Museums and emerging technologies

Today I had a really great conversation with a museum curator. We were talking about how virtual and augmented reality, and other emerging technologies, can be used by museums.

I realized at some point in our meeting that there could be a misconception that such emerging technologies compete with museums. That argument might go something like this: If people can just put on a VR headset and experience art, then why would they bother going to a museum?

It’s not a difficult misconception to dispel, when one considers the special relationship humans have with physical artifacts. Such artifacts clearly speak to us on a deep emotional level.

For example, a vast number of places on-line allow you to see an image of DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. You can see it at very high resolution and at extremely high quality.

Yet the Louvre in Paris is always jam packed with museum-goers thronging to see the real thing. I think this is because, on an instinctively level, we understand the importance of unique physicality. Possibly this is because we understand, on a profound level, that we ourselves have only one unique and precious physical identity.

More generally, as any form of communication technology moves from the realm of the exotic to the realm of the everyday, we tend to use it not as an end in itself, but rather in a utilitarian way that supports our larger goals.

For example, the Web is a technology that was considered exotic once upon a time — and even viewed by some as an alternative to the physical world. Yet now, in 2020, the Web is understood to simply be part of the human fabric of communication. In fact, the museum that I was visiting today relies on its Website to tell people how to visit the museum itself!

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