Sunday, December 4, 2011

Technology in Service of the Audience

If you look around at discussions of technology in museums, you will often hear some variation on the concept that technology should be used only in the service of the content: that it should only be used if if will complement or further the message in some way.

As much as I agree with this concept, I would like to propose another concept that goes hand in hand: technology should be used in service of the audience. With an ever growing array of new technologies to choose from, not all technologies are right for every audience, and what is right for your audience today, may end up obsolete tomorrow. By keeping your audience in mind anytime you consider developing a new technology initiative, you are more likely to succeed in communicating your content.

Several years ago, I was asked to develop a new technology initiative for the museum I was then working at, a small local history museum. I proposed a cell phone-based audio tour, and after a bit of research, began a pilot program. I signed up for a free trial with a company that handled the technical end, wrote and recorded a couple of stops based on a handful of the museum's artifacts, and placed signage around the museum in time for a large anniversary event. The feedback from the staff and volunteers was good, but after the event, I checked the analytics, and discovered that not a single visitor had called in for any of the stops. 

Thinking back, I've asked myself many times why the cell phone tour failed to attract any attention from the visitors that weekend. My conclusion is that I failed to keep the audience in mind when I chose to develop a cell phone audio tour. Most of the visitors to this particular museum are local residents. The history of the town is their history. A better use of technology might have taken that into consideration, and offered visitors a chance to share their own stories instead of providing information that they may have already known. 

When developing programs using new technology, it is important to keep in mind that not every initiative can be a success, just as not every technology will appeal to every visitor. It is important to approach new initiatives with a sense of experimentation, a willingness to fail, and to deconstruct what worked, what didn't, and how it could be done better next time.


  1. I agree that not every program can be effective the first time, and it is an experiment to gauge the audience's interest and the program's usability. In the past few months I have noticed many different applications of technology in museums, including some touchsreens that were simply too complicated to be effective. One good use of technology I have seen and used is a free I-phone app from the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art. The app is for a special exhibit and gives the exhibit curator's point of view as well as videos of interviews with the artist. My only issue is that is a large download and the internet connection is not reliable so I could not download the app until I got home.

  2. You made such a great point about not telling the locals their own history. I often wonder about the museum I work in at home and what its realtionship is to locals. The issue there extends beyond thecnology, but you've got me thinking again about how museums connect to their local audiences. What do they want? Like you said, they probably don't want to be told things they already know. And what would be effective technology in a museum who's primary audience is tourists, but who wants to attract more locals? I'll be pondering this...

  3. That said, can technology serve to attract a new audience? Cell phone tours are maybe not the best example, but what if an online tour or game were able to create interest among a new population? That's maybe pie in the sky hopefulness, but I think that purposeful, innovative use of technology can create opportunities for people to get involved that maybe hadn't thought of themselves of "museum people" - like in the example of getting the community involved with a cell phone tour.