Digital Technologies and the Museum Experience: A Review
After reading Digital Technologies and the Museum Experience, I can say it was not what I was expecting. While I enjoyed the exploration of what digital technologies can offer for the museum experience, I expected to have a clearer set of recommendations or best practices at the end of this book. To be fair, I don’t think the authors, Loic Tallon and Kevin Walker, intended this book to provide those things. Instead, their exploration remains more general and conceptual. The advantage to this is that their work becomes less outdated. Not linked to specific technologies or moments, their examinations are still relevant today in 2014 despite being published in 2008. In the world of digital technologies where everything seems to become hopelessly outdated in just a year or two, this is an accomplishment.
Setting out to explore all that is “mobile, digital, and personal” Tallon and Walker begin with a brief history of handheld devices in museums, which is surprisingly long (xviii). I don’t think I would have ever guessed that the first implementation of handheld technology was as early as 1952 (xiii). The next three chapters define the context of handheld technologies with chapters on ‘The Exploded Museum’, visitor interaction, and designing mobile devices. The rest of the book is chapter-long case studies of handheld technologies in various settings. My favorite case study is from the Exploratorium in San Francisco and tracked the evolution of several handheld devices they tested over the years. Helpfully the chapter is punctuated by general insights directly linked to the examples discussed. These insights provide clear connections from the specific programs and goals of the Exploratorium to what the reader can learn from them.
One question Nina Simon pointed out in her review was that the authors did not address how few visitors use handheld technologies when visiting a museum. While the authors clearly have an enthusiasm for handheld technologies that is contagious – so much so that I did not think about these questions until after I finished reading- Simon raises a good point about the ubiquity of these devices. If they really do enhance the visitor experience and help the visitor connect to the exhibits, why aren’t they used more? As a newcomer to the field, an analysis of these logistical concerns would have been helpful and relevant.
Despite these questions, I enjoyed reading this book. By examining handheld technologies, their evolution, implementation, and possibilities, it certainly fills a need for the field. By drawing on the experiences of a wide range of museums with varying subject matters and formats, the book illustrates the wide array of possibilities that handheld technologies represent. If you are looking for recommendations to implement handheld devices in your own interpretation, this book is not for you. But if you are interested in a state-of-the-field report and the lessons-learned from different museums around the country, than this book is exactly what you need. Even after several years, the tensions between visitor agency and providing interpretation, designing compelling digital program, creating social learning experiences and individual technology, are all issues that are relevant today.