Arts Day Out at the Museum for Tech Lovers

by Teresa K. Traverse | June 07, 2018

Think you don’t like museums? Then you’ve probably never gone on a digital scavenger hunt or texted with a curator about the finer points of Picasso’s palette during a museum visit.

With interactive exhibits, customizable apps and cutting-edge technologies, museums are engaging visitors in thrilling and illuminating new ways. “There’s so many different types of technologies that are available to us today,” says January Arnall, who curates the public programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago.

She has seen the power that integrated exhibits have to spark deeper conversations and questions. “Many museums are really educating ourselves as to what these tools can do. We’re also trying to make sure that we’re using technology in a way that’s mission-aligned,” Arnall says.

To engage with a museum trip in a whole new way, start by checking out this list of exhibits across the country that will entice devout technophiles and museum lovers alike.

Spy Profiling at Spyscape

928 8th Avenue / New York, NY

Opened early in 2018, Spyscape seeks to give visitors an immersive experience into what it truly means to be a spy. Visits begin by entering an interrogation booth to run through a computer-generated briefing session developed by psychologists and a former head of British Intelligence to receive a detailed spy profile. Discover your inner hacker, intelligence operative or spy catcher. Don’t miss the special ops tunnel where you can attempt to traverse a field of lasers without touching them.

Motion-sensor Technology at Cleveland Museum of Art

11150 East Boulevard / Cleveland, OH

Art comes alive from the moment you enter the Cleveland Museum of Art where visitors are greeted by the ArtLens Wall, a 5-by-40-foot MicroTile wall featuring works displayed inside the museum. Every 40 seconds, the wall shifts to showcase art grouped into categories by similar materials, time period or technique. Play artist at the ArtLens Studio, where you can virtually paint, collage or make pottery via motion-sensor technology touchscreens. Just a wave of the hand is all it takes to create art on an interactive screen that mimics the museum’s actual art collection.

silhouettes of people interacting with digital display

Photo courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art 

An Interactive App at the Brooklyn Museum

200 Eastern Parkway / Brooklyn, NY

Ever wished that you could have a curator right there with you to field questions as you wander through a museum? Well, the Brooklyn Museum’s Ask app essentially serves as a personal docent for visitors. A team of museum experts, including an archaeologist and an anthropologist, take questions from visitors via text on the app, and respond in real time. Curious visitors can discover deeper details of the museum’s massive collection of 1.5 million works of art with queries such as: “What type of clay and coloring was used for this ancient Egyptian bowl?” or “Who is the woman in is this portrait by William Merritt Chase?”

Augmented Reality at The Tech Museum of Innovation

201 South Market Street / San Jose, CA

First shown in 1995, the Body Worlds exhibition has revealed the inner workings of the human body to millions of visitors around the globe. The exhibit featuring real human bodies was given a 21st-century tech boost in 2017 with Body Worlds Decoded at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA, which makes the intricacies of our anatomy even more tangible.

Through this enhanced display you can view human bodies (the actual reality) alongside immersive 3-D models (the augmented reality). “Walk” into a blood stream, “see” the tissues or “peer” through the iris of a human eye using a digital phablet (a bigger smartphone, but not quite a tablet).

“The technology helps you to learn by doing,” says museum president Tim Ritchie, who adds that the exhibit is particularly adept at drawing in those younger visitors born and raised in the information age.

Another advantage: Customizing or adapting a technology-based exhibit to provide a more personalized experience is much easier — not to mention more cost effective — than tearing down and remaking a physical one. Ritchie gave the example of how it would be relatively easy for the museum to create an interactive exhibit based on biotech for a group of students simply by reprogramming devices to provide users with that information. In a more traditional setting, an entirely new exhibit would have to be constructed, which would take time and money.

children interacting with digital installation

Photo courtesy of The Tech Museum of Innovation

3-D Modeling and Printing at Vizcaya Museums and Gardens

3251 South Miami Avenue / Miami, FL

Even more traditional museums are turning to technology as a way to enhance their visitors’ experience. The Vizcaya Museums and Gardens in Miami — formerly a private winter estate of businessman James Deering — is a prime example. Perched on 50 acres overlooking Biscayne Bay and modeled after an 18th-century Italian villa complete with a luxurious 1920-built main house and gardens, Vizcaya is now jumping into the digital space.

“We’re looking to give visitors a way to connect more deeply to the story of Vizcaya,” says Jeff Guin, the museum’s director of technology and digital initiatives. The museum first leapt into digital with an interactive touch screen that provided visitors a chance to view an entire room in a 360-degree photographic format. It’s a boon not only for those who want a closer, more detailed look at a piece of furniture or architecture, but also allows virtual access for those with mobility issues who cannot scale Vizcaya’s many stairs.

The museum also now scans the surface of objects in its collection with lasers to gather detailed and accurate representations of the objects’ original condition. How is this useful? Because the technology can help give visitors a better, more accurate idea of how, say, an elaborately decorated ceiling in the pool grotto actually looked at the turn of the century. As of May 2018, the museum will pair 3-D prints alongside digital models to create a tactile experience of certain objects, like a circa-1917 statue of Hermes, or rooms in the museum.

“We realize that our continued relevance and being able to sustain the story of the museum depends on being able to have the right mindset and infrastructure to connect with visitors in that way,” notes Guin.

3D model of ship

Photo courtesy of The Vizcaya Museums and Garden

Virtual Reality at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

220 East Chicago Avenue / Chicago, IL

This June, the MCA debuts a new exhibit designed to celebrate the increasing degree of interconnectedness and the ever-greater role technology plays in our lives. The exhibit I was Raised on the Internet aims to strike a balance between playful and serious.

One example is Jon Rafman’s Transdimensional Serpent, where visitors will sit on a serpent model, don a virtual reality headset to “take off” and “fly” through various landscapes such as deserts, fields or forests, encountering otherworldly beings.

Beyond the I Was Raised on the Internet exhibit, technology will be incorporated into exhibitions as it continues to be an aspect of life. “As a contemporary art museum, we follow where the artists lead,” Arnall says. “Artists are using technology as part of their practice.”

exterior of Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago

Photo courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

For Arnall and her peers, bringing technology into museums is not about subsuming what worked in the past. Rather, it’s about further refining and accentuating those approaches so that we might tell our stories for this generation and those to come in the most effective, widest-ranging manner possible.

Teresa K. Traverse

enjoys a good text chat with a curator and loves visiting museums all over the world. Her work has appeared in Modern Luxury Scottsdale, Refinery29, USA Today and Fast Company.