In Touch with Touchscreens


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.

4 thoughts on “In Touch with Touchscreens

  1. Storytelling should always be the point – not the flashy tech. However, playing devils advocate, I would say that there are still plenty of people (casual visitors) who do appreciate touchscreens. The reason so many people use them is their ease of use and the familiarity which makes them less of a barrier.

    • I completely agree. I’m not for a second suggesting we don’t use them, I still believe they are an unrivalled interpretive medium. I just feel they have lost a bit of their lustre these days and a touchscreen should not be the sole content of an exhibit anymore. As a supporting element, absolutely. Just not on their own.

  2. This is a very interesting comment on the ubiquitous touch screen. Personally I often find them frustrating due to poor lighting / reflections /over or under sensitivity or general malfunction. That said they do offer the ability to enhance the interpretive experience for those that want more than the good old label, which is probably most of us. I wonder if it is really necessary to be constantly embracing new technology, for the sake of doing so. The speed of technological change sadly means that few museums can hope to keep up let alone be ahead of this. Is it not more important to ensure the quality and variety of content of interpretive material rather than prioritise the delivery method?
    I certainly agree that the screens in the Glasgow Tower enhanced the experience, though I did wonder if different screens could have offered different content, adding a further level of interest to moving round the viewing platform (perhaps some comparing engineering or architectural features of the buildings so clearly in view).

    • I absolutely agree on the point that they enhance the interpretive experience. I think however that this should now be their preferred role. I think in the past touchscreens have been used in lieu of objects and this has worked because they were an object of interest themselves. They are so common now that I don’t think this is still the case. That being said, I don’t think it’s necessary to replace them with new technology in order to replicate this previous characteristic. Touchscreens for my money are still one the best interpretive technologies a museum has available, I would just like to see them compliment rather than feature as an exhibit.

      In regards to the Tower, my understanding is that the designers deliberately opted for a minimalist approach to the interpretation. The breathtaking views are rightly supposed to be the focus and there was a feeling that too much information would distract people from that. I agree with them that this can be a particular problem with all computer screens. Although I agree notes on different architectural styles would have been nice, especially with such great and contrasting views of the Gilbert Scott Building places like the Clyde Auditorium.

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