From playful touch screens to customized hashtags, digital technologies have made themselves a staple in today’s museums. Exhibits encourage visitors to not only learn from but also interact with material. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Newseum.
Located in Washington, DC, the Newseum focuses on the history of the press and the First Amendment. In 2012, the Newseum opened the HP New Media Gallery which explores the emergence and influence of new media in contemporary society. And according to Paul Sparrow, Senior Vice President of Broadcasting, the gallery was exactly what the Newseum needed. “As soon as we opened [in 2008],” Sparrow stated, “ we realized that we really needed a more immersive, interactive gallery to deal with the issues around new media. We had a digital news component in the Internet, TV, and Radio Gallery, but again, it wasn’t very interactive.”
The HP New Media Gallery feels like a sort of high-tech cave. Sitting in a round space and lit primarily by screens and a “touch wall,” the gallery is composed of four stations. Check-in, storyboard, choose the news, and “game zone” (a trivia game) all combine tablet, touchscreen, and motion tracking technology with live wires from news outlets and social media. Content created by visitors (e.g. check-in photos, custom front pages, and tweets) is uploaded to screens within the exhibit and online. Altogether the gallery is exactly what Sparrow originally envisioned: “an immersive experience where visitors really go to contribute to content that was being displayed.”
Melayne Cohen and her young son visited from Bethesda, Maryland. “This is the area that my son wanted to come to first,” Cohen said when I interviewed her in the gallery. “He heard ‘interactive’ and he heard ‘games.’ So we pretty much came right here.”
Unfortunately, an exhibit so dedicated to and reliant on technology is not without its glitches.
For one, what exactly is new media? This issue, Sparrow admitted, formed the “curatorial framework…critical in moving forward at every level.” Curators ultimately decided that new media included “anything that contributed to the transformation from the traditional news where you had a lecture based, voice of God editors [and] producers…to the conversation based environment where we find ourselves today.” In short, new media helped turn audiences into reporters. Nevertheless the gallery does not ignore the multitude of opinion. A video-short which plays on large screen above the gallery asks individuals what new media means to them. New media is apparently everything from a lifeline to friends, overload to participation.
At the same time, how could a permanent exhibit keep up with the pace of technology? In the two years since the gallery has opened, tech companies have released products that can—and eventually will—render most of the gallery obsolete. Luckily, it was designed to adapt. “Flexible armature,” Sparrow said, ensures that “everything in there is very easily removed…everything is designed to be changed…the touch walls slide out, the projector can be replaced behind the screen.”
Even the process of redesigning the gallery has already been carefully planned. Newseum staff will handle “two different cycles of refresh”: hardware and experience. The former will change with “available technology solutions.” For example Sparrow offered that staff are looking for a “new piece of hardware for the check-in station that will take better pictures, be a little bit more responsive.” As for the overall experience of the gallery, this is more a matter of curatorial debate. Changes, if any, would be gradual. Sparrow stated,“We wanted to create experiences that were not technology dependent. …I don’t think we’re basically going to change that experience just yet.”
With the current state of new media, can you think of any new experiences worth curating in the gallery? Share them with us in the comments below.