Our Emissary Visits Washington, D.C.

Although this was not my first visit to Washington, it was an awakening in terms of the breadth and depth of this city as a mecca for museum professionals. This time around, I attended the Society for Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD) Exhibition & Experience Design Workshop, where the people responsible for creating some of the best exhibitions in Washington gathered to discuss, among other issues, the integration of technology in exhibits. It was comforting to hear the concerns that are top of mind for the Bank of Canada Museum being voiced as universal concerns. Various aspects of interactive and immersive technologies were addressed by a moderated panel discussion and discussed throughout the workshop.

The panel discussion took a frank look at the global trend toward integrating advanced media into museums, along with the attendant realities of budget and maintenance. Some participants advised museums to include the time needed for the testing and evaluation of ongoing iterations in the project schedule. Without these things the project will either fail, or at the very least, fail to launch on time.

Several representatives of the Smithsonian Institution were asked about best practices and mitigating risks; in response the project manager from the National Museum of Natural History joked about never wanting to be on the leading edge of anything. When reviewing a proposal for a new interactive, she said she always asks where it is already working. She asks about real-life experiences, documented successes and actual budgets for building and maintenance. She says, “There is nothing worse than walking through a new exhibit and hearing a kid say ‘I’m not really interested in that, the graphics suck’. Takes the shine right off your day.”

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National Museum of American History

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International Spy Museum

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National Museum of American History

The room unanimously agreed that “you can never have as good a media as you can have in your hand,” one audience member recommending saving money on technology and using it to hire a volunteer coordinator to engage with people instead. Advocates of technology maintained that, in this day and age, a permanent exhibit needs changeability and flexibility of at least 50 per cent. “If you want your locals to come back - it’s about programming and changeability.”

Ultimately, I believe it is that very tension between the traditional authentic, object-driven experience and the modern media virtual-driven experience that can help museums achieve the best of both worlds. The thinking at the workshop reflected many of the discussions we’ve had as a team as we head into the planning of a new interactive and artifact-based museum of our own.