The overestimated value of digitization

Walking through the corridors and rooms of the Museum Volkenkunde gives you the feeling you just entered a whole different world. Exhibitions about Australian artworks and Indonesian bronzes at the one hand, and exhibitions about pilgrimages to Mecca at the other hand: every corner of our world is exhibited in this museum. On its website, the museum claims to be a ‘museum about people, with stories about universal human themes as mourning, celebrating, praying and fighting.’[1] People who are interested in the various cultures around the world, should definitely pay a visit to the Museum Volkenkunde. As I live in Leiden, I visited this place at least three times, and each visit was totally worth it. Each room deals with a different continent, so people with substantial interest in a specific continent are able to spent hours in just one room.

When I visited the museum last week, I could not help noticing something I’ve never noticed before: computer displays instead of the usual signs with text explanation. I should admit though that my second last visit was two years ago, so I’m not really sure for how long these displays have been there. Maybe it just occurred to me because of the reading we had to do precisely that week: in an article about technology at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) these touchscreens were described as the ‘Window on Collections’. This technology is said to have the following effect: ‘a series of computers that display images of each artefact, encourage you to touch the screen and to further explore the collections through digital means’.[2] Apparently this kind of technology is used in several museums. It is indeed different than the signs with explanation we’re used to, but is it also an improvement? Technical progress is something we’re dealing with a lot in this era. For me as a digital illiterate, digitization is something I don’t prefer if not necessary. Therefore I saw some serious disadvantages of the use of displays: way more than benefits actually.

While the NMAI has ‘a series of computers’, the Museum Volkenkunde just has one computer display for each showcase. During my last visit on Wednesday morning it was quiet in the museum, but imagine visiting the museum on a Saturday: it will be considerably busier, and there will be standing several people in front of each showcase. In this case you’ll have to wait for your turn. If this happens one time, it won’t be so bad, but waiting in front of each showcase is not the intention of visiting a museum. Besides the waiting, the location of the display can also be a problem. Some showcases in the Museum Volkenkunde are quite big and if you want to learn something about a specific artefact that is displayed in the upper left corner, you won’t be able to read the information and see the artefact at the same time. In this case you have to read the text on the display and move to the specific artefact, and for some more reading you keep switching between the showcase and the display.

The purpose of my latest visit was interviewing people about the museum. A ten year old boy was visiting the museum with his mother, and as an answer to the question what he liked most about the place, he told me he really loved the interaction in the museum and the displays he could touch. His mom was not a huge fan of history, but she liked the museum because it wasn’t a classic museum with just ‘pots and pans’. This ten year old boy is from a generation that is used to the rapid technological development, therefore it seems logical that younger people do like the interaction of a display instead of a text sign. In this way we could conclude that the displays are ‘kid friendly’, but what about the elderly? Each October the Museum Association (Museumvereniging) brings out the data of museum visitors. This data is based on 238 museums and it focuses on people with a museum card. The latest publication tells us that the majority of museum card holders is 65 and older (42%)[3]. 41% has an age of 35-64, so only 17% is younger than 34. These younger people sure know how to work with touchscreens, but there are many older people who don’t like the digitization and would prefer things like this as they used to be. Further these displays still are a technical aspect, so what happens if there is any power breakdown? Not to mention if one of the screens gets broken, it will be expensive to repair. Since they only use displays in the Museum Volkenkunde, this would mean there is not any explanation about the objects until the screen has been repaired.

In conclusion: are the displays in the Museum Volkenkunde an improvement? I would say they are not. Off course there are some benefits, but in my opinion the disadvantages are in the majority. The aim of the museum is being as attractive as possible to everyone: for both young people and the elderly. So instead of only having displays, maybe having the good old text signs as well would be a good compromise.


Written by Myriam Berrich

[1] < [17-9-18]>

[2] G. Isaac, ‘Technology becomes the object. The Use of Electronic Media at the National Museum of the American Indian’, Journal of Material Culture vol. 13(3) (2008) 287-310, 288.

[3] < [17-9-18]