Make it (public engagement in history) so!

Mr LaForge, Engage (the Public in History)!

I am all for interactivity in museums. I would (personally) argue that being able to engage with the subject matter is by far more interesting than simply reading about it. For example, let’s take a trip down memory lane, to the Canadian Museum of Nature circa 1998. There was a fossil-excavation exhibit where you could use some replica tools to search for dinosaur bones in a big pit of sand. There was an active beehive in the building where you could see the inner-workings of a hive and how the bees acted within. These two “exhibits” always fascinated me as a child because you could go beyond that initial cold textual interface of plaques and charts and actually get a feel for the stuff. Contrast this instance of the museum to today, what do we find? Grand skeletons and things that are visually stunning, but much of the interactivity has been lost. The dinosaurs, which are everyone’s favorite (right?), have been formalized in order to project that “world-class” feel that the new iteration of the museum is attempting to exude. The bees are gone, replaced by images and the occasional dead maquette. Where is the interactivity? Now mind you I understand that this anecdote focuses on something, perhaps, beyond the realm of public history but the problems are the same: how does an institution like a museum balance interactivity and engagement with the expression of information in such a way as to not detract from the exhibits in either peoples’ interest or their understanding?

*Enter AR stage left*

I think there is a lot of promise in the incorporation of augmented reality and museum exhibits. Let’s take the example of the ROM’s dinosaur exhibit as seen here. This idea is great. Imagine the fun younger people would have being able to see the dinosaurs move, being able to see what they look like with flesh! Heck, I want to go see this now and I’m apparently an adult! My only issue with this approach is the gimmicky nature of it. I imagine that the visual component is rather interesting the first time you see it but the use of AR here is not breaking any boundaries. Anyone who has seen Jurassic Park knows that you can show video of moving dinosaurs on a TV or projected screen, the use of tablet computers (I think) is more of a change in medium rather than some inspiring new approach to content. This being said I still think that many people would be drawn in by this fun new trick, but ultimately there is a need for something more profound and engaging, something that allows the public to get involved in the “public” history.

*Enter QRator stage right*

Here we go! This is engaging. Take the versatility of the tablet computer/super-phone and the fact that they are relatively widespread among museum patrons and what do you have? An opportunity to invite the public into each exhibit, allowing them to get involved in some way. Asking questions and making comments about exhibits may seem pretty mundane, and perhaps it reminds us of the folly of the ROM’s AR attempt in that commenting has been available for a while through other means (paper?). I would argue, alternatively, that this is not a matter of simply leaving comments, but of allowing patrons to experience each other’s opinions and thoughts selectively and in relative real-time. This may be a small start, but I think it is in the right direction.

The problem I am seeing here is that we seem to be hitting a wall in creativity. We are thinking of different ways to utilize this new technology, but these ideas are not new. For the most part they are more complex reiterations of old methods. TV or Tablet? Paper or Smartphone? Those creating and developing public exhibitions using new technology are perhaps bound by traditional ways of thinking, experiencing trepidation over what the public will and will not accept as innovative in historical expressions. We think interactive but not imaginative, interesting but not innovative. Ultimately it may be up to the up-and-coming historians and curators to think of engaging new ways of presenting history though new media. Who could be germinating the next big idea in our brainboxes? Probably not me, but maybe you!

– Alex

TLDR: Like using a Star Trek joke in your header, recent AR experiments are interesting but not innovative.



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