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Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

20,000-year-old artifacts, 21st-century technology

Museums are turning to virtual reality, apps, and interactive experiences to keep tech-savvy visitors engaged

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I’m standing in the admissions line at a museum in New York when I overhear a surprising claim: “It’s like going to the dentist,” a man declares. “I’d rather go the dentist than go to a museum.”

“We can go somewhere else if you want,” his partner offers.

“No, it’s fine.” He pauses. “I strongly believe that people aren’t interested in museums. They just go because it’s a ‘must.’”

This man isn’t alone in his skepticism. Recent reports from the National Endowment for the Arts recorded an 8 percent drop in the number of US adults who visited art museums in the past two decades, as well as a particularly sharp decline in museum-going rates among millennials in their 20s and 30s. In response to the findings, Sunil Iyengar, director of research and analysis at the NEA, told Pacific Standard in 2015 that “there’s no tidy answer as to why this is happening,” but added that “there’s a lot of competition for leisure activities.”

Museums must find new ways to engage and excite visitors. The growing slew of digital entertainment options wrestling for our attention may be part of the problem for museums, but for many institutions, digital technology also offers a potential solution. Charged with the crucial task of preserving our past, museums must now navigate the future.

Museums of Today

Catherine Devine, chief digital officer at the American Museum of Natural History, sees the task at hand as “keeping the museum relevant for a number of different audiences,” and she has spent the past five years working “to really get [the museum] into the 21st century.” That means rethinking the way visitors experience museums to better match the way they lead their daily lives, where tasks as varied as ordering food or finding a date can be accomplished with just a click or a swipe.

Visitors expect their digital experiences to follow them into the museum

“A lot of people’s expectations are framed in the rest of their lives, and then when they come to the museum, […] they expect that experience to continue,” Devine says.

One step in that direction has been the launch and ensuing redesign of the museum’s smartphone app, called Explorer. Originally developed in 2010, the museum officially relaunched the app last November, filled with reimagined content like behind-the-scenes trivia and virtual games. When I open Explorer inside the Hall of Ocean Life — where the museum’s famous 94-foot-long model of a blue whale presides — the app promptly informs me that a blue whale weighs as much as five subway cars, and lets me listen to an underwater recording of whale songs.

The app uses a network of 800 beacons placed throughout the museum to pinpoint visitors’ locations and show content related to your immediate surroundings, as well as provide relevant logistical information, like directions. According to Scott Rohan, the museum’s senior publicist, Explorer has been downloaded more than a million times since July 2010.

In nearly two decades working at the American Museum of Natural History, Vivian Trakinski, director of the museum’s Science Bulletins, has witnessed the evolution of visitor experiences firsthand. Originally hired to produce short science documentaries, Trakinski now spends most of her time working on data visualizations in a variety of digital formats.

“When I came here [in 1999], we were focused on video,” she says. She still produces videos, but says that “now, we are focusing on more immersive and interactive platforms [...] People want to be able to curate their own content. People want to be engaged in the creation of it.”

Image: American Museum of Natural History

Trakinski’s team is currently working on a number of augmented reality prototypes that will allow visitors to more actively engage with the museum’s specimens and datasets, including an immersive AR experience of what it would be like to play golf on Mars, using data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Context Camera. Her team also took a CT scan of a Mako shark and created an AR experience in which visitors can look through a Google Tango tablet or a stereoscopic AR headset, see the scanned skeleton overlaid on top of the museum’s actual shark model, and make the shark swim or bite.

“It’s not a passive experience where we’re telling you something,” says Trakinski. “[Visitors] are actually creating the learning through the interaction with this real artifact of science.”

As the Museum of Natural History tests out its AR prototypes, just a few miles uptown at the Met Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has collaborated with the Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab, Seneca’s School of Creative Arts and Animation, and the Art Gallery of Ontario to showcase their experiment with virtual reality. This spring, the Met launched an exhibit “Small Wonders: The VR Experience,” inviting visitors to don a VR headset and explore the detailing on a 16th century Gothic prayer bead up close. Lisa Ellis, a conservator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, spearheaded the original micro-CT scanning of the miniature beads. She recalls that her team was “blown away” when they saw the intricacies of the beads’ designs and wanted to share them with a wider audience. The immersive experience provided by the HTC Vive headset was “the perfect vehicle for this object.”

Immersion and interaction are also key elements in the visitor experience at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. The museum reopened in late 2014 after a three-year renovation. (Check out The Verge’s 2015 interview with the museum’s former head of engineering here.) Technological upgrades included the introduction of an electronic Pen that allows visitors to draw on digital display tables and to download and save items throughout the museum to a personal web account linked to their Pen.

Image: Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

Caroline Baumann, the director of Cooper Hewitt, recalls that the museum confronted many skeptics when first floating the concept of the electronic stylus, with some critics assuming that no visitors would put down their smartphone long enough to use the Pen. Today, she proudly notes that 97 percent of visitors actually take the Pen upon entering the gallery and that 21 million objects have been downloaded to visitors’ accounts using the gadget. Baumann hoped that the tool would be accessible to all and would “cut across education, class, privilege,” and she believes that the digital redesign of the museum has succeeded in drawing both museum connoisseurs and first-timers. “We’re seeing people that have never been to a museum,” she says.

High-Tech Success

For many institutions, the digital revolution has required a complete rethinking of the museum model and a new digital mindset that filters through the entire operation.

“I feel that digital is not something that sits to the side,” says Devine. “It has to be really integrated into the physical experience. It has to augment it and add a layer that you don’t have with the physical space.”

The shift to digital is beginning to permeate museum culture

Pamela Horn, acting director of digital and emerging media at Cooper Hewitt, acknowledges the pervasive change that has taken shape since the museum’s digital revamp. “Something very interesting has been happening in the last three years since we have reopened, and that’s that we've had an internal cultural shift of everybody adapting to this way of working,” she reflects. “Digital isn't just an appendage on top, it has infiltrated all of the departments.”

And so far, museum leaders are pleased with the results.

Though Devine does not believe that the Explorer app on its own is responsible for attracting more visitors, she says that the museum’s research on the app’s effectiveness revealed that visitors who used the app “found the whole museum experience more thought-provoking,” on average, than those who did not use the app.

Ellis similarly cites internal research which found that 90 percent of people who used the VR headset to explore the prayer bead at the Met thought it was “highly successful” (including a group of visiting nuns who reportedly “got a big kick out of it”). Perhaps most striking of all, Horn notes that Cooper Hewitt’s digital redesign has attracted younger visitors at a time when the coveted demographic seems to have reduced its museum attendance overall. Before the museum closed for renovations in 2011, the average age of Cooper Hewitt visitors hovered around 60 years old. After its reopening in December 2014, the average age has dropped precipitously to 27.

But success like this requires significant commitment.

“The key is having a digital person as part of the senior management team and a digital team that’s really, really strong,” says Baumann. “And a funder.”

Financing these projects is a crucial challenge, and many of the museums have relied on outside donations to fund their experiments. Support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, for example, facilitated both the Cooper Hewitt renovations and the development of the Museum of Natural History’s Explorer app.

The American Museum of Natural History’s Explorer app.
The American Museum of Natural History’s Explorer app.
Image: American Museum of Natural History

Museum staff also emphasized the necessary balance between embracing the digital and preserving the analog features of museums.

“We are the museum of the future. Despite being in [Andrew] Carnegie’s mansion, which was built in 1899, finished in 1902, you come in and you know immediately that it’s a digital experience,” Baumann explains. Still, her team had to be careful not to overdo it: “We didn’t want to put digital all over the walls, ceiling, ground.” The 15 new tables with touchscreen digital displays are scattered spaciously throughout the museum’s multiple floors.

Technology should serve to enhance a visitor’s understanding of a museum’s collection

For Ellis, the original artifacts must remain a priority, and technology should serve to enhance the visitor’s understanding of the physical objects. With the 16th century prayer beads, “you get in [the VR headset] and you’re just blown away,” she says, leading many visitors to return for a second look at the art in person.

“Our primary focus is bringing people to the art and giving them access to the art, so we would only use a technology that allowed us to do that,” she adds. “We’re not in it for the bells and the whistles or to show off.”

Museums of Tomorrow

Museum leaders expect upcoming years to bring a number of changes, including deeper immersion, more communal creation, and greater personalization.

Devine predicts that in a few years we will see a shift away from smartphone-focused tech and toward more wearables and updated versions of smart glasses. Though museums like the Met have already experimented with forays into virtual reality, Devine says she’s excited about future experiences that will likely immerse all of the senses.

Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Baumann cautions, however, that technologies like VR and AR are changing so rapidly that it is hard to know how museums will eventually take advantage of their capabilities. “Where are we going to be six months from now?” she asks. “I don’t want to unveil something unless it’s right-on.”

For Trakinski and her work on data visualization, the future revolves around “communal creativity,” like open-source projects that elicit involvement from partner institutions and outside developers. She cites the Museum of Natural History’s current involvement in the NASA-funded project OpenSpace — an open-source data visualization software to communicate space exploration to the general public — as an example of a growing movement.

“I think sharing resources, sharing knowledge, open-source software development, customization, [and] using common tools is something of a trend that I would see driving all of our work forward in a communal context,” she says.

The Met has similarly chosen to share more of its resources and encourage communal creativity. In February, the museum released a collection of more than 375,000 images for public use under a Creative Commons license.

“How can we take one physical space and present it differently to different people?”

One element receives nearly unanimous support from museum leaders: personalizing the experiences of future museumgoers. Devine adds that such customization is one of the key opportunities of digital technology, allowing designers to ask, “How can we take one physical space and present it differently to different people?”

She expects that future iterations of the Explorer app will feature multiple languages and new capacities to promote relevant content based on the time of day, like where to find an afternoon coffee or how to exit the building after 5PM. “The idea is to try and anticipate what you need in that moment — and then that’s different for different people — and then provide that to you without you having to navigate to it,” she explains.

She also envisions personalization of the museum’s website, where different visitors will see different content: museum members wouldn’t need to be shown information on how to become a member, mobile visitors in New York might see ticketing services first, and teachers would find educational materials upfront.

Baumann likewise reflects on her goals for a customizable future. She thinks about a group of visitors surrounding one of the digital tables, each drawing or researching individually with their Pens, and “would love it if a seven-year-old can have his experience, and then the Pratt student studying industrial design can have a slightly more advanced experience.”

The most popular spot in the Cooper Hewitt museum is the second-floor Immersion Room. Inside, two of the walls are covered by giant screens where a variety of patterns and wallpapers flash on rotation. Using the touchscreen table in the center of the room, visitors can choose their preferred wall décor from among several hundred samples shown on the screen, or they can use their electronic pen to draw their own design and then project it all around them. The same space can be uniquely personalized based on individual taste.

The future of museums sounds a lot like the Immersion Room, as a single museum may eventually provide customized experiences for each person who enters. “Knowing the digital platforms that exist out there,” Baumann says, “the opportunity is huge.”