Do computers belong in museum galleries?
I got rather grumpy last week -- to discover a couple of newspaper headlines (and a string of outraged tweets) claiming that I would "ban all computers from 'patronising' museum galleries". To be fair, what followed in the article underneath (in the Telegraph at least) was not so inaccurate, but it gave the impression I had got on my soapbox and "pronounced" on the current state of museums.
In fact "this story" was actually based on an exchange in the question and answer session after I talk about why Classics is important at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. One person asked me what had got me into Classics in the first place and I told my story of going to the British Museum when I was five, and being gob-smacked by the Elgin Marbles -- and also blown away by the fact that when I couldn't see (as I was too little) a piece of ancient Egyptian carbonised cake in a rather old-fashioned case, someone (presumably a passing curator) stopped and opened the case and got the cake out for me.
(I'd love to know who it was, because it transmitted a powerful message: not only that the ancient world was interesting and that even bits of cake could survive for millennia -- but that people would go out of their way to help you discover it. Various friends have made suggestions as to his identity...but any firm info would be much appreciated, even though I guess whoever it was is long dead.)
Anyway a later question atthe Cheltenham lecture returned to museums to ask me what I thought about the way museums related to kids now. I remember that I enthused about the idea of sleepovers with the mummies and about cases at more convenient heights etc. But I did say that I thought some interactive displays were patronising and detracted and distracted from the object (awful memories of my own visits to the Natural History Museum with two kids who were keener on "pressing the buttons" than on actually looking at the stuff). I ended up with a jokey "I think I would just ban computers from museum galleries".
God knows how these exchanges got into the papers. But no sooner had they, than I was bombarded on the one side by people who praised me for speaking out against the tyranny of the machine -- and on the other lambasted as a luddite by a range of museum professionals who were no doubt doing their very best to use up to the minute technology for sharing information.
Blimey. All I'd done, I thought, was have a few exchanges at the end of a lecture. No wonder politicians are dead scared about ever venturing off script or off topic.
I do think it's a problem, but a rather bigger and more complicated one than I had a chance to say in the two minutes that I talked about this at Cheltenham.
It basically comes down to the threat of the technology competing with the objects themselves for the visitors' attention (or rather the computers becomingthe display -- Ok in a science museum perhaps). I vividly remember going to a small Pompeii exhibition in London some years back, near the start of museum interactive technology, and gloomily reflecting that there were queues of people by the computer stations, while the Pompeian material itself was taking a definite second place. It wasn't all that different from the button pushing enthisiasm of my own kids at the Natural History Museum, as they moved from machine to machine as if they were in a fairground arcade.
Now, computers aren't the only bits of museum technology that can have this effect (we've all seen the people who wander round the galleries giving more attention to the labels than the objects). And it may be (though I am not so sure) that people are now so used to interactive electronic devices that they aren't quite such a honeypot when put next to some ancient vessel that doesn't give such instant sensory gratification. But all the same, I still think that computers in museums work best when they are physically separated from what's really on display, available as a resource but not in the same room (that's what I meant by banning from "galleries").
My ideal is the Bayeux Tapestry display in Bayeux (or at least my memory of a visit some years ago -- I dread to think it might have changed). There you went first into a gallery with a repro of the tapestry and all kinds of information in all sorts of forms. You could stay there as long as you liked, getting the hang of it before going through to see the Tapestry itself -- just displayed "in the nude" as it were, no labels, no nothing.That seemed to me to be a nice way (though I agree it took a lot of space) of combining uncluttered eyeball-to-eyeball experience of the object with all the background information you could need. Because, for what it's worth, I'm equally resistant to the idea of "letting the objects speak for themselves" -- which usually means "letting the objects speak to those who know about them already".
In a way, of course, I'm being very old fashioned in talking about "computers" or "interactive displays" in museums, as if they were large, immobile screens and push buttons. What about the whole variety of apps and hand-held devices that can go round a gallery with the visitor, offering information as wanted?
Well I'd be hypocritical to decry such things, as I've had a part in actually making some. And I'm sure they enrich the museum experience for children and adults. That said, they are no substitute for real people (like my cake man). In fact, when we prised our own kids away from the screens at the Natural History Museum to much disgruntlement, they eventually found something there that they liked even better: it was a couple of young curators or volunteers, sitting in the middle of a gallery with a trolley full of real animal bones that you could touch and explore, be quizzed about and learn some hands on science.
It worked like a dream. And in the end it's what (I think!) the kids still remember about the museum. And not patronizing at all.
Or to put it another way, why come to a museum to push buttons you could push at home?