Thursday, November 19, 2009

What Really Makes the Most Interactive Museum in DC?

This week I visited the Newseum, on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. It bills itself, on the website and as you enter, as "Washington, DC's most interactive museum." Did I think so after I visited: not so much--and I really had to spend some time thinking about why--particularly after at least one museum colleague told me he had really enjoyed it.

So let's start at the beginning--their mission statement which says:
The Newseum educates the public about the value of a free press in a free society and tells the stories of the world's important events in unique and engaging ways.
On some level, I think this mission statement is too broad--tells the stories of the world's important events? Basically, license to do exhibits on anything--and the definition of important news, these days, ranges from celebrities to economics. So it feels a bit disjointed to be in a museum that puts Sports Illustrated photos, the Berlin Wall, and the vest Bob Woodward was wearing when he was injured in Iraq in relatively the same frame. And although their programming appears to go much deeper, I longed for some deeper exhibit discussion on numerous issues--how about how the world sees us? How about corporate control of media? (perhaps a little hard to do with all those corporate sponsors)

And about those interactives. There is a ton (no other word really) of video in the museum. Good news, it was all working. Bad news--it felt a bit overwhelming (and found a good deal of sound bleed from one to another). I found the interactions to be primarily one way ones. And often, it came with a cost. You could vote for the Top White House Dog (news?) by putting money in a slot, and the big row of stand-up TV stations is fronted by a very large label inviting you to buy your photo or video.

The interactives were primarily screen-based ones (see the top photo). They were often designed in ways that didn't encourage group conversation or discussion, but rather for a single person to sit down at a station. I think of journalism--of the work of news gathering--as a collective effort in every way. It's collaborative through the whole process--the collective work of gathering the news through working with editors and others to create a single product, be it newscast or newspaper. There was almost no sense of a collective effort except for school group visitors. I wanted places for conversation, for debate, for connections, not just for button-pushing.

Consider the difference of asking, at an Express Yourself kiosk, whether you receive your news via a cell phone to the experience at the Holocaust Museum, in their exhibit From Memory to Action, where you actually sit down and write with a pen (that not only writes but shows your handwriting on a larger wall) your own personal thoughts on how you can take action to end genocide. You then drop your own thoughts in a transparent box, as you, in effect, join a community of people committed to ending genocide. So what if I get my news via cell phone?

And then, why, amidst all the high-tech glitz, is there this lonely little comment book in the exhibit on 9/11? Could they have made the text inviting you to comment any smaller? Not surprisingly, many of the comments are pretty mundane. The 9/11 exhibit did have the one thing I was really moved by at the museum--a 12 minute or so video with the recollections of local news crews and their efforts to cover the story. These were just regular New York City news guys--the traffic guy in the helicopter, the woman who covers City Hall, who found themselves thrust into a story they never imagined. Incredibly moving, and a real look at how journalists work. It was the one place where I really found myself wondering, "what would I have done?" and gaining a deeper understanding of the instincts of news people.

And why is the section on the Digital News Revolution just a text and graphics panel? No Twitter feed, no Flickr of current events? I actually found the graphic design of many of the areas interesting and well done. The use of bold graphics and headlines, based on journalism drew you into spaces and worked well in the museum's big spaces.

But one choice absolutely baffled me. I think of ethics as something that's transparent, that imbues every part of an organization's work. I could not figure out why the exhibit designers chose to put Ethics in a non-transparent cube, set off from the rest of the news. Bring ethics out into the open!


susie said...

Hi Linda - I totally echo your comments.

I found the exhibits, overall, to be too cluttered. Just too much. It was hard to focus on any one thing when 50 things were vying for your attention. And then the sound bleed.

I also found it disconcerting that it was a museum that had more theatres than galleries. Yes, a lot of news requires screens, but there were so many screens in the exhibits as well that it was screen overload.

Finally, I took some time to really watch people with the interactives, which were, almost entirely, screen based. Not counting the area where you can make a video yourself, and despite the loads of interactive screens (and it being a moderately busy July day), I only saw two individuals attempt the interactives. Both were boys between the ages of 12 and 18. Both experiences were less than 30 seconds. So how effective were those interactives, then?

But, like you, there were things I did like. I really appreciated how up-to-date they kept things. Some of the news clips they showed were only days old. Impressive.

I liked the "sticky" stuff they had on display. Don Bolles's car. And I loved the restrooms (funny headlines and germ control efforts both scored points).

Nice post.

Linda Norris said...

Susie--how funny you mention the bathrooms--I took a photo in there just for you! I just had an email from another colleague who found the layout frustrating--that you could see something interesting but you couldn't seem to easily get there from wherever she was. And I found that as well...

Anonymous said...

I haven't been to the Newseum yet, but of the for-profit museums in DC, I'd think that the Spy Museum is more "interactive". It is, however, set up very differently from many museums; the design reminds me of a few aquariums, where you start at the top and move in one direct down to the exit. The Spy Museum gives you at the start an opportunity to memorize a cover identity and then periodically quizzes you on it as you move through the exhibits. I went with a friend, and while we engaged with the quizzes alone, we watched each other and compared how we did.