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The world is not enough! The museums of the future are attracting their visitors to virtual environments


Text: Elisabeth Oberndorfer

Museums in the US are daring to leave their familiar territory. Digital strategists are showing them how new technologies can attract more visitors.

The museum of the future is dynamic. This is the synopsis of the Arup Institute’s survey, "Museums in the Digital Age," which was published in November 2013. In the future, museums have to address very different target groups: Generation Y as well as the "bedrock of the pre-digital era." The inclusion of tablets and social media will be part of the basic equipment of cultural institutions. Technologies such as augmented reality and face recognition will help museums appeal to the general public. Other findings of the report show that the museum of the future no longer needs to be anchored in one location, but can be mobile.

The Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco is currently (forced to be) mobile. Due to renovations, the main site will be closed for the next three years. In order to bridge this long time period, the institution has organized pop-up exhibitions across the city and in surrounding areas. People who want to know what the future SFMOMA will look like in 2016 can access a preview by using an augmented reality app. "A creative reimagining of our expansion" is the title of the project implemented by the artists Will Pappenheimer and John Craig Freeman from Brooklyn. Users can download the application using a QR code or the augmented reality app "Layar." If you point your mobile phone or tablet at the building in downtown San Francisco, the app displays the floor plan of the new building, including creative installations by the two artists.

„Finding new ways to involve visitors, to connect with them without losing art’s magic. (Sree Sreenivasan)“

 All you want to know!

The museums’ technological efforts are resulting in the creation of new professional fields. There is a trend towards employing digital officers in cultural institutions. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City took on Sree Sreenavisan, the prestigious Professor of Journalism, for this position in the summer of 2013. "Finding new ways to involve visitors, to connect with them without losing art’s magic," is how the digital strategist summarizes his mission. Since September, the Met has set up a media lab to integrate digital channels. The lab focuses among other things on the question as to how Google Glass—the smart glasses by Google—could be applied in the museum and which apps would be sensible to do so. However, another new feature is yet more tangible: 3D prints. Visitors can take pictures of various exhibits with the 3D scanning app "123DCatch," which are then digitally processed and cast in plastic using a 3D printer. In the future, everyone will be able to take home a copy of his/her favorite object from the museum, predicts the Met.

Even Google is mobilizing: In collaboration with various museums including the Smithsonian Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, parts of exhibitions are being made globally available online in the Google Art Project—at the best possible resolution—in order to quench visitors’ thirst for knowledge and to excite their curiosity for more.

Google Glass complements the tablets and audio guides. Virtual tours commence upon looking through the glasses and giving a short voice command. To start, the user has to look at a QR code and select different content from the menu that appears. Museum visitors are provided with e.g. maps as an orientation aid as well as information on the exhibits. 

NOUS has developed a project that can decrypt colors with the help of Google Glass and that provides color-blind people the opportunity to identify tonal values. Despite the huge technical challenges, this application makes museums accessible to a previously disadvantaged segment of visitors by offering content to blind visitors at a similar quality as that experienced by seeing guests. While color-blind visitors walk through the museum and look at various artworks, they are given additional information on their displays.

Time machines

The boring days are over! With "Strike a pose!" and "Make a face!" all age groups are invited to take part in an interactive photo session, which compares visitors’ postures or faces with the objects in the exhibition and then displays the artworks that are most similar. Simultaneously, more than 3,800 images—all featuring items on display in the museum—appear in the same room on a 440-foot multi-touch micro tile Collection Wall. This touch wall changes every few seconds and individual images can be enlarged by tapping on them. The Cleveland Museum’s US$10 million Gallery One Project shows us how a museum can look in the 21st century. Bursting with numerous interactive features, the pioneering project transforms visiting a museum into an entirely new experience: With an app, not only can individual museum tours be compiled and selfies and photos of your favorite exhibits be shared with your family, friends, and other museum visitors via social media; with ArtLens you can also piece together your very own collection. Distancing itself from the mere contemplation of images and assimilation of information, and moving instead towards a museum visit that becomes a real adventure, Gallery One is considered the definitive and most successful reference project for all museums worldwide. But for all those who prefer a "traditional" visit to a museum, there are also classic information boards and tours.

„The inclusion of tablets and social media will be part of the basic equipment of cultural institutions. (Sree Sreenivasan)“

Making the universe come alive

In cooperation with Nous Guide and Samsung, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas, is investing in an app and a guide. The app provides the visitors with general information about current exhibitions and opening times. The "In House Guide," a mobile tablet guide, integrates the museum visit with a mobile learning lab and a gamification approach. A number of interesting facts are shared with visitors during their tour, which are combined with entertaining games. Visitors can play with the tablet throughout the Perot on various interactive levels. On the "Human Body" level, body parts are inspected more closely. With the "Get to Know Your Head" function, users can take a photo of their head and then see the bones in it. On the level "Extreme Earth," visitors can experience earthquakes on their mobile devices based on multimedia content. The "Alamosaurus" level contains a lot of background knowledge about dinosaurs, and with the "Dino Mash Up" you can imagine and design your own dinosaurs. With the camera, you can scan elements of the exhibition and answer quiz questions based on these elements. For the young and the young at heart, there is a special kind of interactive extra: Using “Add It Up” at a special station, visitors can find out how quickly they can run and what influence their age and size have on their personal speed. Not only the variety of exhibitions but also the museum building itself is worth a visit. During its construction, much emphasis was put on sustainability, environmental friendliness, and the use of regional materials. The whole construction process and how it technically works can be explored on the "Building as Exhibit" level.

"Making the universe come alive" is the main objective of an exhibition at the Museum of Science and Technology in Syracuse, New York. "Flight and Space" is the name of the project by Glyphr, which is intended to enthrall visitors by using video game-like elements. The augmented reality installation consists of three stations on large screens: "Astronaut Encounter," "The Unseen Sun," and "I Am Free Will "—a robot. The robot reacts to the gestures of the person opposite him, the sun changes color due to the visitors’ movements and visualizes heat zones, and it is also possible to meet an astronaut. Sensors and cameras detect the visitors’ movements and convert them into augmented reality scenarios.

More and more museums around the world are using digital technologies to expand their range of visitors. Even the number of museum apps in the "education" category on Google Play is increasing steadily. However, the digitalization process is not only happening in the US, but rather is gaining ground on a global scale and an increasing amount of content will be accessed virtually.

Elisabeth Oberndorfer lives in San Francisco and works as a journalist for European media. She writes for several blogs, is Co-Founder of the platform "Digitalista," and is currently writing her first book. Since 2014 she has been working for the German online magazine "Filmore," which mainly focuses on the subjects of business, innovation, and lifestyle.

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