Paul Bausch makes some good points on why museums should be more like today’s web. What’s interesting is that the spark for the post came from an expectional interaction with a human tour guide.

The tour included a stop at a recreation of an 1800’s store run by Chinese immigrants. As you step inside you see lots of stuff that would have been for sale at a store like this, Chinese newspapers and inventory lists from the period, and an audio track playing with people speaking Chinese. Someone in the group asked what the people were saying on the audio track, and the tour guide launched into a story. It turns out he’d had several Chinese speakers on previous tours, and he’d started to piece together what the audio was. Apparently, the museum curators had recorded a mahjong game in progress, and audio in the store was simply some people sitting around playing a game and having a conversation. Most museum-goers in Bend, Oregon would never know what exactly the conversation was about, so it didn’t matter that the audio didn’t faithfully recreate an 1800’s Chinese store.

I was struck by this little exchange, because the tour guide had gone from adding a layer about the exhibit to a little behind-the-scenes information about the construction of the exhibit. And the information hadn’t come from the museum curators, it had come from fellow museum-goers.

Along the way, I noticed other types of information the guide was relating such as trends. He’d say, “everyone always asks about this piece of equipment right here.” And then he’d explain what that was. He was using audience patterns to tune his presentation.

Bausch isolates the characteristics of a great interaction with a knowledgeable human guide and expresses them in terms that sound like what the web does very well: deep info, layered perspective, visitor trend analysis. Many museums have tried to make their physical experiences more interactive, of course (see here, here, here and oh yeah here), but the holy grail of a physical space as malleable and two-way as the web has not been achieved. My team refers to such as a space as a “flexhibit,” but it is more concept at this point than reality.

It is curious that Bausch suggests we use technology to do what the best human guides already do. I can hear a museum director arguing the reverse: that what we really need are more human guides that synthesize info and have a depth of knowledge that equals the best websites. That’s a solution that doesn’t necessarily scale, but then scalability has been the biggest obstacle to making museum exhibits technologically interactive. (Gotta wait in line to punch that button for more info on the wall.)

It’s a tough problem actually and it is complicated by the fact that many museums (like traditional encyclopedias) operate as keepers of culture rather than sharers of it. People can write really informed articles for Wikipedia, but replicating the experience of a museum collection without access to the original material history at your disposal is tricky indeed. Yet we have to try. It isn’t really a cabinet of curiosities if you can’t open the cabinet door or doesn’t make you curious, is it?
I don’t think the solution is standalone kiosks or “information hubs” per se, though they may be part of the solution. The most interactive museum spaces will in fact mimic the best websites as mixtures of superb technology and human community — and that community should necessarily include human guides and docents such as Bausch encountered. What we want is technology that facilitates interaction with humans and with the knowledge embedded in the material history contained in the museum.