Embracing The Digital

Engagement of the visitor is all-important for any museum and in this age of instant gratification and the information super highways, how can cultural institutions compete? Perhaps one answer to this question is to embrace and enable the use of these technologies within cultural institutions.  The introduction of these new technologies is a challenge to the linear approach of many museums and is an encouragement for the idea of free choice learning within the museum environment.  One great example of this is the use of ‘TheO’ or the ‘O-Device’ in use at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), and it could be said that MONA, despite  (or perhaps because of) the clever use of technology has gone “back to the future” in their thinking.  MONA is a museum without labels, it is a modern echo of the very earliest beginnings of Museums, the cabinets of curiosities, a wunderkammer if you will (Timms, 2011).  Technology at MONA has replaced the text panel, fostered the free choice exploration of the environs, there is no linear path around the vast underground expanse of the museum.

What then does this mean for the more ‘traditional’ style of museum that we see in many cities around the world?

Tablet technologies are fostering learning and communication within the museum environment and just like their evolutionary predecessors, they are responsive to the touch of their user.  Using tablets in the museum environment can help to deepen and enrich the experience of the museum visitor.  This allows the delivery of extra content for those who seek it, to understand more about a particular object and deepen their experience with and relationship to it. However, is this engaging or distracting, is this a help or hindrance to the visitor in the museum?  Certainly you cannot please all people at once, nor displease them at the same time; however as newer generations come to discover museums, these are kids who have not known the absence of the internet, smartphones, WiFi, Bluetooth and NFC to name but a few.  The challenge for the museum is to keep this generation interested and engaged within the museum environment and by harnessing these aspects that the ‘digital natives’ hold dear may just provide the key (Bayne, 2007).

However, the counter argument is not without merit, there are valid concerns that have been raised that the technology would distract the visitor from the main reason of the visitor to attend the museum or gallery in the first place.  It has been hypothesized that if these technologies become prevalent the visitor would spend more time looking at the screen than they do the exhibits (Lanir et al., 2013).  Then there are ethical considerations as well, concerns around data collection and this too is a challenge for museums to embrace, however they must be careful not to create a Panopticon effect (Foucault, 1984, Witchey, 2007).

Despite this, a cleverly designed system can be engaging and a success within the museum; not distracting but another tool in the museum’s arsenal.  There are success stories, such as MONA (discussed above) amongst others that show us that the future for tablets (and other technologies) is bright. Technology should not be seen as a hindrance to any museum, it is a helper and friend to allow them to engage and interact with a new generation of the museum going public.  Capture their hearts and imaginations and provide another avenue to help create that innate sense of wonder inherent in the museum experience that we all strive to provide and achieve both as professionals and as museum visitors ourselves.


Jonathon Cant. 


BAYNE, S. R., JEN. 2007. The ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’: a dangerous opposition. Society for Research into Higher Education (SHRE). Edinburgh.

FOUCAULT, M. 1984. Discipline & Punish. In: RABINOW, P. (ed.) The Foucault Reader. London: Penguin Books.

LANIR, J., KUFLIK, T., DIM, E., WECKER, A. J. & STOCK, O. 2013. The Influence of a Location-Aware Mobile Guide on Museum Visitors’ Behavior. Interacting with Computers.

TIMMS, P. 2011. A Post-google Wunderkammer: Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art Redefines the Genre. Meanjin, 70, 31-39.

WITCHEY, H. 2007. New Technologies, Old Dilemmas: Ethics and the Museum Professional. In: DIN, H. & HECHT, P. (eds.) The Digital Museum. A Think Guide. Washington: American Association of Museums.


3 thoughts on “Embracing The Digital

  1. Anna Mikhaylova says:

    Hi Jonathon, many thanks for the post. Could you please share some pictures of these exhibition halls of the MONA? How does this no-labels system works?

    • Jonathon says:

      Hi Anna,

      Thanks for your comment, I will see if I can dig the photos up today and put a couple in the comments for you.

      The system itself works through ‘The O’ which is a little iPod that you pickup on entry, this device locates you in the museum and will show on screen all the artworks that are around you, with pictures, so that you can locate yourself. More than this, the device itself actually has 3 levels of information for the viewer and you can actually choose which level to read in terms of what could be traditionally called “label text” the artworks are positioned in the gallery with no identifying text at all; (sadly I don’t have any photos of the device itself but you can read up on The O by heading to: http://www.mona.net.au/theo/). Actually, going further than this the device allows the visitor to love or hate the object. Allowing for a level of interactivity and to leave the visitor feeling as if they have in some way left a mark or perhaps contributed to the gallery.

      Mona is an extraordinary case (and a wonderful exhibition space); and I do catch myself wondering whether a similar system would work as well if it was implemented in an already established and long standing space, if you took all the labels out of the British Museum and put in a similar system, would it be better or worse; food for thought. Although I like to think that it would be better and perhaps more engaging in terms of providing a more interactive experience in an area that is seen by many to be dry, dull and dusty – can we use this to capture those minds?



  2. visionarymarketing says:

    Museum visits enhanced by digital would certainly appeal to a more people than just the younger generation. It is a matter of rich content and experience and how digital can help the visitor, not the developer. Visitors want explanations and better ones than hard to read small print on dark labels with no light. I see the tablet or the smartphone, for instance, as a supercharged multimedia audioguide, which can also do text and links and video. I’m even certain that with just a little imagination, a few QR codes, a well crafted responsive WordPress blog, and associated itunes library, we have all the ingredients in hand to provide a rich experience from a cultural point of view (not digital point of view). Nothing else is required, it’s utterly simple and a wonder why so few museums implement it.

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