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Communication 2.0: Between Museum Education and New Technologies

08/03/2015

Interview with Friederike Lassy-Beelitz

The world of art abounds with secrets waiting to be discovered. Digital communication platforms can help build an emotional bridge between the viewer and the artwork itself. Friederike Lassy-Beelitz has worked in art education for twenty years and describes how her museum—Vienna’s Albertina—is meeting these new challenges.

How is the museum facing the increasing digitalization of the world?

There are three main areas. First, the internet: that means the websites with which museums present themselves and their programs. An online presence is not just about marketing, but also delivering a service: in the case of the Albertina, a large section of the digitalized collection can be accessed online.

For art education, group tour systems are an essential tool. These tour devices have the advantage that they create no noise level during personal tours. These group tour systems have become more intelligent over the years. It is now possible for the systems to recognize the location of the user with the help of interfaces: content can be displayed to the visitor in a targeted manner. That way, background music, videos, or other images can support the tour.

The next digital tool to be used in tours is the tablet computer. These, too, provide background information: be it text, image, sound, or video material. That is enjoyable and provides some variety for visitors. At the same time, the tool offers the exhibition organizers the advantage that this kind of background information does not interfere with the aesthetic design of an exhibition. Let me give an example: the Albertina possesses a great number of masterful graphic artworks. Some of these graphics were created entirely independently, whereas others were studies for paintings, frescoes, publications completed later. In this context, it is wonderful to be able to establish art historical connections with tablets. A drawing that was a study for a fresco suddenly appears in an entirely different light when you have that knowledge. So tablets help to build a connection that is either intellectual or emotional between the artwork and the viewer.

A further field of application for digital devices in art education is the multimedia guide. Mostly, a multimedia guide consists of an app, which joins up the guide, the online presence, and interactive social platforms.

The multimedia guides are used in some educational programs with school classes. What were their reactions and how did they interact with the tablets?

The emotional connection between the artwork and the viewer is more straightforward or intensive when an artwork attains personal relevance. That happens when the visitor actively concentrates on the work, either in their thoughts, or by communicating with others, or through practical activity. Tablets are a technical medium that is by now commonplace among young visitors, who use these devices quite instinctively—and willingly! We have learned that school students are especially keen to fall back on these devices: particularly for young people who rarely visit a museum, a tablet or a cellphone is the only familiar object they come across in an exhibition, so they are all the more grateful when they are allowed to operate a device to learn about the exhibition.

Are new avenues being explored with the multimedia guide, is it being used to try to mobilize new audiences, to make the museum more modern?

If multimedia guides were the only marketing strategy to address new visitors, I would find that problematic. If a museum has an image problem and is perceived as dusty, then it won’t be able to solve that problem with a cool app or a laid-back Facebook presence.

Making a multimedia guide available is only one small building block, which can enrich an attractive museum with one more offering, but it won’t save a museum that is otherwise poor at communicating.

I also have a low opinion of the theory that a multimedia guide can tap into new classes of visitor. For the past five years, we have had very well founded “non-visitor” research at our disposal. The greatest barriers preventing people from going to a museum are that the museum is too far away, too expensive, or that people feel out of place. The greatest barrier to visiting a museum is not having someone to go with! These barriers cannot be overcome by a multimedia guide. Multimedia guides are a welcome offering for visitors who are already regular museumgoers. They can play a part in helping regular visitors maybe find out about new aspects of an exhibition in a new way.

What opportunities does the multimedia guide offer to the museum as an educational tool?

The combination of several media, i.e. audio, videos, and images or text increase the likelihood of “latching on” to the visitor. That makes a multimedia guide an exciting educational tool! It is also an advantage that the visitor can choose their own path, follow their own interests and—if the database in the multimedia guide has provided for it—learn additional information.

What is the Albertina’s experience of multimedia guides?

The Albertina has had very good experiences with the guides. We are trying to design their use as interactively as possible. The multimedia guide has three pillars. The first is the classic audio guide. The second pillar is made up of interactive elements that invite the visitor to respond actively—whether as a curator who stipulates the color of the walls in a room, determines the framing of images, or decides on the hanging of artworks, or whether staging themself as in a work of art. The third pillar serves communication, on the one hand with the existing social networks, on the other hand with other visitors who also use this device. The aim of the multimedia guide is to lead viewers to the original: viewing the original work is the main priority. The device is only means to an end.

What are museums’ expectations of technical devices?

To increase visitor numbers and customer intimacy, to demonstrate proximity to life and relevance. These small devices are supposed to fulfill all these huge expectations!

Museums are often afraid of being stuck “in their ivory tower,” they are afraid of being “uncool”—and yet museums house the “coolest” thing there is: originals!

Friederike Lassy-Beelitz studied art history, history, and musicology in Vienna and Munich. Since 1995 freelance art educator for the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, the Picture Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts (Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste), as well as self-employed art educator of contemporary art in public spaces. Assistant art educator at the Albertina since 2002. President of the Austrian Association of Cultural Mediators in Museums and Exhibitions, board member of the Museumsbund Österreich.