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November 7, 2013

Art Lens turns museum trip into unique experience

By Doug Vehovec

Visitors to Cleveland Museum of Art interact with Gallery One's Collection Wall

Visitors to the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) can take ownership of their experience in a unique way blending art, technology and interpretation through the Art Lens iPad app. The innovative app puts CMA’s renowned collection in your hands through cutting edge technology that allows interaction with art in a way never before possible.

Specially-coded iPads are available for rent inside CMA’s Gallery One exhibit, or visitors can bring their own and get it fitted with a special chip on the back of the case. Docking stations detect the chip and let users customize their visit through Art Lens.

Art Lens operates with Gallery One exhibits as well as in conjunction with the Collection Wall, a dramatic 40-foot multi-touch screen – the largest of its kind in the U.S.

Thumbnail images cascade across the screen. Perhaps “Box in the Form of Asparagus” catches your eye. The painted ceramic vegetable-shaped container is an odd favorite of museum-goers, according to Jennifer Foley, CMA’s director of interpretation. The interpretation process connects art with technology by providing supplemental material and guidance through the collection using Art Lens. She knows a thing or two about what makes a piece interesting through her work creating that material.

A quick tap on the screen zooms in on the objet d’art and displays its origin as well as suggesting similar pieces to discover. Make the selection one of your favorites and Art Lens’ intuitive map pinpoints its location in the museum. Suppose you then favorite the first century colored-glass “Millefiori Bowl.” Art Lens will help you create an eclectic tour of colorful containers throughout the ages.

“All of the use of technology here, with Gallery One, with the Collection Wall, with Art Lens – it does give the opportunity to have a variety of entry points for engagement with the collection, for whoever is coming, no matter what their level of knowledge or comfort with art museums,” Foley said.

The app’s scanning feature incorporates the iPad camera and image-recognition software to provide an augmented-reality experience on-site. Artwork marked with the Art Lens icon is recognized within proximity, and contextual content like video, audio, text and still images is displayed. The deeper experience of stories behind the artwork aims to give visitors a greater appreciation.

“Objects often have really interesting stories,” said Foley. “There may be an interesting acquisition story, or a story about conservation work that was done on it.”

Art Lens puts that sort of curious information at visitors’ fingertips as they navigate the museum. Nodes embedded throughout the museum triangulate the app-equipped device’s position and alert visitors of nearby artwork featured on the app. Interpretive media includes more than anecdotal stories, sometimes showing a glimpse of an object’s significance outside of the museum.

Foley described interpretation of CMA’s African collection, which currently consists largely of masks. Displayed in cases, these treasures only provide a fragment of their place in the world. But video provided through Art Lens places these objects in context – with the music, dance, movement and action they were created for. This kind of immersive experience lets visitors get closer to what an object actually is, something that can’t be done with just a label.

Scanned objects, like favorites from the Collection Wall, can be used to create tours. One of the more popular tours follows Heroes & Villains throughout history. Custom-built software generates a logical path through the museum on an interactive map and connects visitors with the powerful theme present in all cultures. Context-sensitive content provided along the way transforms a museum trip into a true learning experience that shows humankind’s desire to communicate ideas about good and evil through artwork that spans thousands of years.

Follow the Art Lens "Heroes & Villains" tour on Cleveland Stater's YouTube channel!

Before reaching the Collection Wall visitors pass through CMA’s Gallery One.  Large touchscreen monitors placed throughout the exhibit floor entice museum-goers with several ways to interact with the art on display.

In addition to interpretive and supplemental material, some of these features are just plain fun.  One of them prompts passersby to make a face for the camera.  It then uses facial recognition to find a suitably matching piece of art from the collection.  A similar feature gets visitors to mimic a sculpture by striking a pose, and gives feedback on the accuracy.  Both features ask users to enter their email address and have the photos sent to them so they can easily share their experience.

Other features available in Gallery One serve to further immerse visitors in the experience and connect with past users by comparing responses and activity.  The Lions Lens asks for visitors’ opinions about various art featuring lions.  Responses are coded from realistic to fierce, and an infographic provides comparison with previous answers.

After a thorough exploration of Gallery One, the exhibit leads directly to the Collection Wall and a chorus of ooh’s and ahh’s as visitors round the corner and see it for the first time.  The dizzying array of artwork scrolling across the screen can seem daunting at first.  Closer inspection reveals there’s nothing to be afraid of, and visitors both young and old enjoy the tactile response as the screen blossoms to life – probably the closest anyone will get to physically touching part of the collection.

“I’m very impressed with the big screen,” said a man visiting CMA for the first time in a few years.  “I love how all the artwork is on display like that.”

The man ceded that he hadn’t tried using an Art Lens-equipped iPad.  He was concerned that he’d spend more time with his head down looking at it, potentially missing other interesting works of art, but admitted that he could envision a return visit to create his own tour.

Repeat visits for just that reason is one of the benefits CMA is happy to note.  With the unparalleled access to the collection provided by Art Lens, the issue of how it would affect attendance was a concern.  Although there is no hard data available yet, Foley noted that anecdotally the response has been positive not only in how often, but also how visitors experience CMA.

There was some truth to the man’s concerns in how my own CMA experience was influenced by Art Lens.  According to the app, the first stop on the Heroes & Villains tour is the bronze sculpture Hercules within CMA’s gorgeous neoclassical white marble 1916 Building.  By following the map and directions for the 30-minute tour, I felt compelled to bypass other galleries en route to reach the half-human, half-divine hero’s display.
The tour’s four remaining stops lead me ultimately to the 1916 Building’s rotunda.  Along the way, I discovered neoclassical paintings of angels, early American depictions of witchcraft and the Armor Court’s collection of medieval instruments of war and knightly virtue.

On some level, Art Lens provided a window into the pieces that I might otherwise never have seen.  But at the same time, more often than not the artwork itself enchanted me enough through both the craftsmanship and the sense of history they emanate.  And perhaps if nothing else, the app facilitates these opportunities to admire a handful of treasures sharing a common thread of human nature.

After the tour I took some time exploring the museum’s 2nd floor North Galleries.  Several artworks displayed the Art Lens logo, but the iPad was unable to scan the objects for interpretation or interaction.  Upon returning the iPad to Gallery One, I mentioned this to the attendant.  She explained that there are two different Art Lens features on marked artwork.  One logo accesses the scan feature, while another simply provides additional information about the piece.

This bit of knowledge would have explained an earlier difficulty in Japanese and Korean gallery overlooking CMA’s beautiful central Atrium.

Near the end of the visit, a visitor admiring a centuries-old wooden sculpture of a child Buddha took notice of my failed attempts to scan Zao Gongen.  The carved depiction of the Japanese protective deity used in promotional material for Art Lens gave the app some trouble, and the nearby woman inquired about the device.

More satisfied to explore the museum on her own terms, she expressed the same concerns as the man in Gallery One.

“It’s not my thing – it seems like you’re looking down at it and missing a lot,” she said.  She did add thoughtfully that if you were looking for something really specific or researching a particular topic, then the app would be useful that way.

The degree to which Art Lens enhances or detracts from a visit to CMA aside, the app makes impressive use of technology to bring the museum to life in a new and different way.  Users can run the gamut from browsing the collection at home on their own iPad to creating a comprehensive tour with multiple levels interactivity. 

It can put a new twist on a spur-of-the-moment trip to the museum by revealing a theme buried in our collective history just as easily as giving detailed guidance down an avenue of research.

With just a touch, CMA visits become individually-crafted experiences that, by connecting users through a deeper connection, will hopefully touch back.