What are we really talking about when we discuss “the dangers” for museums now embracing technology? Arianna Huffington expressed some reservations on the subject of institutions working with tech yesterday at The Huffington Post saying “…museums deliver what has become increasingly rare in our world: the opportunity to disconnect from our hyper-connected lives, and the possibility of wonder.” she writes, adding, “the danger of social media becoming the point of social media — connection for connection’s sake, connection to no end — is one museum’s need to particularly guard against.”
Although Huffington never explicitly mentions it, the underlying belief behind her argument is that art is better understood when seen in person. If we’re all looking through our phones, is the value of our experience lessened? Since viewing in the gallery is usually different than what I see on the computer, there’s probably some credence to this thought though of course it should be applied on a case by case basis. I use my camera obsessively when I visit museums because I don’t have a very good memory, so while the act may disrupt my experience during the show, I write better reviews for it. My chief technology complaint is usually that I don’t use it enough.
Ultimately though Arianna’s concerns don’t have to be about technology at all. Imagine the same conversation, this time applied to wall labels, and we can start drawing a few parallels. People don’t look at the art, they read the wall label (technology distracts). The wall label is only intelligible to art professionals (only tech people can figure out how to use this app). The wall label tells me too much (technology makes us stupid). Huffington didn’t speak too much on the second point, but the other two feature prominently in her article.
The fundamental problem museums are grappling with isn’t whether they should use technology, but how to make people look harder, and be more curious. I’m not sure there is a cure-all solution, but trying new technology out doesn’t hurt. As Shelley Bernstein, the Chief of Technology at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, writes, “The curated content is already on the walls in the form of object installation, labels and didactics, in-gallery multimedia and gallery design. The power of the device means we can provide something else, something more unique.”