Struggles of Digital History in the Museum Field

As Orville Burton and Dan Cohen note in their articles, the history field still has a ways to go in accepting and fully utilizing technology.  This struggle has become especially important within the museum field as well.  When I attended the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting in 2015, AR and VR technologies were everywhere in the exhibition hall.  Everything from scavenger hunt apps to google glasses leading an automated tour through a mini gallery.  The most impressive, though, was a Civil Rights Movement VR demonstration.  The patron would take a seat on a bus bench and don a VR headset and a massive pair of headphones.  When the VR program started, the seat began to rumble and you found yourself in Rosa Park’s shoes (well, seat actually).  You could look around at all of the passengers on the bus, but your attention would be demanded by the bus driver and eventual police office that would often be far too close in your face for comfort.  The entire experience was very impressive and very unsettling at the same time.  Overall, it would be an amazing experience for a museum to host.

And trust me, museums would love to host experiences like these.  But, as with most things, the problem is money.  When designing a new exhibit, the type of displays that a museum can even hope to design depend greatly on funding.  While the classic no-frills history exhibit can cost as little as $25-$120 per square foot, multimedia booths and interactive displays can send exhibit prices as high as $650-$1000 per square foot (and this, of course, is not including design/consultation fees that would be needed with most larger exhibitions).  And on top of that, the technology must be kept current, as patrons can become quite disgruntled when they pay for admission only to find ten-year-old technology that only halfway works in the galleries.  The relative lack of funding in the museum field prevents many museums from creating multimedia or interactive exhibits, thus blocking a large portion of museum professionals from learning to work with these resources.  We do, though, get some opportunities.

The Atlanta History Center’s new flagship exhibition, Gatheround: Stories of Atlanta, uses a number of pieces of technology to tell various narratives and explain extensive statistics. The most interesting problem we ran into, though, was on how to display a born-digital periodical.  This problem, which is one that many museums and archives are currently struggling with, was debated over the course of a couple meetings.  Should we print it out and display it like the other newspapers and magazines in this section?  Or, do we find a way to display it digitally?  Thankfully, we eventually found a digital photo frame that matched the aspect ratio of the periodical, so we were able to display it digitally in a way that was not overly awkward (such as on a TV or monitor screen) and maintained the original intent of its creators.  This solution was also not prohibitively expensive and is a solution that we could recommend to other museums.  It’s a small step forward, but when you don’t have many opportunities to work with digital resources it’s definitely worth something.  We are lucky at the History Center that we have a dedicated donor base that allows us to continue implementing new technology in our exhibits.  I hope that as prices fall on certain technologies, that even smaller museums will be able to work with it as well.

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