Computers in the exhibition environment
In the past, the management, planning, design, and production of exhibits has been accomplished by highly trained, experienced individuals with an arsenal of manual skills at their disposal. For many people investigating the field of museum exhibitions, the requisite capabilities have been outside their grasp. For many smaller institutions, especially those which preserve and exhibit local or regional heritage, the only way of obtaining professional, finished exhibitions has been to contract the task to others. While many fine firms are available to assist in the production of exhibitions, the reasonable expenses they require are often beyond the small institution’s resources. Such museums are then left to do the best they can with what they have. Dedicated people who are striving to produce quality exhibits for their communities are always looking for ways to obtain the skills they need at affordable costs. Computers have been just the tool needed to accomplish many of the goals of such people. In many ways the personal computer (PC) is the major new technological addition to the museum tool box. For the small and large institution, the computer has been a great boon. It enables administrators to plan and manage more effectively, and allows designers to quickly illustrate and develop ideas, build visual models, and test concepts. The accuracy and versatility of the computer coupled with other types of connected machines, called peripherals, has helped production staffs to generate text more easily, to create and execute professional-quality visual elements, and to make signage quickly when needed. Product control and cost savings are two of the principal factors that affect production departments. Technology is sufficiently advanced now for publications and graphics in an exhibition to be produced in-house. Even if such materials are commercially produced, the control of production is largely in the hands of the designer. This saves greatly on time and production costs. It is foreseeable that computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) systems will make production possible straight from the designer’s mind to the completed product at a practical level. Computers can conserve not only time and materials, but also wear and tear on the production staff. While they are not, as yet, the exhibit builder’s panacea that they may eventually become, there are currently some very practical
and useful ways that computers can aid and enhance all aspects of museum exhibitions. Even though the idea of purchasing a computer may seem too expensive or impractical for many small museums with limited resources, it should be noted that the cost of such equipment and the programs to operate it is becoming more reasonable all the time. What was completely unattainable five years ago is affordable now. The investment of money and time in acquiring computers, even to a limited extent, will often pay large dividends in terms of the capabilities available to a museum’s staff. The real limitation is the willingness of the individuals to embark upon learning to use the new technology. It is highly probable that most museums will be “computerized” in some form before the turn of the century. Although some may use computers as nothing more than word processors for label production in the beginning, the seductive nature of the abilities afforded by automation and the ease with which they are acquired will eventually lead to wider and more expanded use. This chapter is a look at some (not all) of the uses and capabilities computers make available now for exhibitors. It will offer some possibilities for the future as well. However, as with most predictions, the realities will no doubt far exceed the prognostications.