Family Time in Museums: Online or Unplugged?


Paul Gabriel, Educational Consultant/Educational Therapist, Independent
Emily Hope Dobkin, Youth Programs Manager, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History
Susan Edwards, Senior Writer/Editor, Web Group, J. Paul Getty Trust


Alice Parman, Independent Interpretive Planner

By Alice Parman

This session took place during the Western Museums Association 2013 Annual Meeting

At the movie theater we see repeated messages about no texting or talking—what about museums? While some museums ban personal devices, others embrace them. What does research tell us about personal devices as they affect learning? What turns these devices on or off: visitors’ ages, educational levels, learning styles? How are museum educators approaching this contested area? A learning specialist, a museum educator, and a museum technologist presented diverse viewpoints, leading to a lively discussion at the WMA 2013 Annual Meeting. Alice Parman served as moderator, opening with a brief reminiscence (she compared ubiquitous screen fixation these days to her 1950s childhood among adults who smoked almost all the time, almost everywhere).

Paul Gabriel was our lead-off panelist. Paul is an educational therapist in San Francisco, assisting children and teens with learning and processing differences. From 2000-2003, he was the Exhibits Director of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. He has served on the AAM and WMA Program Committees, WMA’s Board of Directors, and DivCom at AAM. Through his work as a consultant, conference presenter, and lecturer at JFK University’s museum studies program, Paul helps museum professionals use insights from neuro-diverse populations to transform exhibition design, interpretation and education and enhance cognitive comfort for all visitors. His presentation related technology to the human brain and the limits of our capacity for attention. Recent research indicates quite strongly that humans can only really focus on one thing at a time with maximal attention. Attention also costs, in terms of blood sugar used, and “free choice learning” is a gas guzzler in that regard. It becomes critical to evaluate whether technology is supporting or overtaxing the brain in trying to attend.

A second, equally important point was that our original “virtual reality social media technology” is oral language; so another yardstick for determining if a technology is appropriate in a museum setting depends on to what degree it enables users to actively share their experience with others and “talk” about it, whether they are present or not. In fact, a growing consensus among researchers indicates that the size of human groups—and the attendant complexity in communication demands—was a critical factor in giving rise to the unique symbolic capacity of our brains. We are hard-wired (in general as a species, Autism being a notable exception that proves the rule) to want to look at one another, to talk to one another, to share, to gossip, to experience together. The power of more recent technologies is that they allow more multi-sensory, multi-media sharing. The siren call to avoid is believing that these technologies can act as a fully authentic substitution for real time, personal interactions. View Paul Gabriel’s presentation slides below.

Emily Hope Dobkin joined us by Skype; thanks to Emily, Susan Edwards, and WMA staffer Lauren Valone for making this happen. Emily is Youth Programs Manager at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH). She holds a Master's in Arts Management from the University of Oregon with a focus in Community Arts. She has studied various art forms across the globe that have inspired her to facilitate a range of engaging arts opportunities in cultural organizations including Parks and People Foundation’s SuperKids (Baltimore, MD), Centerstage (Baltimore, MD), Southern Exposure (San Francisco, CA), The 1000 Journals Project (San Francisco, CA), the Maude Kerns Art Center (Eugene, OR), DIVA Center Gallery (Eugene, OR), the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (Eugene, OR) and Lane County Historical Museum (Eugene, OR). Emily’s presentation and remarks described the MAH’s “unplugged” approach to family programming. View Emily Hope Dobkin’s presentation slides here:

Susan Edwards has worked at the Getty Trust for 12 years. As Senior Writer/Editor, Web Group, she develops content for a variety of web and mobile projects across the institution. She has worked closely with museum educators to build curricular and programming materials, and games (including Whyville, a virtual educational world for kids, and GettyGames, online casual games). Susan has a graduate degree in art history from the University of Michigan, and is currently pursuing an MLIS at San Jose State University. Her presentation focused on an on-line mobile game, Switch. View Susan Edward’s presentation slides below.

Although the discussion was disrupted by a (false) fire alarm, most attendees returned. The discussion thread echoed an earlier presentation, To Tech or Not to Tech. Most of the points raised were technical questions about evaluation and the details of game development. Although we didn’t reach any conclusions about family time being on-line or unplugged, the session left audience members with plenty to think about:

  • Paul’s introduction led to this question: If brain research shows that we can really only attend to one thing at a time, and multi-tasking is a misnomer, how do our uses of technology with family audiences enable or disable, enhance or distract attention?
  • Emily’s presentation demonstrates the MAH’s decision to focus on low-tech resources to bridge families into the museum through hands-on interactivity. However, there is a means by which families do plug in via technology, and that is through the use of digital photography. During community programs, the MAH documents families’ engagement with art and history within a "Show & Tell" booth. The Show & Tell booth generally depicts not only a visual image of family visitors (the "show), but also what they made, who they interacted with, and what they loved about their overall experience (the "tell"). These photographs are shared on social media networks that further plug families into the museum, in addition to keeping them connected to the MAH community.
  • Susan showed an example of a mobile game intended to engage family audiences with works of art, by comparing altered images on their phones with the real works of art in the galleries. It would be interesting to hear about any future visitor studies that may evaluate what follows from this experience.

Alice Parman, Ph.D., fell in love with museums in 1972 and has worked in an around them ever since. She has been a museum educator and director, planner/writer for an exhibit design firm, and–– since 2003—an independent interpretive planning consultant.




Hi Kari, The slides are embedded within this post. In the lower left corner of each of the boxes, there is a SlideShare logo. If you click on that, it will bring you to the individual set of slides and any notes that are included. You can find the WMA SlideShare homepage here as well: You can also find more information from the To Tech or Not to Tech Tumblr page here: We hope that helps and please let us know if you have any additional questions.

Are the slides and notes from the presentation To Tech or Not to Tech available? I was really interested in that presentation but unable to attend.

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