How Technology Is Helping Reshape the Museum Experience

Technology brings a more immersive experience that can engage visitors in a more profound way.
December 14, 2021
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When a journalist from the New York Times asked Phoebe Segal, curator of Greek and Roman art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, how technology could help her job, she was quick to answer. “Part of the job of a curator,” Dr. Segal said, “is to keep the material relevant, to make it clear to people why they should care.” Digital media is increasingly helping with that.

The work that the museum is doing with technology is a great example of how digital media can completely reshape the museum experience. Don’t be fooled, though: The goal is still to provide people with a window to the past through which people can appreciate how our ancestors lived. What technology brings to the table is a more immersive experience that engages visitors in a more profound way.

The best thing about it is that each individual museum has several possibilities as to how they use tech to reimagine their exhibits. From using augmented reality to relying on 3D computer modeling and sound design, museums from all over the world are updating their galleries to appeal to 21st-century audiences. Here are some of the most interesting examples.

New Experiences for a New World

When the pandemic first hit, most of the world went into quarantine, including museums. During those long months when they had to keep their doors closed, museums wondered what they could do to still engage with people eager to admire their exhibits. The answer seemed fairly obvious: Develop online offerings for people to enjoy without leaving their homes.

That’s how many museums built virtual tours of their installations. The Met, the Smithsonian, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Guggenheim, and many others provided people with the possibility to wander (albeit digitally) about their halls and admire the different works of art through interactive digital tours.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Museums knew that they had to build new experiences for a new world, which is why they grew their digital teams in order to do so.

The Met was probably the most adventurous, as the museum tried its hand at a number of different things. Its efforts included using augmented reality to “play” with real objects, developing MetKids, a hub for children to play and interact with objects and techniques of the past, and even venturing into gaming with a sharing tool through which gamers could incorporate Met artwork into Animal Crossing spaces.

As museums reopened, the number of visitors to these online offerings declined, but the interest in them still remained. While not precisely the same thing as actually being in a museum, these online works can provide an engaging and easy way for visitors to have a first approach to pieces that might be otherwise out of their reach.

Digitally Enhanced Museums

The tech possibilities for museums don’t end in what they can develop online. In fact, the most interesting opportunities lie in the museums themselves. By integrating diverse technologies into their physical exhibits, museums can enrich their visitor experience and provide a new way for people to appreciate the pieces in front of them.

As George Scharoun, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts manager of exhibition and gallery media puts it, “We would like to make the same connection in the museum when you’re faced with the original artwork as when you watch a period film.” A fantastic example of this is the sound installation that will accompany the 3D reconstruction of the 6th century Temple of Athena at Assos.

Through this “atmospheric piece,” visitors will be able to admire a large-scale projection of the temple while being immersed in the sounds of nature that once surrounded it. Thus, they won’t just be able to see how the temple looked, but also “feel” what it was like to be there, in the flesh.

3D sculpting is another technique helping curators bring a new perspective to museums. By using digital tools, artists and historians can work together to recreate objects that might have been destroyed or are missing a fragment. That way, visitors would only need a smartphone to leverage augmented reality and admire the pieces intact. What’s more, these 3D models can be accompanied by interesting data that elevates the whole experience.

Tech on Display

Aside from online alternatives and on-site digital enhancements, there’s something more that technology can do to completely change the museum experience: Become the exhibit itself. That’s what the Smithsonian is doing with its brand-new FUTURES exhibition, a massive exhibit spanning 32,000 square feet and 4 immersive zones.

The exhibit promises a combination of interactives, artworks, technologies, and ideas to show the multiple possible futures that await us. In it, there is an installation dubbed the Co-Lab that the Smithsonian presents as a first-of-its-kind collaborative design experience that allows visitors to create their own future city with the help of artificial intelligence.

In addition to the Co-Lab, there will be site-specific art installations, interactive exhibits, and artifacts of the future to complement the central premise. Thus, the Smithsonian bets strongly on tech to be an attraction in and of itself. Rather than using technology to enrich the traditional museum experience, technology is the centerpiece of the exhibit, inviting visitors to take a fresh new approach to the digital world that surrounds them.

The FUTURES exhibition is the result of a collaborative effort between the museum and Autodesk, the global leader in design and make technology. The company was instrumental in developing the interactive objects that appear throughout the different zones, which goes to show the importance of establishing partnerships between organizations and tech companies to take them to the next level.

An offer like the one from FUTURES is the ultimate example of how technology can completely reshape the museums as we know them. As the pandemic has shown, people are eager to interact with museums in new ways, and different technologies can make that happen in a myriad of ways.

Museums are already taking note and are adjusting their offerings to these desires, creating experiences that will help people understand why looking back at art and archaeological objects is so important. What’s more, tech can also connect those past pieces with future perspectives and help us understand and admire the time continuum that brought us here and is moving us forward.

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