the exhibits, and “encourage passive consumption of information rather than exploration and discovery.” In addition, modern technology can be expensive and quickly dated.

Despite these problems, however, Ari doesn’t believe technology warrants any unusual concern. “Digital technology is one tool among many that can be used to achieve an exhibit’s goals. Like all tools, when it’s used well it can enhance and enrich the visitor experience, but when used poorly it can get in the way.”

In theory, Rebecca agrees, but she remains skeptical that people can hold a neutral relationship with technology.Digital technology is still new enough to dazzle,” she says. “And screens are compelling, if not addictive, in ways that we do not yet entirely understand.”

Some museums are discovering best practices for integrating digital technology in a constructive way. For example, the Ann Arbor Hands on Museum (where Ari is assistant director of operations) has found that “it [is] much more fruitful to design exhibits about how technology works rather than exhibits about the technology itself.” As a result, the museum has focused on the science behind technology with exhibits on the binary system and electrical switches.

Rebecca suggests another best practice: adding infrastructure (such as staff facilitation) to support new technology. Ari agrees: “without the infrastructure in place to support [digital technology in musems], it’s doomed to fail. But when used well, technology can allow you to do things you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.”

Ultimately, each museum must come to its own conclusions about digital technology in its exhibits. As we do, conversations like this one help us weigh the risks and possibilities and decide how to serve our visitors well.

Where does your museum stand on this issue? How are you choosing to incorporate digital technology – or not? Have you identified your own guidelines or best practices?

To read the full article, and to read other articles in “The Uses of Digital Technology in Children’s Museums” issue of Hand to Hand, subscribe today! If you or your organization are already a member of ACM, you receive both digital and hard complimentary copies of Hand to Hand.

Susannah Brister is Office Manager at the Associations of Children’s Museums (ACM). Follow ACM on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.