Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Use of Modern Media by Museums - Hatto Fischer

vIn a recent discussion with Mr. Hoppe, curator at the Technical Museum in Berlin about use of multi media in exhibitions and presentation of collections he mentioned one major point. So far no one knows really what difference is made by using multi media in telling the story. As a matter of fact he argued not use of multi media should be the prime question but rather it is crucial to know beforehand what story is to be told before deciding if at all to use then what kind of multi media to tell that story?

Some inquiries are made by means of statistical surveys along the line of ‘visitor’s choice’. It is said that one of the most comprehensive data collections about visitors has the Jewish museum in Berlin. Its staff is trained to solicit visitors in multiple possibilities to provide feed backs at various levels. As such it entails involvement and engagement by those who work at the museum. The responsiveness of visitors to various kinds of interactive media seems, however, secondary to the impact the building has itself. Its architect deliberately wishes to give the visitor a feeling of not being at ease. Floors are slanted, upsetting the balance of the visitor, while endless corridors leading past shrine like windows displaying few items mark the journey into the garden of exile. Here then sense of history and what constitutes memory underline the importance of a museum whose mission is to remind about the Holocaust. Still, the museum faces huge problems in using multi media to convey that story. For example, projection screens and state of the arts require a renewal almost every five years since technically redundant and therefore a most expensive undertaking. Many museums experience this as a tremendous set-back in their financial and other organizational planning for years ahead.

One consensus seems to emerge as recommendation for especially small and local museums without a substantial budget or a wealthy foundation to back up their activities: exhibits should be kept as simple as possible. Interactive media should activate the senses and entail practical steps involving the visitor in a direct way e.g. hanging a wish on a tree after having noted it down on a paper leaf. The act itself will be remembered by the visitor more than what others perceive later. Unfortunately most of the visitors’ inputs remain anonymous to subsequent visitors. That is one of the larger problems of museums: the neutralization of experiences made by visitors.

Thus museums must remain clear in both message and interpretation of the exhibits. It will take some time to question and to alter the underlying cultural premises of the museum but this has little to do with the use of multi media. Rather more decisive is how the mission has been defined subject to what changes as more experiences are made.

When walking through the Technical Museum in Berlin, some simple forms of interactions can be spotted such as pushing a coal cart into a mine shaft. It tests the strength required to push such a cart while the act itself simulates the work of coal mining. Many children enjoy dunking under and entering the tunnel if only to emerge later happily and smiling about this new experience.

Another example of simple solutions is getting to know boats and what especially sail boats entail. It begins with sitting on deck and trying out ropes and knots needed for keeping the sails in the wind.


Example 1:

Children playing on sailing boat with rope for sail in Technical Museum, Berlin


In another example a fan blows wind into the sail of a boat able to respond to the direction the wind is coming from. Any child can steer the boat and thereby learn how to navigate according to the wind.

                                                    Example 2:

 Boy testing his navigation skills with sailing ship under wind conditions

Naturally use of more sophisticated interactions covers a wide range from media to complex collections e.g. in the Jewish museum audio visual settings take the visitor back in time by allowing to listen to famous speeches e.g. by Einstein, while messages written at a desk top reappear on a billboard showing messages as if at Time Square in New York.

At the HERMES Summer School both Peter Higgins from landdesignstudio and Stacy Koumbis showed their involvement e.g. Stacy with the fish tank allowing children to create their fish on a computer before sending the fish into the virtual tank. Here the special advantage has been that children may do that already at home before visiting the museum to see their fish in the tank. That project has been developed by experts from MIT and lead to further interactive media that Stacy Koumbis developed with Peter Higgins at the Millennium Dome in London 2000.

One crucial opinion expressed by students at the summer school is that museums should not just install multi media to attract especially the young people but exercise first consultation with parents. This is done best by museums working together with teachers who are in touch with the parents of their students. Adults do fear often what the youth can do with new media.

The use of multi media in a museum for the Argonauts can spark the imagination from virtual journeys to new kinds of games becoming increasingly popular but again the main question here is how to tell a mythological story which lacks tangible evidence?

According to Yiorgos Papakonstantinou from the Media Faculty of the University of Thessaly, there are multiple categories to distinguish use of multi media by museums and their corresponding networks:


Data bases accessible to

- museum administration

- specialists

- general public

Databases of objects: gives a solution to the problem of categorization. Usually objects are presented inside museum exhibition space under a specific organization logic. In a database we can analyze objects using different key words.

The application of information technologies

Data bases have been created by major museums with limited access to the general public e.g. the Compass system as used by the British Museum. System logic allows by now management of information in such a way that it can be made readily available for different types of users and usages i.e. from scientific experts to casual visitors to website set-up to print out of leaflets for an exhibition. Museums decide differently according to internal policy how much accessibility is to be given to various types of users and then for what purposes.


- archaeological sites

- objects

Within the HERMES project especially Trifon Trifonov has demonstrated what 3D presentations of the icons in the Boyanna church can lead to more specialized forms of restoration and interpretation of cultural heritage on UNESCO’s list of world heritages. Here work has been done especially by Karlsruhe and taken up elsewhere when virtual spaces are examined due to new uses of digital cameras and simulation techniques made possible by computer based knowledge systems.


- museum network means two levels of information services

Free / restricted access to information

Subscription / rights protection

For an exploration of proper use of web sites for museums see in particular such activities as Museums and the Web


A great deal has been done to improve web sites of museums and this is connected to virtual museums offering visitors online opportunities to put together their own collections and exhibitions once they selected items from the various spaces the virtual museum has to offer. In this way the way to tell a story through what items are collected becomes an inverse of the usual validation process of knowledge needed in the first place to make an exhibition and to interpret correctly any collection i.e. single items.

As an example see www.virtualmuseum.ca


- general public

- educational

- games (infotainment, edutainment)

Multi media products offered in the museum shop are as diverse as anything possible. Crucial is that the products are linked to the identity of the museum so that the shop should not sell just anything. Here products in Scientific or Technical museums i.e. Planetarium serve the purpose to promote further scientific knowledge by stimulating the curiosity of the visitors and by urging them on to newer innovations, forms of experimentations and other cognitive processes.


- audiovisual / multimedia

- indoor / outdoor

With the coming of i-pods and museums offering like the Wieland at Ossmannstedt outside of Weimar guided tours by letting visitors enter different acoustical spaces in which they can listen to recordings at different levels of interest / competence about the life of the poet Wieland it poses the interesting question about the future of museums once without real guides and only virtual tours. It is doubtful if the latter is enough to sustain a visitor’s interests since the senses have to be spoken to directly before some meaningful experience can be made.


- immersion techniques

- cognitive learning experiences e.g. scientific experiments

A lot of experimentation and testing has been made around cave experiences deploying the total immersion technique but again these spaces are limited both in number of visitors and what can be gained by entering spaces devoid of any reality. The reproduction of reality remains at best an artificial image with no real sense of communication with the object of interest being either a historical time period or an object of scientific value. It is still best to let the objects reveal their values by themselves provided they are placed in a context allowing both seeing (experiencing) and understanding.


- Multimedia applications offering an introduction to the exhibition site

- Multimedia applications (touch screens or not) offering information on

- 3d representations

- educational games (quiz etc.) at the end of the exhibition offering the visitors the opportunity to test their knowledge of what they just have seen, organize their impressions and maybe motivate to re-visit the exhibition.

All these multimedia applications usually offer interactivity with the visitor.

Combined publications (books / CD – DVD)

Now anyone familiar with making exhibitions knows both the contemplative and the active part of human nature has to be addressed. It has to be done in such a way that a small humoristic note sets the tone for the story to unfold and this with some basic text behind the entire plan. Only then does it seem possible to communicate something going further than a mere mirage or superficial impression.


Corresponding to these and other categories countless activities have been unfolding to acquaint experts, museum workers and the general audience to the use of multi media in museums. It is a diverse and highly specialized field.

One philosophical point needs to be stressed. If people are to enter a conscious experience made possible by museums, then this particular cultural understanding gained must allow facing as well contradictions in life. Not always is that clear.

When it comes to use of multi media then visitors of museums must be able to understand what values and dispositions towards society and human life this entails. As Cornelius Castoriadis pointed out multi media or generally speaking technology is nowadays no longer just a tool, but a ‘logic of organisation’ which has replaced the ‘theory of society’. It has become a powerful tool to organise things and thereby stipulates that only a certain order prevails. Technically speaking only certain things are made visible and brought into existence i.e. things and objects which serve a specific purpose but at the exclusion of much else.

Cornelius Castoriadis pointed out that especially young people are no longer educated to think in terms of contradictions as they follow more computer based logics known as iterative processes offering merely ‘yes’ or ‘no’ options. This stands in stark contrast to a life filled with numerous choices which require not only decisions but the working through of contradictions before a liveable solution can be found. The question is whether museums should reinforce this general trend.

Obviously any museum wishing to give people cultural tools to face contradictions stands itself in contradiction to any economy using technology to impose its organisational logic upon society. To this contradiction can be added the fact that globalization has given the economy an extra advantage leaving the local level highly exposed to overt pressures to confirm to global trends at the risk of neutralizing culture. Given this state of affairs, one would want to hope that museums do not reproduce blindly or consciously this trend towards technology. Their mission is after all to deepen the human experience in all dimensions and this with compassion and human understanding what man and the world is all about. It does not follow a mere global trend.

If museums are to convey such experiences, they need to distinguish clearly between physical and virtual reality. How this difference is communicated, used and bridged depends upon knowing what cannot be conveyed by means of the multi media. Here might already suffice first sense impressions and insights / perceptions / associations gained by making use of the media to reinforce certain aspects of our sense perception and impression.

Consideration of how this gap / difference is overcome, that goes hand in hand with the need to overcome a flood of information while staying in contact with the real world. People caught for too long in a waiting position while over exposed to Internet based communication feel socially isolated. Therefore, they wish to break out of such virtual worlds as they feel trapped or even at times not alive at all and ever more unhappy without really knowing the reason 'why?'. An answer has to be given by museum practice as it constitutes in part human civilization going through a crisis with cultural heritage no longer providing a much needed orientation on how to adapt to the new.

Already cities are learning through new use of urban screens a way to answer to the challenges of over commercialization and floods of information used by advertisement. The latter can be characterized as wishing to blend all levels together and thereby distort perceptions as to what is liveable compared to being desirable but not necessarily true. A lot depends upon distinguishing fake images from life long truths like love for a child by a mother and this within the constraints of modern life.

In respect of these human values museums need to uphold this difference between liveable truths and what are projections by humanity into the universe. The latter can be demonstrated by use of the multi media but it should be limited by the distinction as to what has become over time a recognizable work of art, a contribution to the life of the community and an extension of the human dream. People do not need the reinforcement of wishful projections but they can learn by seeing how other people before their time followed illusions rather than true visions to find their own true path to a liveable reality. Only the latter can give to people orientation in how to face a still unknown future.

Hatto Fischer

Volos 2006





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