Vol. X, No. 1

Spring, 1997

Computer-Based Information At The 'Ain Ghazal Exhibit

H. Eiteljorg, II

Many of the statues of human figures from 'Ain Ghazal were recently exhibited at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. A conservation team from the Smithsonian had removed the figures from the matrix in which they were originally buried; the figures had been taken from the site to the museum as an unexcavated block. Included in the exhibit was a kiosk with computers to provide additional information. A few comments about the use of the computer in this situation may be of interest.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the use of computers in the 'Ain Ghazal exhibit was the apparent embarrassment about the presence of the computers (two of them, only one of which was working when I visited the exhibit). The computers were positioned so that they could not be seen by a visitor simply working his/her way through the exhibit. I had been told in advance about the presence of the computers; so I was looking for them. There was someone using the one working computer, and her presence alerted me to the location of the computer - near the wall and with its back to the exhibit space. Had I been unprepared to find the computers and had they been unused as I walked through, I doubt that I would have noticed them. (I should point out that my reaction was not universally shared. Others found the kiosk to be reasonably obvious, and the location did position users facing the exhibit so that they could see the objects while using the computers.)

That only one of the computers was functioning also seemed an indication of inattention, especially since the computers did not seem to have been networked and should have been easy to repair. Of course, the machine had recently stopped working, and a colleague who visited the museum a couple of weeks later found both computers in service. This does reflect one of the problems of using computer technology; it can be fragile.

Since only one machine was working and it was in use, I was able to watch a visitor use it while I waited for my turn. She seemed very comfortable with the system and had no trouble navigating. The navigation, however, was relatively linear. That is, there were branches off the main track, but one had to return to the main track to go on. There were definite tracks to follow, and the result was a straight-forward sequence of notes and comments related to the exhibit, with short branches off the track for specific questions.

The information was plentiful, and much of it was well presented, with good images and simple but thorough explanations.

The system for navigating, however, had to be explained to one of my companions, since it was not self-evident to computer neophytes. There were no instructions at all; so such a person would have been unable to navigate without help.

The presentation was not Web-based, either in the sense of Web protocols or being on the Internet. It seemed to me that the presentation could and should have been a Web-based one so that visitors and potential visitors could use it from their homes as well as during their visits to the museum. Had the presentation been on the Web, it could also have outlasted the exhibit and continued to educate people long after the exhibit closed. (The computers at the exhibit could have used a browser and appeared to be linked to the Web without actually being connected to the Web. A true Web version could, of course, have been placed on another computer for access over the Internet, with some modifications for the sake of the other material on the Web from the same museum.)

The museum did have information about the exhibit on the Web (now gone), but it was far more limited than the information at the exhibit. Had the museum system and the Web site been essentially the same, the better and fuller information system could have served a much broader audience and stayed available indefinitely, providing information that could be cited and revisited. Instead, the information was only a temporary adjunct to a good exhibit.

In sum, then, this computer display was a good one, but it could and should have been better. Instructions were needed, and a Web-based system could still be in use now, making the effort and funds spent go much farther.

For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the subject index.

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