Currently an independent consultant for museums, Bruce Wyman was originally a marine biologist. While working at the New England Aquarium, he helped build the museum’s first website in 1995. From that point on, he continued to focus on integrating technology with museums at the aquarium and later with the MIT-connected startup NearLife, Second Story, the Denver Art Museum and multiple other institutions.
We spoke with Wyman about the role technology should play in a museum exhibition, how museum professionals should think about the web, and why museums should think of themselves as publishers.
Technology Is Not Always the Right Answer
In 1997, the New England Aquarium invested funds for a new interactive element for their fiddler crab exhibit. Fiddler crabs have one small claw and one very large claw, the latter of which they use to communicate with each other. Wyman and his team built a robotic prototype, controllable by visitors, that would wave at the other crabs. In contrast, another museum staffer found that by using a paper clip and a piece of paper, the same outcome could be obtained. One cost tens of thousands of dollars, the other about 10 cents.
The takeaway was that experience itself is what excited visitors, not the technology. The visitor experience has to be smooth, seamless and magical, in Wyman’s words. If it isn’t, don’t do it. In a blog post referenced in the interview below, Wyman wrote:
“Frankly, visitors frequently don’t care about the technology and I agree with them. Give them something rewarding, some meaty bit of fun and engagement and concentrate on designing what that experience could and should be. Once you get a good sense of that, the technology begins to fall into place and you stumble across new kinds of experiences that have the power to delight the visitor and probably more efficiently serve your original goals.”
Instead of chasing the newest and flashiest technology, museums should focus on what story the visitor remembers. In the example above, it would be “How fiddler crabs communicate.” Technology can offer many ways toward achieving that goal, but should by no means be considered a requirement.
Online Exhibitions Should Be Integrated From the Point of Inception
If a museum is working on an exhibit for their physical site, and then asks how it can be retrofitted from the web, then the visitor experience is already going to be lacking. Just as Wyman described the need for museums to collaborate from the beginning on implementing technology, the same should hold true for the web.
Institutions should look at the types of content they have, whether it is artwork, scientific insight or historic objects. With a content-first strategy, museums will focus primarily on what they do best, and then consider which segment of that content fits best with which platforms. Some stories are best told in the traditional exhibit presentation, others in on-site interactives, others on the web and even others on a tablet or smart phone app.
When the National Museum of Natural History opened up their new human evolution exhibit in 2010, they also built a Meanderthal app that gave visitors (virtual or in person) to take a photo and alter it to see what their face would look like as an early human. Here was an instance of excellent integration between content and medium.
At the Denver Art Museum, an exhibit on 1960s protest posters gave visitors their own space to create posters of their own using stencils and the like. Elsewhere in the exhibit, Wyman and his team retrofitted an old rotary pay phone to play YouTube videos of old ’60s songs, but with the added feature of allowing visitors to record their own messages on the phone. These videos were immediately uploaded to YouTube and became a part of the online exhibition.
Museums as Publishers
Publishing should be seen as a broad over-arching term in the new media environment. Museums “publish” content when they open a new exhibit or when they post their collections online; it is more than just pressing “pubish” on a museum blog. Online exhibitions are a version of publishing all on their own, where it can exist as “long tail” content and reach 10 times as many visitors as a brick-and-mortar exhibition can. As long as a museum has a high tolerance for publishing boatloads of new content, it should continue to do so as the data has long since borne out that the more museums share, the more visitors are encouraged to come to the physical space.
Museums Should Look to Startup Culture As a Guide for Using Technology
Wyman joined the staff of the Denver Art Museum in 2004 coming from the NearLife startup and found a lot of lessons from there that could be applied to museum culture. Startups try multiple small projects and take chances, but by assuming that every project would eventually be seen by the public, the quality remained high and the museum’s mission was always at the forefront. The other key takeaway was the importance of collaboration, that each branch of a museum staff have to understand each other’s goals and motivations.
Once everyone on staff shares the same goal of telling great stories to their audiences, then the methods of how to get there can be opened for discussion.
Listen to the interview
Listen to the streaming audio above or download the mp3 file.
Bruce’s story about the fiddler crab exhibit was a great example of how technology for technology’s sake does not matter, experiences do. I’ve been to a number of museums recently and have encountered several interactives not in working order. When this is found, it is hard not to feel cheated as a visitor, since it does not seem like you are getting the full experience. When designing interactive exhibits and programs, it makes sense to decide on what the experience will be first, and then decide what is needed to successfully create that experience.
I loved hearing Bruce’s excitement about his work! It is obvious that he loves what he does.
I found his comments about putting Museum Collections online really wonderful. I have hopes that we will see the myth that museum collections online dissuade visitors from physically visiting a museum be proven false.
His recommendation of looking at Second Story Interactive Studios was a great suggestion. As I paged through their portfolio of work, I was pleased to find many of my favorite museum interactives. Some of those that I love are: The Anglo-Saxon Hoard at the National Geographic Museum, the interactives at the Library of Congress, and the Earthlab interactives at the Koshland Science Center.
Lastly, I was thankful that Bruce shared his experience with gaining the trust of the curatorial staff at the Denver Museum of Art. It was great to hear a story of cross-departmental collaboration and understanding that can evolve from one person being considerate of another person’s work.
I thought you brought up an interesting point about technology and how it is not always necessary to include it in museum exhibitions in order to create a more meaningful experience for our visitors. It is so easy to get caught up in the latest technology and we can’t help but want to find a way to incorporate it in some manner. I think this is an important objective to keep in mind when designing exhibitions as we want our visitors to have “magical” experiences but it does not necessarily have to be the result of technology, as you have shown with the fiddler crab experiment.
You mentioned that when you started at the Denver Art Museum that you received some resistance coming from the older employees about using new media in the galleries. Unfortunately this still holds true today across many institutions. I know what it is like to be the only person in the room advocating for what you do, and as uncomfortable as it may be at first, it eventually pays off to stick by what you know best.
Thank you for sharing your advice on what students should be teaching themselves now in order to work in the field of designing new media and interactives for museums. I found what you said to be very valuable and hope to obtain several of these skills in the near future.
Thanks for sharing what it takes to create a “magical” museum visitor experience. Especially helpful is your recommendation to use a content-first strategy to determine the best way for a museum to tell a story. It is interesting to hear from a “technology person” that its use might not always be the answer, and that for some content, a traditional exhibition is a better choice. As you pointed out, matching the content with the best possible platform is the key.
You offer great advice for those students preparing to work in the fast-paced age of technology. A thirst for knowledge is indeed an important trait to possess for a successful future.
I loved the analogy Bruce made about thinking of using technology in the museum as if we were working for a start-up company. Bruce urged us to get out of our comfort zones and view Museum work as a risk-taking adventure with rich lessons in “failures”.
“Iterate, iterate, evaluate, evaluate and be ready to move on when something is not working!” is a message I heard.
Bruce’s talk about his work across departments at the Denver Art Museum prompted me to think how technology has facilitated staff collaboration across departments, almost of necessity, rather than choice. Will this collaboration and cross-pollination stand the test of time?
Thank you so much for taking the time to complete this interview. You can tell that you truly have a passion for what you do.
I loved that you said curiosity is the most important thing, especially as technology speeds up. Its important for us to maintain this curiosity and to keep digging for, and creating, bigger and better programs that can help museums reach their goals digitally.
I’m firmly in the camp that by offering digital collections and programming online that real life visitation should increase, not decrease, so the more quality a museum’s website can be the better!
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