Leslie Wolke consulting+writing

Wayfinding | Technology | Design | Architecture | Inspiration

Art Nouveau

The Cleveland Museum of Art uses digital experiences to reach out to new audiences.

As deeply enmeshed as technology has become in our lives, there is one place where we still squint to read small labels, strain to hear static-filled audio guides, and wrestle with disorienting paper maps: the art museum. We walk gingerly, speak in hushed tones, and if a work of art catches our interest, there’s often no easy way to learn more.

Attendance and patronage of art museums is on the decline, perhaps in some part due to the staid and reverential nature of a museum visit. The absence of younger audiences, especially families, portends a dim future for these cultural institutions and for generations of children who may not experience a connection to art and its history.

Cultivating Gen-Next
The Cleveland Museum of Art was founded in 1913 “for the benefit of all people forever.” In 2000, the well-respected institution began a $350 million renovation and expansion project to sustain its next hundred years of growth with a master plan and two new wings designed by architect Rafael Viñoly.

In tandem with the architectural expansion, the museum’s board of directors and an insightful philanthropic couple launched an initiative to grow new audiences to engage with art and with the museum. Milton and Tamar Maltz donated $10 million expressly to cultivate the next generation of art patrons.

The result of the Maltz gift is Gallery One, an engaging space for visitors of all ages to interact with the collection in playful, casual, and social contexts. It houses a rare mix of low-tech (magnetic building blocks and shadow puppets) and state-of-the-art high-tech (the country’s largest multi-touch touch screen) elements, all designed with a single purpose: to spark an interest in art.

Screens in a gallery?
With the Maltz Family mission in mind, a cross-disciplinary team from the museum selected Gallagher & Associates and a media design firm to develop the initial vision for the space. Patrick Gallagher, Founder and President of the firm, says the museum team grounded the project in visitor input and market testing. “Their research had shown that younger people were frustrated by the process of visiting a museum: why are things there? Why are they important?” These questions had to be answered.

In those early stages of the project, the team wrestled with the role of technology in Gallery One. Would screens play the leading role with artifacts from the collection as supporting characters? Would the gallery be isolated as a ‘tech zone’ far from the heart of the museum? This was a daring new challenge for museum curators: how to reconcile the tangible benefits of interaction and exploration through digital tools with the unique, immersive experience of interacting with art objects. These questions may have been compounded by a mismatch among the teams—the media design firm was soon let go.

When New York-based Local Projects was brought in to replace the original media design firm, they were asked to assess the technology approach and the layout of the space. Jake Barton, Principal and Founder of Local Projects, responded in an unexpected way: “we re-designed the general layout with the Museum, pulling the screens away from the artworks, consolidating them in the middle of each gallery, and generally redesigning the space so it looks exactly like a traditional art gallery.” Shifting the emphasis from digital screens to the works of art themselves made the curators comfortable enough to populate the gallery with some of the most important pieces in the collection. Barton sums up, “Masterworks hang in the gallery because the technology is diminished, and the artwork is the primary experience.”

Today, works by Pablo Picasso, Chuck Close, and Auguste Rodin share space with a 12th century French marble carving and an Edo-period Japanese bottle. Caroline Goeser, the museum’s Director of Education and Interpretation, explains, “We chose the works of art in concert with the curators—they each ask a question to engage visitors in dialogue and exploration.”

Intergenerational learning through play
“The museum had to create a connection at a very young age and the collection was the most important part of that process,” Gallagher explains. This was the inspiration for Studio Play, an activity area within Gallery One that caters to young children and their parents. Easels, felt boards, and shadow puppets beckon kids to play together, drawing inspiration from artworks such as Calder mobiles and Chinese landscape paintings. Interactive touch screens invite children to draw a shape and view items from the collection that incorporate that form.

As Caroline Goeser explains, “Studio Play is a space for intergenerational learning—a place to work and create together.” Goeser worked with Gallagher and his team, along with Jake Barton, founder of Local Projects, the New York-based media design firm that was selected to design and build the interactive elements for Gallery One.

“I think the team appreciated that we are skeptical about technology,” Barton recalls. “Nothing ages worse than bleeding-edge technology, but if you’re creating meaningful experiences, those will age well.”

Many disciplines at the table
At Local Projects’ studio in New York you will find designers of many varieties: two-dimensional, three-dimensional, motion, and interactive, along with producers, animators, writers, and developers—all collaborating at long tables and white boards. With experience from other museum environments like the National Building Museum and the National Museum of Jewish History to draw upon, Barton and his team began the design process that resulted in eight multi-touch activity centers, the 40-ft long interactive Collections Wall, and an iPad app.

In Gallery One, visitors can explore six thematic groupings of artworks via interactive kiosks on low pedestals resembling easels. Each 46-inch multi-touch screen is placed 14 feet from its subject artwork to allow for a variety of circulation and visit patterns.

Through the looking glass
The six interactives are named “lenses,” underscoring that technology’s role in this environment is to enhance viewing and provide context, but remain as transparent as possible. Barton calls these “walk-up interfaces— they must be intuitive and inviting and work seamlessly.“ Through the lenses’ games and activities, visitors begin a dialogue about art that will continue as they explore the rest of the museum.

For example, the Sculpture Lens asks the question, “How do our bodies inspire art?” and features two games. “Make a Face” uses facial recognition to match a visitor’s expression with one of 189 works within the collection. For “Strike a Pose,” the visitor is scored on how accurately they recreate a pose from a sculpture. (This lens uses Microsoft Kinect to track the user’s position and a webcam and facial recognition software to track faces.) Goeser believes that when a visitor strikes a pose, they “literally embody the work of art and respond kinetically to it.”

While the Sculpture Lens demonstrates some innovative user interactions, the Painting Lens may be more thought-provoking by simply polling visitors to “Choose a Reason” — why was this painting painted? Barton explains that “these simple matching games help the curators convey arguably advanced points of view: the concept of functionality of a painting. It’s a prime example of experiential learning: taking an idea and producing an experience that teaches that idea.”

A feat of engineering and design
The curators and design team envisioned Gallery One as a place for visitors to explore the fundamental questions “What is it? What do you see? How was it made? Why was it made?” The largest expression of these questions and answers is the Collections Wall, a dazzling 5- by 40-foot interface that displays more than 3,800 artworks from the museum’s collection. The wall is composed of 150 Christie MicroTiles—multi-touch LED-based rear-projection cubes—the first and largest installation of this technology.

On the Collections Wall, multiple visitors can browse art by medium, year, geography, and gallery. With the companion iPad app, ArtLens, visitors can save their favorite works and generate a tour to see them in person. The museum lends iPads to those who want to use them and provides iPad-toting visitors with an RFID chip to make their iPad location-aware within the museum.

The Wall presented quite a design challenge to the Local Projects team: how to display nearly 4,000 works of art in an engaging, dynamic composition that works from afar and from close-up, encouraging visitors to “zoom into” a single work of art in a more intimate interaction?

“One of the biggest lessons we learned was that the hardest problems are best solved by actually making something and being in the presence of it, not through abstract discussions of what might or might not work,” says Barton. He now applies this methodology as “Prototype First.”

Once the software was built, they were able to hone the interaction design in ways that they never would have conceived through wireframing and conceptual exercises. Barton recalls, “During the last month before the Gallery One opening, we were still making improvements. Everyone needs to be on board for this more agile and iterative design process.” Gallagher extends this philosophy, even past opening day: “You’re going to get it 90% at the start, and you have to be ready to make those adjustments, and make it better.”

Gallery One opened to the public in January 2013 along with Viñoly’s expansive atrium and a new café. Staff report that visitorship to the museum as a whole is on the rise. Visitor studies are in progress and the curators are beginning to comb through the analytics generated by the interactive elements to gauge visitor behavior.

Analytics aside, Goeser is delighted to see families and groups interacting with the art, “elbowing each other and having fun and doing what you’re not supposed to do in a museum—touching the walls!”

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