When They Go High, You Go Low(-Tech): How Technological Concepts Inspire Participatory Solutions in Museums

For several weeks, come Sunday evening, I’ve struggled with my choice of blog topic. Undoubtedly, discussing technology in museums is important, relevant and educational. In fact, my biggest concern with my articles thus far has been that museum technology is a concept that genuinely interests many of the most digitally vocal museum professionals. Indeed, if I am not careful in my research, I may simply be parroting an already-written article, paper, or book. This week, the combination of a discussion during my Museums & Digital Technology class and the revisitation of Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum has inspired me to explore a topic that is substantially more down-to-earth.

Museums across the country are scrambling to more fully incorporate new technology. Those with the available staff and budgetary support are already reporting positive results from the installation of high-tech interactives and experiences. But high-tech experiences are not for every visitor, and not every museum has the infrastructure to support them.

Looking at the technology situation from the institutional perspective helps to shed more light on the issue: in some cases, having a flashy touch screen activity or a salon of immersive VR headsets simply does not fit with an exhibition’s goal or its relationship to its visitors. In other cases, an exhibition may benefit greatly from the introduction of a technology-based experience or interactive, but does not have access to the necessary institutional backing. In both these cases, an exhibition team meeting during which technology incorporation is a topic of discussion may lead to frustrating conclusions.

The participatory ideas behind the would-be in-gallery technology, however, should not be thrown out the window. If they are broken down into their most elemental parts, they have the potential to serve as excellent guideposts for the creation of a low-tech version of the same experience. Consider Connections: Contemporary Craft, the exhibition currently on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC.

John Grade, Shoal (Bone Shoal Sonance), 2003 – Connections, Renwick Gallery


From what I observed during my visit, the exhibition team seem to have been faced with the challenge of marrying the Renwick Gallery’s sleek renovated space with the objects chosen for the exhibition. The extremely unique and beautiful works carefully made by skilled hands evoke feelings of artisan grassroots craftsmanship — feelings, it would seem, in direct conflict with the idea of navigating massive touch screen or engaging with a mobile app in the gallery.

The team deftly navigated this dichotomy by making literal “connections” between works, and sharing those connections with visitors. Linking related objects made with similar materials or using similar artistic techniques, and indicating those links with connect-the-dot decals across the floors and walls, a low-tech object networking system is built before the visitor’s eyes. System of connections suggests wayfinding paths, offers the idea of a non-traditional gallery route, and may even prompt visitor discussion based on the works at each end of the various suggested pathways.

The introductory panel for Connections is fairly brief, but explicit in its explanation of the exhibition as a reflection of the digital connections being made in the online world. The exhibition’s brilliance lies in its ability to reflect the concepts of metadata, tagging, search engine optimization and social networking through the use of the simultaneously simple and universal combination of choose-your-own-adventure and connect-the-dots.


Label from Connections, Renwick Gallery. Each icon at the base of the label indicates a different connecting thread between this and other objects within the exhibition. 

Technology certainly fulfills an important role in museums. It has the potential to transform them, make them more accessible, and provide opportunities for engagement with objects, collections and content that were never before possible. It can also, however, provide indirect influence in unexpected ways that may inspire affordable, clever and wonderfully participatory results. Just as institutions consider how they might best incorporate more technology into their museums, so they must also consider how their ideas for participation might also be realized through the use of simple, down-to-earth solutions.



2 thoughts on “When They Go High, You Go Low(-Tech): How Technological Concepts Inspire Participatory Solutions in Museums

  1. I love this use of Low-Tech in museums. Not everything in a museum needs to be touch screens! Sometimes I feel that museums are just throwing touch screens into museums as an effort to overcompensate and catch up with more innovative museums. It’s museums like the Renwick Gallery that are proving that sometimes the best way isn’t high-tech all the time, but realizing the potential of the low-tech.


    1. I definitely agree – sometimes the screen count is excessive. I wonder, though, if our reticence at the idea of introducing more media into museums is how the museum professionals of the 60s felt about the incorporation of films and television screens into their institutions. It would be fascinating to compare the dawn of the tv age with the dawn of the interactive screen age in museums and see what similarities and differences there truly are.


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