On Monday the MuseumLab visited the Henry R. Luce Study Center for American Art at the Met. Curator Amelia Peck and Technologist Leela Outcalt gave us a tour of the existing facility, talked about its history and showed us a prototype of the new user interfaces that they are implementing.
The Luce Center was the first of many Luce Foundation funded study centers including the New York Historical Society, the Brooklyn Museum, and most recently the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in DC. The Met’s Luce Center was created in the late 1980’s when American became an official department after consolidating collections that were previously scattered across multiple departments. The Luce Center was revolutionary for its high-density open storage approach and use of digital object records that could be accessed by visitors. There are now over 18,000 objects of decorative arts, art and design in the American Department and these are distributed in a variety of gallery types including art galleries, period rooms, the study center, a recently renovated courtyard and some back of house storage. Adding loaned objects they are currently holding over 21,000 objects. The basic idea behind the study center was to democratize access to the collection, not just for scholars, but for the visiting public. There is a great article in Museum News (July 1991) by Carrie Rebora chronicles the early years of the project and how it came about so I wont dwell on the history here (I will digress with one footnote–the entire collections database and user interface ran on two 330 MB drives with 4 MB of RAM!).
Amelia and Leela gave us their assessment of what works and what doesn’t and a peek at some new interfaces the are developing with Small Design Firm. Their plans include a much larger number of interactive study stations each with a large touch screen monitor at a table to support longer object browsing and study. The prototype of the new interface was quite sophisticated and allowed you to search using any field, and organize the collection chronologically, by accession date, and by material.
They are also adding small monitors to the ends of each case, allowing users to browse the contents of the case in closer physical proximity. These compact screens are visually very simple and easy to navigate. Objects are represented as thumbnail photographs in a grid. Touching and object icon opens a page containing its metadata. The systems seems easy to navigate, is visually unobtrusive and is automatically updated with new data every week to keep pace with new acquisitions, loans and new curatorial information for each object.
The Luce Center’s collections interfaces and the period room interactive programs are a smart technological retrofit of an existing facility and provide a strong contemporary complement to older (but still effective) exhibition techniques. To me the most interesting aspect of this interface is that it enables the Met to graphically represent the entirety of the collection in a number of ways that reveal larger trends like the proportion of objects in the collection across decades, or the proportion of silver, to glass, to ceramic, etc. These visualizations reminded me of some of the great Victorian collections displays where the entirety of the museum’s collection were visible in a kind of panoptic spectacle that was meant to convey the collection’s taxonomic structure at a glance.
Narrative Remains by Artist Karen Ingham
Reading about and discussing the Hunterian Museum reminded me of my many visits there while living in London last year. Although the museum seems to have lost much of its glory if I see the images of the building before it was partly destroyed in 1941, the collection is still an inspiring one. The museum was never busy and I found it a wonderful environment to ponder the many strangely beautiful and extremely visceral specimens, both human and animal. I particularly enjoyed the installation by Karen Ingham titled ‘Narrative Remains’ which revealed the human stories behind some of the displayed specimens. These very personal stories enabled the visitor to interact with the display on a level beyond the anatomical and encouraged the viewer to reflect on their own mortality. Through initiating an interaction between the display and the past, Ingham was able to enrich the interaction between the same display and the visitor and so emphasized the relevance of the specimens in a contemporary context. The Hunterian Museum continues to invite artists working in a variety of media to reinterpret and react on their collections which is a valuable tool to make their collections more relevant and accessible to visitors today. If you are interested you can read about these exhibitions and collaborations here.
Before taking this class, I always thought exhibitions were based around objects and never thought of the larger story they were used to tell. Once Tim mentioned that exhibitions always started out as stories and that objects were just one means of telling it, I began to view exhibitions in a different light. I became more critical of the importance and inclusion of certain objects. Why was this vase included, and not a different one?… What role did it play in the narrative?… What was it trying to tell me?… All these questions constantly circle in my mind and honestly, have made my exhibition viewing process much more enjoyable. On that note, I stumbled on a review of the new permanent exhibition at the Museum of the American Indian in NYC called “Infinity of Nations“. The review stresses the same idea of objects as characters in an exhibition. I recommend reading it, it’s very interesting to see how much larger and lively issues are addressed through the use of inanimate things.
Midterms have been upon us for the last few weeks, and sometimes you just realize that your head is on backwards during those times. Two days before my 5 page comparison paper between two objects at the Metropolitan Museum, I realized that not only had none of my pictures turned out well enough to find them reliable, but my notes had mysterious vanished into the abyss of my desk.
I freaked out, much to the amusement of my roommate who decided to watch with a grin for a few minutes before asking why I didn’t just look up the objects on the Met website.
As a way of turning their collection “inside out,” the Metropolitan Museum has been working on putting objects on display virtually. Although in this way, you aren’t able to actually pick up the object and view it from all angles, it gives the general public the ability to zoom up as close as they want on the object in dramatic detail.
Although I’m not the biggest advocate of putting technology absolutely everywhere possible, and think that museums need to think long and hard about their collections and audiences before making drastic changes, I think the Met’s digital conversion is an amazing step in the right direction of intertwining the past, present and future museum experiences. Now viewers from around the world are able to connect with art in a way that they were not able to previously, all from the comforts of their own home. The objects do not risk being damaged through being viewed digitally by thousands of people. And honestly, it’s just plain fun. I can just imagine the hours that could be spent by our tech-savvy youth zooming in reallyreallyreally close and then back out again, seeing every detail in the photo.
On top of the photo aspect, each of the objects’ information, provenance and descriptions are available. That way, the viewer is able to get a full museum experience and gain deeper knowledge about the object which may not be made as available in person.
After last week’s class discussion hearing the mixed sentiments about the move toward interactive displays and less objects in the Museum, I remembered my experience of visiting the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown a year and a half ago and my great disappointment in the renovations, “modernization” and restructuring of all their exhibition halls. I first visited the Hall of Fame in high school, about 10 or 11 years ago and remember walking in and feeling like I was in my grandparents’ attic, seeing old relics and photos displayed with pride, but also crowded and cluttered. It felt as if I was discovering something, as you tend to feel when going through old family photo albums or clothes and jewelry boxes of past relatives. Old lockers, some actual and some re-fabricated, were stuffed with the jerseys, gloves, cleats, baseball cards, and correspondence of famous players. The museum really captured the essence of baseball and how it became “America’s Pastime.”
When I went to the Hall of Fame most recently, I was with a friend who had never visited and gushed over how personal and intimate the Hall of Fame was, the warm lighting, the display boxes made to feel like lockers and dug outs really indulged a baseball fan’s nostalgia. Upon entry, everything was re-done, what used to be rows of cluttered lockers were now modern display cases with gallery lighting. Objects, much fewer and isolated, seemed detached and inaccessible behind glass panes framed by dry wall painted in deep solid hues. The warmth, accessibility, and feeling of discovery were gone and I felt that kids passing through the halls were really missing out on a connection that I made when I first had visited.
I’m curious to know why the Hall of Fame made the move from the dusty charm of its old displays to the sterile and impersonal. I was surprised to see that even the Statistics Room, which used to have old score board-style listings of players’ names and stat numbers on removable hand painted wooden planks was replaced with boring white Arial font on a black background.
As I had mentioned in class, I don’t think technology and streamlining the display of objects is necessarily the right move for all Museums. Careful attention needs to be paid to the visitor experience. Some mediums don’t necessarily benefit from a minimalist and/or technological approach.
Do we really need objects in a gallery or museum now that we have and use the Internet in our everyday lives? What’s the point of physically going somewhere to look at something or learn about something when we can just use google. Yes it’s definitely not the same, and some pictures don’t do the real object justice, however a lot people these days take things for granted because of technology. I feel that there’s no more appreciation for the world through human eyes anymore, but only through technology.
I personally prefer museums based on objects and objects alone. No participation needed or technology to worry about. Just me, the object, and my interpretation. Such simplicity says way more to me and is way more interesting.