For thousands of years, museums have existed as the sole repositories of certain kinds of knowledge and culture. However, in this era of technological innovation and change, the sum of nearly all human knowledge, history, and widespread information can be accessed on the internet. Despite the leaps made by the likes of Google Images, technological innovations do not have to consign museums to obsolescence.
New technology that makes art more widespread can raise fears that no one will want to go to physical museums anymore. But a great deal of the technology that raises these fears — such as technology that allows for the reliable, inexpensive replication of artworks — can also be integrated into museum exhibitions themselves to make those exhibitions more accessible and enhance the experience for all patrons.
For example, in 2015, the Montreal Musée des Beaux Arts exhibited a large collection of Auguste Rodin’s works and incorporated replicas of some of the collection’s sculptures into the exhibit. One of the most fascinating aspects of Rodin’s work is the odd proportions that he used when sculpting the human form, which somehow look natural when a work is considered as a whole. In the exhibition’s final room, the Musée provided sculpture replicas that patrons were allowed — even encouraged — to touch. This gave blind and low-vision patrons the opportunity to experience Rodin’s art. Additionally, all museum-goers had the opportunity to feel the proportions of the work and understand how strange they actually were, adding another dimension to their understanding of Rodin’s mastery of form.
Since replicas made from casts are already being used by museums in this way, integrating 3D-printed objects into museum exhibitions seems like a natural next step. In fact, organizations including the Art Institute of Chicago have already done this, printing works from the museum’s collection to make them accessible to blind and low-vision patrons.
Creating tactile experiences is not the only way that museums can integrate multi-sensory components into their exhibitions. Audio tours, which have become a modern-day staple of the museum experience, serve a variety of purposes. First, they allow patrons to experience the museum through sound, which enables blind and low-vision patrons to enjoy the galleries alongside sighted visitors. Audio tours also create an intrapersonal “choose your own adventure” narrative for every visitor who chooses to use one. Patrons can listen to the deeper analysis of every work of art that they come across, or save the audio tour’s enrichment for the works that most intrigue them. They can choose whether or not to follow the exhibition in the order that the audio tour suggests. Because the audio tours provide more information than could ever be included on the small cards typically presented beside each work of art in a museum, they can also help elucidate the curator’s intended message and bring out the thematic threads that the curator sees in the work.
From audio tours, which are already widely accepted, integrating other digital technology into museum exhibitions isn’t too far of a leap. Already museums are integrating touch screens, computer kiosks, and video devices into their exhibitions, all of which provide an engaging learning environment for patrons that transcends the “Do Not Touch the Art” museum cliché. For example, the Cleveland Museum of Art provides visitors with the opportunity to digitally delve into its collection with the ARTLENS Gallery, an innovatively interactive touch-screen experience. Oberlin’s own Allen Memorial Art Museum recently installed an in-gallery iPad preloaded with several videos, giving visitors a chance to explore various exhibitions and objects beyond the limited wall text.
If a museum’s central functions are to conserve, collect, exhibit, and educate, then museums should embrace the many roles that technology can play in their institutions. Rather than fearing the impact that tomorrow’s technology might have on the survival of museums as institutions, we must look both to the past and the present and recognize that technology has already transformed the museum experience for the better. Although museums may seem like static places full of frozen moments outside of time, the truth is that they are constantly evolving. It is time to wholeheartedly embrace what technology can do to improve museums’ accessibility and their ability to educate, and revel in experimenting with new curatorial philosophies centered around the places where art and technology can intersect.