National Museum of African Art


of an Exhibition

by Kaili Lockbeam

Published on March 02, 2011

  • Description:

    I visited the National Museum of African Art where I found numerous examples of technology in use. The museum has explored the use of technology in almost every gallery incorporating touch screens and slideshows into most of the exhibits. They have done a good job of integrating the technology in a way that enhanced my experience at the museum. The absence of technology in some of the galleries shows the staff understands when and where technology is appropriate.
    From the beginning of my visit I encountered technology in the form of touch screens and slideshows. In the lobby, there were eight screens, three on the wall in front of the information desk and five behind the desk. The set of three consisted of two small screens and one large projection screen. The first of the small screens portrayed a map of Africa with scrolling facts about African countries and general facts about the continent. This map with the same information was located on two other screens throughout the museum. The large center screen showed a slideshow of dancing and other cultural activities. The second small screen was an interactive touch screen allowing the visitor to explore selected pieces of the collection. The objects each had a detailed description accompanying their picture.
    Behind the information desk in the lobby were five different screens. Only one of these screens was interactive the rest were slideshows. The first screen on the left was a larger screen thanking donors for their contributions. The next screen was another screen relating facts about Africa. Screen three was a guide to the museum covering the exhibits, museum layout, and calendar of events, brief information about Africa, and a short video. Of all the information available on this screen, the video was the piece that did not fit. It was a short video of people playing music, however the video had no sound. Lack of sound on a video of drums and possibly singing detracted from the appreciation of the video. On the fourth screen, a slideshow of objects with no description was displayed. The last screen displayed upcoming events in a continuous slide show.
    The technology present in the lobby serves two purposes. The first purpose is to prepare the visitor for exposure to a type of art that might be unfamiliar. Through the quick facts and the collection highlights, the visitor can learn what to expect in the museum. The second purpose of the technology is to allow the visitor to move around the museum and become familiar with what the museum offers. The floor plans and calendar of events allow the visitor to become acquainted with the museum’s physical space and programs that are offered.
    On the stairs to Sublevel 1 there was a small plaque on the wall describing the textiles hanging from the walls. The ones hanging in the center area are reproductions, the wall plaque directed the visitor to go online to see real textiles from the museum’s collection. This plaque allows the visitor to extend their visit beyond their time in the museum. The one drawback to the plaque is that visitors are unlikely to remember to visit the website after they leave. A solution to this problem would be to use the kiosk on Sublevel 2 to present the images and information related to the real textiles.
    In the African Mosaic gallery, located on Sublevel 1, there were two pieces of technology to help engage the visitor with the exhibit. The first piece is a video showing the creation of sculptures by Ousmane Sow. The video is 26 minutes long it includes interviews with the artist as well as footage of the artist creating his sculptures. This video enhances the visitors understanding of the sculpture on display showing how the material was made as well as how other pieces of sculpture were displayed in the artist’s village. It is a long movie and the visitors I witnessed usually only stayed in the area for five minutes at the most.
    The Gallery Hunt kiosk is the other piece of technology found in this gallery. The Gallery Hunt comes in two parts, the flyer with the small pictures and the kiosk with the answers to the game. The Gallery Hunt is a fun way for visitors to engage with a gallery that covers a wide range of often-dissimilar objects. The flyer has close up images that the visitor is supposed to find while exploring the gallery. At the end of the gallery there is a kiosk with the answers to the flyer. I personally like this because it keeps frustration to a minimum. One of the issues with this system is the answers only show the whole piece of art but it does not tell the visitor the location of the artwork in the gallery. I did like how it encourages the visitor to look closely at all parts of the gallery engaging visitors who might otherwise be overwhelmed by the wide range of objects.
    A second component to the gallery kiosk allows the visitor to browse through an Art by Theme section. These categories are diverse; sorted by country, theme, or medium. Banners throughout the gallery also represent the themes described on the kiosk. The visitor is able to understand the mosaic style of the gallery through the use of the kiosk. Through the kiosk the visitor is able to explore the different themes covered in the exhibit. Choosing a theme brings up a catalog sheet showing the objects classified under that theme. There are no details attached to the object in this display to explain why they have been sorted into a particular theme. The kiosk could be more effective if it gave a reason for how the objects are sorted.
    The Henrique Oliveira exhibit used three screens mounted into one panel. Two of the panels showed Henrique creating his artwork. One screen shows Henrique creating his canvas artworks. The second screen shows Henrique building his tree sculptures with pliable wood and staples. By seeing the artist creating his work the visitor is able to connect with both the artwork around them and the artist. The last screen invites visitors to share their thoughts via Twitter updates. This gives the visitor a great way to engage with other visitors.
    My favorite gallery in the museum was the Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection, which had no technology in it. I feel this shows the museum staff understands when to use technology. This gallery was beautifully lit and each piece had its own spotlight and distinct presence that could have been ruined with the introduction of technology.
    The last piece of technology I found at the National Museum of African Art was another kiosk with quick facts about Africa. This kiosk was deceptive, it asks ‘What do You Know about Africa?’ but does not actually ask any questions. The same facts and trivia relayed on the two screens in the lobby are repeated here. I was excited when I read the title screen, I anticipated that this kiosk would ask me questions about Africa that I had learned from the previous screens. It was a disappointment to find the kiosk only repeated the facts from the other two screens, I feel this could be more effective as an question and answer game.
    Throughout the museum, technology was used to enhance my visit. The technology located in the galleries was directly related to the exhibits encouraging visitors to explore the exhibits completely. While none of the technology interfered with the design of the exhibit I felt there was an over reliance on touch screens, a mix up of technology might engage more visitors. The galleries the technology was located in were designed to be forgiving to the use of kiosks, giving the kiosks there own space and not crowding the art. I felt the use of technology by the museum was well placed to allow the visitor to more fully experience the exhibits.

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