Sunday, February 8, 2009

What "Digital Natives" Want In A Museum

A “digital native” is someone who has never known a world without networked computers, 279 channels of cable television, video games and text-ready cell phones. And -- I would argue -- one thing digital natives want in a museum is to “go deeper” -- to experience the meaning of exhibits and artifacts, as revealed in stories.

Last week Mark Hayward shared a story about the wildly successful “Titanic: The Exhibition” at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. More than 850,000 guests experienced this breakthrough event. Why was it so successful? Perhaps because people brought two sets of stories to the exhibit -- what happened aboard the actual ship, and what happened in the recent smash hit movie. The Titanic attraction satisfied a public hunger to remember both sets of stories, and to share them with friends and family members.

What if the Smithsonian had brought a modern “digital native” approach to their exhibition of the Enola Gay? The Smithsonian ran into a buzzsaw of criticism as it was about to put the Enola Gay fuselage on display as part of an exhibit, “The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb and the Cold War.” Groups like the American Legion and the Air Force Association objected to the sympathetic portrayal of Japanese casualties as opposed to the role the atomic bomb had in ending the war. Historians defended the exhibit, but in the end it was canceled. Today the Enola Gay is a major permanent exhibit at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum, with a purposely bland summary of technical data and virtually no history.

I would suggest that, in the 21st century museum, curators will welcome the “fight” (i.e. struggle to define historical meaning) the Smithsonian is evading. How can guests learn the meaning of what happened at Hiroshima on November 6, 1945 unless they can see it from all sides, and every perspective?

My understanding of those events is shaded by the stories my mother told me. She heard about the atomic bomb on the radio. She immediately knew two things. One, her husband (my father) would not be sent to Japan to fight (and possibly be killed) in a land-based invasion of Japan. Two, the viability of the human race had become more tenuous because of the unfathomable killing power of this amazing weapon.

Imagine an Enola Gay exhibit that included informed, thought-provoking input from the Air Force Association, Hiroshima survivors, military experts, American and Japanese historians, young people who have grown up in the shadow of terrifying super weapons...and my mother.

Might even be another “Titanic.”


  1. The idea of utilizing technology to bring in multiple perspectives on a historical event is thrilling and fascinating. Especially, as you discuss more contemporary events, this is very easily plausible as access to current oral history, footage and other materials is readily available.

    The visitor would then be asked to integrate a great deal of information and participate in the experience on a very high level.

    Yet, I think in a lot of cases, making this happen would require substantial public demand. Once the model is successfully put out there, people can begin to expect it.

    Until then, there are still a lot of institutions that are heavily invested in and in fact, often times created to tell a particular version of the story.

  2. The challenge to be met by these institutions in this century is on several fronts:

    1 - What stories/perspectives get told and which don't?

    2 - Who decides? How does the curation of this content change? For example, is the curator the sole controller of content, or does the public-at-large contribute to and shape this content alongside the curator? (Think Wikipedia.)

    3 - How will museums evolve to include technology platforms like the internet? What will the successful model of this evolution look like? Does it exist in its infancy yet, and if so, where?

    It took the better part of the 20th century for museums to break out of the 19th century museum model. My hope is that these institutions find ways to speed the glacial pace of change which is their norm. Is it possible for change to happen until these digital natives become our 21st c. curators and lead the revolution?

  3. One additional thought - democratic approaches to content creation involve some very difficult decisions and consequences. For instance, is a Holocaust denier given the same capacity to control content as the Holocaust survivor?

  4. Here is a recent Washington Post article about the Smithsonian's challenge that is loosely related to this discussion. Very interesting and worth a read and further discussion!

  5. Today's information market thrives on conflict.

    Opinion pages are the primary drivers of new readers to newspapers. The highest rated 'news' programs are named after openly partisan pundits (O'Reilly, Maddow, Mathews, etc.) The most popular forums and blogs thrive on the back and forth of contrary ideas. In fact, the standard metric for message boards is that 1% of users will generate 90% or more of a site's content. And as every experienced community manager knows, conflict creates interest.

    But for whatever reason, location based information and experience hubs (Museums, Libraries, Science Centers) actively avoid conflict. This approach certainly will keep an institution out of trouble but will also guarantee that the new generation of "digital natives" will be less interested in their exhibits than they are in the latest post on

    To the question, "who decides? How does the curation of this content change? For example, is the curator the sole controller of content, or does the public-at-large contribute to and shape this content alongside the curator?" The answer could be as simple as letting the market decide. Safer models of curator selected view points would fit the risk adverse institutions. More forward leaning venues would be rewarded with publicity and public interest for their dramatic failures.

    And much like "Bodies" whose traveling corpse show went from institutional pariah to audience darling. The market will decide.

  6. If there is one thing that yoga has taught me it’s BALANCE. Your entire body needs to be in balance in order to hold a pose. You can’t muscle it or force it, you have to work at getting all the important muscles to work in concert with each other. When it comes to storytelling and user generated content (UGC) a balance is needed. This is the same challenge for museums or brands. Marketers have been wrestling with this issue for several years since web 2.0 has enabled customers to participate in brand conversations which are a departure from the dictated broadcast messaging. 1 canned predetermined message vs. freedom to create and share your own message is the challenge. These two approaches are polar opposites, somewhere in the middle a balance needs to be struck. Providing complete control to the market/visitors is too much for brands or museums to accept at this point in time. Conversely, providing only one point of view is no longer engaging for digital natives. To provide a balanced conversation for digital natives it comes down to relinquishing some control and allowing for choices.

    Here are a few key experience features that can be delivered using technology:

    1) Allow the visitors to consume an array of story alternatives. This feature allows visitors to personalize a “lens” by which they experience the content. This selection will empower the visitor and set the stage for the notion that there is more than one right answer.
    2) Allow visitors to contribute content which is managed by the venue/brand and distributed back into the experience as annotations or alternatives. This also keeps the conversation fresh and evolving.
    3) Allow visitors to share content among their circle of influence, creating a tighter connection with message. This viral technique also provides a ripple effect that brings others into the dialog.
    4) Develop multiple interconnecting channels that can deliver information when and where the visitor is engaged. There is no more appointment viewing for TV shows and information is only a Google search away.