Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Virtual Future of Museums

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)
Jackson Pollock, 1950

Hello Everyone:

Today we look at a revolution happening in museums.  It is a technological revolution that has inspired experimentation in exhibit design that incorporate everything from virtual reality to 4-D movies.  The possibility of more interactive exhibits is an exciting thought.  In her article for the Wall Street Journal titled "A Look at the Museum of the Future," Ellen Gamerman shares an experience a group of children had looking at Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The group donned virtual-reality glasses that made the black and white paint splatters dance off the canvas and float past their eyes.  Both the children and adults tried to reach out and touch the waves as they drifted by.  Really cool when you think about it but imagine all the possibilities.

What being social means for a museum
This flirtation with change comes at a time when the technology world is undergoing a revolution of its own. Less expensive and smaller screens, miniaturized mechanics, and greater computing power are fostering a rich era of experimentation in exhibit design.  To you an example, go to either the App Store or Playstore, type in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and see what comes up.  The advances in digital technology holds the potential of attracting a more diverse group of visitors, lure a younger audience, and change the way we learn about art, science, and nature.

Kurt Haunfelner, vice president of exhibits and collections at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago told Ms. Gamerman,

There's a tremendous amount of innovation in museums right now-it's really exciting time...Museums are aware that expectations of their audiences are changing fairly dramatically and I think they are committed to experiment and prototype different approaches to engaging the audience.

Color projection and projection mapping of the Temple of Dendur
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Photograph by the Metropolitan Museum of Art
It is not just the Met Museum that is experimenting with innovative exhibit design.  Major museums, around the world, are testing out new digital tools.  For example, this past summer the Natural History Museum in London, England debuted a virtual-reality movie that recreated ocean creatures from 500 million years ago.  "This year, the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center began demonstrating a life-size interactive video of a Holocaust survivor that it hopes one to display in three dimensions like a hologram."  This is important because as the survivors die, their stories and the lessons from them vanish into the mists of history.

The Met Museum created a media lab three years to study how technology can affect visits to its numerous galleries and test out other ideas, such as the colorful exploration of its famed Temple of Dendur.  Lab manager Marco CastroCosio told Ms. Gamerman, T MediaLab is looking at what the museum will look like in 20 to 25 years.

Interactive Holocaust survivor display featuring Pinchas Gutter
Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center
Photograph by Ron Gould
While increasing museum attendance remains the goal, the new technology could fog the distinction between education and entertainment.  As institutions turn their attention to the bright shiny new displays, some observers warn that objects on display could get lost in the whirl.  Elizabeth Rodini, director of the museums and society program at Johns Hopkins University told Ms, Gamerman,

It's important that museums be responsive to the audience and maybe not pushing the audience into something outside their own experience.

Ellen Gamerman observes that "The digital onslaught also raises questions about who is controlling the content-the museums or the experts advising them."  It has become fairly commonplace find museums working with tech design firms "...whose portfolios include theme-park rides, live shows and corporate events."  Even museum professions who produce theatrical exhibits have gained attention-Mr. Haunfelner spent ten years at Walt Disney Imagineering created fully interactive shows that have raised his museum's profile.

The app future of museums
Adam Bezark creative director at the Bezark Company, a Los Angeles-based design firm, told Ms. Gamerman,

When we talk to museum guys, they're very serious, they say, 'We don't want that goofy theme-park stuff...And so we say, ' OK, we'll in our serious people.'  And it's all the same people.  A great designer is a great designer.

It is not just about the technology that has piqued museums's interests, it also the narrative arc-timing, suspense, and the big reveal.  To wit, over the past decades, entertainment industry professionals have collaborated with cultural institutions, eliciting fewer icy stares of death, Mr. Bezark's description of the growing mutual respect.  Mr. Bezark, whose clients included Disney and universal Studios theme parks, collaborated the film Beyond All Boundaries with the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Scene from Beyond All Boundaries
National World War II Museum
New Orleans, Louisiana
In some instances, museums are letting multimedia professional lead the way.  Case in point, a movie set to premiere at the American Revolution Museum in Yorktown, Virginia was written and produced not by the museum rather the design firm Cortina Productions.  The museum's curators served as the movie's consultants, according to Heather Hower, the museum's project manager for media.

The movie will be shown in the museum's newly built 4-D theater and will feature actors in period correct costumes and special effects that include the piped-in scent of gun powder and seats the shudder and shake when cannons are fired.  Oh cool, blogger already loves this.  Ms. Hower added, the 8-minute long movie which cost $775,000 to make is a wonderful, technology-driven presentation that will capture the visitors's attention in ways that a documentary cannot.

"Defiant of the Future"
Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic
Alan Maskin of the Seattle-based design firm Olson Kundig, which collaborates with cultural venues, told Ellen Gamerman, "augmented reality has" the greatest potential for changing museums "because it allows visitors to tumble down dozens of rabbit holes once inside the exhibit."  Museum-goers can utilize virtual-reality headsets or other devices to access additional digital material.  However, this means that curators have less say over the content of the message.  Mr. Maskin continued, The author or curator loses some control of the experience when the visitors are give more choice and their experiences become more self-directed.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art's MediaLab, a small group is experimenting with everything from augmented reality to video games.  The Met Museum's chief digital officer Sree Sreenivasan told Ms. Gamerman, We're working on the future of culture.  His team was responsible for the interactive Pollock exhibit using Oculus Rift.  He continues, It'd be fair to say we're looking for ways to learn from Silicon Valley."  Ideas tested out by lab's interns included an augmented-reality project for the Temple of Dendur.  This experiment would light up the Aeolian sandstone building in what is believed to be the original vibrant blues, greens, and yellows with projection mapping-a digital tool that imposes images on an object's surface.  If fully implemented, the temple could periodically light up with color for audiences to see or the colors would appear on their smartphones when visitors would pass their screens over the surface.

Opabinia c. Cambrian period
Feature in the movie First Life
Photograph by Atlantic Productions/VR

This past summer, Director Thomas Campbell flew to Silicon Valley to visit the headquarters of Oculus, Facebook, and Instagram.  Ellen Gamerman writes, "Mr. Campbell posted on Instagram a blurry picture of Mr. Sreenivasan trying out an Oculur Rift headset, 'about to be eaten' by a Tyrannosaurus Rex in a virtual-reality demonstration."  Thomas Campbell wrote, Remarkable to thin that within 10 years virtual reality will be a big part of mainstream entertainment.

Museums specializing in science and history as well as children's museum have long made use of multimedia exhibits.  Today, the standard is higher for museums whose exhibitions are partly judged on the attention they attract on the social media sites.  Art museums, once considered too elite for interactive displays, have begun making forays into this territory too.  For example, in 2014 the de Young Museum in San Francisco became one of the first museums to use wearable technology when it made Google Glasses available for its Keith Haring show.

From the "New Dimensions in Testimony"
Shoah Foundation at USC
Smaller museums act as test forums for more risky, avant-garde ideas.  Ms. Gamerman writes, "This year, the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center began showing a video of Pinchas Gutter, a Holocaust survivor who answered roughly 1,200 questions about his life and the war in more than 20 hours of recorded interviews."  Voice-recognition software selects his responses base on key words in visitor questions.  The Toronto even expresses a range of emotions.  Amanda Friedman, the museum's survivor community liaison said "Even in two dimensions, the life-size video appears realistic enough that visitors say hello to Mr. Gutter and apologize if they sought while he is talking."

From the "New Dimensions in Testimony"
Shoah Foundation at USC
At the University of Southern California, the project called "New Dimensions in Testimony" is a collaboration between the university's Shoah (Hebrew for Holocaust) Foundation and  its Institute for Creative Technologies, with the goal of making survivors one day appear like holograms in full three dimensional form.  In the coming months, the Shoah Foundations hopes to film abut a dozen survivors inside a a wraparound green screen lit by 6,600 LED light, using about 100 cameras, at a cost of $500,000 per interview, mostly privately funded.  The survivors spend a week on this soundstage answering a variety of questions.  According to Stephen Smith, the foundation's executive director, "projections that look like holograms and don't require 3-D glasses are likely in the next two years."

"Museums must look to the future while guarding the past"
Illustration by Pat Campbell
Exhibit design companies are promoting the next big thing at trade shows frequented by museum professionals.  One event in Atlanta, Georgia this year, Group Delphi was advertising the "Wonder Wall," a bank of screens that appear blank except to those with polarized glasses.  It's sort of like, you can't do this at home, Shannon Densmore, Group Delphi's executive producer of digital content, told Ms. Gamerman.  The "Wonder Wall" costs about $45,000.

However, even investments in the latest technology can short circuit.  Anything deemed too adventurous can become obsolete, "...especially in museums that can take years to install new designs."  One example, QR codes-those black and white images that you can scan with your phone to access addition material-now look somewhat dates, according to Leonard Garfield, executive director of the Museum of History & Industry in Seattle, "compared with sophisticated geo-positioning devices found in many museums."

The Broad Museum
Los Angeles, California

At the newly opened Broad Museum of Contemporary in Los Angeles, technology is used sparingly in public spaces-specifically, the mobile devices used by assistants and gallery attendants to facilitate admission and answer questions.  Broad founding director Joanne Heyler said, What your don't want to have is a lot of technology pasted into existing museum approach...It might be easy to get seduced into beautiful some technologies are, but you always have to put yourself in visitors' shoes and think about why they are coming to a museum.

Joanne Heyler's concerns aside, high-tech displays can also capture the imagination.  The Natural History Museum in London scored a major hit with its popular First Life, a virtual-reality movie starring prehistoric sea creatures brought to life, in color, using museum research.  Visitors don headset inside the small theater and are treated to 360-degree views of prehistoric sea life swimming around them.  Producer Anthony Geffen delightfully told Ellen Gamerman that film goes beyond the dusty little fossils also presented in the exhibit.  Mr. Geffen, who collaborated with British broadcaster David Attenborough, said that seven American museums have expressed interest in presenting the movie.

David Attenborough at the launch of First Life
Harvard University natural history professor Andrew Knoll speculates, Still, any movie that claims to know the color of ancient sea life necessarily takes some educated guesses.  Despite that fossils provide solid information about the size, shape, and function of ancient animals, anything else is a series of educated guesses based on said creature's distant relatives.  Prof. Knoll watched an online trailer for First Life (, pausing it at the Opabinia, an extinct relative of arthropods.  While the rendering of the creature appeared accurate with five eyes atop its head, Prof. Knoll was disturbed by the colors, Do we know whether it had blue spots on it and a green head?  No, of course not.

Anthony Gaffen said "scientists who worked on the film used the best available information to produce the prehistoric life."

 Nobody is saying we know for sure every single color...We'd never pretend that everything is absolutely accurate because the experts themselves say they have just  worked on what they've got to go with.

Emily Smith, the museum's head of audience development added this, The inferences made in 'First Life' are consistent with those made in other areas of museum that address extinct creatures, such as our dinosaur gallery.  All depictions of extinct creatures in the museum are reconstructions based on the best understanding of scientists at the time.

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