Steve Lohr, Museums Morph Digitally, New York Times, 23 October 2014
The Met and Other Museums Adapt to the Digital Age
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.