Friday, April 30, 2010

please don't blame the screens

So I'm late to this discussion- seven months to be exact. But I just had the pleasure of reading Paul Orselli's blog post in which he asked: "Are Screens Killing Museums?" On his own blog, Jim Spadaccini answered the question with: "'Screens' aren't Killing Museums". If you haven't read these posts, here are the Cliffs Notes: Paul had offered a 10-point "Screed Against Screens" and Jim responded with a point-by-point rebuttal. Paul argued that screens encourage cheesy, lazy design that antisocially sucks visitors in and the resultant experiences are inevitably disappointing. Jim countered that screens can offer more dynamic signage, track user data, and extend the visitor experience beyond the museum through the web and mobile devices.

I think Paul and Jim are both right in their premises and that's because they're not talking about the same thing. Paul talks about screens as they usually are: uninspiring experiences, usually dull and predictable and oftentimes broken. And Jim talks about screens as they could be: dynamic, engaging ways to show information, gather data, and link an exhibit to the web.

I agree that screens in exhibits often look unfortunate and screens have a lot more potential than what we see in most museums. However, I disagree that either premise supports there being more or fewer screens in museum exhibits. It's not whether we use a screen or not, it's how we use the screen.

We've all seen unfortunate museum screens like the ones Paul describes. Staring back at us with blank looks, unresponsive to our button-pressing or touch-screen prodding. Offering experiences that could be achieved with a printed interpretation panel that would have been easier for the whole family to read simultaneously. Looping video with irritating sound tracks, starring over-the-top amateur actors. You know the screens I'm talking about. To interact with one of those screens can feel like being cheated or it can even be sad or embarrassing. But it's not the screen's fault for being such an unfortunate part of the exhibit. Don't blame the screen.

Screens need to be considered alongside the wide variety of other interpretive methods available to us and implemented not because the screen itself would enhance the exhibit, but because the content begs a screen.

Screens have the potential to be the dynamic, engaging experiences Jim describes. And it's every once in a while that I'm reminded of this potential when I see a screen being used in a really smart way. Since you may have never seen a well-used screen in a museum exhibit, I'll give an example. It's from the Natural History Museum of LA County's Visible Vault, an exhibit showcasing the museum's collections of ancient Latin American art where visitors can get closer looks at particular objects from the collection, choosing from photographs presented on a (multi?) touch-screen. The screen is large enough to accommodate several viewers at a time and its black background and muted colors don't visually intrude on the quiet, reverent atmosphere of the darkened exhibition room. The experience of scrolling through objects and choosing a few to study more in-depth fits right in with the experience of exploring the dramatically-lit vault of items that appear to be in storage. This screen is effective for two reasons: it complements the rest of the exhibit experience and it offers a unique way of viewing the objects not possible with printed labels.

This idea of the "appropriate" use of technology was the focus of one of the best sessions I attended at the CAM conference in March. It was Technology: Blinded by the Light, hosted by Jonathan Katz, Kristina White, and Nina Simon. Something that was said there really applies here: "Just because I have a hammer doesn't mean I'm a carpenter." And while the hammer is a great choice for pounding nails, the saw is a better option for cutting a piece of wood. The screen is a tool and just like any other tool, it doesn't do the job by itself and it has its strengths and weakness. The key is to recognize those strengths and weakness (and our own strengths and weaknesses) and implement screens accordingly.

We don't blame hammers for our lack of carpentry skills, let's not blame screens for bad exhibit experiences.

If you haven't already, please go read the posts by Paul and Jim on their respective blogs.