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12 October 2013 @ 11:34 pm
WMA/UMA 2013 Conference, Day Three  
After such a delightful late night stew of dinosaur fossils and reality TV, I was wiped out. I decided to sleep through Friday's first session, since none of the topics particularly caught my attention and I knew the next day would be another early morning. It was great. I rolled into the conference hotel around 10:45 refreshed and ready for the next adventure.

It was to be a technology-themed day, starting with To Tech or Not to Tech: That is the Question. (All museum nerds secretly want to be Hamlet; two or three of the presenters referenced the opening line of this soliloquy.) As technology becomes more and more integrated in daily life, museums struggle to find a balance between introducing new interactive exhibits that take advantage of the newest developments in tablets and cell phones and creating education, useful exhibits. Ultimately, the key points of the session boiled down to this:

  • What experience does the museum wish to communicate?

  • What impact will the technology have? Will it engage?

  • Is it relevant to the topic?

Museum exhibits will never be able to “keep up” with the technology in a visitor's pocket, so that should never be the goal.

As the digital services manager from the Oakland Museum pointed out, you should never throw tech onto the museum floor just for the sake of having technology. Her museum, for example, created a station for collecting “California stories” - basically, a camera recorded you speaking for a few seconds and then shared the film clip on a big screen. For the most part, it was a failure. The vast majority of museum visitors didn't use it to share their personal stories – it was mostly kids dancing and making faces in front of the camera. There wasn't a staff member really monitoring the films, so inappropriate content could get through, too. When a story was successfully captured, the museum had not created a way to save the file – so “collecting” these oral histories was not, in fact, happening. A lot of effort went into creating this exhibit that ultimately didn't support the museum's main goals – all in the name of having new technology in the museum.

After lunch, I went to a second technology seminar - Family Time in Museums: Online or Unplugged? The most interesting presenter came from the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, and she explained that her museum does not use fancy technology in their children's programs, instead relying on good ol' fashioned hands on crafts and enthusiastic storytellers. They do, however, make one major exception – at each event, they have a professional photographer taking pictures of visitors in a “Show 'n' Tell” booth, and the photos he takes are uploaded to a Flickr account and Facebook. From there, the excited parents share the photos and help drive interest for future events. It's been a great way to drive traffic for them. But again, the exhibits and activities at the museum itself are generally quite low tech.

By contrast, the Getty has experimented with computer games and apps. To some degree, it's a matter of scale – no other museum has an endowment quite like the Getty's! But it's also based on a desire to tap into a game-loving audience. After all, the Getty is located in Los Angeles, where the vast majority of people carry smartphones – so why not utilize that? The in-gallery game they created is quite clever. Essentially, players are told that a wizard has cast a spell on the museum, scrambling the paintings. They must look at the painting on their phone screen and compare it to the painting in the gallery itself and figure out what the differences are. It's a great tool for kids, who – let's face it – often have trouble engaging in traditional art galleries, because paintings and text just aren't that exciting. But the Getty has definitely experienced some trouble with the app, too. The biggest issue is that people simply don't know about it. Visitor Services avoids telling people so that they won't have to troubleshoot the game; the speaker had created some small flyers but constantly found them hidden behind the desk instead of available for visitors. In early prototypes of the game, people would get frustrated and stop playing. After the session was over, I asked if visitors continued to other galleries after finishing the game or if they left – the speaker wasn't sure, as no follow-up had yet been done in that area.

A bit of a generation gap was revealed during the question and answer segment. An older woman (not sure what museum she represented) said that she thought cell phones were terrible and people should be banned from using them in galleries, and a phone should be taken away if someone brought one out! A nice idea, but let's face it – people love their phones. If you ban them or take them away, you alienate a huge customer base – and in this day and age, museums need to be doing whatever they can to drive traffic.

The exhibit hall, which I had paid little attention during the past few days, was closing that afternoon so with my new friend Jackie (from a museum down in San Diego) I went through the booths and talked up the vendors to score as much free swag as possible. I know, I know...it's unprofessional, but I'm practically a starving intern, and free stuff is AMAZING! There wasn't a lot of stuff, but I did pick up a couple of music CDs (Mexican music in Utah, who knew?) and a ceramic travel cup. Plus there were lots of little random things, like wildflower seeds, postcards, and suchlike. Jackie and I were even invited to an after-hours pizza party with some reps from an electronic media company; if I didn't already have plans for the night, that would have been awesome. They were going to show off their planetarium programs!

But, as I said, I'd already made arrangements. At 6:15 I was heading off to an evening event at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. But I had about two hours to kill first. I decided to go for a walk, since I'd been trapped in a convention building for the past few days, and wandered over to Temple Square to see the fancy Mormon temple and walk around the gardens. It was pleasant, but since I'm not Mormon a lot of the sculptures went right over my head. Why was there a monument to seagulls? It helped me realize how confusing it must be for my husband when he gets dragged into old Catholic cathedrals and missions with me – he doesn't know the stories of the saints, so all the statues are just random people to him.

I soon found myself in a temple of a different sort – across the street from Temple Square is a fancy shopping mall. It has been months since I last set foot in a mall, so I happily wandered around for a while, gazing longingly at the window displays of Anthropologie, Free People, and H&M. As I walked down a corridor, a distinctive smell hit my nose. Somewhere nearby, there was a Lush – it's been a few years since I worked in one but I can recognize the scent anywhere. I sniffed it out and happily picked out some bath bombs and a thank you gift for my hostess, Megan.

I met up with Jackie, and together we walked around a little more before climbing on the bus to go to the fine arts museum. When we arrived, we went straight for the food – and managed to fill our plates before a big line developed, so that was awesome. The museum is part of a university, so the school's modern dance students performed for us. There was also an auction of some sort, but the acoustics were awful so I never knew what folks were bidding on. I spent most of the time wandering the galleries, anyway.

The Utah Museum of Fine Arts has an eclectic collection on display. There was a large gallery dedicated to modern works on paper that had art from Kara Walker, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and Helen Frankenthaler. That, along with a gallery that talked about conceptual/ephemeral art, comprised most of the downstairs. The second story was incredibly random: the Asian gallery had plenty of Hindu and Buddhist art from India and Thailand, but nothing from China or Japan. There was Native American art on display, but none of it was local – the masks and other decorative items were from the Pacific Northwest. The Pacific Islander art was a mix of traditional crafts and contemporary artists engaging with the work – interesting, but odd. The European art collection was very scattered – no particularly prominent pieces, and rooms were grouped haphazardly. The Dutch room, for example, had paintings from several genres and several centuries all clumped together. It's a small museum, though, so that shouldn't have surprised me, but after walking through so many of the big art museums it just seemed disorganized. Plus, I found two paintings that were mislabeled – the name on the frame and the name on the plaque beside the painting didn't match up. Plaques were often not next to the painting they described, and you had to hunt around the gallery to find the information.

But for all that, it was still fun. I love art museums and it's been a long time since I last visited one.

When I got back to Megan's house, we watched a makeover show in which an Asian woman in her late thirties still dresses like a teenager, and her friends wanted her made over to be “like an adult”. While I don't agree with the sentiment – woman should dress the way she wants! - it was terribly entertaining to see the Halloween costumes that this woman felt were appropriate daily wear.