On a number of museum visits recently, I have noticed that although they appear flashy and exciting, I have very little inclination to sit or stand at a self-contained touchscreen exhibit. They are often big, shiny, with moving images and video content, they are immediately eye catching, but they do nothing to spark my imagination.
There is no mystery in my mind as to why this is the case. It never used to be an issue; I have always been interested in trying out new and exciting forms of technology. But this is exactly the point; there is nothing new or exciting about touchscreens anymore. They are progressing to a point of omnipresence, with smartphones, tablets, TV’s and even ATM machines all utilizing the technology. A museum visit should be about experiencing extraordinary things, and touchscreens have become about as ordinary as a piece of technology can be.
This is not to say that using touchscreens is no longer worthwhile, it just means that they can no longer be considered as effective exhibits in and of themselves. While a touchscreen 10 years ago was regarded as an exciting object and a valuable experience, they are now retiring into a role of operating simply as an advanced form of interpretation. Their value in this role is undeniable, the quantity and variety of forms of information that they can display, in intuitive and exciting ways is unrivalled at this point in time. But they need to be accompanied now by something unusual. Be that an object or an interactive element that involves a task unusual to everyday life, something has to fill the “extraordinary” void that touchscreens have now stepped out of.
A fine example of this is at the Glasgow Science Centre’s recently re-opened Glasgow Tower. The Glasgow Tower is the world’s tallest freestanding, fully rotational tower, and it has a viewing deck at the top, a 105m high gallery that allows 360° panoramic views of the entire city. In this viewing gallery, the interpretation for the sights around you is contained within a series of iPad units, which display an interactive digital version of your view. You can then refer to these to zoom in on visible landmarks to find out what they are, and some information about them. These iPads are no different to the ones many people have at home, and the interpretation functions no differently to most map apps, but they are a valuable and rewarding interpretive method because they are an effective compliment to an extraordinary experience.
Extraordinary does not have to mean spectacular though. Obviously standing atop Scotland’s tallest tower, taking in views of the entire city of Glasgow falls into both of these categories. But extraordinary in this case only requires something to be different from the norm. It does not even have to be an interactive experience; it could be something as simple as an archaeological find, a statue or a painting. The National Museum of Scotland for example has several touchscreen interactives in its Connect gallery relating to the science and issues surrounding genetic cloning. The touchscreens themselves do not require any additional material to function as an exhibit, however the presence before them of the taxidermied remains of Dolly the Sheep, elevates an ordinary touchscreen experience, into an extraordinary experience. Dolly is arguably one of the worlds most famous cloning cases, so her presence (even indirectly) as a point of reference to the interpretive material, elevates the exhibit out of the ordinary.
The trouble though, is that museums have had it good for quite some time due to the implicit value attributed to touchscreens and getting to use them. It is only a recent development that has seen them become such a prevalent part of our daily lives. Prior to the advent of touchscreen phones and tablets, the act of using touchscreen technology, especially the intuitive forms we are used to now, was still an exciting experience in its own right. Many museums have had these installed at great expense over the past decade, however the unfortunate truth, for me at least, is that they now need to touch base, and find ways to reinvigorate these exhibits by adding another dimension to them. This does not have to be costly and dramatic, the example of Dolly the Sheep proves that it can be something simple, static and intangible. All it has to be is something different from the norm.
Museums now have to accept that not only are touchscreens now very much the norm, but they are fast becoming one of the most ordinary pieces of technology available to people. The time has come for institutions to get “in touch” with what makes an exciting, memorable experience, because for me, touchscreens on their own no longer, and will likely never again, provide this.