The analysis has now come full-circle, back again to the actual experience of the Art of the America’s wing at the MFA, which is what started me out on this project. The new wing, in addition to housing 5,000 artworks, also incorporates 16 interactive technology stations in 10 different galleries throughout the 4 floors. Not only do these multiple areas allow for interactive, educational exploration of the museum’s artworks, they also employ up-to-the-minute technology and a wide range of features. This post will examine the offerings of the MFA’s technology installations and will include some videos I made on my visit (for which I’ve created a YouTube account – the links within the text take you to the relevant videos).
The first encounter with this technology we had on our visit to the new wing was on the ground floor, in the Pre-Colombian gallery. A technology station was set to the right of the main entrance to the gallery, and provided an in-depth, interactive look into the iconography of Mayan vases. The touchscreen features the ability to select a vase, roll it out to view the entire round design all at once, and to zoom in on elements to get a closer examination. The screen also provides additional information about the meaning of the iconography of the parts of the vase, and provides it for whatever aspect is selected. The tool was so fun to use, I had to remind my boyfriend to stop messing with it so we could go actually look at the real vases in the display case a few feet away. This is, of course, the main issue that comes up with adding technological aspects within museum galleries – people become so consumed with the onscreen images, that they might not take the time to examine the true object. Luckily, the way in which the actual vases were installed were compelling enough to override this urge.
While the Art in the America’s wing has 16 of these high-tech touchscreens, the wing is so large that they are definitely interspersed enough that the art remains the focus. They function more as an exclamation point to the art (or maybe a parenthetical statement?) than as the forefront of the exhibition space.
The place that these screens are one of the main stars are in the “Behind the Scenes” galleries on floors 1-3. A large strip of monitors mounted on the wall plays an alternating stream of videos that give the museum visitor a peek into how the wing all came together. As mentioned before, this video series shows everything from the designer at work, to conservators in action, to the installation of artworks. The way we actually found our way into the gallery was from a mention on a label near the enormous Thomas Sully piece, “The Passage of the Delaware.” The label directed us to check out the “Behind the Scenes” gallery to find out how the museum staff managed to install such a large painting. In the gallery, a video of the installation process is incorporated into the video montage on this strip of monitors. Also in this gallery was an installation of a selection of decorative objects, next to a touchscreen with a program that let the visitor create their own plate from a variety of accurate porcelain designs. While not the most fun “game” element, this can be seen as a successful attempt to make decorative art objects more interesting to museum-goers who normally view them as plates in a glass case.
The museum does a great job of using touchscreen features and art objects together to supplement the educational experience. In a side room of one of the “Behind the Scenes” galleries, the museum has installed a display geared towards educating the viewer about conservation. The display features several objects in varying stages of condition, from fixable to beyond the rescue of conservation practices. A touchscreen below the objects (see image at top of this post) allows the viewer to zoom in to problematic areas of the artwork, watch videos of the conservation process, and listen to curators discuss the condition of the objects and the procedure. The successful combination of object and technology really leant to my understanding and created a truly interesting learning opportunity.
In addition to these really great installations in these specific educational galleries, there was one more interactive station that I found particularly innovative and exciting. This installation, was a touchscreen table found in a modern gallery on the 3rd floor of the wing. This large table allowed for multiple, I believe up to 6, people to be playing with its offerings at once. I found the technology capabilities amazing – it was able to sense a variety of touch points simultaneously. The function of the screen was to allow for museum guests t select from one of four templates of artists featured in the room, with which they could add upon, inserting different colors, arrangements, or shapes. For example, visitors could create their own Georgia O’Keeffe nature piece. The best part, I felt, was that the table allowed multiple visitors to engage with the program at once. Not only does this allow more people to experience it, but it also created an environment of conversation of fun between the guests, in addition to between the viewer and the art. I thought taking the moment beyond an individual experience to a community level was a really great, innovative way to create an engaging overall environment in the galleries. My boyfriend and I definitely bonded with the other visitors at the table with us, who, I may add, were all in the 55+ range. It was also fun to see this age group using the technology. Adding to this sense of sharing, the program also allowed the user to save their “masterpiece” in a shared folder, creating a nice sense of connection to the museum and of leaving a mark.
All these additional technological installations really supplemented my experience, and I was particularly impressed with the amazing high-tech quality of all the features. Because I was so amazed by the capabilities of these additions, I wanted to spend some time looking into these features. From an article about (discussed previously) the technology approaches of the new wing, I discovered that a company called TacTable was responsible for the touchscreen stations. Considering the interactive, high-tech nature of the touchscreens, I was incredibly disappointed by the company’s website, which doesn’t seem to be updated to feature the MFA project, and also gives really no information about the touch tables at all.
Overall, I felt that the technology integrated into the installation of the new wing really added to the experience, creating the opportunity for visitors to connect to the artwork, learn a little more, and have fun while doing it. Throughout, the technology adds to the art, rather than distracting from it, which I find to be absolutely essential. I felt this particularly about the “Behind the Scenes” galleries. The use of multi-media – art in combination with video, images, and text – created a truly informative experience. In this, the MFA has firmly grasped ahold of the current practice of using transparency and exposing the process, to make the museum environment a more friendly, accessible place.