Are Museums Too Focused on ‘Interactive’ Experiences?

When it comes to museums, interactive is the name of the game. If you’ve visited any child-friendly museums recently, you’ll know that they have become a little technology happy. Children who can’t read (and many of those who can) simply walk through exhibit after exhibit pressing every button in sight to see what might light up or make a sound. It’s certainly a way to keep them quiet, but whether they are actually getting anything out of the experience is another story.

A children’s museum near our house (meant for kids no older than six) recently hosted a traveling exhibit on growing up in Korea (called “Heart and Seoul,” of course). To show kids that many people in Korea live in high-rise buildings, they set up a fake elevator. My then-four-year-old spent twenty minutes pressing the up and down buttons. There was also a giant video screen displaying K-Pop stars where she bounced up and down watching herself dancing alongside them. There are other exhibits at the museum that are hands-on and educational, but this seemed pretty absurd.

Sometimes, though, museums can be interactive in the best sense. The new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia is one such example. Perhaps because the museum began as a collection of objects—guns, uniforms, tools, photographs—it was bound to be more accessible to children than one that featured pictures or diagrams with descriptions underneath.

But the curators have also gone to great lengths to make sure that those objects live up to their fullest potential. There are original rifles protected in cases, but one can also pick up a decent replica, feel how heavy it was, and imagine what a battle with one must have been like. While my eight-year-old son was examining one, a docent asked him if he knew the difference between a rifle and a musket. After a few minutes explaining that the former were more accurate (with bullets that spiral like footballs) but the latter could be loaded faster and shot further, she asked which he might have preferred in battle.

This focus on putting viewers in the shoes of the people living through the conflict is one that is obvious throughout the museum. In one of the better uses of technology, viewers can read the stories of slaves deciding between joining the loyalists who promised them freedom after the war was over (though they would risk being executed for joining the other side) or sticking by their masters in the hopes that they could remain safe. After hearing the options for each one, viewers are asked which they would pick and then they can compare their answers with the choices made by real individuals at the time, and even learn what happened to them as a result. This sort of high-tech choose-your-own-adventure story makes one glad to have screens in the exhibit.

But the truth is that the museum’s interactive quality does not come mostly from technology. There are, for instance, a number of scenes with life-like mannequins throughout the museum. One might not think that in an era of virtual reality that a bunch of dummies posed fighting in Harvard Square would be so captivating but my son stood for several minutes looking at the diagram to identify each figure and what they were doing.

Similarly, the centerpiece of the museum is George Washington’s tent. Frankly, when I heard that I wondered how they were going to make a plain white tent interesting, particularly to young people. The movie about the tent is very well done, describing Washington’s habit of living among the troops and experiencing the same deprivations, the best kind of populist impulse. By the time the screen comes up, revealing the tent itself with scenes from different parts of the country at different times of day and year shifting in the background, the tent has taken on an almost divine hue. Watching a fifteen-minute documentary and a simple white tent left a few in the theater in tears. Now that’s an interactive experience.

Image: Museum of the American Revolution

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