Museums Visits Enter the 
Digital Age

A visitor in the Ancient Middle East Gallery uses Lumin, the Detroit Institute of Arts' augmented reality app.

Detroit Institute of Arts
A visitor in the Ancient Middle East Gallery uses Lumin, the Detroit Institute of Arts' augmented reality app.
As our world becomes more and more technology-centered, museums are embracing new ways to engage visitors in and out of the gallery.

As our world becomes more and more technology-centered, museums are embracing new ways to engage visitors in and out of the gallery.

Courtesy Barnes Foundation

“Thinking about Barnes and his visual teaching style very specifically, the new Web site design will highlight the visual connections between artworks—colors, shapes, lines, for example—so a visitor always has a way to move forward and deeper into the collection in a self-directed fashion,”

Shelley Bernstein

Three years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts released the results of a survey it had conducted on public participation in the arts. The news was disappointing. Attendance at art museums and other cultural events has dropped steadily over the last 20 years. But there was a silver lining in the report.

Though personal visits to museums and other events were down, more than 70% of respondents had watched, listened to or downloaded some form of culture from the Internet.

No wonder, then, that over the past three years, and in some cases even longer, art museums have joined a growing number of cultural institutions that are embracing technology. Digital experts are joining staffs, and museums are finding innovative ways to not only showcase their collections, but to immerse visitors, whether in person or online, in the art experience.

“Museums are almost always looking to increase visitation numbers and grow their audience base,” says Pamela Horn, acting director, digital and emerging media, at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. “Technology is another platform that attracts new audiences who are more and more fluent in technology and digital devices. Interactive experiences in museums are being designed to not only bring visitors in but also to encourage return visits. Cooper Hewitt’s redesign sought to build community around design and put its collection of more than 210,000 objects in the hands of the user.”

Andrea Montiel de Shuman, digital experience designer for the Detroit Institute of Arts, says museums have always embraced technology. She points to a decade-old projection that is part of a long-standing dining table exhibit. “The scene we project shows how wealthy people who dined at this table would have been served when the table was new. It’s still popular with visitors,” she says. Still, she adds, museums are often slower to adapt technology than the general population because “It can be a costly risk for us,” she says.

Despite risk factors, however, more and more museums are exploring technology and how it can add to a visitor’s appreciation and knowledge of an artwork or object.

Below are just a few of the technologies that museums are adopting. There are more projects added each day, but this list has good examples of ways museums are innovating:

The Barnes Foundation

The museum’s founder, Albert C. Barnes’s principles for visual learning is well served by the museum’s new Collection Project – a re-structuring of the foundation’s Web site. “Thinking about Barnes and his visual teaching style very specifically, the new Web site design will highlight the visual connections between artworks—colors, shapes, lines, for example—so a visitor always has a way to move forward and deeper into the collection in a self-directed fashion,” says Shelley Bernstein, director of Audience Engagement and chief experience officer at the Barnes. Think of this as a ‘next generation’ collection project, she continues. “The goal will be to explore Dr. Barnes’ idea of ‘light, line, color, and space’ while giving visitors a way to visually browse online in the same way he taught them to learn in his galleries.”

Cantor Arts Center

Located at Stanford University, this center offers fellowships in their Art + Science Lab which has created several innovative technologies. One past project combined image-recognition technology with computer graphics and art history expertise. “Visitors could point an iPad at a photograph, painting or sculpture and see a virtual halo of information surrounding it,” says Susan Roberts-Manganelli, director of the center’s Art + Science Lab. Currently, the center has an installation which uses x-ray fluorescent technology to “see” invisible design elements on two vases in its Greek and Roman Gallery. “In April, we will offer a digital media interactive display on our painting Window by Richard Diebenkorn,” says Roberts-Manganelli. “Our student fellow used infrared reflectography to discover a hidden composition underneath the painted surface.”

Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

“The Pen” is the aptly-named project which provides visitors to the museum with a black pen, equipped with a small amount of computer memory, a radio for short-range communication and a touch-sensitive stylus which can be used to draw on touch-screen surfaces. “The Pen has two functions,” says Horn. “One end lets the visitor ‘collect’ and ‘save’ any object encountered in the museum; the stylus end can be used to explore the object collection, play designer, and navigate the interactive tables. The Pen is printed with a dedicated web address corresponding to their visit. Visitors retrieve saved content online, spend more time with their favorite objects, and dive more deeply into the museum’s collection.” A second project at the Cooper Hewitt is the Immersion Room. “The Immersion Room, located on the museum’s second floor, lets visitors select any of 300 examples of Cooper Hewitt’s extraordinary collection of wall-coverings and see them projected on the gallery walls. Visitors can also create their own designs by drawing on the tables with their Pens,” Horn adds.

Detroit Institute of Arts

The DIA’s Lumin Project allows visitors to explore an increasing number of the museum’s collection through augmented reality and 3-D animation, says Montiel De Shuman. For example, in the Japanese gallery, a tea table, when seen through a device, allows visitors to witness a Japanese tea ceremony through animation. “It takes about three to five minutes to go through the process, but at the end of it, visitors have a better understanding of how a tea ceremony is done, and the part the tea table plays in the ceremony,” says Montiel De Shuman. Visitors can also “see” inside a wrapped mummy through augmented reality. “It’s like having x-ray vision,” she says.

Lumin - xray of mummy
Courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts

The Lumin x-ray at work at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Visitors using Lumin at the Detroit Institute of Arts
Courtesy the Detroit Institute of Arts

Visitors using Lumin's augmented reality technology to get a closer look at the Detroit Institute of Art.

Visitos using Lumin at the Detroit Institute of Arts
Courtesy the Detroit Institute of Arts

Visitors using Lumin examine details unseeable to the naked eye at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Two students at work in the Cantor Arts Center’s Art ++ technology lab.
Courtesy the Cantor Arts Center

Two students at work in the Cantor Arts Center’s Art ++ technology lab.

Visitors manipulate the walls using digital technology in the Immersion room at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.
Courtesy Cooper Hewitt

Visitors manipulate the walls using digital technology in the Immersion room at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.

The Pen at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum gives visitors new ways to interact with displays.
Courtesy the Cooper Hewitt.

The Pen at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum gives visitors new ways to interact with displays.

Where will technology go next? It’s hard to say, but Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums at the American Alliance of Museums hopes a digital docent might be in the future. “I’m waiting for a museum mentor that learns and is personalized to my interests and level of knowledge,” she says.

As long as museum technology remains user-friendly, say these experts, museum visitors will embrace their tech-aided visits. “There’s a conception that technology is just for the young, but our oldest tester was 80 years old and he may have been our most enthusiastic,” says Montiel du Shuman.

What museums have learned is that by incorporating technology into their overall educational mission, they are providing the public with a taste of what their collections have to offer. What’s most heartening, in light of the NEA study, is that visitors want to see more.

About the Author

Karen Edwards

Karen Edwards writes about books, food, wine, and pets from her home in Worthington, Ohio.