Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Visit-enhancing technologies

Cleveland Museum of Art’s Collection Wall. Source: Wall Street Journal. Photo: Cleveland Museum of Art.

Lee Rosenbaum, The Brave New Museum Sputters Into Life, The Wall Street Journal, 7 September 2015

Art museums are eagerly embracing visit-enhancing technologies—but what do they really add to the experience?

With so many visitors—particularly the young—obsessively attached to digital devices as instruments of learning and sharing, even the most traditional art museum officials can no longer deny the imperative for technological interventions in what used to be a relatively unmediated relationship between viewer and object. First there were audio guides and websites. Now art museums are embracing everything from apps to robots to interactive pens, hoping to discern how best to enhance the gallery experience for savvy digerati, without ruining it for diehard technophobes.

Having recently explored the digital prestidigitations of several pioneering art museums, I have arrived at one firm conclusion: I have seen the future and we’re not there yet.

The technological transformation of the art-museum experience is still an experiment in which visitors play the role of guinea pigs. I uncovered promising tech tricks at the De Young Museum, San Francisco and the Brooklyn Museum, New York, that will enhance both knowledge and pleasure for those receptive to new pathways for art engagement. But in other instances, hyperactive interactivity and exasperating glitches interfere with enjoyment of the objects themselves:

  • Dazzled by the acclaimed digital Collection Wall at the Cleveland Museum of Art, children excitedly rush over to tap one image after another, enlarging them but barely looking at them, let alone absorbing the accompanying information. Adults often gaze at, without engaging with, the wall’s enticing but random and every-changing array of interactive images. This superficially entertaining eye candy offers no way for art lovers to search for a particular object, artist or period of personal interest.
  • At the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, a boy races through the permanent collection, pressing the slanted end of the custom-designed Interactive Pen (lent to each visitor) on every label he encounters, but never pausing to look at the objects themselves. The Pen is designed to collect object information from the label’s NFC tags (stickers with microchips that can be read by mobile devices), for later retrieval on the museum’s interactive tables or on one’s home computer or mobile device. Since the museum reopened in December, only about one-third of its visitors have accessed their personally assigned URLs on the museum’s website to learn more about the objects they selected—a follow-up rate that “needs improvement,” according to the museum’s self-assessment.

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