Earlier this month, I participated in a conference call focusing on museums in the 21st century, during which one of my favorite, evergreen topics once again surfaced: technology. I say that sarcastically; let me explain why.
That museums are still even using the word "technology" to describe something separate or new is part of the underlying problem. Technology is no longer a separate thing, for any of us. Technology is the computer chip that controls the engine timing in your car; it's what cycles the cold air in any refrigerator or freezer made in the last 15 years; it's the thermometer they stick in your ear at the doctor's office; and (for better and for worse) it's what underlies every credit card purchase you make, whether with a magnetic strip, a "smart chip," or Apple Pay and a wave of your iPhone. Likewise for museums: technology runs your collections management systems, makes your conservation labs function, and controls staff access to your offices every time you or someone else swipes an ID badge over a scanner.
We in the museum field need to shift our mindset on these matters, and we need to embrace technology as thoroughly in our curatorial and education work as we do for many behind-the-scenes museum functions--and as we have in our daily lives. Technology needs to be holistically and seamlessly integrated within an institution, both in public spaces and behind the scenes. I do not doubt there are many who still shudder at the idea, but it is here. It is your reality.
More to the point, our institutions need to know that they have specific needs to which they must cater: those of the users--your visitors--all of whom use different tools constantly. Gartner, Inc, a leading information technology research and advisory company, recently listed their top tech trends for 2015. The result? That increasingly, it's "the overall environment that will need to adapt to the requirements of the user," not the other way around. "No doubt this will continue to raise significant management challenges and also require increased attention to user experience design."
The next generation of museum practitioners will have to think through these challenges carefully, drawing the links more closely between the physical and the virtual so that the museum reaches more people meaningfully. And indeed, some people already are: the very smart folks at the Museum Computer Network, which supports professionals who advance digital transformation in the cultural sector, met recently in Dallas. One participant, Margaret Sternbergh, who heads Digital Interpretation and Public Programs at The Phillips Collection, tweeted at us:
Yes @margienchargie, you are absolutely right! It is time to bridge the divide that exists between the museum director and those in the know.
In addition, it is time to collaborate and share the wealth of knowledge that already exists. Building on the success of last year's Next Practices in Art Museum Education, AAMD's Education and Community Issues Committee is compiling a follow-up edition featuring examples of the many innovative digital initiatives art museums are developing and implementing across North America, both those serving audiences directly and those that support the museum's core functions, such as collections management. As new technologies emerge and evolve, we want to establish a baseline of information about the range and variety of digital initiatives developed by our members, to demonstrate the ways in which art museums are becoming leaders in digital innovation and engagement.
Within the walls of the museum are the original works created and crafted by people, in which are found poignant stories of being human. Through the effective deployment of new digital tools, museum staff can bring these works to life, virtually and physically, helping to continue museums' role as dynamic centers of learning, creativity and enjoyment, strengthening communities and enriching people's lives.