Technology That Serves to Enhance, Not Distract
Posted March 21, 2013 in Articles
Author: Fred A. Bernstein
“EVERY museum is searching for this holy grail, this blending of technology and art,” said David Franklin, the director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, in a tour of a ground-floor gallery in which touch screens loaded with interactive features offer new ways of viewing painting and sculpture. In recent weeks, he has been giving the tour to delegations from rival museums, and he expects, he said, to be “plagiarized, imitated and emulated.”
He may be right. “In the museum world, everyone’s watching Cleveland right now,” said Erin Coburn, a museum consultant who has worked at both the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Though other museums have experimented with interactive technology, the extent of Cleveland’s program is unprecedented, she said. “They’ve put a lot out there for other museums to learn from.”
Mr. Franklin is standing in front of a 40-foot-wide touch screen that displays greeting-card-size images of all 3,000 objects on display in the museum. When a visitor touches an image, the screen enlarges it, arranges itself near similarly themed objects, and offers information like the location of the actual piece. And by touching a “heart” icon in the corner of the image, the visitor can transfer it from the wall to an iPad (one brought from home or rented at the museum for $5 a day), creating a personal list of favorites.
From the list of favorites, the user can devise a personalized tour, which can be shared with other users. “It’s very democratic. You can create a tour, and give it a funny name, and other people will follow it through the museum,” Mr. Franklin said. So far, more than 200 visitors have made their own tours, with names like “My new faves by Linda” and “Preston Loves Shadows.”
Throughout the museum, the iPad offers options for learning about items in the collection. “There is only so much information you can put on a wall, and no one walks around with catalogs anymore,” Mr. Franklin said. One of the app’s simplest features is also one of the most effective: in many cases, it can produce a photo of the artwork’s original setting — seeing a tapestry in a room filled with tapestries, rather than in a white-walled gallery, is revelatory.
And there are videos. When I was interested in how a Richard Long sculpture called “Cornwall Circle,”consisting of dozens of jagged pieces of stone, was installed in the museum, I turned to my iPad for a one-minute time-lapse video that condensed the daylong process. But putting the same video on a wall next to the artwork would have distracted some visitors. The iPad app, said Mr. Franklin, lets the galleries return to their roots, as places where art is shown without a lot of bells and whistles, something he says Clevelanders, many of whom have been coming to the museum their entire lives, appreciate.
Other museums have created iPad apps, often for special exhibitions, said Ms. Coburn, but the extent to which Cleveland has tied its app to its permanent collection is, she says, “truly groundbreaking.”
When Mr. Franklin, former chief curator of the National Gallery of Canada, came to the Cleveland museum in 2010, it had already begun a $350 million expansion project (designed by the New York architect Rafael Viñoly). The new director hoped to enlarge the museum’s audience while he was enlarging its building. Technology, he believed, would lure new visitors, especially ones experienced with digital devices. At the same time, he said he believed he could make seasoned museumgoers want to come more often, by deepening their understanding of the artworks.
Of course, there’s a danger that providing a virtual version of the museum will make some people want to “visit” the collection without leaving their living rooms. That’s one reason, Mr. Franklin said, he has chosen not to participate in the Google Art Project, which offers high-definition photos of important artworks online.
When he took the job, the museum had already received a $10 million gift from the Maltz Family Foundation to create Gallery One, a large space near the entrance to the museum that would offer some particularly flashy uses of technology — and also train visitors to use the iPad app as they moved through the rest of the building. In the initial plan for Gallery One, artworks were going to have screens mounted in front of them. That concerned Mr. Franklin, as did the sense was that Gallery One would become what he called a “high-tech ghetto,” a place for showing off a lot of gee-whiz effects that had no follow-up elsewhere in the encyclopedic, 100-year-old museum.
So Mr. Franklin began working with curators to fill Gallery One not with second-rate art (or worse, reproductions) but with some of the museum’s best pieces. And he brought in Local Projects, a Manhattan firm, to rethink the digital displays.
“We surprised the museum, because we’re the technology firm and we proposed eliminating three-fourths of the technology,” said Jake Barton, the 40-year-old president of Local Projects. Mr. Barton said his goal was to “create something where if you’d never been in a museum before you’d be intrigued, and if you’ve been to many museums you’d still feel comfortable.”
In January, Gallery One opened to the public with just half a dozen touch screens, mounted unobtrusively on podiums. Look into a camera, make a face, and the screen displays pieces from the museum with similar facial expressions. If there’s a serious point, it’s that for thousands of years artists, despite differing media and styles, have conveyed similar human emotions.
Another screen lets you take the elements of a large tapestry depicting the myth of Perseus, and rearrange them in either comic book or movie-trailer format. Though the process is fun, Mr. Barton said the point was a serious one: getting people to understand the purpose of the tapestry as “a storytelling machine.” A few feet away, you can take elements of Picasso’s “Still Life With Biscuits” and rearrange them, on a touch screen, into a new composition.
Though the museum expected the young to be drawn to the screens, Mr. Franklin said it was older users who — once they figured out the technology — seemed to have the most fun with it. On a recent afternoon, Suzanne Cooper, 59, was working on moving items from the s0-called Collection Wall to her iPad. “I’m a bit overwhelmed, but I’m determined to get it,” said Mrs. Cooper.
Luckily for first-time visitors to Gallery One, Scott Pollack, the Gallery One technical supervisor, was there to help explain the technology, which he does literally hundreds of times a day, in addition to turning the equipment on each morning. It has never crashed — even during a test when the staff did everything it could to overload the system.
Now that Gallery One is open, the museum has lots more to do — it plans to introduce iPhone and Android versions of the system, and will continue adding new digital features. “As far as I’m concerned we’ve stepped on a plateau, but we’ll keep adding more interaction,” Mr. Franklin said.
Mr. Barton is developing digital features for other museums, including two new ones (the National September 11 Memorial Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture) and two that are undergoing major expansions (the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum). If he succeeds, the technology he creates for those museums will provide new ways of looking at their collections, while remaining largely out of sight.
“People come to museums for storytelling and engagement,” Mr. Barton said, “and the technology needs to facilitate that.”