Some museums install high-technology displays to make art entertaining

December 06, 1993|By Bob Dart | Bob Dart,Cox News Service

At the museum of the future, art lovers may gaze at the Mona Lisa, then dabble at a nearby interactive computer to create a Monet-like impressionist interpretation of the painting or perhaps cubist take on the famous lady's mysterious smile.

No longer staid repositories of art and artifacts, museums are harnessing high technology in an effort to become more relevant, accessible -- and fun -- in an era of shrinking budgets and growing competition.

Disney's America, an historic theme park, is scheduled to open in suburban Washington in 1998 -- competing for visitors with the museums and monuments of the nation's capital.

But the choice for tourists will not be between watching lifelike Disney humanoids recreate history or traipsing through museums to stare at real historic objects stuck in glass cases. Experimenting with futuristic techniques like virtual reality, museums aim to become more entertaining while remaining educational and historically precise.

"Some theme parks are becoming more like museums and perhaps museums are becoming more like theme parks," says William Jacobs, an exhibits designer at the National Air and Space Museum. "We can learn from each other."

Already at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, not far from where moon rocks sit in static display, visitors line up at an interactive computer to plan their own robotic missions to Mars.

And at the new Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., patrons touch an interactive computer screen for quotes from the Spanish artist himself as they study his unsettling paintings.

Dali, who died in 1989, "was into high-tech. So this is very appropriate," says Wayne Atherholt, public relations manager at the museum, which opened in March.

Within the museum community, however, there is resistance to some of the sweeping changes.

Museums "are now facing a palpable tension between the old guard's cultural elitism and the new guard's marketing awareness," writes researcher Margaret King in "The Futurist" journal.

"Without some way of integrating the elitist view and the populist view, museums risk either remaining static, lifeless and forbidding places with a rising level of public indifference or becoming sales-oriented storefronts whose appeal runs in sporadic bursts without providing experiences of enduring value," she warns.

Even advocates for change insist that museums will not abandon their traditional roles. "The act of collecting and preserving objects is at the center of the museum domain," reported the Commission on Museums for a New Century, an industry group.

"Disney and theme parks are 180 degrees from museums," says Edward Able, executive director of the American Association of Museums. "Some would like to begin to compare the two. I don't see the similarities."

"In a sense, we're in a different business," echoes David Allison, curator of computers, information and society at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

"Disney has always put its emphasis on entertainment," says Mr. Allison. "Our mission is to tell the real story. We don't compromise. We're extremely authentic in everything we do" -- with entertainment secondary to education.

But even purists acknowledge that museums are taking on dramatically different tasks than just collecting, housing and displaying historic, cultural and artistic objects.

The changes can be described "in two key words," says Mr. Able. "One, interactive: The experience for visitors is less passive. Two, relevancy: What they present and how they present it are being made relevant to issues of today."

Hard times are compelling changes for many museums.

"Financially, these are the most challenging times in two decades," says Mr. Able.

Funding for the nation's nearly 5,000 museums comes from three major sources: One, federal, local and state governments. Two, individual and corporate contributors and endowments. Three, admission fees and sales at souvenir shops and restaurants.

In recent years, Mr. Able says, all three revenue sources have dwindled because of economic forces ranging from a lingering recession, low interest rates and corporate profits, and a decline in individual travel.

Many see computers and other technologies as a way for museumsto open their doors to a wider audience -- both patrons who visit the actual buildings and those who gain access electronically.

"At the Smithsonian, only 10 percent of our total collections are ever on display at any one time," says Mr. Allison. But computer connections -- "an electronic window" -- will someday allow "modemed" tourists to examine the stored treasures on their home video monitors.

The museum is already putting out textual information and still images through Smithsonian On-Line and other computer networks, Mr. Allison says, and action video is coming.

But he says there will always be a place in museums for viewing the actual objects -- not just electronic images.

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