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Can interactive exhibits enhance the museum experience?

Turkana or Pokot<br />
Kenya<br />
Headrest, third quarter of 20th century<br />
Wood, metal<br />
Gift - Fetterly's
Turkana or Pokot Kenya Headrest, third quarter of 20th century Wood, metal Gift - Fetterly's

The Minneapolis Institute of Art is featuring an exhibit called iAfrica Connecting with Sub-Saharan Art which is an experiment using African pieces drawn mainly from their larger permanent collection and introducing them with interactive tools to test the effectiveness in creating a better understanding of the objects displayed.

To guide the viewer in his museum experience the interactive aides include: wall text panels, color-coded “zones”, individual object labels, laminated cards, videos, music recordings, google maps, handheld devices, “smell experiences”, and manual turning cases.

The question is do these devices actually provide a more enriching experience? To answer this question we must first understand the function of the museum and perhaps some of the limitations of a typical exhibit.

Museums are a source of public education outside of formal classes. They exhibit tangible evidence of people, their culture, and their environments. Their purpose is to educate, preserve, and promote cultural heritage, which provides a framework of understanding for our future.

In a typical exhibit a viewer walks into a room with several displays guided only by object labels which tend to be overlooked by the general public. Museum labels provide interesting ethnography vital to the interpretation of the object, overlooking them or having limited comprehension prevents the viewer from bonding with the object.

iAfrica Connecting with Sub-Saharan Art addresses these limitations by not only providing the museum label but an interactive aide to guarantee a more complete understanding of the object and its purpose.

For example Turkana or Pokot, a headrest from Kenya made of wood and metal may be overlooked because of the simplicity in design and general lack of overall appeal. But because it has been included in the interactive exhibit the viewers are prompted to smell the cheesy aroma that permeates from the headrest as a part of their experience. This engagement paired with the label, which provides a comprehensive description of the headrests functionality and cause of the pungent smell, creates a learning experience which is the missing link in a typical exhibit.

Art can be a beneficial learning tool when paired with formal studies. But it is the combination of interactive learning and not the cursory glance that makes the difference. 

This exhibit is on display until April 18, 2010.  Please visit and don't forget to submit your feedback and reactions, which are crucial to the experiment.


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