01/30/2012 12:21 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

Unleash the Power of Technology: How Museums Can Create Engaging Experiences

How is technology changing the way we experience a museum? And what technologies are likely to create engaging experiences for a museum's audience? I've been thinking about museum audiences and engagement for some time now and had these questions in mind while visiting various exhibitions in NYC. Checking out a museum's website or Facebook site can definitely enhance visitors' overall experience with the museum, but I was primarily interested in experiences that enhance people's engagement during their visit.

In my recent trips, I was especially impressed by two exhibitions that are using interactive technologies to build audience engagement: Modernist Art from India: The Body Unbound at the Rubin Museum of Art, and Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration at the American Museum of Natural History. Although the exhibitions in these two museums are of very different nature, they both use novel ways to engage visitors with interactive technologies.

The Rubin Museum of Art uses QR (Quick Response) codes to increase visitors' engagement. Although QR codes are ubiquitous, they are very rare at art museums. In the case of the current exhibition Modernist Art from India: The Body Unbound, scanning the QR codes provides visitors with an interactive timeline that presents significant events in modern Indian art and in modern Indian History through photographs and video. What makes this so engaging?

First, technology is 'cool.' This is what a group of college students told me. They were visiting the museum for a class assignment and they noticed the QR codes as they were coming up the stairs and entering the exhibition space. Because technology is perceived as edgy and cool, it has the same effect on its surroundings.

Second, technology enhances the viewing experience itself. In this case, it allowed the viewers to act and interact in a space they expected to experience in a rather passive manner. They came to 'see' the paintings, as they said, and all of a sudden they were getting involved by using an interactive technology. And that made the exhibition more exciting to them.
Third, museum visitors can often be intimidated by their lack of knowledge. Technology can be used to draw in even first time visitors. This group of students had no familiarity with the art, but they were familiar with the technology. The QR code was a familiar element in a new context and this made the information interesting and enhanced their overall experience.

At the American Museum of Natural History, Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration features multiple interactive technologies to create an immersive viewer experience. How do interactive technologies achieve this goal?

First, technology can be empowering for the viewer. The museum uses an interactive display, the Mars terraforming table, that engages visitors by enabling them to transform Mars into an Earth-like Planet.

Second, technology enhances the viewer engagement by enabling the process of discovery. The museum uses an interactive tabletop that allows visitors to explore the landscape in Mars. For example, zooming on craters and volcanoes created an immersive experience.

Third, technology can be leveraged to create a multisensory experience. Consider an exhibition that describes in words how the Moon smells. By clever use of technology, simply pushing a button allows the visitor to actually experience the smell. This enhanced the overall viewing experience by engaging different senses.

These are really exciting times for museums. By going beyond traditional design, museums can leverage technologies to transform visitor experience.