What Do Automatic Seat Belts in Cars and iPods in Museums Have in Common?

Picture of Hobart.

Hobart, viewed from MONA.

January 23, 2015
Day 190

(I'm turning into a crotchety old man. Sorry in advance.)

The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) was supposed to be the highlight of any trip to Hobart. Even before I walked inside, I could see why. The property looked like a wealthy person's playground, with a vineyard, a tennis court and a large patio overlooking the city. Actually, my assessment wasn't far off – Tasmanian millionaire David Walsh funded the museum on his own dime.

The architecture of MONA was stunning. From outside, it looked like a small, single-story building. But the majority of the museum was underground, accessible via a long spiral staircase. The layout made no attempt to disguise the fact that the museum was carved directly into the bedrock, like a nuclear bunker.

When I bought my ticket, I was given an iPod and a set of headphones. The reason for this quickly became obvious: there were no titles or captions on any of the art. Instead, the iPod had all of the museum's information. This sounded like a cool way to use new technology.

I quickly grew frustrated. I had to search for each piece of artwork on the iPod, even if I only wanted to see the title. I shifted my focus from the art to the screen, back and forth, over and over, comparing the tiny thumbnail images with the painting or sculpture to figure out what I was looking at. Quite often, I failed to find it and moved on, with zero knowledge of what I had just seen.

Admittedly, when I did find the information, it was more than enough to satisfy my curiosity. But then again, I usually wasn't looking for a painting's life story. A short explanation would have been plenty. For example, “Egyptian pottery, middle kingdom, 2000 BCE.” If they would just put this basic info on the wall, then they could use the iPod as a supplement for those who wanted more. The worst part about the experience was that everyone was constantly looking down at their iPods, rather than saying, “That painting looks pretty cool, what do you think?” to their friends.

The experience reminded me of the automatic seat belts that were en vogue in the '80s. At first they seemed like a great way to get people to buckle up. For a while, the US even had a law that required either automatic seat belts or air bags in cars. But soon we learned that new isn't always better. You still had to buckle the lap belt manually, so if you were going to use your seat belt anyway, you had to do the same amount of work. Even worse, if you didn't normally use a seat belt, you would be tempted to leave the lap belt unfastened, making yourself vulnerable to sliding under the chest belt in a collision. On top of that, you could hit your head on the retractable arm when you opened the door.

Whether it's automatic seat belts in cars or iPods in museums, you can't just say, “We have this new technology. Let's use it!” without thinking about whether it's actually better than the technology it's replacing. How many new cars still have automatic seat belts? And how long until MONA returns the captions to the walls?

Just as I was getting over the annoyance of the caption-free art, I walked up to a glass display case in the center of the room. It was about as tall as my chest, so I leaned over the top of it for a better look. Immediately, one of the museum's volunteers scolded me for touching the case. Normally I would have no problem with this rule, but leaning over the case was the only way to get a good look at the artwork inside. Continuing with the theme of the rest of the museum, there were no “do not touch” signs posted anywhere. Maybe this rule was buried somewhere in the iPod's rambling descriptions.

I backed up and observed my fellow musuem-goers, thinking that I was probably the only person dumb enough to touch the glass. But indeed, many others were leaning over the cases and getting yelled at. The volunteers were doing almost nothing but telling people to back off. I started to wonder if this was part of the show. Maybe the museum had set up a sneaky social experiment as a kind of “living exhibit.” If so, I was never let in on the joke.

There were some cool exhibits, like the head that was lying on its side, filled with rotating birds, fruits and hands, illuminated by a strobe light. That was a work of creative genius. There was plenty of other interesting artwork. I really wanted to enjoy MONA. The building's architecture alone was a masterpiece. But I just couldn't get into it, so I left after an hour.

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