How Technology Is Transforming the Museum Experience

At the Cleveland Museum of Art, art isn’t merely viewed—it’s also experienced.

Once inside of the museum, patrons are quickly introduced to an ArtLens Wall, a five feet by 40 feet MicroTile wall—the tallest of its kind—that showcases tiles that represent the museum’s permanent collection.

Every 40 seconds, the wall shifts to display art by a different category, grouping by material, time period, or technique. As viewers browse the collection—which is anywhere from 4,200 to 4,500 pieces, depending on the current curation—they can zoom in or expand for more information. Six times per hour, the wall updates its images based on data created by viewers who have “favorited” a piece, either manually on the wall or from their ArtLens smartphone app.

By tapping their Bluetooth-enabled device to a docking station, the ArtLens app can save the viewer’s favorites or guide them to these works of art in the museum.

“We are trying to blend art and technology in a way that it invites visitors to interact and engage in new kinds of experiences with art,” Jane Alexander, Chief Information Officer at CMA, said. The goal, she explained, is to demystify art for a wider public and engage people with their collection.

“We are trying to blend art and technology in a way that it invites visitors to interact and engage in new kinds of experiences with art.”
— Jane Alexander, Chief Information Officer at CMA

Demystifying Art

At the Cleveland Museum of Art, it’s not only the museum entrance that takes this interactive approach. As adult and children visitors walk into the ArtLens Studio area, a creative zone for visitors from age three to 100, they are encouraged to interact with museum artwork through technology.

With motion-sensor technology, viewers can virtually paint, collage, or make pottery—all while (literally) drawing on the museum’s collection for inspiration. Patrons can, for example, use air gestures with their hands and bodies to draw on a 25-foot 4K interactive video screen. Motion-sensor technology then maps these images to the museum’s many collections.

In another interactive feature in the Studio area, viewers can compare how their eyes move over a piece of art versus others. Patrons can imitate a Roman athlete figure’s pose and get a rating for their performance. They can adorn themselves in a virtual headdress and get an instant photo on their smartphone.

For Alexander and the leadership team at CMA, the museum’s tech makeover is something to celebrate—an opportunity to engage the community in a fresh way. And by all accounts, it’s working.

According to Alexander, individual attendance has jumped 31 percent and family attendance has increased by 29 percent since the museum’s interactive galleries went live in 2013. Its digital exhibitions, it seems, are turning the heads of art elite around the country.

“Over the last four years, almost every major museum has sent a director for site visits,” she remarked.

Interactive Art Around the U.S.

While the Cleveland Museum of Art is a tech pioneer, it is not alone in its initiative to create an immersive art experience through emerging technology. In 2017, art museums are embracing tools from chatbots and augmented reality apps to digital projections and 3D printing.

At the Smithsonian American Art Museum, curators are beginning to use virtual reality to bring its collections to the public from the comfort of their own homes. After the success of its 2015 Wonder exhibition at the Renwick gallery, which drew 730,000 visitors from November 2015 through July 2016 (and was a huge hit on social media), the museum decided to launch a virtual experience of the museum blockbuster.

Through the Wonder app—”Renwick Gallery Wonder 360,” developed by the museum’s media and technology office—viewers could experience a 360-degree, 3D-panoramic view of the nine contemporary artists showcased in the popular exhibition.

“Renwick Gallery Wonder 360 is our first major experiment with VR,” Sara Snyder, the museum’s chief of media and technology office, said in a press release. “The app captures the exhibition as a moment in time and lets you carry the beauty of that experience around in your pocket, anywhere in the world. It represents a whole new way of sharing art with the public.”

In Michigan, the Detroit Institute of Arts partnered with Google and GuidiGO, an augmented reality platform creator, to introduce an interactive, motion-tracking mobile tour called Lumin. Acting as a handheld tour guide, Lumin allows users to engaged with other augmented reality overlays, 3D animations, videos, photographs, and sounds. Egyptian gallery viewers can, for instance, hold the device up to a 2000-year-old mummy to reveal an x-ray view of the skeleton inside.

Balancing Tech and Art

As popular as tech-powered exhibitions have become, they also come with a level of skepticism and concern. As more more museums work with interactive technology, they are discovering that digital interactions are perhaps too engaging, drawing attention away from the artwork they were designed to support.

At CMA, museum curators noticed that after viewers interacted with tech-powered kiosks, they would rarely look more closely at the artwork itself. “It might be a bit of a challenge,” Alexander said, “but we need to ensure that technology doesn’t overshadow the real art.”

In their new iteration launched earlier this year, exhibitions at the Cleveland Museum of Art are organized so that physical art remains in the center of the gallery; digital lenses remain on the walls behind them.

Today, the projected art images shift visitor focus from artwork to digital interpretation, back to the original artwork.

“We work with stunning technology and like to see high engagement,” Alexander explained. “But we want to make sure that the visit to museum is about art and not just technology.”