Thursday, October 11, 2012

Can there be too much technology in museums?

Today I read an interesting article on about how videos, mobile apps and other technologies are a "waste of time" in artifact museums.  The authors described a recent visit to Discovery Times Square in Manhattan to see an exhibit called "Spy: The Secret World of Espionage."  Rather than having a titillating experience with cool, declassified CIA gadgets, the authors emerged feeling assaulted by too much technology.

They went on to cite the work of Dirk vom Lehn and Christian Heath, who found that museum visitors are often 'seduced' by technology, and sometimes wind up focusing on screened presentations rather than the actual artifacts on display.

I found this critical look on technology in museums both refreshing and timely, as the Association of Science-Technology Centers conference begins this week.  Although the article focuses on artifact museums it made me wonder, could there be such a thing as too much technology in our science museums, too?

Luckily, the Coalition for Science After School is headquartered at the Lawrence Hall of Science, so with this question in mind I went upstairs to take a look at one of our new exhibits.  Nano is a collection of experiences and exhibits created in part by the NISE (Nanoscale Informal Science Education) Network, and it was designed to expose people to the teeny, tiny world of nanotechnology.  I wondered how the exhibit would approach explaining things too small to see.  Would I be overwhelmed with a bank of scanning electron microscopes, or videos simulating zooming in closer and closer to an atom?

I was pleased to find that the exhibit, while it does include a video, is for the most part truly a hands-on experience.  Visitors manipulate and explore objects to observe and compare results.  The questions that arise during these experiences are further explored in the video.  I watched a young visitor and her grandmother explore ferrofluid with magnets for several minutes, delighted by the unexpected behavior of the tiny iron particles in water.  I can imagine that after having a hands-on experience with ferrofluid that watching a video about it would be much more meaningful!

My favorite part of Nano was another incredibly simple, low-tech piece:

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by too much technology in a science museum?

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