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The Integration of Digital Technology and American Art Museum Practices
By Emily Crum
The digital age of the 21st century promises an innovative, forward-thinking technological era. Smart phones, the takeover of social media, and the Internet of Things (IoT) are all by-products of the tech boom that has developed over the past 15 years. This time of change raises several challenges across industries, including museums. In 2016, a photo went viral of a group of children in front of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. This photograph by Gijsbert van der Wal features a group of a dozen young people that are glued to their cellphone screens.(1)
The image encapsulates how easy it is to miss out on the experience and beauty right in front of you due to technology. Each child appears to be immensely bored with the experience. It sparked an international debate as to if the students were simply a metaphor for our age, or using their phones to complete research for their class assignment. The main synopsis was that today’s youth are more interested in their screens and applications than the artwork on display. Others argued that the students were using the museum’s freely downloadable multimedia tour. A well-designed application should not solely exist through an experience on a technological platform, but also encourage direct interaction with the artwork on display. Digital technology within art museums are tools for access and engagement and can enhance the experience in the presence of art.
American art museums are running into two problems. First, museum educators cannot adequately meet the needs of every individual and second, educators cannot assume that every visitor has the same level of knowledge or entry narrative. According to Cuseum for Art Museums, the challenge is “with such rich educational experiences to be had in the museum, visitors find themselves wishing for more information, but no easy way to get it. Too much signage is distracting from the art, a lack of guidance leaves people seeking direction, and visitors have an increasing set of unique needs”.(2)
So, what does this mean for the future? Can art museums become immersive and interactive experiences that foster learning and curiosity without completely forgoing the traditional, ritualistic aspect of museum experience? Why are people more excited to visit a history or science museum? Best practices for art museum educators today show that museums should be attempting to reach an audience that has historically been unrepresented or disinterested in a museum. But, how can a museum expect someone to change their outlook if 1) museum practices do not change or grow, or 2) do not develop and offer new tools with the outcome to promote access, interpretation, and experience?
One example of a museum adapting technology is the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) in Cleveland, Ohio. The CMA developed and integrated one of the most technologically advanced interactive art experiences in the world: ArtLens Gallery. As part of a $350 million expansion project, “ArtLens Gallery is a multi-faceted, innovative experience that allows you, your family, and friends to look closer, dive deeper, and have fun discovering the museum’s collection using award-winning digital technology.”(3) I received a grant from the School of the Art Institute to travel to see this technology in person in January 2019. Comprised of four different sections – Exhibition, Studio, App, and Wall – the ArtLens Gallery’s multi-faceted technological achievement is a prime example of the relationship technology can have in conjunction with museum participation, interpretation, and learning. According to Jake Barton, the president of Local Projects, the goal of the CMA ArtLens Gallery was to “create something where if you’d never been in a museum before you’d be intrigued, and if you’ve been to many museums, you’d still feel comfortable”.(4)
The CMA is essentially granting their visitors the capability to engage with the collection and create stories that are relevant to themselves on a platform that is comfortable through current and advanced technology. The CMA’s ArtLens Gallery is a prime example of how the relationship between new technologies in museums cultivate new ways of visitor engagement, interpretation, and learning. The gallery promotes engagement through a series of games, challenges, and creativity throughout the exhibition, studio, app, and wall programs that challenge the visitors in a variety of ways and appeal to general curiosity. All these facets come together to create a full, museum-wide experience that starts in the ArtLens Gallery and percolates throughout the collection, creating an overall sense of curiosity, wonder, and desire for learning. ArtLens Gallery technology allows the visitor the opportunity to create a personalized visit and experience that can be different each and every time.
The ArtLens Gallery tackles many of the most prominent arguments related to modernization and the changing of the museum experience. Today, “people come to museums for storytelling and engagement, and [expect] the technology needs to facilitate that”.(5) Technology allows the freedom and independence for visitors to customize their experiences both inside and out of the physical space, but aids in a deeper connection and conversation to happen within the gallery itself. Another goal of the ArtLens Gallery and its programming is to reduce the discomfort that non-traditional or unfamiliar visitors experience upon entering these “ivory tower” types of institutions. This technology is a program that aids in developing toolsets for its users, enabling them to look closer at each aspect of an art object, cultivate a deeper understanding, and develop a new, personal relationship to works in the museum’s collection. After this first interaction with ArtLens, a museum visitor, upon returning to the CMA, will be faced with new challenges, new works, and new adventures that elevates their experience with the CMA’s collection. While not the final solution on the issue, the CMA has developed one of the most cutting-edge technologies with the intent to foster experience and engagement, essentially setting the stage for best practices in the field.
Digital technologies within museums provide a platform that resonates with American society. These technologies can help visitors learn how to look at art, and what to look for, in order to recognize commonalities and patterns over multiple mediums. For individuals that find it challenging or feel uncertain to visit these institutions, digitized tools and collections can be a source of comfort for navigating such cultural treasure-troves. This is also true for the youth of America today that are the future of these institutions. If the youth of today are given meaningful and exciting experiences, then they are more likely to recognize the importance of these institutions, ensuring their longevity and commitment to serving their wide-ranging publics. So, the final question is not how, but when will all museums integrate technology?
Emily Crum is a passionate museum educator based in Chicago, IL who strives to ensure museum spaces are innovative, accessible, and serving the public at large. Currently, Emily is the Education Coordinator at the Richard H. Driehaus Museum and a Master’s candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Now in her third and final year, Emily is completing a dual degree program in Arts Administration and Policy and Modern and Contemporary Art History, and she will complete her studies this upcoming May. She holds a BA with Honors in The History of Art and Architecture with an emphasis in Museum Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Emily has a wide array of experiences from holding positions in several museums, the government, and more. She is most passionate about exposing all audiences to art and culture through facilitating experiences with lasting impact. Connect with Emily via LinkedIn.
- Molloy, Mark. “The Real Story behind a Viral Rembrandt ‘Kids on Phones’ Photo,” January 16, 2016, sec. News. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/12103150/Rembrandt-The-Night-Watch-The-real-story-behind-the-kids-on-phones-photo.html
- “Art Museums.” Cuseum, https://cuseum.com/cuseum-for-art-museums.
- “ArtLens Gallery.” ArtLens Gallery | Cleveland Museum of Art, 31 Oct. 2018.
- Fred A. Bernstein, “Technology That Serves to Enhance, Not Distract”, The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Oct. 2018
- “Art Museums.” Cuseum, https://cuseum.com/cuseum-for-art-museums.