Both Sides of the Screen: Museums Seeking Balance in a Digital Age

Below is a reblog of my recent column on DMLcentral:

There’s a New Yorker cartoon, published this past March, that shows a mother and child in a museum, the child pointing a device towards a painting. “It’s an audio guide, sweetheart,” the mother explains, “not a remote.” The cartoonist is poking fun at the perceived expectations of today’s youth to use digital tools not just to augment but to interact or participate with the world around them. Depending on your perspective, the tools are either preventing the child from appreciating the museum or enhancing ways of learning the museum is failing to address (Incidentally, my 7-year-old son thought the cartoon was hilarious, as he interpreted it as actually being about the man in the background who “thought the guide was a phone”).

There’s an AT&T ad (below) that shows a woman walking through a museum yet fully connected to her Facebook community as everything around her is transformed into reflections of her digital life. A statue transforms into a girlfriend with her new haircut. “Us girls are going dancing tonight,” an older male guard says to her, mimicking a recent text message. “You in?” The ad, supporting this deep integration, of course wants us all to say, “Yes!” (it is a phone ad after all). But when I showed the ad to my father, who turns 82 this month, and asked him what it was about, he laughed with embarrassment and said he couldn’t make heads nor tails of it. To me the ad, on one hand, suggests digital media can create a personalized visit by filtering a museum experience from a hyper-personal angle. On the other hand, it also suggests digital media prevents people from experiencing a direct, unmediated connection with museum content.

The dichotomy between the two, however – the wired versus the unplugged, my son versus my father – is a false one. We all struggle to balance our attention between two sides of the screen. And finding that balance is something museums are currently struggling to achieve. Museums are “caught between contradictory demands for connectivity and contemplation,” says the the recent Future of Museums’ TrendsWatch 2013. The annual report identifies six significant trends in museums. Alongside chapters with names like “3-D Printing” and “When Stuff Talks Back” is “Disconnecting to Reconnect.” As an organization, the Center for the Future of Museums is as “wired” as they come, but even they can’t ignore the Musée d’Orsay banning all photography and what they described as a “backlash against digital immersion and in favor of quiet contemplation and face-to-face contact.”

One way to balance our attention, explored in a follow-up blog entry called “Museo-mindfulness,” is learning to focus our attention in a mindful way. “Perhaps it is time for museums to…become a cultural force for mindfulness, providing refuge in the melee rather than contributing to it.” A museum in Los Angeles offers mindfulness meditation sessions that begin in the classroom and lead into the galleries, and at least two other California museums are following suit. But digital media need not fall at one end of a mindfulness spectrum with connectedness at the other end. The best guide I’ve read to navigating the digital age – Howard Rheingold’s essential Net Smart: How to Thrive Online – tackles the topic head on in the first chapter. “Mindfulness is what connects your attention to skills of digital participation, collaboration,” and the other skills required to “thrive online,” Rheingold argues. And in the section, “Mindfulness in an Always On World,” he writes, “Mindfulness is the most important practice for anyone who is trying to swim through the infostream instead of being swept away by it.”

Rheingold’s third way is neither to romanticize digital affordances nor run in fear from their dark side. Rather, he recognizes that whether faced with either extreme, we, and not the tools, are in charge. The more museums can empower their visitors to control their attention, to be in charge of how the digital mediates their experience, the more museums can contribute towards helping us all find the balance we seek.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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3 Responses to Both Sides of the Screen: Museums Seeking Balance in a Digital Age

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful commentary, Barry. I think we risk singling out digital distractions as if they were fundamentally different from other diversions in kind rather than just scale. I find that visiting a museum with a friend from out of town either turns into a great chance to catch up, or a great museum visit, but rarely both. My one near-accident from diverted driving was caused by an animated argument with…the person sitting in the passenger seat. To some extent society has always regarded the newest form of cultural consumption with suspicion (Novels! Plays! Films! Shocking wastes of time.) I think the new challenge posed by digital is that a) we find it hard to turn off the devices and set them aside (the compulsion to be “always on”), and when they are on they have the capacity to connect us with huge numbers of people, not just the small group that may vie for our in-person attention.

    I agree with you that mindful attention is a skill that can be applied to digital as well as physical experiences: cultivating the capacity to Turn It Off. Intentionally narrowing the scope of who we are connected to, at this moment, out all the folks who we could reach. Some recent research suggests that digital distraction literally rewires our brains, and some folks are trying to figure out whether meditation and similar techniques can undo these neural changes. Stay tuned…

  2. Barry says:

    Elizabeth, Thank you for your thoughtful response. I think you raise some keys points – digital is just one of many distractions, and it falls into the category of a new form of cultural consumption that inevitably falls into the “cycle of outrage” that greets any disruptive media (the topic of my American Studies master thesis, btw).

    But I do wonder if the challenge posed is simply one of scale. Yes, scale itself CAN be something new, but even aside from that, digital tools provide new ways to relate to information, to the people in our lives (our social networks, the people around is, etc.) and the places we occupy. So thinking about digital media and museums for me, in part, means thinking about how designed and/or experienced museum interactions fit within that new way of living and being.

    Just as point of example, when I was a kid, the only light I’d see in the audience at a rock concert was someone holding a lighter (either swaying to a ballad or lighting something up); now, the audience is lit with the screens of those taking and posting photos and videos, Facebooking with their friends about the show, posting set-lists, etc. The moment I left a show last night I was able to go to Google, see photos from those around me, and dig into that set-list. The digital life and the concert experience have evolved together. Of course museums need to do the same – the question to me is what are the different directions that evolution might take.

  3. Stacey Tarpley says:

    This is something we are talking a lot about in relation to zoos and aquariums. Actually, you could just replace “museum” throughout your post with “zoo”! Some argue zoos are the quintessential ‘escape’ from the digital world and they should remain, while others believe we need to continue to engage our visitors in the way they want to be engaged. I think the key is understanding your goals and especially your brand, and creating experiences that FIT your institution. I also wonder if digital experiences can actually serve as guides to disconnect! I read about an adults only experience at an Australian zoo combining live, physical experiences with digital as a tour–and some of the experiences were as simple as the iphone guiding guests to special place in the zoo and directing them to close their eyes and listen, or sit down, relax and look at the night sky. Is it possible that we need to be told to do these things now? Maybe… So, maybe we should be capitalizing on that.

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