Transforming the Art Museum in the 21st Century

Jane Alexander, CIO, Cleveland Museum of Art
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Jane Alexander, CIO, Cleveland Museum of Art

Jane Alexander, CIO, Cleveland Museum of Art

The mission of The Cleveland Museum of Art states, in part, that everything the museum does is “for the benefit of all the people, forever.” We take that missive very seriously and it informs every decision we make. To ensure that the museum “benefit all” to its fullest potential, we are constantly workings to better understand the people that we serve. During the last ten years a definite theme has emerged from our surveys of the community; many potential visitors felt intimidated by the museum because they were not sure “how to look at art.” Indeed, there was a very real and frequently expressed belief that an art history education was necessary to truly appreciate or benefit from the museum.

As someone without an art history background, I was particularly moved by this feedback. I understood that in order to increase our visitor audience, we would need to remove both the real and the perceived barriers to our collection. Inspired by this awareness, we set out to develop an experience that would lower inhibitions and empower visitors to build a personal relationship with the art. We were determined to create a welcoming ingress into the world of art by assuaging any preconceived insecurities about the museum experience. Our belief was that the confidence gained through a personalized experience would provide a toolset through which our visitors could enjoy and appreciate our world class collection. Using technology as our medium, we were intent on using the most innovative and cutting edge technology while also ensuring that the art (not the technology) always remained in the forefront.

  Technology is at its most sublime when the user forgets it is there 

The result was the ground breaking ARTLENS Gallery; a multi-faceted, innovative, digital experience that allows you to look closer, dive deeper, and have fun discovering the museum's collection. Using award-winning digital technology, the ARTLENS Gallery consists of 4 unique components: ArtLens Exhibition, ArtLens Studio, ArtLens Wall, and ArtLens App.

The ArtLens Exhibition features 16 interactive games that allow visitors to explore themes of composition, symbols, gesture and emotion, and purpose through game play. The CMA has invested in barrier-free, gesture-sensing projections that respond seamlessly to body movement and facial recognition, enabling visitors to interact with artwork like never before. For example, in Dress Me Up, visitors can virtually try on wearable pieces in the CMA’s collection and learn about the items original purpose, in fact demystifying the collection. The image it takes automatically saves to your camera roll via Bluetooth. Gaze Tracker uses innovative eye-tracking technology to reveal where a visitor focuses when looking at a work of art. The game shows the visitors’ first glance, their longest look, the viewing path their eyes follow as they move around the piece. and it compares how they looked at the piece with other visitors.

ArtLens Studio is designed with the entire family in mind to give visitors the opportunity to use movement and play to connect with the collection. The space features Reveal and Zoom, a 4k interactive video wall that uses motion sense technology. In Reveal, visitors use their bodies to bring a blurry artwork into focus, while in Zoom, visitors use their body to zoom in on details of an artwork. ArtLens Studio also includes an area where visitors can create their own works of art. Pottery Wheel’s motion sensing technology allows visitors to mold, shape, and design a piece of pottery without any of the mess.

The ArtLens Wall is a 40-foot interactive, multitouch, MicroTile Wall that displays in real time all works of art from the permanent collection currently on view in the galleries. The wall allows visitors to look at the CMA’s collection from a far and gives them the opportunity to dive deeper by exploring key themes. ArtLens Wall connects with the ArtLens App via Bluetooth and allows visitors to favorite artworks and create their own tours right on the app.

The ArtLens App includes an interactive map that allows visitors to find their location in the museum simply by pressing the Find Me button. In addition, the app includes a high-definition image and object information about every artwork on display in the museum and is updated in real time. The Scan feature on the app uses image-recognition software to give visitors additional content on select two-dimensional artworks.

Again, an important goal of the ARTLENS Gallery was to remove both perceived and physical barriers to the art. It was imperative that we keep the art in the forefront while opening avenues through which our visitors would feel comfortable and empowered to experience the art. Indeed, technology can engender its own type of intimidation and create a different type of barrier. Thus our use of technology had to be thoughtful and purposeful. Keeping these issues in mind, we removed touch screens in the space and instead used projections that recognize facial features and body movements. Visitors see an artwork on display, and its projection draws them to look at the piece in a different way. This effortless use of technology created a comfort level that is designed to seamlessly carry over into the visitor’s experience of the art.

Additionally, it was important to us when designing the gallery that the final product was sustainable and scalable. During the design and implementation, we ensured content could be easily refreshed and updated to allow for the addition of new games and artworks as needed. We also made sure our backend system was able to pull all the information from out collection database systems. In addition, including our audio-visual (AV) Integrator in the discussion from the beginning allowed us to make sure there were no surprises or mishaps when we opened because everything was working as anticipated.

For other C-suite executives, my words of advice would be to develop a cross-collaborative team that enables each member to demonstrate their different skills and expertise. I would recommend asking these people to think big first, so they do not limit themselves to certain technologies. The collaboration between project management and product management is also important in implementing such a complex project. We established a clear system for documenting and reporting issues so they could be addressed quickly and efficiently. The constant communication between the product and project managers ensures the project remains an iterative process—always changing and improving for the better.

I would also recommend identifying a specific goal for your target audience. In our case, it was finding a way to engage the non-traditional visitor without alienating our regular visitors. Maintaining this balance was quintessential to our project’s success.

In summary, when developing digital projects it is most important that the work is done collaboratively. Having siloes leads to a disjointed workflow and thwarts the possibility for big innovation. Team members should be empowered to exercise their strengths and the approach should be more give and take than hierarchical. Whenever possible, the project should be forward looking, and participants must be willing to be experimental and not afraid of risk. The goal of the final project should be something that is open and engaging rather than inaccessible. Finally, the medium should be digital – not analog—and the outlook global rather than local. All of these elements will lead to a successful final product.

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