Museums Go High-Tech to Compete for Tourists

Article excerpt

By Bob Dart

Cox News Service

WASHINGTON _ At the museum of the future, art lovers may gaze at the Mona Lisa, then dabble at a nearby interactive computer to create a Monet-like impressionist interpretation of the painting or perhaps a cubist take on the famous lady's mysterious smile.

No longer staid repositories of art and artifacts, museums are harnessing high technology in an effort to become more relevant, accessible _ and fun _ in an era of shrinking budgets and growing competition.

Disney's America, an historic theme park, is scheduled to open in suburban Washington in 1998 _ competing for visitors with the museums and monuments of the nation's capital.

But the choice for tourists will not be between watching lifelike Disney humanoids recreate history or traipsing through museums to stare at real historic objects stuck in glass cases. Experimenting with futuristic techniques like virtual reality, museums aim to become more entertaining while remaining educational and historically precise.

"Some theme parks are becoming more like museums and perhaps museums are becoming more like theme parks," said William Jacobs, an exhibits designer at the National Air and Space Museum. "We can learn from each other."

Already at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, not far from where moon rocks sit in static display, visitors line up at an interactive computer to plan their own robotic missions to Mars.

And at the new Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., patrons touch an interactive computer screen for quotes from the Spanish artist himself as they study his unsettling paintings.

Dali, who died in 1989, "was into high-tech. So this is very appropriate," said Wayne Atherholt, public relations manager at the museum, which opened in 1982.

Within the museum community, however, there is resistance to some of the sweeping changes.

Museums "are now facing a palpable tension between the old guard's cultural elitism and the new guard's marketing awareness," wrote researcher Margaret King in "The Futurist" journal.

"Without some way of integrating the elitist view and the populist view, museums risk either remaining static, lifeless and forbidding places with a rising level of public indifference or becoming sales-oriented storefronts whose appeal runs in sporadic bursts without providing experiences of enduring value," she warned.

Even advocates for change insist that museums will not abandon their traditional roles. "The act of collecting and preserving objects is at the center of the museum domain," reported the Commission on Museums for a New Century, an industry group.

"Disney and theme parks are 180 degrees from museums," said Edward Able, executive director of the American Association of Museums. "Some would like to begin to compare the two. I don't see the similarities."

"In a sense, we're in a different business," echoed David Allison, curator of computers, information and society at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

"Disney has always put its emphasis on entertainment," said Allison. "Our mission is to tell the real story. We don't compromise. We're extremely authentic in everything we do" _ with entertainment secondary to education.

But even purists acknowledge that museums are taking on dramatically different tasks than just collecting, housing and displaying historic, cultural and artistic objects. …