Coding the Museum Experience

By Matt Sutton

I love museums. They are places where you can experience some of the world's greatest artifacts and stories! All over the world, museums are using emerging technology as new exhibits and to enhance the museum-goers experience. Since, this week at Bold Idea, we are celebrating coding used for and in art, I wanted to show great examples of how art museums are using and embracing coding and UI to improve their museums!

The Museum Companion

One of the earliest tech trends adopted by museums was the use of tablets and mobile devices as companions. Many, like the MoMA in New York City, use iPod Touches with a unique OS as a travel companion. It includes a comprehensive audio tour as well as search capabilities for additional content on individual pieces, information about museum hours and exhibit scheduling. The app, like many others today, also has sharing capabilities to major social media platforms integrated into the program. For a continued experience, the MoMA offers the whole software as a free app available to anyone on both the Apple and Android app stores.

Some museums have even taken this one step further. The Cleveland Museum of Art uses a downloadable program called 'ArtLens' that uses image recognition software to tells you detailed information about the piece of art you are looking at by simply pointing the camera at it. The software also using localizing RFID technology to give you real-time directions around the museum, "expanded interpretive content" like video and articles, and can lead you on specialized tours throughout the galleries thanks to RFID beacons placed all around the building. Also like the MoMA app, the Cleveland Museum of Art also allows you to store favorites in the app for now or later discussion.

Other institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City are using iBeacons and other RFID software, like the one shown below, to beam content straight to your mobile device. It is a very passive technology that can be used in leading tours and more. Similar technology that is small and designed in a way that is not intrusive has been used in fashion retailers, theme parks, and more to better cater and personalize a visitor's experience all while utilizing an individual's exisiting technology.

Members of the MediaLab (at the Met) explore the galleries of Egyptian art using beacon technology. Photo by Don Undeen

The software is a huge hit among kids and in the interactive children's exhibits where bits of trivia and reminders throughout the toured experience keeps kids talking and thinking about the artwork that they will see next or at the end of the day! Technology like this has been embraced instead of being discouraged in recent years since the public's view on social media and technology has changed.

The Interactive Playmate

Museums like the Louvre in Paris and the Smithsonians in Washington, DC used to have signs banning the use of cell phones in galleries but instead use technology to create a more immersive experience. Instead, simply allowing guards and museum staff to simply alert visitors when a piece is off limits for photography.

Museum officials recognize that in today's world that people have phones so instead having been learning to adapt the experience they offer recognizing that technology is a part of life. The senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, Paola Antonelli, put it nicely. “We live not in the digital, not in the physical, but in the kind of minestrone that our mind makes of the two,” she said.

When the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum reopened its doors after a significant remodel last year, it unveiled an amazingly unique interactive experience integrated throughout the whole museum. Led by the concept of a digital pen that is given to you upon entry, the pen experience allows uses to quick literally touch, explore and interact with the exhibits and design in an interesting way. You can can save information about an artifact on the pen by simply touching the special icon on the piece's placard. You can also use it to play games and interact with the information later at any one of the many touch screens tabletops throughout the museum.

The Artist's Agenda

Potentially the greatest way that coding and technology has influenced museums is through the artists themselves. Art museums with contemporary and digital art collections have been encouraged by artists to explore emerging technologies as a way of both integrating incoming art installations and preserving current and future possessions.

The National Portrait Gallery, a Smithsonian institution in Washington, D.C., used 3D printing to replicate Abraham Lincoln's "death mask" and uses 3D modeling to, with incredible detail, conduct analysis on preserved pieces of art. The last surviving canon-bearing vessel from the Revolutionary War, built in 1776, the gunboat Philadelphia is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. Thanks to 3D scanning, the Philadelphia is also rendered online where interested viewers can admire it wherever they are and museum goers can see spots not viewable from where it's displayed in the great hall.

3D printing, data mapping and laser technologies have become a staple in a number of museums and art restoration programs around the world to conduct testing, restore artifacts and, even, detect forgeries.

Digital artist, R. Luke DuBois has described his work as “using the tools of our time — digital media, computing and data”. When commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to do a portrait of Google's founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, DuBois created a portrait on two digital screens. The left screen displays a series of video interviews of the two men on Youtube, Google's ever present video site, while the right screen was coded to take use of the Google's speech recognition software to displays a cascade of words from the interviews in clusters and mesmerizing patterns. It is a beautiful piece of self-referential digital art.

Museum and art institutions all over the globe are realizing that technology is here to help and not destroy mediums of ol'. I hope by reading this you realize that your love of art and history does not have to go away because you love coding. In fact, your inspired code could really change the art world some day.