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Technology in Art Museums

Technology has revolutionized communication in virtually every aspect of daily life and, hence, has the potential to dramatically alter the nature and level of communication between museums and their visiting publics. In many cases, it already has. Not surprisingly, science museums and children’s museums have enthusiastically embraced the newest technologies, while art museums have been significantly slower to infuse their rarified atmospheres with high-tech gadgetry.

In all contexts, including museums, technology mediates relationships among people, objects, and ideas in truly remarkable ways, both positive and negative. (Nowadays, when you make a phone call, do you find yourself hoping to reach an answering machine rather than a real person so you can “leave a message” instead of having a conversation?) New technologies have opened up vast worlds of possibility for museums as we go about our business of transmitting and interpreting culture, creating at the same time new challenges concerning mission, medium, and message. Some of these challenges are philosophical in nature, while a surprising number of them are practical and logistical.

In this article I have chosen to focus on three areas of technology in art museums, institutions with which I am most familiar. I draw my observations from technology-infused art museum experiences in my own community, including the museum where I am employed, as well as from a recent trip to our nation’s capital during which I had additional opportunities to think about the integration of technology into the public areas of the five world class art museums I visited. A fortuitous bonus happened halfway into my trip: I was able to chat about technology in museums over lunch with Stephen Weil in the cafeteria of the Hirshhorn Museum where he was deputy director for a quarter of a century. Far from retired, Weil is currently employed as the Emeritus Senior Scholar at the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Museum Studies.

Audio Technology

In the realm of audio technology, recorded tours are the most prevalent example in art museums. Practical issues related to recorded tours include their origination costs (not insignificant for the top of the line); maintenance costs; public preference for different styles of devices (from wands to headsets); type and level of content; objects included/omitted; and narrator’s voice and style of delivery to name a few. Despite these challenges, Weil proclaimed that, “People love it. Curators hate it.” As an example of a wildly popular recorded tour, he referenced one developed by the Hirshhorn in which the director’s narration was interspersed with living artists’ recorded voices. According to Weil, it was a huge hit with the public. Expanding this approach, and addressing the issue of “expert as authority,” Weil proposed the development of a recorded tour that would allow the visitor to choose from a menu of narrators and corresponding perspectives. As he said, one could choose between “an art historian and Blondie. Why not?!” Why not, indeed? The issue of “what content” and “who says so” is as significant for recorded tours as it is for label copy. Yet, in most museums, the point of view from which both are written is too little debated.

While I have not been privileged to speak with many curators about recorded tours, I trust Weil’s pronouncement. In support of it, I distinctly remember a prominent curator from D.C. telling me several years ago that recorded tours spoil the “aesthetic experience.” While there is certainly something to that notion, I would counter that, even if recorded tours are capable of spoiling the aesthetic experience (and I am not sure that they necessarily are), there are many other valid and valuable kinds of experiences one may have with works of art. And, regardless, I have observed that, at the very least, recorded tours do tend to encourage visitors to look longer and more closely at works of art. And they frame the works within some kind of context that most viewers would not bring to the works. The issue of what context and whose perspective remains.

In support of Weil’s assessment of positive public sentiment, Catherine Jordan Wass, deputy director and registrar of The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, VA reports receiving from visitors only the most positive feedback on their new recorded tour. Recently, The Chrysler chose the Acousti-guide brand “wand” style device which resembles a lightweight telephone receiver. Visitors are able to randomly access 45-second recorded “bites” of information about 80 different works of art, each identified by a number on the label. Twelve of the stops. identified by a number and a star, were written especially for families. This allows families to take an abbreviated tour together. Too many recorded tours do not address the needs of family visitors. “Random access” means that there is no set sequence in which visitors must listen to the narration. Jordan Wass feels that visitors who use the recorded tours seem to feel more comfortable in the galleries, while also being able to “connect in a way that they haven’t in the past.” For herself, she finds it a fun way to explore the collection, commenting that even she frequently learns something new. In fact, she has started using recorded tours, when available, on visits to other institutions.

Stephen Weil also applauds random access recorded tours, calling them the closest thing to a personally guided tour that we can offer individual visitors. Still, as he points out, at least with current technology, we lose the interactivity that characterizes a good docent-led tour, though he speculates that audio tours we’ll soon have video components and the potential for greater interactivity.

Aside from recorded tours, I was most impressed with an audio program in which high school students were able to interview contemporary artist Eric Fischl by means of a pre-arranged telephone conference call. The call took place in the galleries of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Florida where Fischl’s work was exhibited. The exhibition curator also participated in this well-planned teleconference, which was incorporated into a tour. I believe that museums should find additional innovative and meaningful ways, such as this, to use technology to i complement the docent-led tour. Video programming, if thoughtfully implemented, can serve the purpose, but it can also provide challenges to docents.


My trip to D. C. revealed video to be the most prevalent technology in the gallery spaces of museums. (Currently, the museum where I work is screening a series of three videos in conjunction with an exhibition, as is a small art museum in a neighboring town.) The challenges of using video as interpretive programming seem as straightforward as the benefits until one realizes how often problems arise, even in highly regarded institutions.

Generally, curators choose to screen videos in spaces adjacent to the related exhibition. Logical, right? Yes, but not without potential conflict. As a docent, have you ever been conducting a tour in a gallery adjacent to a VCR? It can be very distracting to both docents and visitors — not to mention the people trying to watch the video — as the docent tries to raise his or her voice in competition with the recorded sound. The solution seems simple: turn the video off or lower the volume during group tours. This might be a reasonable option, especially in public museums with no admission fee. However, if a person has paid for entry, he or she may not be pleased to find the video turned off or the sound adjusted to a near inaudible level. When people pay for an experience, they generally want the whole experience or, at least, they want the option of the whole experience. The obvious solution is some kind of sound barrier between the video area and the gallery. But this solution is not as simple as it seems or sound carry-over would not be the frequent problem that it is. In lieu of a sound barrier, museums should perhaps consider a policy by which the receptionist warns visitors before they enter that videos will be turned off or the volume turned down while tour groups are in the vicinity.

In one of my favorite museums in Washington, videos accompanied two exhibitions. I generally think of videos as a bonus. However, in this case, there were significant problems. First, neither of the video areas provided seating, not even a hard bench. If you have ever been a tourist in a “walking” town such as D.C., New York, or many other urban areas, you know how fatigued you can become. For me, after a few hours of sight-seeing, standing on a stone floor in front of a video was less than appealing. Nonetheless, I stood for a couple of minutes, but only long enough to realize the second problem: sound carry-over. Standing in front of one VCR, I could hear the other a few yards away. The intruding sound from the second VCR was annoying and distracting, especially given the hard surfaces and resulting acoustics in this handsome old building. Needless to say, I chose not to stick around for very long. It is a shame, as these two problems have simple solutions: a few chairs or a bench in front of each VCR; and either an altered placement of the VCRs or an adjustment of the volume. Mostly, however, the solution he’s in the museum staff being attuned to the nuances of the visitor experience: customer service, as it is called in the retail world.

The issue of sound carry-over can be disconcerting, even when it is not necessarily distracting. A museum in our community recently exhibited a collection of photos on its first floor, while screening the accompanying video on the second level. The sound of the video was quite audible in the adjacent second-floor gallery, though it was unrelated to the paintings exhibited there. The experience was not so much unpleasant as it was incongruent, especially considering that there was a small gallery on the first floor, adjacent to the photo exhibition, that seemed perfect for video screening. Undoubtedly, the museum had its reasons for not switching the small exhibition in the downstairs gallery with the video in the upstairs gallery. Still, I found that the effect was not as powerful as it could have been.


In my community, as well as in the museums I visited in Washington, computers are simply not found in the exhibition areas of art museums, though visitors may have access to computers in library facilities within the museum. One could argue that whatever uses a visitor might have for a computer could just as easily be accomplished in a non-gallery space. Still, just as I found the immediacy of tables and chairs with reading materials very inviting in the galleries of the Denver Museum of Art a few years ago, I could imagine the same being true of computer terminals.

There is no question that, as an educational tool, computer technology offers phenomenal capabilities whose applications we have, as a society, only begun to explore and understand. Watching the kinetic enthusiasm of children in “high tech” science museums, one is led to believe that all we need do is “Build a computer, and they will come.” However, a great deal of planning, piloting, assessment, and revision must be included in the design of successful computer-based educational exhibitions, lest the interaction become a delighted frolic of kinesthetic experience to the exclusion of other learning goals. Watching students on a recent teacher-led tour at a science museum revealed children rushing around from one exhibition to the next, delighted to be pulling levers, punching buttons, and spinning dials. Used by the students in a more thoughtful and deliberate way, however, these same exhibition components could, quite literally, achieve learning objectives unattainable by any other means. Therefore, issues such as preparation, learning context (self-guided, guided, guided by whom), and age or maturity level of visitors become critical factors in the successful integration of computer technology.


If art museums have been slower to integrate technology into our exhibition designs, is it necessarily because we are being more thoughtful and strategic about the process? Perhaps. But it might also be for practical reasons, such as funding; aesthetic reasons, including avoiding visual competition with the artwork; or philosophical reasons such as a less emphatic commitment to the educational mission. (There are those who still see the art museum’s role as providing a pleasurable respite or treat for the eyes more than for education.) Could it even be that we are resisting the inevitable “intrusion” of science into our midst?

Despite the enduring schism between arts and sciences, technology is, at base, a “scientific method of achieving a practical purpose” {Webster’s 9th New Collegiate Dictionary). As art museums continue to struggle with the practical purpose of communicating with their publics in fulfillment of their evolving missions, new and emerging technologies will no doubt come to play as central a role as “old-fashioned” technologies such as light bulbs and air conditioning.

Betsy Gough-DiJulio is Director of Education for the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia, in Virginia Beach, VA. Ms. Gough-DiJulio, who is a regular contributor to The Docent Educator, received her M.A. in art History from Vanderbilt University and her Ed.S. in Curriculum Instruction from George Washington University.

Gough-DiJulio, Betsy. “Technology in Art Museums,” The Docent Educator 8.4 (Summer 1999): 14-16.

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