In Praise of Low-Tech Approaches to Visitor Engagement
In just a 30-day period this spring I will attend three museum or archaeology conferences – the Tennessee Association of Museums, the Society for American Archaeology, and the American Association of Museums. An aspect of these annual events I enjoy are the expo and poster sessions. They offer an opportunity to engage with a range of ideas and to interact one-on-one with folks. These experiences go beyond listening to papers, that while often are very interesting, tend to be more monologues where one could just as easily read the book. Expo events provide the opportunity to see the latest gadgets and digital wizardry in the field. I am curious about how I will react to these displays this year – particularly since over this past year, when I have focused on the idea of building engaged and sustainable programs.
At the recent Tennessee Association of Museums meeting, I organized a session The Participatory Museum: More Than Just a Hands-on Gig. In my introductory paper for the session, the prime example of a sustainable and engaging museum I presented was one I have blogged before about – The Pearl Button Museum in Muscatine, Iowa. I used this museum as an example in part because the institution is ridiculously low-tech – there is not a touch table, video monitor, audio tour, and as of when I gave the paper, no mobile app for the museum. The Pearl Button Museum demonstrates that building sustainable and engaging institutions does not require increased funding for the latest in digital technology. My earlier post explores what makes this place so engaging and participatory.
The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York strikes me as another prime low-tech high impact cultural venue.
African American students who created an exhibit on their neighborhood for the C.H. Nash Museum in 2010 made a similar observation. During the five weeks of the project they visited several area Memphis Museums including the Pink Palace, the Brooks Museum, the National Civil Rights Museum, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and Davies Manor Plantation. I was surprised that for many of the students their favorite museum visit was Davies Manor. At Davies the sole “digital” exhibit is an eight minute intro video shown on a small television monitor in a cramped reception room. One of the students, Jasmine Morrison, explained that what was so powerful for her during the visit was standing in the big house on the plantation where her enslaved ancestors would not have been permitted to enter.
This past week the AmeriCorps Team now stationed at the C.H. Nash Museum erected a ghost house out of bamboo on top of one of the prehistoric mounds. We decided to erect the house as a no impact, easily built structure, that used materials already on site, as a representation of a house that would have stood atop the prehistoric mound in prehistory. This past Saturday I was pleased that this rather simple structure proved to fulfill that purpose for our visitors.
What these low-tech solutions teach me is that we do not need to fall into a trap of thinking that we need high-tech digital solutions to carry out our mission or attract visitors. We must first allow the visitor to be filled with the sense of time, place, and meaning of their surroundings. With such engaging programs in place, we then can move to consider how digital technology might enhance the presentation. Pragmatically, as low-tech solutions are often the most readily employed by cultural institutions already on a shoe-string budget, for that reason, they also remain an excellent starting point.
How do you use low-tech solutions to tell your story?