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Digi-museums


by Jerome Weeks 12 Mar 2008

When I stayed in Barcelona a few years ago, I was surprised to see how much more sophisticated (and theatrical) even smaller museums were than their American counterparts — in the use of video, reconstructed scenes, the stylish displays of artifacts, even just their layouts. Hurrah, American museums are slowly changing, says the Mercury News . […]

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When I stayed in Barcelona a few years ago, I was surprised to see how much more sophisticated (and theatrical) even smaller museums were than their American counterparts — in the use of video, reconstructed scenes, the stylish displays of artifacts, even just their layouts. Hurrah, American museums are slowly changing, says the Mercury News .

But it mostly seems to be about keeping up with the podcasting/webcasting young:

Some of the first museums to change how they present exhibits have been in the Bay Area, where gadgets and gadget-heads have lived happily for many years. That kind of environment is proving to be a grand field for the successful introduction of the tech-enabled, extra-dimensional museum experience. Years ago, the Exploratorium in San Francisco and the Tech Museum in San Jose were built on that principle.

The San Jose Museum of Art has begun to win awards for its podcasts and is working with a group that includes the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to track the effect on visitor traffic.

  

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  • I’m glad to see that American museums are making these changes! I too have been impressed with the modern touches of Europe’s smaller museums, particularly the Terror Háza, or House of Terror Museum, in Budapest. The use of multimedia – including creative lighting, video, and ominous audio – really brought home the horror of the atrocities commited under the Arrow Cross Party, Nazis, and Soviet-led Political Police in that building. The museum had an unconventional layout that added atmosphere to the tour, including a deliberately slow-moving elevator which takes you to the prison cells in the basement while showing videos of the prisoners. While the subject matter is so incredibly heartbreaking, the Terror Háza is perhaps my favorite museum – simply because the exhibits were so engaging and sobering. A more traditional museum would not have had the same impact.

  • What impressed me most was a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the publication of “Don Quixote.” Barcelona is the only “real” city named in the entire book — because it was the center of Spanish publishing and Don Quixote shows up in town in Part 2 to complain about how he’d been portrayed in Part 1.

    It was a little city museum, and I’d expected a display of first editions, maybe a manuscript letter or a period painting, that’s all. Instead, there was a large-scale, sculptured map of the medieval city, with Don Q’s path picked out in lights. And as you walked through the rest of the exhibition, scenes that he recorded were recreated — while crossing the “town market,” for instance, you could smell cinamon, spices and fruit in the air. The editions that were on display were dramatically lit, with illustrations blown up in overhead projections for clearer viewing and everything translated into English, French, German and Japanese.

    At another museum at what had been a Roman resort up the coast and was still a working archaelogical dig, the video recreation of what the town had been like included saltwater spray (the sea air), the smell of smoke (cooking fires) and so on, with elaborate 3-d graphic overlays of the town map and individual structures, like something out of a History Channel production.

    All of this (especially in America, I fear) could easily descend into fun-fair, theme-park trivialization. But both of these exhibitions were serious historical affairs — artifacts and documents on display with lengthy analysis and discussion. The Cervantes exhibition, for instance, gave me an entirely different way to view his masterpiece — as a story rooted in very real, very local concerns. I have encountered such information in, say, the introduction to Edith Grossman’s new translation, but it’s another thing entirely to see it “live,” as it were, see it “on location.”

    As I implied in my post, however, what I fear is that American museums will mostly just update their audio tours with some podcasting or add a little video presentation. Most local, sizable museums in Dallas-Fort Worth don’t even have decent blogs on their websites. It was plain that European museums conceive the entire layout of their exhibitions as “interactive.” The entire experience, when thought-through and planned accordingly, can be instructive and illuminating.

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