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
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"
"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
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. …