At Roto, we’re often asked by museum leadership about “the future of technology” and how to create new exhibits and programs that keep the institution current. And while there is no simple answer to this question, a strategic direction and exhibit plan can be defined by answering two questions that help define the specific goals driving the initiative.
Does the institution’s mission require educating visitors who are seeking to understand and adapt to an increasingly technology-bound future?
Answering this question speaks to the institution’s sense of purpose and requires an educational framework, starting with an exploration of technology topics and themes that lie within the museum’s expertise they believe visitors will benefit from most.
Is the museum concerned about looking obsolete to a technologically advanced audience?
This question determines if the desire to add technology is driven by the institution’s need to maintain a current brand or value proposition. If an organization’s brand framework is focused on technology, they will first need to understand current and future visitors’ attitudes toward “technology,” what level of technological advancement they want from the institution, and what outward expressions would most positively shape or sustain the museum’s reputation.
Understanding which of these is the motivating factor for increasing the level of technology-based exhibits in a museum can then determine how the institution approaches the new content. If it’s about fulfilling a mission, this guides us towards thinking about technology as “subject matter.” If more focused on upholding brand standards, technology can be explored more as a “medium.”
Technology as Subject Matter
When working with technology as subject matter, we are eager to embrace themes like robotics and AI that also have strong marketing potential and the ability to successfully address both goals. The concern with taking this topical approach is, of course, the fear of obsolescence. Museums cannot afford to update an AI exhibit every 6 months to keep up with the nearly instantaneous pace of advancement.
So does this mean an institution pursuing this goal—to help prepare visitors for a technological future--must resign itself to a substantially shorter lifespan for exhibits? In short, no – provided we can select and interpret our “high technology” subject matter in a way that maximizes longevity.
For example, the decarbonization of the energy sector is a “now” topic, exceptionally important and current, but also has relevancy that can extend through the duration typically expected of new exhibits. While facts and figures may require updating, the fundamental technologies of electric transportation, solar farms, wind turbines, water-based energy storage systems, and even eventual fusion reactors should remain stable for a decade or longer. Conversely, focusing on topics such as generative AI and the “metaverse” could make problematic selections given their constant evolution.
Technology as a Medium
If a museum’s focus is to “keep up” with the popular attraction of hot social technologies, exhibit topics themselves are less important in this respect, and we may think of technology as a medium, a tool, or a technique. In this approach, any exhibit can be “high tech,” and the museum may burnish its brand even if the content is history, biography, nature, or play—not subjects typically associated with “high tech.”
Here, too, that same fear of obsolescence and today’s high-tech devices looking decidedly worn out before the exhibit has run its course is present. But again, the same solution applies, in selecting exhibit technologies and design approaches that carry the “high tech” feel without suffering from rapid replacement and change. Responsive media effects, LED lighting, durable electronic sensors, and stable, grounded exhibit technologies like Pico projectors and RFID, can deliver a truly “high tech” feel and be no more obsolete in 10 years than photos in the graphics.