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.
This is great, Katy. Thank you.
When I taught the survey here at W&M, I assigned my students to visit either Jamestown Settlement or Colonial Williamsburg and to write about the experience. I don’t think the assignment was particularly well executed because I wasn’t really sure what I wanted them to do other than pay attention to the way the history was presented at each site. Your post has really helped me think through what I wanted them to “get” when they visited, and think next time I’ll assign them to read your post before going. Thanks again!
Thank YOU, Chris, for the compliments. I really appreciate it. Glad you enjoyed the post. I can thank W&M for getting me interested in museums and public history. It’s really great to see that you’re encouraging your students to get involved in site visits.
Excellent post, Katy. The historical community really is trying to figure out how technology can be used as a tool to better understand the past. You are absolutely right to point out that technology must remain a tool, not an end unto itself. This is why digitized primary sources are indispensable, but a flashy Power Point presentation is really just a fancy overhead projector. I noticed the shift to edutainment with my visit to the Constitution museum in Philly (no holograms, but a fairly cheesy (or inspiring, depending on your point of view) sensurround opening movie). What is the happy medium between this and artifact overload (such as one encounters when faced with a wall of arrow heads at the NMAI)? And, if the point of museums facing decreased funding is to get people pushed through quickly, is there time for nuanced narratives? More questions than answers, I guess.
Thanks for the comment–and I think you raise some really interesting and important questions. Although I certainly cannot speak for all museums, here are my thoughts. I’ve often found that the “happy medium” often comes through exhibits that highlight the most representative objects in their collections and then offer their visitors a chance to learn more if a particular object, document, or historical moment catches their eye. For instance, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the New York Historical Society, and (I believe) The Smithsonian have all done exhibits based around “top 50/100/etc” objects in their collections. That’s just one of, I’m sure, many instances where being selective can help streamline and clarify exhibit materials. As for visitation and nuanced narratives, I think it’s important that all exhibits, regardless of time, encourage their visitors to think critically about the material that is being presented–whether that’s through text, objects, videos, pamphlets, etc. or multiple mediums at once, critical thinking is key to engaging the public. One of the major issues I had with the Tea Party Museum is that visitors were encouraged not to think very much at all about what they were seeing and doing.
Thanks again for the comments!
This is an important topic, and there is an interesting contrast between this experience and the annual reenactment, which took place on December 16 at the Old South Meeting House and continued on to the docks to watch the boarding of one of the replica ships and the dumping of the tea. (Photos: http://goo.gl/zdF0S.)
While the Meeting House wasn’t as full as it’s reported to have been when the actual meeting took place, it was full by modern standards and there was an electric feeling, as if we were about to witness something special. The reenactors were great and struck the perfect balance between their portrayal and, say, helping a youngster lower the mic so he could address the gathering. I was surprised to see so many kids step up and speak to what was probably the largest group they’d ever addressed.
Of course the Boston Tea Party attraction can’t afford to stage a huge meeting several times a day, but the larger point isn’t one about the use of technology as a substitute, per se. Instead, it’s whether we should focus on delivering an authentic experience that tells the story in a straightforward and honest way, or whether we should feel that we have to “sex it up.” In order to attract a generation that is growing up on iPhones and iPads, do we need to introduce these new technologies in order to capture and hold their interest when they step into our museum or onto our site?
I would argue that the reality is just the opposite. Regardless of the age of the guest, we should presume that they are there because they want to be–not always true for all kids in school groups, I realize–and that they deserve to be treated as intelligent individuals. They may not know much about the history of what they’re looking at or of the site where they’re standing, but they’re standing in front of you because they want to be there. If they wanted to stare at their iPhone or iPad, they would have stayed in the car. A well-designed exhibit or a capable engaging docent should not be replaced with an investment in flash. It’s authenticity that they’re after, and that’s in the documents and the artifacts, the place and the narrative, not the technology and certainly not in a ham-handed attempt to make it relevant and engaging by dumbing down the story and turning up the volume.
A final note: If organizations are going to invest in technology, they should focus on the people who aren’t there but who one day may be. This means immersive online experiences, live streaming events, and providing access to documents and photos of the collection. The viewers and users of those online resources are all people who are going to plan a trip or encourage others. The preview and the opportunity to engage online only makes it more interesting. Let’s banish the statement, “If we put it online, no one will want to come.” Do we believe that the White House, the pyramids, Wrigley Filed, or Disney World get fewer visitors because tens of thousands of photos and descriptions are online?
Great points, Lee. I think you’re right in reminding us that children and students who visit museums are often our most thoughtful critics! And that we should be careful about judging their interest, education level, or engagement too quickly. Often times museum visits are a chance for students to unplug–something they may not be able to do all that often these days. Online resources are also important tools as well! Thanks for commenting.
I love that The Examiner doesn’t understand how centuries are counted… Unless my understanding of US History is incorrect, the Boston Tea Party was NOT in the 17th Century…
🙂 And this, my friends, is why we need good historians!
I still believe that there can be such thing as a “theme-park-worthy experience” with meat on it’s bones. There needen’t be any dichotomy between education and entertainment, between substance and flash.
The sins of the tea party ‘museum’ lie most in the fact that when you peel away the flash there’s nothing underneath but flaccid, toothless, flag-waving. That’s what happens when the marketing people are in charge and real educators are nowhere in sight.
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I agree that a balance of technology and the real thing is in order. However…what if the museum doesn’t have a lot of original objects – or objects at all to tell the story? In some ways it’s a compromise; getting the story out is important – as long as historical accuracy is maintained.
Dear Ms. Lasdow:
I read with great interest your blog regarding our new attraction, the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. By way of introduction, my name is Chris Belland and I am the CEO of Historic Tours of America which has historic tours and attractions in Key West, St. Augustine, Savannah, Washington, Boston and San Diego and is also the owner of the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. By the way, I am also the creative designer of this facility.
You and I could probably sit down over a cup of tea and argue my points and yours into the next century. You said some things with which I agree and much of which I do not. I guess the main thrust of what we tried to do is to use 21st century technology to tell and 18th century story in a way that is compelling and memorable. Unfortunately, as good as many “museums” are today, they lack the ability to capture the imagination and understanding of the majority of the public. While we call ourselves a museum (which I most definitely think we are as defined by today’s world), we certainly do not have the artifacts or documents that are presently in such excellent facilities as the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution Museums, Old South Meeting House and the like. They are where they should be.
Having done a great deal of research into what kinds of museums are being responded to by the public, I can tell you there are several out there that meet the mark. The Lincoln Museum in Springfield and the World War II Museum in New Orleans are two outstanding examples using 21st century technology to tell their story. Yet, I would challenge you to ask a visitor to the Boston Tea Party segment of the Smithsonian’s American History Museum what they saw and see if they “got it”. Chances are they did not.
In today’s world, information needs to be presented differently to be understood in the context of our world. There is no doubt in my mind that over the next several centuries there will be very few of the relics of the 18th century left. Perhaps the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which are protected, might survive, but the artifacts currently being displayed in museums around the world will eventually crumble and turn to dust. What will we do then? If anything, I believe the new Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum is prescient in museum presentation. After all, isn’t the story and what the story means, the most important message? Our story is, of course, that of man’s willingness to sacrifice for freedom and it is a message that resonates today literally all over the world. I am quite confident that the majority of people leave the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum with a sense of what the Boston Tea Party meant then, today and for ever after.
Just a side note, Joseph Shed is my ancestor who I have had approved with DAR.