For better or worse?: iphone apps and museum exhibitions in Singapore

The Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore is presenting “Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor and His Legacy” (click ‘here‘) from 24 June to 16 Oct 2011.

Rightly so, this has the potential of being a blockbuster, since the topic of China’s first emperor and his funerary army is very popular with the local Chinese population. I believe that his exploits are also detailed in the local secondary school history textbooks, as part of their exposure to Asian civilisations.

What I found interesting is that this exhibition may be the first in Singapore museum that comes with its own dedicated iphone app (click ‘here‘). In the programme are guided-tours, games and “AR technology, which superimposes animated 3D objects into the real exhibition gallery space”. And its free.

It is great that local museums are providing more oomph to the visitors’ ‘exhibition-experience’. While some visitors like me (who doesn’t have an iphone, and am damn proud of it) would still be happy walking through an exhibition armed with nothing but open-eyes and an open-mind, such an iphone app would definitely bring a new dimension for visitors who like such new experiences. Or better still, such apps may even bring new visitors to exhibitions who would have otherwise stayed home if not for such new tech gadgets.

However, such iphone apps used in museums is not exactly ‘news’. In Aug 2009, Artnet News (click ‘here‘) had already reported the usage of such apps in American museums. What remains to be seen is that if such apps actually help visitors ‘learn’ more about their museum-visit, or do they simply make it more ‘fun’ despite visitors not learning anything ‘new’ beyond what can be read from the wall-panels already there.

I’ll just have to see for myself how a non-iphone-user experiences the ACM exhibition when compared to an iphone-user. I hope that despite making their way into our local exhibitions, such new technologies:

1. do not create a situation where visitors who do not possess the required equipment and software get left out of a whole new aspect of the exhibitions. And I doubt if ACM would rent out iphones to visitors, seeing how tricky it would be to keep them secure,

2. do not make ‘real’ what is essentially ‘unknowable’ or ‘irrelevant’ in history. For example, what good is it that through the ACM app that one can “View through your iPhone camera an animated life-sized 3D terracotta warrior in a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station”???

3. do not reduce the ‘art of storytelling’ – i.e the craft of curatorship. With this I mean that the ‘story’ of each exhibition should come through clearly just by looking at objects and reading the wall-texts. Any new technologies should only serve to ‘enhance’ this storyline, and not be used to bamboozle visitors into thinking that they are learning way more than what the showcases and panels are already showing.

As usual, watch this space for an update after my visit.

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