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SXSW: How Technology Can Help Reshape The Museum

Leslie Wolke spoke today during the SXSW interactive session Tech & Art: Digital Innovation in the Art World.  She works as a way-finding technologist, someone who builds tools that help people find their way in complicated environments like malls, hotels, and airports.  But before her career in human herding, she studied art history.  These two skill sets got her thinking about how people experience museums.  It hasn’t changed at all in last 25 years, she says: printed maps, ancient audio guides, captions on walls. Gallery walls hold only one or two pieces of art. It is a very formal, abstract presentation.

The way we MAKE things has gone through revolution in the last quarter century; we’ve gotten used to using fantastic new tools to create all forms of art. Yet the way we SEE things hasn’t changed at all.

In the 16th and 17th century, curators plastered walls with art.  Every usable inch of wall space was covered.  This helped people see relationships between different works.  So what is missing in today’s experience?

Concept of PLAY: We learn about new things by playing with them.  The iPhone, she says, “doesn’t come with a manual, you play with it and learn.”  Art museums today are too formal for that, generally.

Context: The more you learn about the context of a piece, the more interesting it becomes.

Gallery One at Cleveland Museum of Art, which was launched with a generous grant, embraces both these ideas. She cites two installations in particular:

Strike a Pose is an interactive space where you try to match a pose of an image shown on a screen.  When a match is detected, a new pose is placed on the screen.  You can also make faces or strike poses, and the computer will find works in the collection with similar faces or poses.   Wolke says this helps us get over the stodginess of  the museum.

But the museum’s “best feature” is its interactive Collection Wall.  It’s an 80-foot,  touch-sensitive screen loaded with 3500 pieces of art.  Each work has been photographed in high resolution and is tagged with tons of metadata, so it’s easy to search and browse by many different attributes of a piece.  You can also tap items you like and create a personalized tour.

Wolke says the wall is reminiscent of work by contemporary painter and art historian David Hockney.  In a research project and book, Hockney organized European art by region and date, and realized that people learned quickly how to render objects beautifully and in 3D – in Netherlands in 1600s using new lens technology of the day.  Putting art in context makes it more interesting, not just for amateurs, but for professionals too.

Wolke says four innovations are changing the way people experience art:

Google Glass: As odd as it is for me seeing people walking around SXSW interactive wearing these things, they help put things in context in real time and are a great way to add  missing context to a museum experience.

Google ArtProject: “Like crack for art historians.” An experience, similar to Streetview, of museums all over the world.

GoogleProject Tango: Souped-up Android phone with lots of added sensors. It creates a real-time 3D model of an environment as you walk through it.  Once you have that basic model, you can  overlay augmented reality any way you want.

Direct connection – RFID and Near-Field Communication, NFC could be used to provide a more custom experience for each visitor to a museum.

Wolke’s Challenge: Re-invent the art museum; make it a playful, captivating experience for all.