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Beauty in the Eye of the Beacon

Published: 16/06/2016 - Filed under: Home » News »

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Unlike the stories that are told in the pages of a typical tabloid magazine, the public marriage between museums and technology has been a long-standing and successful institution.  As early as the 1950’s – when the first radio-based audio tour was introduced – forward thinking museums have been utilizing various technologies to deliver an ever richer, more engaging experience to their visitors.  

Fast-forward to today, nearly 70 years later, and you’ll still see a number of museums – as well as other arts and cultural institutions – expanding their use of technology in an effort to bring visitors closer than ever to the subject matter. As the use of smart phones and wearable devices continue to proliferate and wireless networks rapidly advance, today’s curators are no longer tethered to radio waves, or anchored to bulky devices, and are now tapping into an array of new technologies to animate their exhibits.

For example, just recently, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art re-opened to the public and introduced an iPhone app that features a series of audio tours that can auto-adjust the storytelling content based on where the visitor wanders.

And over the last year, a number of other projects have also stretched technical boundaries.  In Chicago, 30 of the city’s most iconic statues and sculptures have been brought to life, triggered by Near Field Communication (NFC), offering people a “call back” on their cell phone for a short chat.  Meanwhile, the de Young Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco piloted the use of Google Glass.  And in Milwaukee, children have become captivated by a mobile app that allows them to take an “Art Selfie” and actually insert themselves into a selection of art works.

These projects are just a beginning – the early stepping stones to a larger leap forward in tech-based exhibits.  As new technologies, such as augmented reality, wearables and other mobile devices, become more refined – and museums and galleries become more tech-minded – their intersection will only continue to widen.  Many institutions, like The Brooklyn Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Guggenheim, have already started employing the use of iBeacons and the Internet of Things as part of their experience.  These technologies give their tours a central nervous system that can intelligently adapt to the visitor’s behavior, interests, and environment.  They can also expand the reach of an exhibit beyond the museum walls, into surrounding neighborhoods and throughout entire cities.

Meanwhile, the British Museum, Getty Museum, and others are experimenting with augmented reality. Using this technology, museumgoers could use their mobile device to animate the subject matter – such as displaying the missing parts of an ancient statue, illustrating what it would have looked like in its original state.

In the not-so-distant future, people will also begin to see wearables speaking to other wearables.  Think of a museum-issued lanyard that syncs with your iWatch (or other mobile device), in order to provide a richer, more personalized experience.  We’ll also begin to see wearables become more closely integrated with social media, allowing people to share their experience and express thoughts or opinions without even using their hands.

The rapid advancement of these technologies has also ushered in a new era in storytelling.  What was once a simple black-and-white, Didactic experience has gone Socratic, and is now being presented on-demand, and in ultra high-definition.  Museums are now able to break free from the traditional linear tour where visitors follow a set route and have a predetermined experience.  Instead, visitors have the liberty to choose their own route through the institution, selecting stops at random, and engaging more deeply wherever they wish.  It’s even possible, perhaps in the more distant future, that museum visitors could one day build their own location-based experience and share them with others.

With the pace of innovation moving faster than ever, it’s more than a little ironic that museums, galleries, and historical institutions are consistently the first to embrace the advancements.  After all, these are institutions that are, in most instances, focused squarely on depicting the past – and here they are using futuristic technology to present their subject matter. 

by Sean Lentner

Sean Lentner is the Chief Technology Officer for Antenna, a provider of technology, content, and managed services to the world’s artistic, historic, and cultural institutions.

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