Engagement, not gimmicks – thoughts on technology and museums

I recently came across an article on the Conversation by Matthew Bennett entitled “Augmented reality promises to rescue dying museums – so why don’t visitors want to use it?” After reading the article and reflecting on my own thoughts about technology and museums, I decided to write this blog post.

A little background – in addition to co-founding the MakerBus, I have a background in the heritage sector. In my career I’ve had the pleasure of working for museums, working in collaboration with museums, and working as a funder of museum programs.

Bennett’s article notes that while many museums are investing in creating digital experiences or augmented reality apps, museum visitors seem reluctant to engage with these experiences. Bennett, who helped to develop an augmented reality (AR) app called Palaeo Go!, offers several possible reasons why museum visitors might be reluctant to engage with these digital experiences, ranging from distrust of installing strange apps, to the difficulty of installing a new app when wrangling children, to wanting a guarantee of “fun” before investing time into an unproven experience.

Use Technology Like a Seasoning – Not as the Main Ingredient

I offer a different theory – technology is not inherently engaging, people want thoughtful, interesting, and meaningful experiences, not digital gimmickry. Engaging museum experiences use technology like seasoning to enhance an activity that is thoughtfully designed.

Let’s look at what Paelo Go! offers museum visitors.

 

Palaeo Go! allows museum-goers to use their tablets or smartphones to overlay 3D models of megafauna, ranging from dinosaurs to giant ice age animals, in real-world locations. The app appears to be modelled off of Pokémon Go, an AR app that has users hunting digital monsters in real-world environments.

Avoiding the “And Then What?” Trap

Other than the fleeting novelty of seeing 3D models of dinosaurs in real-world environments, Palaeo Go! fails to deliver an experience which engages the user. It falls into something I call the “And Then What?” Trap.

When designing an experience, whether it be for a museum, a classroom, or a team building exercise, ask yourself if the activity stands up to the “And Then What?” test. To apply the test, give the elevator pitch for your activity and then imagine a participant in the activity asking “and then what?” If you have a good answer, your activity passes the test. If you can’t come up with a good answer, you’ve fallen into the “And Then What?” Trap.

Let’s apply this test to Palaeo Go!:

According to Palaeo Go!’s website, the app’s purpose is to “[use] the camera feed from a phone and overlays it with information, in our case, it brings extinct megafauna to life!” And then what? In other words, once it brings the megafauna to life, what does it do next?

Palaeo Go! doesn’t offer a compelling answer to this question. It mentions that users can take selfies with the megafauna. Social media integration could be a way to make the app more engaging for users, but in a world of Snapchat filters, Animojis, and Facebook Messenger Augmented Reality, the novelty of AR selfies has worn off.

An experience based solely on the novelty of a technology ceases to be compelling once that technology is no longer novel. Instead of using technology like seasoning, Palaeo Go! is basically making a meal that uses salt as its main ingredient. While salt enhances the flavour of food – no one wants to eat straight salt.

The Myth That Technology Will “Rescue” Museums

I feel that Bennett’s articles raises some interesting points, but misses the big picture. It’s not that visitors aren’t interested in using technology in museums, it’s that the people who design the technology-enhanced experiences often fail to take the users’ needs into consideration.

People are engaged by engaging experiences. All the technology in the world won’t make a boring activity fun. Pointing your smartphone camera around a museum to see 3D models of dinosaurs isn’t compelling enough to make people want to download an app.

The title of Bennett’s article misses the mark on both points. First, museums aren’t in need of rescue. A recent survey found that Canadian museums have seen a 34% increase in museum visitors in the past two years. This suggests that museums aren’t a sector in need of rescue.

Second, technology isn’t something that’s capable of rescuing anything. Technology is a tool made by people. Technology works best when we remember that it’s something made for and by humans.

-Ryan Hunt

MakerBus Co-Founder

Check out some of our other articles that discuss augmented reality:

Free Apps That Are Great For Digital Literacy Projects

Affordable Maker Resources For Parents (Arabic Translation)

Affordable Maker Resources For Parents (English)

Ideas For a Makerspace in a Box

 

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