Virtual Eve and the Future of Museums

By Eric Dorfman

Tangible heritage. Outmoded? Credit: Magnus Manske.
Tangible heritage. Outmoded? Credit: Magnus Manske.

I read in the paper the other day that Unitec Associate Professor Hossein Sarrafzadeh has announced the development of an intelligent tutoring system that can adapt its response to the emotional state of the viewer by interaction through a computer system. She’s called Virtual Eve. And she can teach your eight-year-old math. With the new year just upon us, Virtual Eve seems like an appropriate launch pad for thinking about where museums are at and, perhaps, muse a little about where they might be going.

At the risk of presenting a hackneyed run-up to this topic, I’ll spend only a moment on what museums used to be – cabinets of curiosities of the 16th and 17th Century. These collections of objects, contained at first in wooden boxes were the myth-dispelling (or enhancing) proof of natural phenomena. They brought tangibility to the world’s intangible heritage: mermaids, unicorns and dragons had their place alongside coconuts, coral and giant emeralds.

At their most fundamental, modern museums still serve that function. The objects they show us ‘prove’ the existence of the stories we know about the world, as well as introducing us to new stories. In the days of the iPAD,  iPhone and social media (this blog post for instance), where we can see images of just about anything with a few presses on a touch screen, museums’ unique place remains the same as it was four centuries ago: to experience the real thing, in some instances, even to touch it.

It’s my relatively casual observation, however, that the trend in museums is to move squarely into the virtual sphere (at least aspirationally), with ever more increasingly complex an expensive computer technology. The “Horizon.Museum Project” was set up “to explore the potential of research that would have a focus on the applications of emerging technologies for museums, especially as it might be used for education and interpretation.” They listed a number of critical challenges for museums, and I’ve excerpted a few below.

Content production has failed to keep up with technology. Audiences expect to consume information whenever and wherever they want. Museums have been scurrying to repurpose information already created to try and meet demands. The challenge and the opportunity for museums is to stop for a moment and look at ways to meet the current demands for existing raw data and to look at research about the uses of media in multimodal learning in order to create real, valuable, interesting, and engaging content.

Creating a digital strategy is critical for institutions today. Museums need to think about creating digital strategies for long-term institutional sustainability. Creating digital learning is only one part of a comprehensive digital strategy, which should also include e-marketing, e-philanthropy, revenue generation, digitization, digital preservation, and issues with regard to general technology infrastructure. Digital learning has linkages to many of these other areas of museum operation.

Embracing change as a constant remains a challenge. Museums are, in general, conservative institutions and because of this, and a variety of other reasons, they often lag behind commercial entities and educational institutions in the adoption of new technologies. Money and staff resources are always cited as reasons for not participating, yet in general the reluctance has more to do with the fear of change. Adopting technologies may well enable museums to better accomplish their missions and serve their audiences but the community needs to become more flexible in its response to emerging trends.

My question, and one for which I confess I don’t have an answer, is whether museums are beginning to use new media for its own sake (or, at least to asked to do it and resisting, if the third point above is correct). How will institutions in our typically poorly resourced sector ever hope to compete with what the average 14 year old has available on his or her home computer? Once there’s a Virtual Eve for every student in the classroom, will it be worth museums redirecting their limited funds from curation and collection management to developing virtual content for interpretation on the floor? Additionally, with the speed of change of what’s available, even if those technologies are embraced one year, where will the funds be to keep up with the pace and provide a fresh experience?

More fundamentally, are we beginning to enter a period where objectless exhibitions are seen as acceptable for museums? While I agree that institutions should have a digital strategy, I wonder if part of that process is not to reaffirm our relationship to our tangible heritage.

1. Virtual Eve – a responsive avatar that can read your emotions. Credit: Massey University

Image Captions

1. Tangible heritage. Outmoded? Credit: Magnus Manske. 2. A cabinet of curiosities – physical proof of the unknown. Cabinet of Curiosities (1690s) by Domenico Remps, Oil on canvas, Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence.  3. Virtual Eve – a responsive avatar that can read your emotions. Credit: Massey University.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Eric
    In my humble opinion museums need to keep sight of what makes them unique as a medium of communication,i.e.:
    -real authentic & provenanced objects
    -a real live multidimensional, multisensory walk-through experience
    -a real live social experience based around content
    Any new media needs to enhance these attributes, rather than overtake them.
    It doesn\’t make sense to spend a disproportionate amount of an exhibition budget trying to compete with virtual reality by using virtual reality. Why would we come to a museum for a virtual reality experience when we can experience it from the comfort of our home computer?
    This doesn\’t mean that we can afford to ignore Web 2.0, for this will surely lose our audience to the lure of social media and interactivity. Instead we can take the capabilities of Web 2.0; personalized contribution, social interaction, use-centered design, user-generated content, information sharing, and apply these to our exhibitions at a fraction of the costs.
    At the moment we present exhibitions as a fait accompli in which the museum experts (curators, designers etc.) present a beautifully finished argument to a look-but-don\’t-participate audience. Why not see the opening of an exhibition as the start of a conversation between the museum experts and the audience? Why not make an exhibition that grows and changes as a result of this conversation? Why not make the whole multidimensional experience change, rather than just tacking on a section for visitor comment at the end? Perhaps this would engage a Web 2.0 audience without losing sight of the core role of museums, or blowing the budget.
    Juliet Cooke
    Intouch Design

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