I love how new technology finds its way into a museum and inspires staff

                                              Karen Lee (L) with senior museum studies expert Gretchen Jennings

Karen Lee is the numismatic curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Founded in 1846, the Smithsonian is the world's largest museum and research complex, consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park, and nine research facilities and is administered by the United States government. Recently, she was in Kolkata to discuss the significance of “Indian and American Museums in a Global Context” at Victoria Memorial Hall here along with senior museum studies expert Gretchen Jennings, formerly associated with the Smithsonian.  Abhijit Ganguly spoke to her.

How is technology changing the way we look at a museum?

Museums have changed dramatically over the past few decades because of how technology has been applied to deliver content, enrich context and interactivity for previously static displays and create immersive environments that help people connect with new experiences. Even aspects like exhibition lighting, security and customer service have changed because of how we’re using technology to address these needs. I love how new technology finds its way into a museum and inspires staff. We have got so many tools in our professional ‘tool box’ now that can be used to help visitors explore and interact with new ideas and experiences.

What are some of the ways the Smithsonian Institution uses technology to innovate the visitor experience, manage exhibitions and attract visitors?

We look at technology from multiple perspectives at the Smithsonian. At the world’s largest cultural museum complex, we’ve got people who use technology in very different ways, most of which involves research. Speaking as an exhibition developer, we primarily ask “how can technology help with our outward-facing activities” meaning things that happen within Smithsonian museums or online and through public outreach. We also ask “how can technology help with our inward-facing activities” where we preserve and manage collections, conduct research and plan for the future, among other things.

Two recent examples of how my colleagues are pioneering the use of technology are worth mentioning. At the Smithsonian’s Cooper- Hewett Museum in New York City, they have developed a technology called the “Pen”, which allows visitors to collect and design new things based upon what they see and do in the museum. People can even send their creations home where engagement with the museum hopefully continues. In an era of selfies and social media, Smithsonian museums are also beginning to encourage visitors to use their own technology--usually cell phones-to enhance their experiences at the museum and from home. For example, the National Museum of Natural History developed an application that lets visitors see what skeletons on display in the museum looked like when the animals were alive.

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