In 2015, the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain, using a free mobile app and online access to nearly 1,800 works of art, began crowdsourcing the role of curator, inviting anyone to create a distinctive narrative within the museum’s collection. In its first year, users activated 428 exhibit pieces at least once (24% of all exhibited pieces) adding personal comments and links to related pieces to create curated experiences for other visitors.
The museum organized a contest for the most creative tours. One winner curated a children’s game, “Anem de Safari!!!,” that guides young people through works that feature animals, including Ramon Casas’ 1886 painting “Bulls (Dead Horses),” and Francesc Serra i Dimas’ 1903 work, “Portrait of the Sculptor Agapit Vallmitjana Abarca in his Workshop.”
Nancy Proctor, executive director of Museums and the Web, an international organization supporting innovative ideas for museums, said she believes Barcelona’s museum represents a rare instance of leveraging technology effectively.
“Museums have struggled to be relevant to local communities,” Proctor said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the icon used to represent many museums is a neoclassical façade taken from the Acropolis, the bank of Athens, where the treasures were kept and human beings were not allowed inside. They’re not using digital platforms to their full potential to engage people.”
REDEFINING WHAT’S RELEVANT
In addition to changing how curators think about presenting their museums’ treasures, technology is being used to transform how museum professionals think about who they serve, how and what is culturally relevant. For example:
• The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York provides virtual reality (VR) goggles for viewing Jackson Pollock paintings. Seen through the headsets, Pollock’s intense colors appear to jump off the canvases.
• The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium collaborated with the Google Cultural Institute in Paris, inviting online visitors to virtually enter Bruegel’s “Fall of the Rebel Angel” for an immersive 3D tour of the masterpiece’s symbolic details.
• Google engineers teamed up with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to develop an interactive 3D exhibit wall that allows visitors to access and rotate digital images of historical artifacts and records far too fragile to be handled by thousands of people.
• Museums including the Louvre in Paris and the Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in New York, offer tours that allow visitors to touch casts of famous works. Artists are showing works in Braille for the vision impaired. Some museums have partnered with 3D companies to transform famous paintings into touchable, 3D-printed works that let the blind “feel” the features of the painting.
ENTERTAINING OR EDUCATING?
Exhibits like these are fueling fresh debate about how digital tools affect museums’ relationships with the public. Some critics, for example, lament exhibits that emphasize entertainment, not enlightenment and education, to boost attendance. The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, for example, has worked with design firms and creative professionals, whose clients include theme parks and filmmakers, to create installations designed to thrill audiences.
“Fear of ‘Disneyfication’ tends to lie on the side of curators and scholars,” Proctor said, but that attitude assumes entertainment and education are mutually exclusive. Why shouldn’t museums be fun? “Museums could take a page out of the Disney playbook. Museums can be the agora, the public space, where strangers encounter each other. Particularly right now, that’s a powerful message.”
“DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY MAKES THE WALLS OF THE MUSEUM A LOT MORE POROUS, MORE TRANSPARENT.”PATRICIA WARD
DIRECTOR OF SCIENCE EXHIBITS AND PARTNERSHIPS AT THE MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY, CHICAGO
Patricia Ward, director of science exhibits and partnerships at The Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago (MSI), agrees.
“Digital technology makes the walls of the museum a lot more porous, more transparent,” she said. That openness invites visitors and allows museums to better understand their audiences. “How do we learn from our audiences? What are they interested in? What do they know? Do they care? Technology can help to provide the answers.”
For example, she said, MSI’s interactive simulation lab in the Future Energy Chicago exhibit helps museum officials understand how visitors make choices about their world, through games that give visitors real-world information to use in making decisions about energy efficiency, including tradeoffs affecting homes, neighborhoods and transportation.
“Before you can even think about designing an exhibit, you have to know what people know,” Ward said. “We’re trying to find the entry points for conversations.”
STORIES WELL TOLD
For Gamynne Guillotte, director of interpretation and public engagement at the Baltimore Museum of Art, VR and AR, 3D and experiential enhancements that add smoke and wind to a battlefield exhibit, for example, are merely new storytelling techniques curators can employ to encourage interaction.
“Audience behavior has been shifting broadly over the past 20 years,” she said. “The expectation is about collaboration and involvement, across all sectors.”
“THE EXPECTATION IS ABOUT COLLABORATION AND INVOLVEMENT, ACROSS ALL SECTORS.”GAMYNNE GUILLOTTE
DIRECTOR OF INTERPRETATION AND PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT, BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF ART
For Museums and the Web’s Proctor, enhancing storytelling with digital tools offers museums a more sustainable business model by encouraging visitors to get more involved with the content museums present. By encouraging public collaboration, she said, technology is making museum content more rich, relevant and vibrant while connecting museums to the modern world.
MSI’s Ward agrees.
“If you’re talking about digital technologies in museums, it’s not the technology per se that’s important,” she said. “It’s about the story, and the technology is a tool to tell a story.”