Fictional Musetech

I recently mentioned that I have been rereading some of my favorite novels for young people. Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife contains a short scene in a museum, in which the protagonist uses what could perhaps be considered a fictional, magical example of “musetech” – technology in the museum.

Lyra’s alethiometer looks like a compass, but it is actually a symbol reader that always tells the truth. Though it takes adult scholars years of study to learn to make sense of the device, the prepubescent Lyra has a natural knack. By focusing her mind in the right way, she can ask the alethiometer anything, and she is guaranteed a truthful answer.

While looking at skulls in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England, Lyra takes out her alethiometer and asks for information beyond what is given in the museum’s text panel. Not only does the alethiometer provide more details, but it also informs Lyra of an inaccuracy in the exhibit label.

I imagine that many visitors want from their mobile devices what Lyra got her magical device: the ability to retrieve information instantly about the museum object in front of the visitor, details beyond what visitors can already read in the wall text, and accurate knowledge from a highly trusted source. How great would it be if visitors could ask their smartphones any question about an object – just like Lyra can do with the alethiometer?


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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