Why the Royal Ontario Museum is still a technology dinosaur

At the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the name of some exhibits are more aspirational than accurate. “Early Typewriters: Gateways to the Information Age,” which I walked through last week, is a good example.

It’s not that the collection of manual keyboards wasn’t interesting. Some were more inventive, more dynamic and more beautiful than many of the PC designs coming out of HP or Dell. But while the ability to create typed documents certainly standardized the way information was recorded, typewriters didn’t do much more to usher in the information age – with all its collaboration, content aggregation and connectivity – than the original printing press developed centuries earlier. No wonder the ROM’s dinosaur exhibit proved to be much more compelling. The ROM’s IT strategy seems almost nearly as prehistoric.

I came to the ROM with my wife, and we’ve been to enough museums and galleries for me to know she’d like the audio guide, which cost us $5 extra. This was the ROM’s first mistake: it is in the business of showcasing content, and the audio guides assist with that activity. To charge for such content is a distinctly old-world idea that infuriates people accustomed to the Internet.

Before we went to the dinosaur exhibit, however, we wanted to get something to eat. Although it continues to undergo renovations I knew there had to be some restaurants somewhere, but the signs pointing to them were nowhere to be seen. Wouldn’t it be a great idea, I thought aloud, if the audio guides – which come as small handheld devices you wear around your neck – offered not only directions to the nearest snack bar but also any specials of the day? Sure it’s unorthodox, but in the twenty-first century, so is the idea of a single-purpose portable device.

In fact, the ideal for cultural institutions like the ROM would be not an audio guide but a wireless digital content service which could be accessed directly by a user’s personal device, such as a cell phone or a BlackBerry (the museum clearly has no objections to cell phones, given the amount of camera phones snapping at the T-Rexes on display). Devices can be loaned out to those who don’t bring a device with them, but these should be more intuitive than the ones used today, where staff have to instruct visitors on how they key up the information they want. Through the use of RFID, for example, visitors could avoid looking for numbers next to exhibit pieces and keying up background information and simply have the tags sense the presence of a device.

Finally, why stop with audio? The guides offered by the ROM do have small screens, but they’re barely able to display numbers, let alone the graphics, diagrams or blueprints that would enrich a ROM visitor’s experience. And instead of a generic guide offered to all guests, why not offer accounts through which details of a visitor’s history could be correlated with information about previous exhibits, so that personalized information could be offered that gives more context each time someone returns to the ROM?

Museums are not typical enterprises, and at most of these ideas still seem far away. But the technology they’re using today is of the kind that should already be under glass.

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