Lost in Space

As digital museum exhibits age, cutting-edge technology is cutting both ways.

By Stephanie Corrigan | June 2, 2016
H. R. MacMillan Space Centre

This futuristic stainless-steel crab sits outside the H. R. MacMillan Space Centre.

H. R. MacMillan Space Centre
Vancouver, British Columbia

As a museum professional and a frequent museum visitor, I often find myself thinking about the role of technology in museums. Over the past few decades technological advancements have created new opportunities for museums while simultaneously increasing expectations for the quality of interactive displays.

Though technology increases the realm of what is possible, it can also create new problems. Exhibit designers and developers try to avoid overwhelming visitors with flashy displays; even so, many electronic exhibits seem more focused on technology than content. And even the most engaging and content-driven interactive exhibit faces another problem: shelf life. What happens when the display breaks or becomes outdated?

On a recent visit to the H. R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia, I found myself unexpectedly entranced not by the content of the museum’s interactive consoles but by their apparent age. The Space Centre explores the story of space travel through live programs, artifacts, and an exhibition gallery featuring interactive stations. At one console I attempted to dock at the International Space Station. At another I planned a trip to Mars using a detailed guide to select route, crew, fuel, and equipment. The content was rich, but what I noticed most was that the consoles looked and felt straight out of the Atari age: the experience was like playing games on my family computer in the late 1980s.

A sense of nostalgia drove my initial engagement with these inter-actives, but I soon found myself wondering how their appearance affects visitors. How do visitors accustomed to more modern technology respond to these programs? Do they find them relatable and informative or outdated?

Museum exhibits are expensive to produce, and digital components are more expensive still. Museums typically contract with outside firms to develop digital elements, creating another layer of complexity when considering already costly updates. These difficulties can make even minor changes and repairs challenging and can encourage museums to hold onto digital materials for as long as possible, even as they update other exhibits.

But digital does not mean forever. Digital formatting changes quickly and dramatically. (Where could you use a floppy disk these days?) The pace of change means the most difficult elements to upgrade in an exhibition may be the ones that need it most. A well-designed digital exhibit can look new and remain engaging for years before needing updates, but it is difficult to anticipate how quickly technology will become obsolete. Museums that want long-lasting displays need to budget for long-term upgrades and repairs.

Given the challenges, I understand and even expect broken displays and slightly outdated materials when I visit a museum. My real concerns are authority and accuracy. As a visitor, I want to trust in a museum’s expertise. The age of the technology at the MacMillan Space Centre made me wonder if the content was outdated as well. I am not an expert on space travel; so I have no way to gauge the accuracy of the exhibits. But the museum felt outdated, a feeling that made me, probably unfairly, distrustful of its content.

I truly enjoyed my visit to the MacMillan Space Centre. I loved the live show about space suits, life in space, and the unfortunate consequences of traveling unprotected in a vacuum. The planetarium show and IMAX film about the history of life were new and beautiful. But, fair or not, I wondered if this was the best place to go for the most up-to-date material on space travel. And as technology changes and creates ever heightened expectations, all museums will continue to face the challenge of maintaining a modern feel.