Strictly Business: Information can't trump experience

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The word “museum” conjures a sense of the static — a place to look at but not touch, offering little to our nonvisual senses.

That notion has diminished in recent times as many museums have added interactive elements, sometimes spectacularly — witness Seattle’s Experience Music Project, where visitors can pretend to live out their rock musician fantasies.

In the past week, I’ve seen two examples of how museums are entering a new technological frontier by using personal smartphones to augment exhibits with more words, video, audio, or three-dimensional displays. At the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, a car frame showcases a multilayered digital presentation of automobile technology conceived and created by students at Washington State University Vancouver. At the Clark County Historical Museum, a display of old clippings from local newspapers is enhanced by more articles that are easily accessible on smartphones.

The two museums’ approaches are very different. At OMSI, the digital display offered on smartphones and iPads stationed at the exhibit uses a technology known as “augmented reality.” That creates a three-dimensional display of engines, brakes, and safety features that seem to float in space to provide views from every angle. Without the digital information, the bare-bones auto frame on display reveals little.

The Clark County Historical Museum exhibit, by contrast, is fascinating on its own, without use of the smartphone. News articles from the museum’s current exhibit, “Above & Below the Fold: News Fit to Print,” are well-presented and tell a story of Clark County history through big-headline stories and quirky down-page tales.

But by using the smartphone app, the exhibit tells a richer story. I read yellowed, century-old articles that popped onto my screen, and even followed my phone’s instructions to email to myself some of the gems that told of the county’s rough early days. Here’s one, from the Vancouver Independent on Oct. 28, 1899: “Postmaster Yeomans of La Camas was the object of an attempted robbery while on his way home in the evening from his office. He shot the would-be robber dead with a pistil he was taking home to clean and repair.”

The rapid expansion of smartphone technology is a reminder of just how quickly new technology moves these days, from cutting-edge to ubiquitous. Apple introduced its iPhone just five years ago, but that phone and its imitators are already deeply woven into our culture. At last count, 107 million Americans owned them.

I can imagine a day, not far off, when not only museums but historic sites and national parks will have hot spots for smartphone downloads loaded with more information than any of us could absorb. But while we end up knowing more, we will feel less if we’re constantly pointing phones when we should be absorbing what’s before our eyes.

The most treasured moments in my own memory were times of silent reflection in spirit-filled places, moments that no amount of information on a smartphone app could replace: the silent glory of a Grand Canyon sunrise, the mournful awe of a morning run on the Gettysburg battlefield, the sounds of nature awakening in the Guatemalan jungle below my perch on the ruins of a Mayan temple.

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian's business editor. 360-735-4699, http://twitter.com/col_goliver; http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or gordon.oliver@columbian.com.