Sacred or profane? Technology in your museum

By Sam Liebeskind

Visual art museums–Should they be a peaceful sanctuary to escape from the always-on, back-lit, digital world in which we all now work and play?  Places to appreciate the spiritual energy of something raw and “real”?

Or, should directors and curators be looking to integrate cutting edge technology into museum spaces- to make the experience somehow more educational and accessible, interactive and fun? And if so, how?

It’s an interesting question, and one we’ve kicked around internally and with a number of clients over the years.  It’s also one that big tech guys like Google (Art Project and Google goggles-> maybe Google Glasses in the future?) are rapidly trying to digest and influence. 

This month the Louvre followed in the experimental footsteps of the Brooklyn Museum, the Met, and a host of other world class institutions with their own future-looking answer.  As part of an ongoing partnership with Nintendo, the museum created a handheld console aimed at evolving the age-old “audio guide” into something more fit for our hyperdigital expectations.  If you haven’t seen it, you can check out pics and video here.

I find this incredibly exciting for a number of reasons. On the most basic level, it’s useful. The console simplifies the logistic challenges of a visit to the Louvre, allowing its operator to focus less on navigating the famous labyrinth and more on the art itself.  It also offers flexibility in the level of info each user consumes- a nice middle ground between basic didactics and the commitment of signing up for a tour. 

But maybe more importantly, it communicates that the Louvre is serious about designing an experience that’s not so far removed from people’s everyday lives.  It’s an attempt to shift the institution from a sacred place you visit once a year (or once a lifetime?) to a space for continued learning and relevance.  Hervé Barbaret, Managing Director of the Louvre says “the new audio guide is a valuable tool that will help make visiting the Louvre a more dynamic and rewarding experience, particularly for those that are not so familiar with a museum environment.” It’s a conscious move to get fit for the future and it will resonate with new, younger audiences.

Regardless of this program’s success, the Louvre has taken their shot at answering that fundamental “role of technology” question.  Considering the way they’ve answered it though, maybe the issue isn’t as black & white as I originally posed.  The challenge for cultural institutions might instead be more subtle: How do you integrate technology into the experience in a way that’s useful to those who want to take advantage of it, without distracting those who don’t?

Have you recently visited the Louvre and had a chance to test this thing out?  We’d love to hear your thoughts here or on Twitter.  And if not, feel free to weigh in on how technology is enhancing/destroying the experience of visiting your favorite museum. @wolffolins

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