No Connection

chs_no-connection.jpgLately when I walk through our current exhibit, Through a Different Lens: Three Connecticut Women Photographers, the smart little iPad mounted on the gallery wall has been staring back at me with three heart-rending words: “No Internet Connection.”

Is that a cry for help?

“I need you!”

Or an accusation?

“I have no connection and it’s all your fault! Museum visitors hate me! I promise them touch-screen interaction and delightful videos, and they feel nothing but annoyance and resentment. Why don’t you love me?”

First, let me explain the purpose of the iPad in the exhibit. Then I’ll get into deflecting the blame for its failure onto someone else.There is much debate about the value and effectiveness of screens and other digital devices in museums: do they enhance a visitor’s experience or pollute the air with unnecessary (and breakable) bells and whistles? For a lively discussion on this topic, check out an old post at Paul Orselli’s blog: “Are Screens Killing Museums?” (This may be the only time I encourage anyone to read online comment threads.)

So why did we go with a (small) screen in this exhibit? One of the galleries in Through a Different Lens is devoted to a timeline of the history of photography, illustrated by examples of different types of photographs and equipment from our collection. The room design is very simple, low-tech, and attractive. But because the science of photography is actually not simple, we felt that some videos might do a better job of explaining a few things, such as how a tin type is made. The easiest solution for us was to mount an iPad with a web-based landing page that links visitors to a few fantastic videos created by the George Eastman House.

I think it works in the exhibit because it is unobtrusive, easy to use, relates directly to the exhibit content, and is an appropriate amount of information (we linked 4 short videos).

So what’s the problem? Here’s the fun part, where I get to blame someone else. The iPad needs a continuous internet connection to play the Youtube videos, and although we do have wireless internet access throughout the building, sometimes it…just…can’t…quite…make it all the way to exhibit gallery #2. Why? Behold:

The CHS is located in the former home of Curtis Veeder, inventor and businessman, who built his house with walls four feet thick. I blame Mr. Veeder for not anticipating our 21st-century wireless needs when planning his 1928 abode. So, what to do? Well, I don’t expect we’ll be drilling through four feet of concrete to run a wire into gallery #2 in the next month, so for now the exhibit iPad can be expected to work around 70% of the time (somehow those digital waves make it through most of the time). I guess in the near future we’ll have to load our digital content onto the actual iPad itself, not just pull from the Web—how old fashioned!

Ben Gammell is the Coordinator of Interpretive Projects at the Connecticut Historical Society

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