Mobilizing Through History
When we hear the phrase “New media” we usually think of recent technology like smartphones, or Twitter, or even just the internet at large. However, as the essay collection New Media, 1740-1915 argues, there has always been “new media” that changed how humans interacted with the world. The original “dumb” telephone is an obvious example, but there are also now obsolete ones like the physiognotrace and the zograscope that were considered transformative in their time. So while the modern new media revolution is more likely to have a lasting impact than those old-timey devices, it’s important to keep historical perspective in mind when discussing current digital media. (For more on the essay collection, see my classmate Joanna Capps’ review.)
Take for example mobile applications in museums. Though thoroughly robust mobile applications were uncommon prior to the rise of smartphones a decade ago, museums have long used hand-held technology to support its exhibits. Some examples are extremely low-tech, such as maps. But audio tour devices date back over 60 years. For example, check out this video clip of Dutch museum patrons going on an audio tour in 1952 (for a translation of the narration, see the first comment here).
The woman introducing that video is Nancy Proctor, former head of the Smithsonian Institute’s mobile division, who gave this talk at the 2009 MCN conference. Proctor used that clip to illustrate her main argument about mobile applications in museums: “It’s NOT about the technology, it’s about the content.” For example, the Dutch audio tour was obviously technology limited. Yet, everyone is doing the same thing at the same time only because the content is instructing them to do it that way, not because the audio must be played that way. If instead, as Proctor suggests, the audio tour had asked the patrons to choose a favorite painting then discuss its traits with the group at large, that might provide a more meaningful experience than passively listening to a description of the painting. Thus, Proctor believes museums should “think about content and experience design” first and foremost. Specifically, the content should be tied to the site’s mission, as well as the intended audience.
Of course, it’s still important to consider what the appropriate technology is in order to deliver the content. Designers need to understand what platforms visitors are comfortable using, especially in a museum setting. In fact, citing an earlier study, Proctor noted that museum patrons have become “trained” not to use modern technology while visiting exhibits, even if they use that technology all the time outside of museums.
To be fair, since this 2008 study, those bar graphs are probably much more even. Smartphone mobile applications truly have penetrated everyday life, becoming extremely ubiquitous. This has spilled over to museums as well. In fact, the Smithsonian alone has 30 mobile applications related to its various museums. Yet these apps all have content that serves a specific purpose, and certainly attracts diverse audiences and reactions. So Proctor’s vision that content should dictate mobile designs is now more important, as potential technological barriers have been diminished due to a proliferation of technology.
Put another way, think of your favorite application (museum or otherwise). Is the technological or design aspects what makes you appreciate and use it? Or is the content more important?