In 2010 Dimitra Christidou was invited to talk about social media and museums at the Institute of Education in London. The museum community had already been experimenting with social media, and had identified some of the benefits and drawbacks of this digital turn. During her presentation, she wondered if ‘turning digital’ was as simple as it sounded...
Since then, there has been a rapid growth in the number of museums adopting digital technologies. In November 2015, during the annual conference organised by the Network of European Museum Organisations (NEMO), Michel Magnier, Director for Culture and Creativity at the European Commission, made a sarcastic comment that “digital has become the miracle cure. Every time you have a problem, let’s go digital and solve the problem”. This is exactly my own concern about museums turning to technology.
Museums, science centres and galleries have adopted learning technologies both onsite in the form of digital interactives, and online via mobile applications and websites with responsive content. While new digital technologies make a learning revolution possible, they certainly do not guarantee it, as no technology per se has an impact on learning on its own. Rather, the impact depends on how we use technology. In some cases, these technologies are used simply to reinforce the delivery of information. In other cases they have the potential to fundamentally transform how, where, what, and when people learn and so, contribute to lifelong learning.
To take full advantage of these resources, we need to fundamentally rethink our approaches to learning and consider how technology can support these approaches. Learning is not a simple matter of transferring information. It is an active process in which people construct new understandings of the world around them through active exploration, experimentation, discussion and reflection. If we ‘go digital’ simply to deliver information, we are missing the revolutionary potential of new technology to transform learning.
The impact of technology transforms not only the context, content and nature of the visit, but also the ways in which people behave, communicate, and learn. New and emerging technologies have challenged our ways of communicating and learning and introduced more engaging and collaborative methods of teaching and learning. They allow people to become the creators, and not just the consumers of content. They also allow us to access and share content anywhere in the world by instantly connecting with other potential learners.
This new technology changes the very nature and role of museum collections and museums as institutions. The emerging phenomenon of “going digital” is less about the integration of new technologies and more about the fundamental shift in perspective to a philosophy that privileges the user and promotes an ethos of sharing, collaboration and openness. By going digital, the museum is less a physical space and more an online platform that supports participation and lifelong learning.
Educators involved in adult learning in museums need to be supported in shaping a better understanding of how digital technologies and tools can facilitate and enhance the learning processes, based on pedagogical underpinnings. We need to provide training opportunities for adult educators to acquire and develop the necessary skills to facilitate adult learners; we need to be educated in educating how digital technologies can create and sustain the relevance of museum collections to users.
At a time when there are calls for synergies between formal and informal learning contexts, when there is an increasing emphasis on lifelong learning and a significant debate over the value of digital resources, museums need to learn more about their users before designing these online resources. By knowing more about our visitors, we can design digital learning scenarios that are relevant to them. This is why it is very important to critically reflect upon and rethink our digital interventions to be benefit-led, by creating relevancy to our audiences, both existing and potential, online and on-site.
Dimitra Christidou, works as a researcher and project manager at the Nordic Centre of Heritage Learning and Creativity (NCK), a Nordic Baltic centre for learning through cultural heritage, located in Östersund, Sweden. Dimitra holds a PhD in Museum Studies from the University College of London, in which she explored visitors’ social interaction in the museum galleries. Dimitra is interested in, among others, visitor studies, digital learning and meaning making in museums. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org