Museums Morph Digitally

The Met and Other Museums Adapt to the Digital Age


Steve Lohr. THE NEW YORK TIMES. 23/10/2014

For the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a turning point came in 2011. Down went the signs imploring visitors to stow their cellphones. The Met revamped its website, tailoring it for viewing on smartphone screens. The museum was not only allowing visitors to use their mobile phones while browsing the artworks, but encouraging it.

The digital experience was embraced and meant to enhance the physical experience of exploring the museum. The trend has only accelerated since, at the Met and across the museum world. At first glance, it might seem like a capitulation, giving in to the virtual enemy when museums are so essentially physical spaces.

Yet listen to museum curators and administrators today and they often sound like executives in media, retailing, consumer goods and other industries. They talk of displaying their wares on “multiple platforms,” and the importance of a social media strategy and a “digital first” mind-set.

“You want the way people live their lives to happen in the museum,” said Carrie Rebora Barratt, the Met’s deputy director for collections and administration.

Museums are being redefined for a digital age. The transformation, museum officials say, promises to touch every aspect of what museums do, from how art and objects are presented and experienced to what is defined as art.

The pragmatic need to appeal to modern audiences, who expect to be surrounded by technology, is one engine of change. But museum officials insist there is a powerful aesthetic and cultural rationale as well. It is the increasing recognition that, as Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, puts it, “We live not in the digital, not in the physical, but in the kind of minestrone that our mind makes of the two.”

Museums, Ms. Antonelli insists, have an important role to play in helping people explore and understand the emerging hybrid culture. “It’s this strange moment of change,” she explained. “And digital space is increasingly another space we live in.”

The museum of the future will come in evolutionary steps. But some steps are already being taken. Digital technologies being deployed or developed include: augmented reality, a sort of smart assistant software that delivers supplemental information or images related to an artwork to a smartphone; high-definition projections of an artwork, a landscape or night sky that offer an immersive experience; and 3-D measurement and printing technology that lets people reproduce, hold and feel an accurate replica of an object.

In December, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum will reopen, offering its vision of a 21st-century design museum. The three-year, $91 million renovation will give the Fifth Avenue museum 60 percent more gallery space and new visitor experiences.

Upon entry, each visitor will get a black pen, equipped with a small amount of computer memory, a tiny radio for short-range communication and a touch-sensitive stylus, which can be used to write and draw on large interactive tables with touch-screen surfaces. The digital pen is one ingredient in the redesign of the museum that is intended to “give visitors explicit permission to play and to explore the process of designing for themselves,” said Sebastian Chan, director of digital and emerging media at Cooper Hewitt.
One place they will be able to do that is in an “immersion room.” In the room, a person can, for example, tap the pen on one of many selections from the museum’s wallpaper design collection. That wallpaper is then projected clearly throughout the room. “You can see and experience historic wallpapers in ways you never could before,” Mr. Chan said.

A visitor can also draw his or her own wallpaper design on an interactive table. As the person is drawing, clever software can detect common images, retrieve relevant information and communicate, in its way, with the visitor. “It looks like you’re drawing a flower,” it intones, and then links to a short audio recording by an expert on flower motifs in wallpaper over the years.

In another area, visitors can use their pens to annotate the designs of common objects — a shopping cart, for example — with features of their imagining. One shopping cart might be designed for a family of four, while another is for a wheelchair-bound shopper. “It’s a visual suggestion box to make things better,” Mr. Chan said.

At the Smithsonian Institution, 3-D technology is increasingly used for conservation, research and public education programs. The fine-grained scanning allows a depth of data collection and analysis that was not possible before. The gunboat Philadelphia, built in 1776, is the last surviving cannon-bearing American vessel from the Revolutionary War. The historic boat has been 3-D-scanned so online viewers can see it from angles not possible in person at the National Museum of American History in Washington. But it is also scanned regularly so conservators can get early warnings of deterioration of the old wooden structure.

The National Portrait Gallery in Washington has two life masks of Abraham Lincoln. The masks — made from plaster casts placed on Lincoln’s face — were made in 1860, the year he was elected to his first term, and in 1865, two months before he was assassinated. The Smithsonian staff has 3-D-scanned the life masks, and the data is available for downloading and printing on a standard 3-D printer. Schools across America have done just that.

“You can see the toll the Civil War took on this man, those decisions of life and death,” said Günter Waibel, director of the digitization program at the Smithsonian. “With your finger, you can trace the deep furrows on Lincoln’s face. It sends shivers down your spine.”

Across the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, 3-D projects are still relatively few. But Mr. Waibel predicts they will proliferate in number and reach. “It’s incredible technology that will revolutionize not only how people experience objects,” he said, “but how we do research and science inside the museums.”

The abundant 3-D data, according to Mr. Waibel, could one day become the information building blocks for creating rich 3-D experiences — perhaps holograms that can be programmed according to a person’s interests.

In the museum world, augmented reality can mean any technology that gives visitors additional information, from audio tours to websites. The Met’s new application for Apple mobile devices, introduced in September, is a good example of a well-designed smartphone app, with lists of current exhibits and daily events, as well as artworks recommended for serious museumgoers and for families with children.

But as technology advances, so do the ambitions for augmented reality. Colleen Stockmann, assistant curator for special projects at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, and Jean-Baptiste Boin, a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering at Stanford and an expert in computer vision, are working on taking augmented reality a step further. Their research project, Art++, combines image-recognition technology and computer graphics with art history expertise. Art++ is supported by a grant from the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a partnership between the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford’s School of Engineering.

With their software, a person would walk into a museum, turn his or her smartphone or tablet toward a photograph, painting or sculpture, and the artwork is surrounded with a digital halo of supplemental information. The Cantor center, Ms. Stockmann said, exhibited the Stanford University Libraries’ collection of landscape photographs of California and the Northwest by the 19th-century photographer Carleton Watkins. Capture the image of a Watkins photo of Yosemite Valley, she said, and you can tap on an icon that shows a map of where Watkins walked in the valley to take his photographs.

Focus the smartphone’s camera viewfinder on a painting, and software might show the initial drawings underneath a painting, and earlier versions of the painting with colors changing as the artist progressed, Ms. Stockmann noted. Capture the image of a mummy in a museum, and the software might show an image of the skeleton beneath. The literature, poetry and music of the time an artist was working, and short commentaries by curators, could be presented as audio clips.

The goal of such technology, Ms. Stockmann said, is to “give you more points of access into the artwork, so that it keeps you in the moment of looking, almost as if someone is guiding you through the painting or sculpture.” (…)

Museum curators and administrators do have concerns about the expense of digital initiatives and how to encourage more “look up” experiences — up at the art instead of down at a smartphone or tablet. Yet it is striking the degree to which major museums have welcomed digital technology as not only inevitable but also as an ally in bringing culture to a wider public.

Not long ago, museums were concerned that opening up collections and putting images online would shift viewing online and hurt museum attendance. “That has proved completely wrong,” said Ms. Barratt of the Met. “Culturally, what we see is the opposite. When people can see artworks online, it’s a taste and they want to see more, often in person if they can.”

Within museum walls, Ms. Barratt said, there should be a range of viewing choices, guided by the principle, she added, of “letting the content determine what we do, instead of letting the technology and devices lead the way.”

Those experiences, she said, will run from “no tech” to “high tech.” No tech, Ms. Barratt explained, would be a label and simple description for a classic painting that speaks for itself and invites sustained observation. High tech, she said, would be exhibitions like the recent one at the Met’s Costume Institute, “Charles James: Beyond Fashion.” It included animations showing the construction of gowns designed by the American couturier, and robotic arms employed to scan and analyze the gowns. The technology provided a visual explanation of how James used science, engineering and architectural techniques.

The issues about sharing artwork online came to a head a few years ago, when Google began Art Project. The Internet giant planned to scoop up images of artworks and present virtual tours of museums, using high-definition camera technology. Museum curators worried about matters of copyright and commercialization — that Google would try to profit from the images shared by the museums. But Google signed contracts with the museums including copyright protections and pledges not to use the art images for commercial gain.

Art Project began with 17 museums in 2010, including the Met, and today has 500 institutions in 60 countries, and 7.2 million artworks. Google’s high-definition image technology captures the image of a painting like Bruegel’s 16th-century classic, “The Harvesters,” which is at the Met, in roughly 10 billion pixels, well beyond the power of the human eye. The technology allows online viewers and researchers to zoom in to see details, down to brush strokes and scratches, in a way they could not in person. (…)

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