Art + Culture 2.0
How Technology Is Changing the Museum Experience

By Natalie Hope McDonald

They come armed with their smart phones and tablets. They’re a new generation of culture vultures who are more likely to Google, Instagram and Facebook their way through a museum than take a guided tour of the latest exhibition. That’s why for many museums around the world, technology has become an important part of the art, history and science experience. And while many museums are using technology to enhance the overall experience, more and more are starting from the ground up with the youngest tourists.

As a frontrunner in the high-tech museum experience, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has dedicated an entire program to technology and new media, inspiring The New York Times to dub it as “a leader in tech cultural initiatives.” Walker’s Gallery 9 online exhibition space has become a prototype for how to fuse arts, culture and technology successfully by showcasing works by artists in the digital realm.

More recently, the museum developed a multimedia “table” onsite that’s interactive in some new and novel ways. “The table has two stations that can serve several visitors simultaneously,” the Walker explains on its website. “Infrared videos cameras mounted above it track participants’ hand movements, which act as the cursor for the interface.”

The gesture-recognition and video-tracking software (called Dialog) allows several people to interact concurrently with a variety of information appearing on the surface of the table. “While conventional kiosks allow single users to obtain information, the shared space of Dialog is designed to promote social interactions among visitors, while providing access to the Walker’s multidisciplinary collections and facilitating learning about the arts.”

If museums can learn anything from Walker, it’s how technology can bridge social interaction rather than making the experience a more solitary one.

Walking the High-Tech Line

At the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) in Baltimore, Md., Nick Prevas, director of communications, is always looking for new ways to enrich the visitor experience. “Last year, we were included in Google’s Indoor Mapping Initiative, where a graphic map of our indoor spaces can now be accessed via the Google Maps App on smart phones,” he explained. Anyone using this application can virtually explore the museum from anywhere they have an online connection – desktop, phone, tablet, you name it. The focus on technology has also shaped other aspects of the museum experience on site.

“In all of out last five mega-exhibitions,” said Prevas, “we’ve incorporated film and video presentations that illustrate a component or theme of the exhibition, along with audio and music to set the tone of a gallery.”

AVAM is also sharing artists’ work via digital slideshows. Many of the online-accessible shows feature works that may not have been included in museum exhibitions. They often provide a value-added component for the visitor and provide artists with the opportunity to showcase more of their work to an even bigger audience.

“We also have a lot of narrative displays,” said Prevas, “from a video-screen kiosk in our Jim Rouse Visionary Center that encourages visitors to record their best and worst thoughts about city living, to some very old-school technology – automatons from The Cabaret Mechanical Theatre of London, all handcrafted and brilliantly engineered animated sculptures that come to life with the push of a button.”

The newest way AVAM is using technology is in the exhibition “Human, Soul & Machine: The Coming Singularity,” where of the installations, created by artist Kenny Irwin, Jr., relies on interactive technology to help create a surreal landscape populated by otherworldly sculptures.

The museum’s Founder, Director and Curator Rebecca Alban Hoffberger is very focused on the way people use technology to enhance the overall museum experience. “I have given a lot of thought as to why people leave their computers to experience a museum, and how to balance the blessing of technology with the curse of its intrusion,” she said.

Technology is an essential tool for communicating the museum’s message – through everything from social media, web and e-blasts, to incorporating video, audio and interactive displays into exhibitions. “There’s a fascinating place where art and technology intersect, and we love to see that explored by our self-taught artists,” she said, “but in the end, a visitor’s personal experience with a piece of art doesn’t always have to be hands-on for them to feel deeply moved by an exhibit.”

Prevas said there’s a thin line most museums must walk to keep up with trends, while also maintaining what sets the museum experience apart from simply logging online. Truth is, while technology can be a useful component, the experience requires more than just bells and whistles to be taken seriously.

“We hope that by putting on our totally original, year-long exhibitions that focus on one unifying idea or theme, we are reaching more museum-goers who may be new to AVAM and/or new to the idea of visionary art,” said Prevas. “We’ve also seen a lot of success in spreading the word about the museum through offering a Groupon.”

Social media, he admitted, can be a big part of the overall tech plan for any museum.

Supply and Demand

The Delaware Museum of Natural History in Wilmington, Del., has also been rethinking the way it implements technology into exhibits. Daniel McCunney, the museum’s communications manager, said that technology is being used throughout the galleries in a variety of ways. “One of the most noticeable examples of technology in our exhibits are the touch-screen panels we have on our African Watering Hole exhibit,” he said. “Visitors can find information on their favorite animal (beyond what might be available on a static panel) by clicking through pages highlighting each animal in the display.”

Another example can be found in the museum’s Science In Action Lab. Here, visitors can learn from docents about how scientists find out more about a particular animal through investigation and the use of scientific equipment, like electron microscopes. “Behind the docent,” said McCunney, “we have a flat-panel TV that is used to enhance the experience through educational videos and slideshows.”

This year, the museum is also unveiling an interactive kiosk (on-loan) from the U.S. Geological Survey that monitors seismic activity in real-time. Using it, visitors will be able to see what seismic activity might be happening in their neighborhood, or even across the globe. “Within the next year, we expect to enhance our exhibits even further with the addition of a kiosk developed with the University of Delaware highlighting biomimicry,” he said. “With this exhibit, visitors will learn how scientists are using the models, systems and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems.”

Admittedly, technology has become a critical means of showcasing exhibits about science and history. He said visitors have come to expect it.

“With more and more visitors hooked into technology and handheld devices, we’re always looking for new ways to reach our audience,” said McCunney. “While not in place yet, we hope to soon give visitors the opportunity to interact with our exhibits even further via technology (QR codes, apps, etc.). The really exciting part is that technology is progressing at such a fast pace, the possibilities for bringing our exhibits to life are becoming endless.”

With 3D printing technology, augmented reality and other technological developments, museums are reaching visitors in ways that would’ve been impossible to imagine even 10 years ago.

“We’re finding that more often, visitors expect a certain level of interactivity to the special exhibits we host, as well as retrofitting our permanent exhibits to introduce technology,” he explained. “As an institution, we absolutely believe this is the direction museums are headed in and we want to stay current with the latest trends in the industry. That means that as we go forward, implementing technology into our exhibits, programs, and other offerings will be crucial to stay relevant and encourage visitors to keep coming back.”

It’s a Small (Online) World

Across the globe in Bangkok, Thailand, the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles has been in the business of displaying age-old garments that showcase the culture of the region. While it may seem a world away from the museums in North America, online exhibits and technological renovations have made the experience much more accessible.

Melissa Leventon, a founding partner of Curatix Group (a museum consulting firm that handles exhibitions at Sirikit), said that using technology in a subtle way is key to preserving the tenants of the cultural focus.

For example, in the Artistry in Silk exhibition gallery, Leventon said, “We use a dynamic label system consisting of small tablet-sized screens that run what is essentially a looped slideshow consisting of extended labels in Thai and English and one image of each of the dresses on display as worn by Her Majesty Queen Sirikit.”

Touch screens have become an important aspect of the museum experience, one that welcomes tourists from around the world each year. “We use traditional object labeling in the [Fashioning Tradition] gallery,” said Leventon, “but we have screens for three of the cases that give in-depth information about weaving and embroidery techniques and their history of use, as well as specific traditional motifs found in the textiles.”

Close-up images are included in the showcase, which were created using animation software. There’s also a seven-minute video running in a separate room to give visitors historical information about the museum and objects therein, including an animation demonstrating the difference between traditional Thai draped and wrapped clothing and the modern, more Westernized versions. Two large screens run parallel Powerpoint presentations of historic still images and footage of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit wearing the pieces on display. “Of the lot of them, by far the most popular is the draped and wrapped animation,” Leventon said.

Interest in the technology also carries into the For the Love of Her People, by far the most high tech gallery in the museum. “There are multiple screens showing a wide variety of videos (most have one video per screen, but one area has a number of small screens showing the same video),” she said. “Additionally, there are 10 touch-screen stations that offer in-depth information about groups of objects on display, including discussions of weaving technique, traditional materials and information about the weavers.” There is even one case that uses specific lighting technology to reveal and conceal its contents.

There’s also an activities gallery aimed at children. In it, a tactile wall allows kids to touch different textiles. There’s also a wall of magnetic “paper dolls” that can be dressed in outfits from different time periods – and an opportunity for people of all ages to dress up in traditional Thai hip and breast wrappers (usually assisted by a dresser). “Once dressed, people are encouraged to take pictures of themselves and post them online,” says Leventon. “The dress-up is hugely popular with both children and adults.”

Seeing, Feeling and Touching

Also focused on the tactile world, the Textile Museum of Canada (TMC) in Toronto is almost entirely digitized. The museum’s collection is made available through its website with numerous online exhibitions that are exclusive to the destination. The public is able to access these exhibitions online anywhere in the world on the museum’s main website and through other online projects.

“Our two latest endeavors include Social Fabric, a 2.0 project that allows users to interact with artifacts online and respond to questions associated with them, and TXTilecity, a mobile app and web platform that offers users a guided tour of Toronto with stories and memories that show the significant role textiles have played in shaping the city,” explained Alexandra Lopes, a communications spokesperson for TMC.

TMC has also introduced a new handheld technology program that supports the use of mobile technology as an enhanced interpretive tool in all educational programming. “Complementing the museum’s teaching collection of tactile artifacts, digital tablets are now being used to further extend the sensory engagement with TMC exhibitions,” said Lopes. “As part of handheld program, museum educators and docents use tablets on tours to show multimedia content, providing context about the makers, cultures and techniques featured in our exhibitions.”

The museum opens its doors every week for WOW (Wide Open Wednesdays), a series of free workshops that celebrate the museum’s culture by exploring materials and techniques that are both “high touch” and “high tech.” “Participants share and develop skills related to both digital media and traditional crafts,” she said, “revealing how making practices across disciplines evolve and inform one another.” –

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