Behind the Glass: Ruminations on Digital Interfaces within Two Museums

18 Feb

Last week, in preparation for this post, I visited the Indiana State Museum here in Indianapolis for the first time.  Though I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, I found the integration of technology rather lacking, especially within the second floor areas concentrating on Indiana’s history. Here, much of the exhibit concentrated on artifacts grouped together by time period, and them theme behind glass walls. Some interpretation was provided by videos and text paneled signs, but it seemed to me that the museum was aiming to let the artifacts speak for themselves. Hands-on aspects of this portion of the museum were limited, and I yearned for more interaction from technology, apart from watching a video, which many times felt dated. Though the museum does a better job of integrating technology into other exhibits, most notably the Amazing Maize exhibit. However, within its bread and butter, the permanent galleries, technology seems lacking.

This idea of how to integrate interactive technology into an artifact-laden exhibit reminded me of my visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing in December. There, I found myself spending an exorbitant amount of time within the historic rooms and visual stacks within the Luce Center, intrigued with not only the objects the museum displayed, but how they were able to integrate technology into the exhibit.

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This type of exposed stacks is not new within museums. The Luce Foundation began working with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1988 to build open-stacks, and create a “new model for displaying… artworks previously inaccessible to the public.”[1] This partnership created the Luce Center for the Study of American Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which displays 9,000 works in 16,000 square feet, grouped in glass cases for ease of viewing.[2] This high-density display allows the museum to show off nearly 80% of its collection, giving visitors a window not only into the shear magnitude of the collection, but also its diversity and range. Today, this technique is not uncommon to show-off a museum’s collection. The Luce Foundation alone has opened three centers at the New-York Historical Society, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Technology gives this open storage new engagement through an extensive digital cataloging program. At touch monitors at the front of rows and computer terminals, visitors can pull up objects by number or type and tap into background on the object. Additionally, this catalog system connects to the period rooms, which flank the open stacks. The Met has over ten period rooms, set up with historic interiors from 1680 to 1915. Within each period room a touch monitor provides interactive content on the historic and curatorial background of the room, its objects’ history and provenance. Additional, three-dimensional silhouettes of each object in the room allows visitors to bring up labels, videos and specific images which show more detailed content about the objects.

What struck me within this wing was how the Met was able to use technology to reinvent its existing exhibit. As a visitor, I was able to glean as much, or as little, information as I wanted about the room and its contents. This visual catalog and interface created an interactive element and easily accessible way to gain more information. At the Indiana State Museum, my interaction with technology often dated the exhibit, while at the Metropolitan Museum it seemed to freshen the exhibit. Yes, I realize that there are definite funding and resource discrepancies between the two organizations. However, I think museums have to find ways to make technology interactive, while remaining conscious of keeping those components modern. This is where I feel the Met was particularly successful, especially in areas of the museum, which could lack interactivity. Do you remember a museum experience where technology provided a particularly interactive experience?

[1] Luce Foundation, “In Plain Sight: Showcasing Collections of American Art,” from Henry Luce Foundation at 75 Years, 35.

[2] Roberta Smith, “Works, The Whole Works and Nothing but the Works,” The New York Times, January 14, 2005.


3 Responses to “Behind the Glass: Ruminations on Digital Interfaces within Two Museums”

  1. Nick Sacco February 18, 2013 at 5:54 am #

    This is a very interesting post. I love what the Luce Center/Foundation has done with their interactive touch screens, which is something I hadn’t really thought about before.

    You mention that ISM is attempting to let their artifacts speak for themselves, which I agree with, and you express some lamentations about the limited and dated technology in the main galleries. I agree that the technology at ISM was limited, but I don’t think “dated” technology ( how do you define? 2, 5, 10 years old?) is necessarily a bad thing in many situations. I mentioned in my blog post that some of the digital technology in the natural science section successfully integrated virtual elements with the real, tangible artifacts. That technology is almost undoubtedly more than 5 years old, but it effectively gets the essence of learning across to its audience. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Sure, if ISM had the Luce Center’s budget, I’d say it’s time for some sort of upgrade. But a lot of museums, as you point out, do not have that luxury. They must decided whether their funds are going to go towards purchasing new artifacts and exhibits, cleaning and restoring ones currently in their collections, paying staff and administrative costs, or digital technology for exhibits. Keeping this in mind, it seems impossible to expect state-of-the-art-technology in every exhibit. Should technology in museums be updated every year, every two, every five, etc.? Who’s the audience you’re catering to with your digital technology? There’s no clear answer, but it seems that with the rate of technological advancements taking place today, museums will have to work hard to catch up with the current. Thanks for your insights.

  2. Elena February 18, 2013 at 6:43 pm #

    Callie, I think the examples from the Met are really interesting! When I read blog Nick’s post I was thinking about finding the right balance between technology and no technology, and I think that (based on the photos) the technology is integrated in a successful way. In the room and cases, it doesn’t get in the way and allows for the art to still be the main focus, but still gives the opportunity to learn more and also provide more information than a normal label. The research center is then a good way for allowing visitors to delve deeper. I think I’ve started to see more museums now where there is a separate room near the end of an exhibit which has all the technology and the point is just for for further, voluntary exploration. I personally think this division might be better than having too much in the exhibit itself (for art at least). What do you think?

  3. MDKenny February 18, 2013 at 7:22 pm #

    Just an aside in response to your post and Nick’s comment: I think technology can help us to rethink the physical aspects of collections and exhibitions, but we also have to think about keeping up to date in terms of content and emphasis of previously under-explored themes in our understanding of the past. Bettina Carbonell at John Jay wrote the linked piece exploring how the Luce Center’s project at the New-York Historical Society offered an opportunity to re-interpret existing collections to reflect the Society’s emphasis on African American life in New York under slavery.

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