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The future of museums doesn’t have to be a choice between the physical and the digital

“The future of museums doesn’t have to be a choice between the physical and the digital. It’s ok to have a foot in both camps”

In her second article for MuseumNext, Catherine Devine explores why the use of digital technologies in a museum context has long divided opinion, and questions whether we need to think of digital adoption in binary terms.

As a Business Strategy Leader for Libraries and Museums in Microsoft’s Worldwide Education team, Catherine is all too familiar with the digital transformations adding genuine value to institutions around the world.

There’s a case to be made that the element of nuance is draining out of our culture in the social media age. In fact, there’s evidence in all types of media – both traditional and new – that the middle ground is being vacated as people seemingly align themselves irrevocably with one extreme or the other.

We see it in politics, of course, but it’s not hard to find in other areas, too. And I have to say that talking about “digital transformations” in a museum setting can often become one of these divisive issues.

Purists will say that the physical museum experience offers something that the digital cannot; while others have argued that it’s time museums moved with the times and overhauled the “stiff and stuffy” reputation in favour of exhibitions that can appeal to the modern generation.

It’s a theme I often find myself faced with in my role as Microsoft’s business strategy leader for libraries and museums. And the position I choose to take on this matter is that there’s enough room in our culture for both the traditional and the new; for creativity in all its formats and with scope for the public to engage in whichever way appeals to them.

Put it this way: I’m as big a fan of whiling away hours wandering the halls of an art gallery as anyone. Yet, I’m also a passionate advocate for finding new ways to engage audiences – particularly younger audiences – in innovative and interactive ways.

The key here is that we implement technology where it has discernable value – not where it leads us to prioritise the mode of delivery over the experience and the cultural merit itself. This is particularly relevant in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) experiences. In the work we are doing at Microsoft, our focus is always on using innovation to enhance or complement the experience rather than dominate the discussion.

Reimagining not undermining

One fantastic example of technology applied with real thought and care can be found at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. In Narwhal: Revealing an Arctic Legend, museum-goers are not only informed and educated about these enigmatic creatures, but through the use of HoloLens technology they are able to experience what life is like in the oceans under the ice through a mixed reality format with narration provided by none other than Meryl Streep.

This exciting application of technology delivers the Narwhal’s story in an entirely new way. And as Erin Henninger, executive director of Case Western Reserve’s Interactive Commons, explains, it makes the arctic environment “feel more accessible and less abstract”.

There are no shortage of examples of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) exhibitions that are now pushing the boundaries of artistic expression and finding new ways to educate. However, the challenge that faces curators is to ensure that digital solutions enhance rather than interfere with the museum experience.

Of course, the beauty of VR headsets and mixed reality experiences is that it can give patrons choice. The visitor experience does not need to be linear and those interacting with an exhibit can take or leave the various features of each multi-faceted experience.

Establishing “value” in digital transformations

Through our Enhanced Visitor Experience programme, we have identified four main opportunities for Digital Transformation:

  • Exhibition Development – seeking faster and more efficient ways to produce high-quality exhibitions
  • Connected experience – creating seamless, personalised interactions with physical and digital content, including wayfinding capabilities
  • Education and community – incorporating learning management systems to engage students and educators with personalised learning content
  • Beyond the walls – implementing modern technology platforms to help scale content for in-person visits and for those who will never visit a physical building.

In looking at these opportunities we always ask ourselves if we are providing more connected physical and digital experiences for patrons? If the answer is no, then the technology is failing to contribute and has no place in an exhibition.

Another question we always ask ourselves is whether a digital approach is delivering data and intelligence that offers institutions a valuable insight into their constituent base. The findings from these exercises can help to drive improvement in the delivery of an exhibition, but also shape the nature of a museum’s long-term direction. As I mentioned in my last article for MuseumNext, our focus at Microsoft is on enablement and empowerment of museums. There’s no doubt that offering insight into the behaviour and engagement of patrons is a powerful tool in this.

A digital window into the museum world

At Microsoft we talk about building a more accessible world – one where we can genuinely make a difference by enriching the lives of people with disabilities. Of course, this includes people with mobility issues who may find it logistically impossible to visit physical institutions but can nevertheless enjoy museum experiences delivered to their home in digital format.

While the role of digital technologies within the walls of a museum or gallery can be the subject of debate, I hope that we can all agree one thing as common ground: that providing a disabled or disadvantaged individual a digital window into an institution that they may never be able to visit is an undeniable benefit of the 21st century world we live in.

We are still very early on our journey of digital discovery in the museum sector. There is no doubt at all that fast-developing technologies and new innovations will present new opportunities and challenges in abundance. In my role at Microsoft, we are committed to helping create the most engaging and memorable experiences possible – no matter how dependent on digital technologies that may be.

Want to find out more about how Microsoft can help museums develop enhanced visitor experience programmes? Connect with Catherine Devine on LinkedIn here.

About the author – Catherine Devine

Catherine Devine is the recently appointed global Business Strategy Leader-Libraries and Museums at Microsoft. She was formerly Chief Digital Officer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organization in the world to achieve more.

With Microsoft’s focus on understanding and solving the specific needs of Museums,  Catherine is leading this effort at Microsoft.

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