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Blending Art, Technology, & Interpretation: Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One & ArtLens

By Caroline Goeser

I am part of the team that has led the development of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One and ArtLens iPad app. These new initiatives – blending art, technology, and interpretation – are garnering interest in the press and among museum colleagues. Many thanks to Mike Murawski for asking me to offer my perspective on the project, understanding that it is newly launched and we are in the process of gathering initial feedback. This project is the focus of a paper session at Museums & the Web 2013 in Portland (link to paper here). Responses so far have been enthusiastic as well as probing and have challenged us to think in new ways about what we’ve created and how we want to move forward. Recurring questions from reporters, colleagues, and visitors can serve as a way of introducing some of our goals and future ideas.

What was your plan behind integrating technology?

A view of Gallery One from the main lobby of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.
A view of Gallery One from the main lobby of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.

Our plan conceives technology as an interpretive tool to drive active experiences with art at CMA. Creating Gallery One and the ArtLens app has been part of our mission to put visitors front and center. We wanted to build a gallery experience at the entrance to the museum that would welcome all visitors, with particular focus on families, college students, and young professionals – audiences that have not always seen CMA as their kind of place. We wanted to offer them new possibilities to experience art in a participatory way through the medium of interpretive technology. We also wanted visitors’ encounters in Gallery One to spark interest in the museum as a whole and to provide tools of understanding and enjoyment that could enhance their experience of art in the galleries.

On January 21, 2013, we opened Gallery One and went live with the ArtLens iPad app. Gallery One is a unique space just off the museum’s main lobby in which 55 top-quality art objects from the permanent collection are arranged in thematic groupings that cross time and cultures. This organization allows visitors to make connections across CMA’s comprehensive collection of world art. For example, sculptures of the human form from ancient Rome, Japan, Africa, and 19th-century France greet visitors as they enter the gallery, prompting them to experience how our bodies have inspired art differently over time. Another installation groups paintings and ceramics from Europe and Asia, asking visitors to engage with roots of our contemporary, global culture. Interactive, multi-touch screens interpret selected art installations, allowing visitors to engage actively with the works on view by virtually creating their own works of art, or by physically striking a pose inspired by a work of art they see. Gallery One also includes Studio Play, a dedicated family space with hands-on art-making activities, as well as interactive technology stations that provide young children and their families with fun ways to have first encounters with art and CMA’s collections.

A detail of the Collection Wall in Gallery One. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.
A detail of the Collection Wall in Gallery One. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.

Within Gallery One, just off our new central atrium, a one-of-a-kind, 40-foot multi-touch Collection Wall displays high-resolution images of almost 4,000 works of art from the permanent collection, most on view in the galleries. Every 40 seconds, the wall changes views, showing groupings of art objects based on themes, allowing visitors to see that the collection is dynamic, depending on how you view it. Visitors can touch and browse objects on the Collection Wall to discover other artworks that are related and to find tours that connect objects throughout the collection.

The Collection Wall functions as a place to organize a visit through the permanent collection galleries by way of a unique connection with the ArtLens iPad app. By docking their iPad (or one available for rent) at the Wall, visitors can save their favorite objects to the app and create a personalized tour through the museum. The app’s way finding system directs them to the objects on their tour or to other objects in the collection. They can also find CMA-created tours to organize their visit according to themes they like. Alternatively, they can browse through the galleries and find works of art that engage them, discovering text and video interpretation within the app, or even scanning two-dimensional objects through image recognition to find quick bites of text or video.

What are your learning goals for visitors?

Our goals for what visitors take away involve experience rather than content. We hope that:

  1. visitors have fun with art
  2. the interactive games and interpretation provide tools for understanding and spark social experiences with art
  3. visitors find transformative moments of discovery about continuing creative traditions that make art relevant for them.

Above all, we want to refrain from providing a single, authoritarian guide but instead to offer a variety of choices for visitor engagement. Rather than designing content to meet our own goals for visitors, we have learned from our audience evaluation and responded to the way many of our visitors browse through our galleries, drawn to particular works of art based on their own visual interests and prior knowledge. We’ve been mindful of Jay Rounds’ prescient advice in Curator (2006):

“Visitors come to museums for their own reasons, and those reasons are not necessarily congruent with the goals of the museum. No doubt their browsing through exhibits is suboptimal when compared against [a] museum’s goal that visitors ‘engage in systematic study or exploration.’ But the same [browsing] behavior may prove to be an intelligent response to the situation when measured against the goals of the visitors themselves.” (p. 134)

Sculpture installation in Gallery One. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.
Sculpture installation in Gallery One. Photo courtesy of Local Projects.

Gallery One and ArtLens were designed to honor browsing behavior. There’s no preferred path through Gallery One; visitors can move from one art installation to another, each with its own story. The Collection Wall asks visitors to browse rather than search: to find artworks they like visually, and to discover connections to related works by theme, medium, or time period. The “Near You Now” section of the ArtLens app follows browsers as they meander through the permanent collection galleries, indicating where they are in the building and the artworks near them. For objects with video interpretation, visitors can find a variety of short segments that they can choose according to their personal preferences rather than a prescribed sequence.

When visitor evaluation begins later this spring, we can find out how these tools are working for our visitors. In the meantime, we’ve been fortunate to have visits from a variety of museum colleagues who have shared initial responses. Following his on-site visit, Peter Samis of SFMoMA wrote to our CMA team:

“The Collection Wall reminds me of David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous (2008): it makes every artwork equally available, democratizing the collection…, it enables me to create a tour that threads me like a needle through all the various parts of the building. It disappears the architecture, the molecules, and replaces them with a new organizing principle: visual interest.”

Cool! Interpretive technology serves visitors’ visual interests and democratizes the collection. The challenge comes in the connectivity between the Collection Wall and the iPad app. With the ability to save almost any object to their iPad, what will visitors expect when they reach the actual objects in the galleries? Currently only a portion have video and audio interpretation within the app, some draw web texts and label copy from our databases, but others feature only basic “tombstone” information. We’re eager to discover visitors’ expectations, and in the meantime, to develop priorities for creating new interpretive content.

How can visitors contribute their own art interpretation within the iPad app?

ArtLens video and audio content draws on conversations with curators, educators, conservators, and community members. We hope the variety of voices allows visitors to feel part of the conversation and to suggest that there is no single way to interpret or enjoy a work of art. The community voices are particularly important, as they call up continuing traditions that grow from the artworks on view and connect visitors with people in their community – like the Imam of the Cleveland Mosque for whom the Islamic prayer niche in our collection is part of a living tradition, or the Cleveland ballet dancer who brings his creative perspective to Degas’ Frieze of Dancers.

: Object page for CMA’s Prayer Niche (Mihrab) in ArtLens. Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
: Object page for CMA’s Prayer Niche (Mihrab) in ArtLens. Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

ArtLens also allows visitors to create their own tours – playlists of their favorite objects with their own catchy titles: “Randomness and Variety,” and “Lightning Tour Before Dinner Dash.” They can share favorite objects through Facebook and Twitter. We conceived these as first steps toward more extensive visitor participation. We’ve discussed the potential for gathering visitors’ stories about CMA’s artworks and incorporating them into the app. We’ve also dreamed about the potential to capture visitors’ voices within the app, so that they can contribute their own insights about their favorite works of art from the galleries or from off site.

We encourage you to download ArtLens to your iPad and give us your feedback. Our project is ambitious – an interpretive system that reaches throughout CMA’s permanent collection. I’ve outlined some of our ideas and plans here, but there’s much more to come, so stay tuned!

I want to extend huge thanks to the members of my CMA team in Education and Interpretation responsible for the development of interpretive content in Gallery One: Seema Rao, Patty Edmonson, and Hajnal Eppely, and in ArtLens: Jennifer Foley, Lori Wienke, and Bethany Corriveau. They are part of CMA’s Gallery One development team, led by Griffith Mann in Curatorial, Jane Alexander in Information Technology, Jeffrey Strean in Design, and myself. Local Projects of New York is responsible for all media design and collaborated with us on the concept development. Earprint Productions of San Francisco produced the ArtLens app digital content, in collaboration with the CMA interpretation team.

ABOUT AUTHOR

image005CAROLINE GOESER currently serves as the Director of the Department of Education and Interpretation at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Joining the museum in 2009, she reorganized the Education Department in 2012 to focus on two primary goals: 1) invigorating classroom experiences through object-based educational programs, and 2) creating vital experiences with works of art in the galleries through interpretive text, technology, gallery teaching, and public programming for visitors of all ages. Caroline collaborates with the Chief Curator and Directors of Information Technology and Design to oversee the new Gallery One, an interactive gallery for intergenerational visitors. She has facilitated and enhanced the museum’s collaborative interpretation program, which has garnered national recognition with the recent award of an NEH Challenge Grant. With colleagues at CMA and Case Western Reserve University, she has worked to re-envision the joint CWRU-CMA doctoral program in art history, which recently received a major grant from the Mellon Foundation to focus on object-based study. Caroline’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Cleveland Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

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Teaching with the iPad: Adding a New Dimension to the Museum Experience

Back in 2011, I attended a fantastic session led by Kris Wetterlund and Sheila McGuire at the National Art Education Association conference about how the Minneapolis Institute of Arts was using iPads with their docents — and how they were training the docents to use this newly adopted technology.  I remember sitting in the audience thinking: “A. I will probably never own an iPad myself,” and “B. Our docents will probably never use iPads.”  It turns out I was wrong on both accounts — I got my own iPad 2 within a couple months of attending that session (I think Apple still owes Kris and Sheila their commission), and we now have about half a dozen docents using an iPad on their tours at the Saint Louis Art Museum — a number that I hope grows in the next year.

So what’s the big deal with the iPad?  Does it really add anything to a tour that we couldn’t already do without this device?

A study from the Pew Research Center released earlier this year indicated that 19% of adults in the United States own a tablet computer, and that statistic is rising significantly (probably much higher by the time I write this).  I also read somewhere that Apple has sold approximately 200-220 million iPads worldwide since the product’s first release in 2010.  So I thought it was about time that I more fully utilized this device in my own teaching practice, and then lead a workshop for our docents on the ways in which the iPad (and tablet/mobile technology in general) can add a new dimension to the museum experience for our visitors.

I personally began using my iPad on tours a little less than a year ago.  My first experience was with a group of 2nd grade students from an city public school, and we were scheduled to visit the African art galleries.  It had always been a bit of a challenge to make those galleries come alive, since they were small, dimly lit spaces with the objects up high in big plexiglass cases.  Was there something I could load onto my iPad that would enrich the experience?  I found a video of an African buffalo mask (similar to the one in our collection) being performed in a ceremony in Burkina Faso, so I downloaded that to my device just as I was heading from my office to greet the group.  As I led them into the African gallery with the “Buffalo Mask,” I was nervous that something would go wrong and my iPad experiment would crash and burn.  I popped out the mobile device, clicked play on the video, and quickly noticed that every student in the entire group was silent and paying very close attention to the video.

I had intended on only playing about 20 seconds, but we actually stayed and watched about 3-4 minutes (not recommended, but it worked with this group).  While the video of the African dance ceremony played, I invited the students to discuss everything they noticed in the video: the movements of the dance, the sounds of the drums, and the community gathered in the background. Then our discussion turned back to the “Buffalo Mask” before us in the gallery — a really great exploration that had the students looking more closely and connecting in a more meaningful way.  Their level of interest had skyrocketed.  Was this just because I brought this short video clip into the galleries with me?  Was it this simple to deepen the level of understanding and engagement on my tours?  I remember leaving this tour with a lot of excitement about using the iPad in the galleries, but questions about whether the focus was truly on the objects … or was the focus too much on the technology?

Research and Best Practices

Back when I attended Kris and Sheila’s NAEA session last year, there were not a lot of resources to guide the use of iPads on tours.  I remember contacting Kris after the session, and she sent me some thoughtful tips based on her own experiences with docents.  Since then, though, she, Sheila, and their colleagues have written some useful “best practices” based in their research on using iPads in the galleries.  Here are links to the most useful:

  1. “iPads on Tour,” written by Kris Wetterlund and Sheila McGuire for the Museum-Ed Blog.  Nice short overview of key things to keep in mind when enabling docents and educators to use multimedia on the iPad to enhance their tours.  Their best tip (and a “Golden Rule” for me) is Organize Your Stuff.  I have used FileApp Pro, which they recommended, and it seems to serve my needs for bringing video and images together into an easy-to-access folder.  This means I’m not fumbling around to find the content while I’m in the middle of my tour.
  2. “Enhancing Group Tours with the iPad: A Case Study,” authored by Ann Isaacson, Sheila McGuire, Kris Wetterlund, and Scott Sayre, now a chapter in the American Association of Museums 2011 book entitled Mobile Apps for Museums.  This more in-depth article discusses a study that the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts conducted on their docents’ use of iPads and visitor response.  They found that “all of the museum visitors were engaged during the iPad portion of the tour” and that “all thought it added to their understanding of the works of art.”  A good tip that you can pull from this article is that, like any gallery prop, the iPad or mobile device should be used judiciously to avoid making it the focal point of the tour.

Other than bringing the iPad on tour or using it as an educator, the device has wide-ranging applications for museum education, learning, and audience engagement (that I’m not going to discuss in detail here).  I would even go as far as to say that each day a museum somewhere probably launches a new iPad app or is offering a program that utilizes the iPad and other tablet devices.  It has truly become the new bandwagon (for good reason, I think).  If you’re interested in some of the uses of iPads through museum apps, Hyperallergic reviewed “3 iPad apps that recreate the museum experience … almost” back in December, and Scott Billings wrote a great piece for MuseumNext a couple years ago about “what can the iPad do for museums?”

Bringing the iPad into the Galleries: A Sample Tour

So why all this thinking about iPads and touring?  Well, I decided it might be good to have a conversation with our docents about the benefits of bringing a iPad with you into the galleries.  Therefore, last week I offered an open workshop for any interested docents — about 15 attended, and about 10 were interested but unable to attend.  My workshop demonstrated a handful of ways that the iPad can enrich the museum experience, focusing mainly on ways in which additional content and context can be introduced to gain a deeper understanding of the objects themselves (again, the focus should always be on the art and objects, not on the technology).

On our workshop tour, we discussed using the iPad in three galleries of the Saint Louis Art Museum’s collection: African art, Impressionism (mainly Degas’s sculpture), and contemporary art.  I am going to quickly review the use of the iPad in these three areas, and link to some of the multimedia content we viewed in the galleries.

African Art: For our time in the African galleries, I demonstrated two uses of the iPad.  First, I showed how a tour guide could use a map application like National Geographic’s World Atlas to show students the location of Africa on the globe, and then zoom into the regions and countries that might relate to the objects on the tour.  I have had a lot of success with this map app on my tours, and I find it more effective than paper maps or color print-outs.  In addition to the map, I showed the video I mentioned above of the Buffalo Mask dance, which we all agreed would enrich and deepen visitors experience with the mask on view (not just school children, but adults too).  After exploring the map and video, I discussed how important it is to keep your multimedia content to a minimum — in other words, do not have 3 videos to show along with a map for one stop on your tour.  I recommend that docents choose approximately 3-4 multimedia items (photos, maps, videos, etc.) for their entire tour, and spread them out across the tour.  Remember, you don’t want the iPad to become the focus of the tour.

Impressionism/Degas: We moved up to the Impressionism and Post-Impressionism galleries, and I spent some time with the sculptures by Edgar Degas that our museum has on view.  First, I quickly showed a video of Eadweard Muybridge’s ‘Horse in Motion’ images from 1878 along with our Degas Galloping Horse of a slightly later date. The museum label even refers to this experiment in capturing motion, and it was powerful to see these images and the Degas side-by-side.  Then we moved to Degas’s Little Dancer of Fourteen Years to compare our bronze version (cast after the artist’s death) with hi-res detail images of the original wax and mixed media sculpture that Degas created himself (now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington). This sparked an interesting discussion of the appearance of our bronze, the surface textures, and the fabric, and I think we all left wanting to explore our Degas further.

Contemporary Art: Finally, we discussed the various types of content one could bring into the contemporary art galleries. I focused primarily on artistic process, or artists in their studios.  This is something I know visitors enjoy seeing, and I feel it deepens our understanding of the artworks and the artists themselves. I brought in two examples. First, I showed a video of Toots Zynsky, a contemporary glass artist, working in her studio to create, heat, and mold one of her well-known glass forms.  We’ve had curators discuss her process before, but the video really helped the piece come alive in a new way.  And finally, I ended the workshop with a video clip of Gerhard Richter painting with one of his squeegees — a process that visitors are always confused by.  Seeing Richter carefully pull paint across his huge canvases certainly helped me gain a better understanding of these massive paintings.

For me, this was a good place to start with our docents, and it was my goal to keep it simple.  I know that iPads and mobile devices allow for many more types of experiences, including augmented reality (see excellent paper from Cherry Thian from 2012 Museums & the Web) or using real-time video applications (FaceTime, Skype, etc.) to bring artists, curators, or community members into the galleries for Q&A and dialogue.  But for the human-centered experience that is the guided tour, these simple uses of the iPad can truly add a powerful dimension to the learning experience.

What is your best use of the iPad on a tour or teaching experience?  Are there ways we can push the best uses of mobile technology into tour experiences?