Museums and Their Shadows

Manon Blanchette, Ph.D.

New Technological Doubles

It cannot be denied that the development of communications technologies in the last ten years has been so fast that both individuals and museums have difficulty keeping up. The latest enhanced versions of smartphones, software and devices like tablet computers continually amaze us with their new possibilities. In fact, technology is so omnipresent in our daily lives—or, at the very least, on the way to becoming so—that it is now crucial to understand the specific characteristics of the different technological platforms in order to properly identify the new opportunities they offer museums.

Here it should be taken as an assumption that, just as the use of new technologies in contemporary art is no guarantee of quality, it is equally important in museology to dissociate the “content” from the type of technology “format” used to deliver it. Such a principle will enable museums to fulfill their missions and primary objectives. In other words, the technologies are not ends in themselves, but rather various means for meeting such objectives as market segmentation or development of a brand image. Determining what platforms to use is therefore a strategic part of general museum planning, just as in the case of various conventional communication methods or exhibition schedules. Content has to be designed and, if in effect, copyrights and royalties negotiated in such a way that it can be used simultaneously across several electronic platforms. As a result, it is obvious that the need for cost-effectiveness requires that those responsible for content now have expertise in providing it for various digital platforms. Furthermore, they will have to work with every museum department right from the start of any planned exhibition, since information will be conveyed in a variety of forms, including virtual ones.

According to certain statistics, 1.2 billion smartphones are produced every year. That market trend leads to the assumption that, within less than five years, 80% of people will access the Internet from their phones, or from their electronic tablets.1 Since museums cannot ignore trends in the development of technologies, given the multiplicity of platforms now available they must accept that they will have to change their vision of museology in order to make the right decisions relating to them. For example, museum curators have to consider the role of visitors—whether real or virtual—in a new light. They must accept the fact that they are more actively engaged in the dynamics of the museum experience, and that their opinions, even though they are not those of specialists, must be conveyed and given consideration. In short, museum specialists must have faith in the public. The consequence of such a position is the evening out of established hierarchies. In more practical terms, although the rapid growth of social media is certainly a reality, the complicated penetration levels of that huge network nevertheless continue to be difficult to evaluate. It is also difficult to track what could be called the “ripple effect” of any message posted on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Flickr and LinkedIn.2 This situation will force specialists to loosen their grip on the interpretation of museum content.

On a more pragmatic note, if 80% of smartphone owners will soon access the Internet from their mobile devices—either from phones or tablets—it will therefore be important for every museum to first make sure its website is suitable for viewing on their screens. In other words, provision must be made for producing content for these devices from the very beginning of the exhibition planning process and, if resources allow, should be designed as tools for new experiences that can be integrated into educational and other public programs. For, thanks to the applications available for smartphones and tablets, the dream of every curator—to be able to offer museum visitors various levels of interpretation—has become a reality. The conventional approach has been to use an introductory text to provide background, gallery labels for detailed information about what is being exhibited, and a publication offering a comprehensive survey of related academic knowledge. In contrast, technologies like augmented reality now have the power to provide visitors wanting it with all such information and more simply by pointing their digital devices at the object on view. It goes without saying that this does not mean that information will be removed from gallery walls and displays, but rather that various levels of information can be added using these new platforms.

Although cellphone augmented reality has not been used at the Montréal Science Centre, the curator there made what he calls a “visitor’s companion” available to the public during the exhibition Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology. According to the study that followed, the target audience of people nine years and older individually spent over two and a half hours viewing this exhibition, which indicates how much visitors were therefore able to explore the subject it dealt with. In addition, it also seemed to help overcome “museum fatigue,” the physical state limiting the amount of time in which knowledge can be absorbed. By extrapolation, given the similarity in the selection of information, the use of augmented reality would surely have provided the same very enviable results.

Montréal’s McCord Museum of Canadian History, for example, recently launched its first application using augmented reality. Known as MTL Urban Museum, the application provides a virtual visit of the past while at the same time showcasing the present-day city, allowing its users to see the history of Montréal take shape before their eyes as they compare images of landmarks from yesterday and today.

Pointe-à-Callière, the Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History, has chosen to punctuate its presentation of archaeological remains dating from the city’s founding with three-dimensional materials and dialogues with visitors. This enables everything about a particular object, even if only a portion of it is shown, to come to life, thanks to placing it within a social, historical and aesthetic context, and providing other background information. These methods could very easily soon change to digital applications for smartphones and tablets.

For that matter, all the new possibilities offered by digital technologies will lead museums to redefine their publication policies and, consequently, their staffing plans. Tablet users now expect to be able to read newspapers, magazines and the latest best sellers on their devices. Why wouldn’t they also want exhibition catalogues to be available to them? The cost of printing paper books remains quite high. Conversely, the advantages of tablets, including the financial, are many, provided that the content provided for them has been designed to be suitable for various electronic platforms. They offer sharp images, and quality sound and video on screens similar in size to an average book. Moreover, they allow fast access to the Web and social media.

The Louvre Museum and its new branch in Lens advertise their smartphone and tablet applications as follows: “HD visuals, details you can zoom in on, functions for making comments and sharing them with friends, access to 500 images and wallpaper downloads.” The only functionality the Louvre has neglected to include in the text promoting their download is that of 3-D or augmented reality. The latter would enable the Louvre to have exact data and metrics concerning the applications’ users, and offer them customized content according to their profiles. Despite that omission, what we are seeing is a democratization of access to the Louvre’s collection and the dissemination of images from it. Thanks to augmented reality, in the very near future families, tourists, students, researchers and seniors will be able to choose the kind of museum visit—whether real or virtual—that is convenient for them. Digital technologies will power visitor segmentation, and be able to go so far as to suggest museum itineraries suiting their mood of the moment.

For his part, the British artist David Hockney has been so impressed by the power of smartphones and tablets that he has created many works in which he has traded his pencil or brushes for the finger-drawn possibilities of the iPhone and iPad’s Brushes app. In the delightful bright works included in the exhibition held recently at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, paper was replaced by a smartphone or tablet screen.3 On the pedagogical level, tablets offer ready access to a world in which images are paramount. Museum educators could soon be trained to use them as an attractive channel for providing supplementary information, especially for young people. Tablets can be passed easily from one person to another, so everyone can remember their own particular experience and retain new knowledge, thanks to the fascination engendered by these tools’ renderings. Furthermore, by instilling them through a virtual perspective, augmented reality can complement the explanation of abstract concepts.
What should be remembered is that digital technologies and the main devices that make use of them foster teamwork within a museum. They contribute to pursuing the same objectives as those of a strategic plan. A policy concerning the use of their functions will enable better targeting of results and, consequently, a higher success rate in achieving objectives. That will, however, necessitate certain preliminary steps, notably an examination of the reasons inducing the museum to develop one or another digital application for the public, if not for its own specialists. Such planning must be driven by a concern for optimizing both knowledge and resources. It may then be necessary to develop staffing plans that will take the acquired technical capability for independent production and the need for updating digital tools into consideration. In addition, initiating the shift towards producing digital applications will require an effort of pragmatic conceptualization on the part of museums. It will have to be accepted that there are a number of simultaneous experiences—some immaterial, some concrete—involved in the life of a museum today. This means it may be necessary to accept the fact that such applications will make a change in the museum experience, that is, take it beyond the direct physical confrontation with an actual object. Should this be regarded as the death of museums and their collections? Certainly not, since switching from the real to the virtual, and vice versa, will always be possible, although not necessary in this new electronic culture.

Manon Blanchette, Ph.D.
President of AVICOM


An excerpt of this article was published in ICOM News magazine, Vol. 65 No 1, March 2012.


  1. New Media Consortium, NMC Horizon Report: 2011 Museum Edition, p. 10. Available at:
  2. Jane Finnis, Sebastian Chan and Rachel Clements, Report from the Culture24 Action Research Project: How to Evaluate Online Success?
  3. David Hockney’s Fresh Flowers: Drawings on the iPhone and iPad, Royal Ontario Museum, October 8, 2011 to January 1, 2012.