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Hall of Mirrors: the dilemmas of presenting information technology culture through information technology interactives and artifacts

Kevin Sumption , Powerhouse Museum, Australia

Session: Authoring

As a curator of information technology I'm often confronted by the challenge of exhibiting computing artifacts. This is no easy task, unlike other material culture their scale, abstraction and uniformity of appearance means their form gives few clues to their origins, function or indeed importance. Doron Swade has eloquently termed this dilemma as that of the diminished authority of the modern object (1). If this weren't enough the use of computer-based interactives to interpret computer culture is also not without problems. Computer-based interactives, particularly in larger science and technology museums, are becoming more pervasive. Only recently in my own museum we featured an information technology exhibit that comprised only 36 computer-based interactives. In its rejection of the "object" and mechanical-interactive, the exhibit courted young visitors and their increasing propensity to accept simulations as being equivalent, and in some cases preferable to raw experiences. However the exhibit also left some visitors with impressions and ideas that propagated a dangerous "confusion of the real and the imaginary"(2).

In this paper I propose to examine how such interpretive dilemmas were confronted by the development team of the Powerhouse Museum's new computing exhibition - Universal Machine. Universal Machine uses a mix of objects, activity trails and computer-based audiovisual and interactive technologies to take visitors on a journey through the origins, meaning and impact of contemporary information technology. In particular I will explore the interpretive partnerships developed between objects, new and traditional media, as well as the ways in which experience-based and multiple intelligence education theory informed design and content development.

1- Doron Swade, Curator of Computing Sciences, Science Museum London; Napoleon's waistcoat button: modern artifacts and museum culture. Museum Collecting Policies in Modern Science & Technology Museums, Science Museum London, London (1991).

2 -J. Baudrillard. Simulations. translated by P. Foss, P. Patton and Philip Beitchman. Semiotex (e) Inc, New York (1983). p150.