Museum without Walls: Digital Technology and Contextual Learning in the Museum Environment

Museum without Walls: Digital Technology and Contextual Learning in the Museum Environment

Kevin Hsieh (Georgia State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-1930-2.ch013


Technology was first implemented in exhibition design and gallery interpretations in the 1950s. Since then, the development and instructional use of technology in museums has increased significantly. With the recent trend in visitor-centered initiatives being encouraged by museum professionals, cultural institutions are arranging exhibitions and displays, offering activities and programs, as well as developing materials to better augment visitors’ on-site and off-site learning experiences. The most ubiquitous augmentations are the utilization of different digital technology and virtual museum (Mediati, 2011). For instance, Lu (1999) pointed out that museums installed flat-screen televisions for presenting exhibition and art object information while Chao and Lai (2008) found that museums used personal portable electronic devices for interpreting articles and developed interactive computer programs for inviting audiences’ active discovery learning. Recently, Buffington (2008) and Lopez, Daneau, Rosoff, and Cogdon (2008) indicated that distance learning and virtual exhibitions through museum websites, podcasts, and electronic networking are becoming more common.
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A Brief History Of Technology In Museum Settings

Technology can be defined as any mechanical device that is manipulated electronically from the aspect of electromagnetic functions. A handheld device, invented in 1952, was the first technology used to give an audio tour of a museum setting (Tallon, 2008). Although there are several debates as to when the first electronic handheld audio device was used in a museum and which museum first used one for an audio tour (Lin, 2006; Tallon, 2008), this device attracted interest for its unique potential for the museum enterprise. During the 1950s and 1960s, most electronic audio handheld devices used analog technology. Interpretations of objects or exhibitions were recorded on magnetic tapes in different languages. To hear the recording, visitors walked into the loop of a closed-circuit shortwave radio broadcast in which the amplified audio output of an analog playback tape recorder served as a broadcast station. Transmission was made through a loop aerial fixed around the galleries to the visitors’ portable radio receivers with headphones (Tallon, 2008). Because reception was through an analog system, visitors were not allowed to play the interpretations of objects randomly and they had to be within the range of the radio loop. Hence, visitors who carried the analog audio tour devices were forced to follow a linear route through a gallery, according to the segments of information on the audio tape. They could not randomly pick what they wanted to hear.

In order to offer a variety of tools to meet museum visitors’ diverse needs and expectations, a different technology evolved, namely dual headset audio devices that allowed two visitors to listen to the same information at the same time when they came to the museum with a companion. With the use of this kind of the device and information service, museum staff began to realize the importance of the social interactions of visitors, because they could listen to and discuss the information they heard.

In the early years of handheld guide development, cultural institutions and third-party hardware developers undertook a series of practical evaluation projects. These focused more on how to develop cost-effective, minimal-maintenance, durable, and lightweight hardware than how to offer museum visitors different ways for engaging in learning (Gammon & Burch, 2008). After this hardware development stabilized, the design and functions of hardware did not change dramatically. Therefore, research into the visitor’s experience with electronic devices faded with the focus on hardware development for nearly forty years (Tallon, 2008). Eventually, multimedia combining visual and audio information such as TV screens in the galleries, began to be used in museum settings for transmitting information on art objects to visitors during the 1980s (Lin, 2006). Technology was used as a machine to simply deliver information.

During the 80s, following the development and use of analog audio tour technology, the next innovative technology to be adopted by museums to aid visitors was digital technology which pushed technology toward a new era. Between 1990 and now, some digital technology is utilized within museums, including the computer-based workstation or kiosk, multimedia, networking via the Internet, websites (Filippini-Fantoni & Bowen, 2008), PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), i-Products (iPod®, iPhone®, or iPad®), and other electronic digital devices using GPS (Global Positioning System), such as cell phones (Walker, 2008).

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