Museums without Wall Text

(Deepest Apologies to the ghost of Andre Malraux)

The Scholarly Kitchen writes today about the promise of human interfaces that would scan for information embedded in the environment and pass along relevant data to the user via a cell-phone, special glasses, etc. I’m not interested in having electrodes attached to me to allow a stranger to strike up a casual conversation (“hey, buddy, do you know that we were both born in February and have light brown hair?”). But i’m very interested in technologies that could enhance users’ experiences of museums and move us away from relying on wall text, for example.

It’s easy to imagine applying an RFID chip to an object–anything from a painting to a piece of furniture to a piece of a building–that would pass along some basic info to somone in the vicinity holding a small hand-held device. I had assumed that something like this would have to be done via geo-location, and imagined visitors wandering around with little GPS devices and aiming them at things they wanted to learn about. The problem, of course, is that much of the museum world is indoors, where satellite-based GPS doesn’t work. There’s also the problem of associating precise geo-spatial information, including altitude, with every object, and the need to update that information whenever a thing moves. With an RFID tag, the metadata travels with it.

We’re already building the databases, now we just need to attach the stickers (with conservators’ help, of course).

3 thoughts on “Museums without Wall Text

  1. Hi. I noticed you’d put a link to an entry of ours. You have an interesting subject matter here. Check out I worked with artist Nancy Nisbet on this project, and in some digging on the ‘Net I discovered that it’s possible to imbed RFID microchips into shoes, lay out tracking hardware into floors and track people’s movement that way. “Spychips” is a book by Katherine Albrecht that might interest you as well.

  2. Thanks for the helpful suggestions. Whatever else is true of RFID technology, it sure seems like it holds loads of potential for museum environments, especially open-air museums.

  3. Thanks for linking to me in this post. And sorry it took me so long to notice. I was amused to discover your blog since I grew up in Williamsburg (parents still live there), did historical archaeology on the other side of the James R for a while (do you know Nick Luccetti and Bill Kelso?), and we seem to have similar interests in interpretation and technology in cultural institutions. Thanks!

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