In recent years, the museum world has become inundated with edutainment sites and exhibits that hope to entice younger, more tech-savvy visitors, as well as people who do not tend to frequent museums, with all the bells and whistles of electronics and media. Videos, audio recordings, touch screens, and smart phone apps attempt to make history relevant to modern-day audiences by drawing them in with high-resolution graphics and multi-sensory experiences. At a time when funding for cultural institutions often takes a back seat, and when technology is everywhere and impossible to ignore, this push to increase revenue, visitation, and visitor interaction is unavoidable and understandable.
I recently ventured to the Boston Tea Party Museum—Historic Tours of America’s updated and expanded building (to the tune of $28 million) along the Boston waterfront, and one of the most extreme examples of edutainment that I’ve seen. My visit got me thinking about the ways in which history museums use technology and media to attract visitors, and the ways in which this technology can both clarify and obscure the historical information that is presented to the public. After touring the Boston Tea Party Museum I couldn’t help but wonder, when does a museum stop being a museum and become something else entirely?
My museum experience began inside a replica of a Massachusetts meetinghouse lined with benches. My tour group was given feathers and handbills—small cards with the names of individuals who took part in the Boston Tea Party or lived in Boston during the Revolution. I was Joseph Shed, a carpenter and friend of Samuel Adams. (Unfortunately, these eighteenth-century alter egos were more souvenirs than teaching tools.) We were then introduced to interpreters playing Joanna Thayer and Samuel Adams who instructed us about how to properly act in a town meeting and provided a brief overview of the controversies and unrest permeating Boston in the months leading up to the Boston Tea Party. In true patriotic fashion, mention of the Townshend Act, the Tea Act, and King George III received a rousing hiss!, while stirrings of liberty, boycott, and revolution received a hearty huzzah!.
Near the close of the meeting, Adams and Thayer urged the group to don their Mohawk feathers as a disguise, and head to the ships to dump the tea into the harbor. Aboard the replica ship the Beaver, we staged our own tea party by throwing pretend tea chests into the harbor. Our guide joked that we could “cast off the yoke of tyranny as many times as we wanted” before we were hurried off to make room for the next tour group. What started off as fun and interactive quickly lost its luster. The costumed interpreters—unsure whether to act completely in character, or to recognize their twenty-first-century visitors—were forced to compensate by saying awkward things like, “May I take your ‘instant portrait?’” for photographs, or “Let’s listen to the man apparently trapped in our ceiling” for audio recordings.
Once inside the museum, we stopped in a room decorated to resemble Griffin’s Wharf. Here we watched a 3D hologram of two eighteenth-century Boston women—an impassioned, visibly pregnant Patriot and a genteel, yet haughty Tory—discussing their fears and anxieties about the coming Revolution. The holograms were mesmerizing, but the effect was weakened when the hologram women finished their discussion, burst into sparkles, and floated away.
Next we moved into a room that housed the Robinson Half Chest—one of the two known surviving tea chests from the Boston Tea Party. The chest was situated inside a rotating glass box and dramatically backlit, while an audio recording explained how it came to be a part of the Historic Tours of America collections. I realized later that this tea chest was the only historic artifact on the entire tour.
On the walls around us were replica portraits of famous participants in the Revolution. Two larger portraits of King George III and Samuel Adams had been transformed into Harry Potter-esque moving portraits that yelled at one another in a heated debate. Throughout all of this, the only interpretive literature about these portraits was a small plaque informing visitors that all dialogue spoken came from “real diaries and letters.” I was disappointed that the guides did not mention the various cultural institutions throughout the city of Boston (along the Freedom Trail, in the Museum of Fine Art’s Americas Wing, or at the Commonwealth Museum for instance) where visitors can visit and see the original homes, artifacts, documents, and portraits presented in replica throughout the tour.
Last, we headed into a movie theater where we watched a short, dramatic film of Paul Revere’s Ride and the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The video concluded with a wounded Patriot leading us in a sing-a-long of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” while images of Mount Rushmore, the American flag, Abraham Lincoln, the Statue of Liberty (. . .you get the idea) emerged on the screen. We were then urged to sample (and enticed to buy) tea in Abigail’s Tea Room, named after Abigail Adams (The contradictory message here was glaring. Didn’t we rowdy Patriots just dump all of that tea?).
The Boston Tea Party Museum was steeped (pun intended?) in technology for technology’s sake. The museum’s quest to transport visitors “back in time” and to engage with them through technology and gadgets—rather than historical objects or nuanced narratives—created what can only be described as a Revolutionary time warp. I left the tour filled with questions: How could a site claiming to be a museum only present one artifact? Since when was Revolutionary Boston part of a Harry Potter book? And, most importantly, how can we learn from museums like this one as we think about where museums and public history are headed in the future?
When artifacts or people are entirely replaced with technology, visitors leave sites even more distant and removed from the past than they were before they arrived. History does not become exciting—it becomes hokey. I am by no means implying that all museums that use technology in their exhibits or in their educational materials are taking things to the extreme, or that they are doing something wrong. In fact, I’m sure many of us can think of historical sites and institutions that succeed in doing this quite well. Instead I want to argue that technology that fosters understanding of a particular historic subject should be embraced and encouraged, but not at the expense of the museum professionals and historians who are dedicated to teaching this material, and not at the expense of the visitors who deserve quality museums.
Rather than replacing docent-led tours with theme-park-worthy experiences, we should focus on training museum professionals who know their history, who can teach it well and in exciting ways, and who can operate a SMART Board or an iPad with the best of them. We should encourage visitors and students to use technology as a means of interacting with artifacts that would otherwise be kept in archives or that have become too fragile for display. We should encourage those interested in history and museum work to learn the ins and outs of web-based research and the plethora of materials that have been digitized online (and then hurry on over to The Junto and discuss it here!). We should introduce students to technologies like 3D scanners or GIS that have helped historians learn more about the past. In short, we should use technology as a tool, not a replacement, for human interaction with historical subject matter.
So, the question remains: When does a museum stop being a museum and become something else? Although it projects a historical image, the Boston Tea Party Museum’s main focus is to attract tourists and make money (one adult ticket will set you back $25). Perhaps, then, the shift occurs when history and education are no longer the central focus, and when entertainment, gadgets, and consumerism take center stage.
This post only skims the surface of the complicated place of technology in museums and public history. I hope that it opens the door for a larger conversation on this blog and elsewhere in the field.