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Using Technology to Experience History

a visitor takes a photo of the dome with her tablet

Arguably, one of the greatest things about the 21st century is the progress we've made with technology. Most Americans over the age of twelve walk around carrying tiny, keyboard-less supercomputers in their pockets, and some may even carry more than one! We can store thousands of songs on devices that fit into the palms of our hands. On any given morning I can get up a little early to have a friendly, real-time video chat with my best friend--who lives in Singapore.

Technology has pretty much been integrated into every aspect of our daily lives. Of course, there are times when technology isn't really appropriate. (I would argue that there really is no need for a litter box that flushes.) But, despite what some might say, I think museums across the country are doing an excellent job of figuring out when to incorporate technology, and when to leave history to speak for itself.

Take, for instance, the Smithsonian Museum of American History. One of their most famous objects is the Star-Spangled Banner--the same one we sing about at every sporting event. The massive flag is on display for the public to see; unfortunately, however, the flag is extremely delicate. Its display case takes up an entire hallway, with dim lighting conditions to prevent damaging the fabric, and photography of any kind isn't allowed. The flag's size and condition mean that museum patrons can't examine it as closely or interact with it as freely as they might be able to with other objects.

The Smithsonian's solution? An interactive table! The touch screen table displays the flag in exquisite detail, at full size, and the image is constantly moving from left to right and up and down to allow the entire flag to be seen. In addition, there are dozens of dots displayed on the virtual flag that balloon when tapped to reveal facts about the flag--from how it was made, to how it was damaged, and even explaining why certain parts decay faster than others. The table serves as a fun way to let us get closer to our history without doing further damage to a delicate artifact.

Another museum that successfully incorporates technology is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Holocaust Museum's main exhibit has videos running in several of its rooms, displaying everything from newsreels to interviews with Holocaust survivors, and it uses interactive video kiosks to immerse patrons in Nazi Germany life. There are also more traditional offerings, such as a scale model of a death camp with tiny figurines being marched into gas chambers.

However, one of the most famous parts of the exhibit uses no technology at all.It's commonly referred to as “the Shoe Room," and it is frequently cited as one of the most disturbing and impactful displays in the museum.Considering that the Holocaust Museum also contains a replica of a sidewalk from a work camp made of broken Jewish gravestones, and that visitors walk through a train car used to transport prisoners, this is a pretty serious thing to say. The museum uses exhibits like these to making a visceral and emotional impact--signs everywhere urge visitors to “REMEMBER WHAT YOU HAVE SEEN," so that nothing like the Holocaust will be allowed to happen again.

Aptly named, the Shoe Room contains nothing but shoes. Old shoes, beat-up shoes, big shoes, baby shoes. There are thousands of them, heaped almost a foot deep and completely covering the two hundred square foot room, except for a small walkway. Without context, the Shoe Room doesn't mean much. That context is provided by a small sign, black with plain white text, explaining simply that these shoes were found in a storeroom in the Majdanek extermination camp, liberated in 1944, and all of them were taken from dead prisoners. The 4,000 shoes on display are only a fraction of those recovered. Given time to think, many people realize that 4,000 shoes means 2,000 people--2,000 dead prisoners, represented right there in the room.

Most people don't linger in the Shoe Room. Those that do frequently come out crying. I couldn't stay longer than a couple of minutes; I started crying when I walked in, and when I left the stench of old leather had almost made me sick.

I've used these examples to illustrate that sometimes technology helps, and sometimes it can (and should) be foregone.There's no question, however, that museums can enhance their impact when they thoughtfully and appropriately incorporate technology.

Recognizing this, the McLean County Museum of History has recently launched a $3 million dollar capital campaign. Planned improvements include an entirely new gallery dedicated to Lincoln and his McLean County connections, and a complete renovation of the four permanent exhibits. Each exhibit will use new technology, including interactive games and animations, to enhance the visitor's learning experience. For more details about these and other planned improvements, you can watch the campaign video here. (And keep an eye out for my smiling face--I'm in there!)

I urge you to donate to the campaign if at all possible, and to give more thought to the ways technology can revolutionize the way we experience our history.

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