A New Kind of Museum?
In a world dominated by Twitter, Facebook, Google, iPads and smartphones, tech-enhanced museums are stepping up to offer enhanced engagement value, and in Melbourne, Australia, two of the best curated experiences worth stepping in for.
Around the world, museum curators are trying to make their institutions “relevant” in a world seemingly dominated by Twitter, Facebook, iPads and smartphones. In many cases, unfortunately, the result resembles the unpleasant love child of the antiquities warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the It’s a Small World exhibit at Disneyland. Displays flash, babble and flutter to no discernible end. Rather than learning anything, I usually just get a headache.
Fortunately, two superb museums in Melbourne have largely dodged these bullets to create tech-enhanced displays that are both engaging and educational. If you can drag yourself away from the city’s excellent shopping, restaurants and waterfront attractions for a few hours, they are well worth visiting.
The Melbourne Museum is one of those fabulous soup-to-nuts sorts of spaces, covering Aboriginal traditions, the history of Melbourne, nature, medicine, design and more. Stretching over 80,000 square metres—half of that devoted to public space—it’s the largest museum complex in the Southern Hemisphere.
The free orientation tour at this huge institution is eminently worthwhile, even if only to get your bearings. Our guide, Harry Bryan, pointed out all sorts of things I might have otherwise ignorantly walked right by, such as the 10 huge tapestries woven to commemorate Australia’s centennial in 2001. Incorporating everything from children’s drawings to old photographs, each weaving is minutely detailed.
Bryan also guided us to Wild, a permanent exhibition of critters from around the world. Taxidermy usually gives me the willies, but this exhibition is captivating and makes superb use of technology. The animals are arranged in thematic groups on open tiers in a huge, high-ceilinged white room. At ground level, electronic displays provide detailed information on each animal’s habitat, habits and so on. Click on an animal you’re interested in, and a light will guide your eye to the related specimen on the shelves above.
Other highlights of the museum include a living rainforest—complete with chirping birds and the preserved remains of a bushfire—and an exhibit on the human body that is not for children or the faint of heart (seeing as it includes both nudity and real human body parts preserved in silicon).
One of my favourite aspects of the museum is how well it seems to engage with the city’s residents. A recent exhibition of summer holiday photos from the early 1900s included a side display of more recent vacation snaps submitted by visitors, while a current show features the design portfolios of local students.
Honestly, though, I’ve just scratched the surface. Whether you want to see a room-sized computer from the 1940s, haunting paintings by Aboriginal artists, or the taxidermied remains of Australia’s most famous racehorse, Phar Lap, you’ll find something to intrigue you here.
Like the Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum is run by the Victoria state government. Much smaller than the behemoth to the north, it nonetheless has more than enough to keep a museum-lover amused for hours.
With refreshing candour, it tackles touchy questions of identity, racism and prejudice head on in some innovative ways. My husband and I were both captivated by a multimedia exhibit that recreates the experience of riding one of Melbourne’s ubiquitous trams. As you’re “riding,” people of different ethnicities get on and off the tram, and interact with each other. You get the chance to peek inside each person’s thoughts and see how they react to, for instance, a man carrying on a long cell phone conversation in a foreign language. It’s fascinating to play and replay the short scene from multiple points of view.
New technology also lets you go through a simulated immigration interview. Based on your responses to questions, a taped immigration officer provides different feedback. At the end of the process, you learn whether you have been “accepted.”
Australia’s immigration history, like that of Canada and many other countries, hasn’t always been a bright and sunny story. This museum brings these complex issues to life better than any other museum I’ve seen anywhere.