The digital publication of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)

Do smartphones and their cameras enhance or detract from the museum experience (or can they do both)?

This is an extended discussion of the question that appeared in the Viewpoints department of the May/June 2016 issue of Dimensions magazine.

Instagram photo of the Renwick Gallery's WONDER exhibitionI will not tell people whether or not they will have a better experience with or without those kind of media or technologies. We put up our “Photography Encouraged” signs [in the exhibition WONDER], so obviously we are willing to accept that there is some benefit, but I’m careful to couch that in saying that we don’t necessarily think that the benefit is that you are able to take photographs. But what we do recognize is that for certain populations and certainly for younger generations, they are more likely to have a positive museum experience in their minds if they have the freedom to choose whether or not they are going to document it through photography. And so when I’m asked to weigh in on whether or not taking photographs enhances or detracts from the museum experience, I say quite clearly: I don’t think that the museum is the appropriate actor or body to render that judgment. I think that anybody who comes to the museum should be able to define for themselves whether or not taking photographs or documenting the show through technology is a better experience for them or not. But what I am very careful not to do is to tell people what kind of experience they should be having, because anyone who walks in this door is perfectly capable of making that decision on their own.

Nicholas R. Bell, the Fleur and Charles Bresler curator-in-charge, Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Smartphones can be a boon to museum goers. Additional information to enhance your learning experience can be a mere touch or swipe away. If someone is using their smartphone without distracting or annoying another visitor, I say go ahead and exercise your fingers and your brain. However, the use of smartphone cameras can be a much different story. Inattentive visitors in search of the perfect selfie moment or viral Instagram post can be a danger to fellow visitors, artifacts, and themselves.

Paul Orselli, chief instigator, Paul Orselli Workshop (POW!), Baldwin, New York

As an interactive science museum, the Franklin Institute strives to create an indelible experience that inspires a passion for learning about science and technology. Paramount to success has been a hands-on, multiscience immersion to catalyze that positive experience.

With the advent of digital technologies and the ubiquity of smartphones, we and our colleagues in the science museum field are working on ways to leverage this omnipresence to augment and enrich the experience, where possible, without negatively impacting the researched-based understanding of how to create deep and meaningful experiences. With the rapid advancements in technology, I have no doubt that providing several options to use a smartphone during and, maybe more importantly, post–museum visit, will further enhance and even prolong a visitor’s experience. As for the camera, that’s a sure win—we count on creating these lifelong experiences and now visitors can immediately capture, save, and share them in perpetuity. Bring it!

Frederic Bertley, senior vice president for science and education, the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia

There are benefits as well as costs to our snap-happy tendencies. A just-published study by Diehl, Zauberman, and Bararsch (2016) shows that taking photos can enhance people’s enjoyment of and engagement with their experiences, though those short-term gains can be offset by long-term consequences, such as when museumgoers remember fewer works of art they viewed on a museum tour and remember fewer visual details about those works of art when they took photos than when they just looked at the art (Henkel, 2014). Collecting photos as trophies and counting on the camera to remember for us may be counterproductive for our memories, especially if we do not take the time to look at the photos later.

Linda Henkel, professor of psychology, Fairfield University, Fairfield, Connecticut

Our visitors will use their smartphones and cameras anyway. What we should do is make that most effective both for the visitors and our institutions. For the institution, that could be that wherever there is a photo opportunity, we position our logo in the background to generate free advertising.

Science centers are best at giving visitors unique, memorable experiences. For the visitor, smartphones can provide links that extend that experience post-visit. At-Bristol’s Animate It! exhibition uses barcodes so that visitors can view, extend, and edit their animations at home. Its “Explore More” provides links to more information and third-party sites.

Harry White, science center consultant, At-Bristol, England, United Kingdom

From our Facebook page:

As a museum that thrives on engaging parents and children in hands-on learning exhibits and activities, we love when smartphones are put away and parent and child are fully engaged in what they’re doing. That being said, nothing captures a great time more than a photo of their experience at the Lab.

Dorothy Ready, director of marketing, Children’s Science Center Lab, Fairfax, Virginia

Via Twitter:
(Note: Tweets have been edited into a narrative format.)

I love sharing museum visits on Instagram and Twitter with #ITweetMuseums. Also handy to look up more information and take pictures and notes.

Margaret Middleton ‏(@magmidd), independent exhibit designer, Boston

I see an opportunity rather than a barrier to engagement, especially for younger audiences.

Spencer Clark (@ATS_Spencer), sales director, ATS Heritage, Waterlooville, England, United Kingdom

As an app developer, I definitely think they add to the experience. Interactive information greatly increases learning. Instantaneous research after viewing a piece is critical. If you didn’t have a smartphone, you’d have to remember all the things you saw and wait to get home to look them up. You would forget about most of what you wanted to learn more about instead of bookmarking them on the spot.

Michael Gonzalez (@mikegonzalez2k), Orange County, California

They help, I think. The pictures extend the museum out from a momentary trip and into our home. Smartphones also allow you to access more information while at the museum.

Giant Legoman (@SYKOScoRch), Spokane, Washington

1. Diehl, K., Zauberman, G., & Bararsch, A. (2016, June 6). Taking photos increases enjoyment of experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online copy.

2. Henkel, L.A. (2014). Point and shoot memories: The influence of taking photos on memory for a museum tour. Psychological Science, 25, 396–402.

The above statements represent the opinions of the individual contributors and not necessarily the views of their workplaces or of ASTC.

About the image: An Instagram photo of Plexus A1 by Gabriel Dawe, part of the Renwick Gallery’s WONDER exhibition. Photo by Christine Ruffo

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