Cleveland Museum Finds Way to Beautifully Combine Art and Technology

The Cleveland Art Museum has done something really cool.  They have found a way to take advantage of the new tablet technology to enhance, not distract from, the art in their Galleries. The New York Times believes that ,thus far, the Cleveland Art Museum has been the only art establishment to have successfully done so:

“EVERY museum is searching for this holy grail, this blending of technology and art,” said David Franklin, the director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, in a tour of a ground-floor gallery in which touch screens loaded with interactive features offer new ways of viewing painting and sculpture. In recent weeks, he has been giving the tour to delegations from rival museums, and he expects, he said, to be “plagiarized, imitated and emulated.”

He may be right. “In the museum world, everyone’s watching Cleveland right now,” said Erin Coburn, a museum consultant who has worked at both the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Though other museums have experimented with interactive technology, the extent of Cleveland’s program is unprecedented, she said. “They’ve put a lot out there for other museums to learn from.”

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Mr. Franklin is standing in front of a 40-foot-wide touch screen that displays greeting-card-size images of all 3,000 objects on display in the museum. When a visitor touches an image, the screen enlarges it, arranges itself near similarly themed objects, and offers information like the location of the actual piece. And by touching a “heart” icon in the corner of the image, the visitor can transfer it from the wall to an iPad (one brought from home or rented at the museum for $5 a day), creating a personal list of favorites.

From the list of favorites, the user can devise a personalized tour, which can be shared with other users. “It’s very democratic. You can create a tour, and give it a funny name, and other people will follow it through the museum,” Mr. Franklin said. So far, more than 200 visitors have made their own tours, with names like “My new faves by Linda” and “Preston Loves Shadows.”

Throughout the museum, the iPad offers options for learning about items in the collection. “There is only so much information you can put on a wall, and no one walks around with catalogs anymore,” Mr. Franklin said. One of the app’s simplest features is also one of the most effective: in many cases, it can produce a photo of the artwork’s original setting — seeing a tapestry in a room filled with tapestries, rather than in a white-walled gallery, is revelatory.

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 10.40.22 AMAnd there are videos. When I was interested in how a Richard Long sculpture called “Cornwall Circle,” consisting of dozens of jagged pieces of stone, was installed in the museum, I turned to my iPad for a one-minute time-lapse video that condensed the daylong process. But putting the same video on a wall next to the artwork would have distracted some visitors. The iPad app, said Mr. Franklin, lets the galleries return to their roots, as places where art is shown without a lot of bells and whistles, something he says Clevelanders, many of whom have been coming to the museum their entire lives, appreciate.

Other museums have created iPad apps, often for special exhibitions, said Ms. Coburn, but the extent to which Cleveland has tied its app to its permanent collection is, she says, “truly groundbreaking.”

When Mr. Franklin, former chief curator of the National Gallery of Canada, came to the Cleveland museum in 2010, it had already begun a $350 million expansion project (designed by the New York architect Rafael Viñoly). The new director hoped to enlarge the museum’s audience while he was enlarging its building. Technology, he believed, would lure new visitors, especially ones experienced with digital devices. At the same time, he said he believed he could make seasoned museumgoers want to come more often, by deepening their understanding of the artworks.

Of course, there’s a danger that providing a virtual version of the museum will make some people want to “visit” the collection without leaving their living rooms. That’s one reason, Mr. Franklin said, he has chosen not to participate in the Google Art Project, which offers high-definition photos of important artworks online.

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 10.37.53 AMWhen he took the job, the museum had already received a $10 million gift from the Maltz Family Foundation to create Gallery One, a large space near the entrance to the museum that would offer some particularly flashy uses of technology — and also train visitors to use the iPad app as they moved through the rest of the building. In the initial plan for Gallery One, artworks were going to have screens mounted in front of them. That concerned Mr. Franklin, as did the sense was that Gallery One would become what he called a “high-tech ghetto,” a place for showing off a lot of gee-whiz effects that had no follow-up elsewhere in the encyclopedic, 100-year-old museum.

So Mr. Franklin began working with curators to fill Gallery One not with second-rate art (or worse, reproductions) but with some of the museum’s best pieces. And he brought inLocal Projects, a Manhattan firm, to rethink the digital displays.

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