Museums Move into the Digital Future, Smartphones in Hand

Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel frescoes, Padua, 1303-05.
Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel frescoes, Padua, 1303-05.
Museums including MoMA, the Metropolitan, the Smithsonian and the Tate, and software companies like Google, are experimenting with new apps that meet audiences in the expanding virtual world. Technological leaps are rapidly making possible remote access to images and information about art museum collections, often on ipods, Androids and other smartphone devices.
The Google Art Project allows virtual visits to a growing network of museums.
The Google Art Project allows virtual visits to a growing network of museums.

Imagine the museum of the future.

You step inside your home tele-dec and settle into an armchair that self-adjusts to your comfort settings. “Computer,” you command, “load the National Gallery of Art.” The room brightens and you find yourself in the atrium of the great Washington institution.

In the air above the information desk a menu reads: Permanent Collection, Special Exhibitions, Timeline of Art History, and Lounge.

“Timeline,” you say, and the great hall becomes a mist out of which emerges a semi-circle of lifelike 3-D images of iconic sculptures and paintings from prehistory to the present.

Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel frescoes, Padua, 1303-05.
Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel frescoes, Padua, 1303-05.

“Italian Renaissance frescoes,” you say, and the scene converts to masterworks by Giotto, Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo and others. The hovering menu suggests tours by chronology, location, iconography, or patronage, but you feel like exploring the work of a single artist.

“Giotto,” you command, and you are inside the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.

A holographic docent appears before you and asks, “Where shall we begin?” “Tour iconography,” you say, and the docent walks slowly towards a scene of the Birth of the Virgin on the wall to the left, your chair swiveling to follow her movement.

“The Florentine painter Giotto,” she begins, “was commissioned by Enrico degli Scrovegni to decorate the interior of a small chapel he had built adjoining his palace on the site of the former Roman arena in Padua. From 1303 to 1305 Giotto frescoed the walls with scenes from the lives of the Joachim and Anna, their daughter the Virgin Mary, and her son Jesus  Christ, as well as the Last Judgement. The cycle begins here,” says the guide,” gesturing as illumination increases on a rectangular scene showing Joachim praying in the desert.

We’re not there yet, but technological leaps are rapidly making possible remote access to images and information about art museum collections. And that information already includes pictures, texts, audio and video guides, not to mention  conversations with museum professionals and fellow museum lovers who convene through social media. Could the home tele-dec be far away?

Tap mobile app from Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Indianapolis Museum of Art developed TAP, an open-source platform that enables museums to create mobile apps for iPods.

The digital transformation of museum-going is the subject of my latest article in The Washington Post.

Nancy Proctor, the Smithsonian’s head of mobile strategy and initiatives, would like a visitor to be able to aim a smartphone camera at an object, have it do a visual search of all images in the museum database, tell the visitor what they are looking at and provide additional information about it.

That’s the foreseeable future, though image recognition does not work well yet for three-dimensional objects. And image-recognition software requires access throughout the museum to Wi-Fi or the web. Mobile phone broadband speeds are expected to increase making it perhaps the preferable route to the Internet.

An alternative would locate the object by GPS, but most museums lack the infrastructure (and satellite connectivity) to provide it, though something along these lines is where we are headed.

“If I could snap my fingers I would make Wi-Fi in every Smithsonian building to connect with SI.edu and other resources,” says Proctor, “with everything digitized in the highest resolution in 3D. And we’d recruit the world to help do the work of the Smithsonian,” she says, explaining that visitors could tag attributes of the objects they encounter, making that information searchable to other users.

The consensus among experts is that the field is still in the R&D phase, testing strategies and new technologies to learn which approaches will best serve museums’ missions. But all agree that museums inexorably are moving into the brave new virtual world.

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture won’t open until 2015, but the museum is working on an application that will let people look through their phone cameras at the future site on the Mall and see a ghostly image of the building as it will one day appear.

The Street Museum in London used similar “augmented reality” software to allow users to overlay historic photos of urban scenes onto the actual views on their phone screens. And the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam enlisted augmented reality in a project that allowed the public to take 3D images of works in the collection and “hang” them in real space where they would be visible by other users of the software.

The Museum of Modern Art’s current “Talk to Me” exhibit of human-machine interactive devices employs quick response (QR) codes and Twitter hashtags for each object, enabling visitors to scan the coded images to call up dedicated Web pages and associated Tweets.

Visitors to MoMA's "Talk to Me" exhibition. (Photo (c) MoMA)
Visitors to MoMA’s “Talk to Me” exhibition. (Photo (c) MoMA)

Google’s Art Project has made self-guided video tours of 17 museums possible on your computer, and the company expects to add many more institutions to the network while improving navigation and search across multiple collections.

Looking ahead, the Indianapolis Museum of Art has an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant to use eye-tracking equipment that will chart a visitor’s gaze, recognizing when a person is standing in front of an object, which part of it they are looking at, for how long, and what they looked at next. “We want to know how viewers process looking at artworks and if our labels respond to that,” says Rob Stein, the lead software designer at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Marc Sands, director of audiences and media at the Tate in London, and previously the head of online ventures for the Guardian newspaper, says that curators have been reluctant to work on web projects. But just as journalists over the past decade recognized that their audiences are online, curators, too are seeing the digital light. “They are writing for the Web now, but it will move to video and audio soon,” he says.

“Something digital was something you’d think about at the end of the exhibition. Now we are asking curators to think about digital enhancements from the get go for their exhibitions,” says Carrie Rebora Barratt, associate director for collections and administration at the Metropolitan Museum, which launched a redesigned website last week.

Bellini and Titian's "The Feast of the Gods," 1514/1529, in the National Gallery of Art.
Bellini and Titian’s “The Feast of the Gods,” 1514/1529, in the National Gallery of Art. Wouldn’t it be useful to have it on your smartphone screen replete with notes identifying the figures and providing a historical overview?

The in-gallery experience is likely to be profoundly transformed, though no one knows precisely how. Perhaps many visitors, especially younger ones, would love to be able to stand in front of a painting — say Bellini and Titian’s Feast of the Gods in the National Gallery — and have the image automatically appear on their smartphone screens with an overlay identifying each of the depicted figures. Perhaps they want to tap on menu items for in-depth information and to hear a curator via their earpods discuss the work and its creators.

This sort of experience is within grasp for museums. Some already come close, and for others it seems less a question of “if” so much as “when.”

To read more about the fast approaching brave new virtual world of museums, click here or on one of the images.

Jason Edward Kaufman

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.

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    August 26, 2010, 1:16 am

    Gary Tinterow’s Contemporary Art Agenda for the Metropolitan Museum

    In a wide-ranging interview, the chief curator of modern and contemporary art discusses collection sharing, acquisitions strategy, renovation of the Wallace Wing, negotiations to lease the Whitney’s Breuer building, and more.

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