Integrating technology has become a standard expectation in art museums. However, the Cleveland Museum of Art pushes the envelope so much further.

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One is an interactive technology space that consists of Studio Play, Gallery One proper, the Collection Wall, and the ArtLens app (available to download for free on Apple and Android devices). It offers an innovative and unprecedented user experience – a fusion of art, design and technology. The art is always at the foreground and the tech is seamless.

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Jane Alexander, Chief Information Officer, The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Jane Alexander, Chief Information Officer at the museum, is a visionary dynamo. She joined the museum partway through its $330 million building renovation in 2010.

Under her aegis it has become the world’s most technologically advanced museum. She spoke to Blooloop about Gallery One’s next iteration and how she uses tech to de-mystify art and engage people with the museum’s collection.

She first came to the museum in 2010 and met a host of challenges. Not only was most of the staff off-site during the renovation, the museum had not had a chief information officer for several years. At the same time, the four collection-related projects, including Gallery One, were in their embryonic stages.

Infrastructure and Technology Supports Art

The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) is Alexander’s first art museum. Before this, among other jobs, she had created Columbia University’s first distance education program. Alexander had also managed the technology implementation for Frank Gehry’s Peter B. Lewis Building at Case Western Reserve University. “I have always been lucky enough to be involved in really fascinating information technology projects,” says Alexander.

“In an art museum, it is imperative that the art should be at the forefront, rather than thecleveland Museum of art logo | Blooloop technology,” she says. However the technology infrastructure needs to be in place in order to use technology interpretation that still allows the art to shine. One of her first tasks at Cleveland was to look at all the databases and hardware needs across the museum and standardize this technology from the conference rooms and board to the galleries, so the experience was interchangeable and understandable to all.

“I wanted to make sure that whatever we built was scalable,” she says. “Hardware changes all the time. You have to put the energy into the backend, and into the workflow. No matter the outward experience we build, the content would be reflected across all platforms. When the content is changed, whether by an educator or a curator, that content will be updated wherever it is.”

She realized the museum needed a museum-wide digital strategy. Gallery One became the testbed for this strategy.

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The Collection Wall. The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Gallery One, a Revolutionary Space 

The jewel in Cleveland’s crown is Gallery One, which opened to members on 12th December 2012 and to the public on MLK Day (21st January 2013), the museum’s most popular day for visitors.

The gallery’s aim is to inspire visitors to explore the museum’s permanent collection. It includes real masterworks, such as pieces by Picasso, Rodin and Giovanni Panini. It also features the largest multitouch Christie® MicroTiles® screens in the United States. Designed by Local Projects, the 40 foot high touch interactive video wall displays images of over 4,500 objects from the museum’s permanent collection. Visitors can take inspiration from objects they explore on the wall to shape their own tours of the museum.

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Visitor uses Artlens. Howard Agriesti for the Cleveland Museum of Art.

ArtLens is an innovative museum app for iOS and Android that uses iBeacon technology to allow visitors to navigate their way around the museum. It uses a state-of-the-art wayfinding system, eliminating the need for paper maps. In addition to its mapping capabilities, ArtLens includes over nine hours of multimedia content. This includes audio tour segments, videos, and additional facts, stories, and information. Visitors can dock their device at the Collection Wall, save the artworks they explore to their device, and create customizable, personalized tours of their favourite artworks. Visitors can use ArtLens before, during, and after their visit to CMA to expand their experience.

Making Museums Relevant to Everyone

During the museum’s renovation and closing, CMA did lots of evaluations and found that many visitors found the museum intimidating. They felt it wasn’t relevant to families, or to anyone without an art degree. This was a challenge Alexander related to and relished tackling.

Alexander grew up in New York City. She says. “I grew up liking museums and wanting to understand how to look at art beyond just reading the didactic next to the artwork. I don’t have a degree in art history, but I thought this project was fabulous and a once in a lifetime opportunity. We were going to equip visitors with the tools that let you look closer at artworks throughout the entire museum. We needed to use innovative experiences, to get younger audiences into the museum.”

Innovation was key. They needed to take calculated risk to engage new audiences. Innovation also characterises the newest iteration of Gallery One. Alexander and a cross-department collaborative team are working on this at the moment and she says: “It has a scariness. It is really fun to lead in new things but, at the same time, you are the case study that people are watching.”

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Studio Play, visitors create collages. The Cleveland Museum of Art.

The Technology has to be Seamless

Nevertheless, Alexander and her team are careful with their prototyping. “I take anything out of the work that is just not technically ‘there’,” she says. She cites the ArtLens app as an example.

Originally the idea was that you could scan both two- and three-dimensional artworks. But Alexander decided to remove the three-dimensional aspect. “You can get a three-dimensional artwork to scan but it requires standing in the right place and moving around,” she explains. “Some people would think it doesn’t work. My feeling is that the technology has to be easy or it isn’t seamless.”

Finding Great People is Key to Success

Alexander believes that her greatest skill set lies in finding really great people. “I firmly believe that you cannot do anything without expertise from all different areas at the museum, from education to curatorial,” she says.

Starting Gallery One over from scratch in 2011, Alexander hired design company Local Projects (New York), and re-thought the team leading the project.

“We changed up the team so that curatorial, design, education, interpretation, and collections were all equally involved,” she says. “All these departments were so important in figuring out what Gallery One could be. It also meant that everyone had some ownership. Instead of this small department project, it was a museum project. And that breathed life into it.”

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Young visitors with Studio Play. Rob Muller for The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Having an AV Integrator from the Beginning is a Key to Success

When Alexander joined Cleveland Museum, there was no AV integrator on the staff. She rectified this at once. “One of the [factors that characterises] a failed project is not having an AV integrator in on the design talks from the beginning. They need to be there, hearing what it is about, so when concepts change they are able to give solutions.”

Zenith Systems was key to the success of the project. They designed and purchased all the innovative hardware selections, and chose Christie Digital Systems for the technology behind the Collection Wall. Christie’s technology also provided the technology behind the Zoom Wall and Line and Shape Wall in the newly-renovated Studio Play.

Christie MicroTiles easily build up into displays of any shape or size. LED illumination is combined with DLP projection to give vibrant images with a rich colour gamut. The tiles are made of recyclable RoHS compliant materials so they environmentally friendly. Virtually maintenance-free, they use no consumables and have been officially recognised for their eco-design.

Clarity of Vision + a Great Team = Targets Met on Time

“We didn’t have one change order in that huge project,” says Alexander. “We opened on time. Every activity – ten interactives, an app and a beacon – all worked perfectly.”

Alexander’s clarity of vision and her ability to put together the best team for the job achieved miracles. “We all shifted together,” she says. “Everyone had passion and ownership of the whole project.”

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Young visitor to Gallery One, The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Gallery One became a testbed for the museum-wide digital strategy. The content took advantage of the newly digitized collection. “A digital asset management system pulled metadata from our collection management system. Thus making the data live, current, and based on the workings of the museum.”

Alexander is justifiably proud of their achievements with Gallery One. “What’s really special is that it’s a real game changer. It’s not just innovative, it is strategic. It is not technology for technology’s sake. Rather it is technology to strengthen our visitors’ connection with our world-class collections.”

Finding New Ways to Use Technology

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ArtLens. David Brichford for the Cleveland Museum of Art

Alexander and her team are currently in the middle of implementing ‘Gallery One 2.0,’ the second iteration of Gallery One that will feature entirely new artworks and new, barrier-free interactives. In summer 2016, Alexander successfully tested out this new technology in Studio Play, an area at the entrance of Gallery One that encourages anyone from age 9-99 to explore and create art before diving into Gallery One and the primary galleries.

The Collection Wall allows up to 16 people to interact simultaneously with the wall. The new ArtLens uses Bluetooth technology to connect to the wall. From here, users can browse the entire on-view collection, save artworks directly from the wall to their device, and then use ArtLens to be directed to the artwork through museum-wide iBeacons.

Studio Play – A Space that Offers an Introduction to the Museum’s Collection

Studio Play, located in off the north lobby, was overhauled. “Originally, the idea was that it should be a place for families to begin their relationship with the collection in the museum through play,” explains Alexander. “When we opened up, it was very popular with young families. It had comfortable chairs. The museum is free. Kids could play safely. There were some blocks, magnets, books. It was a colourful, enjoyable space.”

The original Studio Play also contained two digital interactives. One was the phenomenal 4-unit wide by 3-unit tall ‘Line and Shape’ MicroTiles video wall. This has integral Christie Interactivity Kit: a multi-touch, MicroTiles wall on which visitors can draw lines that are matched to works of art in the collection.

“It was just magical,” says Alexander. “But a lot of people didn’t even know that existed. The space became a sort of decompression room for young families and that was never its intent. People wouldn’t even look in that space because it had become a comfortable playroom. That’s a nice thing to have at museum, but that wasn’t the mission of that space.”

Alexander hired Design I/O and re-imagined the space with the cross-collaborative team, opening the newer version on 16th June 2016. “We have solidified our position as a trailblazer in the deployment of digital experiences,” says Alexander.

We wanted it to be magical

“We wanted this to be a space where people began their relationship with the collection, and we wanted it to be magical. It is now mostly digital, though we do still have books and couches. But when you walk by now, everybody is moving and doing something, instead of resting. The goal of Studio Play is to create a space that offers an introduction to the museum’s collection, while building a foundation of visual literacy.”

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The Collection Wall. The Cleveland Museum of Art

Putting the Big Hitters Centre-Stage

The middle space of Gallery One is where art and interactives come together. Currently, the artworks are 14 feet behind ‘lenses’ – six interactive featuring touch screens. These teach visitors about related artworks placed nearby. They can also engage in unique interactive activities. While all lenses share a similar home screen layout, each possesses its own theme related to the artwork on display.

“There were going to be more than 200 artworks from the educational collection in that space,” recalls Alexander. “But we decided that if we were really going to do this, we had to get masterworks from the museum’s permanent collection in there. So there are now 54 objects in that space, including a Rodin, a Picasso, a Segal. These are artworks that people will come to see no matter what.”

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The Collection Wall. The Cleveland Museum of Art

The Mighty Collection Wall

The third space is the Collection Wall. This works in two ways. Every thirty seconds it shows a curator view. “For example, it might say hats and it will show all the objects in our collection with hats,” says Alexander. “Then then it might say Chinese, and it will show objects from our Chinese collection. In between these curator views, it shows every object on view. So it can be up to 4,500 objects at a time that show up on there.”

She explains that everything is pulled from the museum’s digital asset management system. This, in turn, pulls metadata from the museum registrar’s collection management system. Hence, when a curator changes something, it happens live. “The other thing about the wall is that you can dive deeper into an object,” adds Alexander.

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The Collection Wall. The Cleveland Museum of Art

Democratising the Collection

Alexander says that the museum already has a strong repeat visitorship. “People go to see their favourite five objects, and they walk right by masterworks,” she says. “So the Collection Wall is a way to democratise the collection. It has you looking at objects in ways that you would maybe never notice in the gallery.”

“The whole goal of the Collection Wall and the Gallery One components is to launch you into the gallery with a feeling of confidence. It aims to give you the feeling that you have a toolset to look closer.”

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The Collection Wall. Frank Lanza for the Cleveland Museum of Art

Gallery One is Constantly Being Re-evaluated

Gallery One has been a huge success. In the year following the opening of Gallery One visitation to the museum increased by 35 percent and family visitors increased by 29 percent.

Nevertheless, Alexander re-evaluates tirelessly. She is never afraid to remove or change an element if she feels it is failing in its mission – even if it’s popular.

At the moment her main focus is on Gallery One proper, the middle section of the space where artwork is actually displayed. “A lot of people have asked why we are changing it,” she says. “It’s popular, and people still come. They like it, and it has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company.”

More of a proof of concept than an endpoint

However, right from its inception, the Museum considered Gallery One to be more of a proof of concept than an endpoint. It was always the plan to improve and update each of the components. “The last four years have just provided this opportunity to gather information, interview visitors, take usage, evaluate, and so on,” says Alexander. “What we found was that people enjoyed it, but they didn’t really get the art concepts. It was understandable, because we weren’t linear with our concept choosing.”

“We also found that the idea of the lenses, which put the artwork 14 feet behind it on the perimeter, meant people just didn’t make those connections easily. Some did, of course. People said it was fun. They came back and they liked looking at certain objects. However if you asked them what concepts they understood, they didn’t really get any skills for looking closer at artwork from it. That is what we need to improve.”

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Studio Play. The Cleveland Museum of Art

Moving the Artwork into the Foreground

“We went back to interpretation, education and curatorial,” explains Alexander. “To create a pedagogical set of themes to aid visitors when looking at art.” The new set of concepts are those you need when looking at art.”

“The new themes include symbols, composition, gesture and emotion, and purpose, with games designed specifically to look closer at an artwork within each theme.

In addition, the artwork is also being moved from behind the lenses to the foreground. “The pedagogy developed for these activities will enhance the visitor’s interaction with every piece of the collection,” says Alexander. “For example, you will go up to an object and will be able to understand its geometric composition and its religious symbolism.”

The touchscreens will be replaced by motion detection and eye tracking. Kinetic movement will activate each game, and there will be no touchscreens—literally removing the hardware barrier.

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The Collection Wall. The Cleveland Museum of Art

Beyond Looking – a Creative Tension between Technology and Art

The aim is to establish a tension that has the visitor alternate playing with looking. “Instead of the technology and the art being separate, the aim is to have a tension that makes you go back and forth,” says Alexander. “So when you get into the gallery you’re like, ‘Oh, I see it! I see the triangle in that composition!’ Or ‘Oh! There’s Hercules struggling!’ Or, ‘I played that game – that big thing that looks like a basket is actually a hat.’”

Eye tracking promises to be an intriguing addition. “You will look at an artwork, and it will show where your eye looked at the composition. At the end it will show clearly where your eye focused most. It will then show you that in relation to other people. In addition it will show you that in relation to the artist’s intent.”

It’s kind of like a Tinder for art

One touchscreen will remain, at the very end. It will show artworks from the collection, and visitors will make a face based on how they feel about it. “It’s kind of like a Tinder for art,” says Alexander. “It will give ideas of the objects that made you wince, that made you uncomfortable. Or that made you happy.”

“We will have missions,” she adds. “Maybe to go into the gallery and look at the object and give a reason about why it’s uncomfortable to you. Or why it is an object that seems to have made you happy. Then they can take a selfie, or do something that is projected back to the Beacon. It will show whether they had a different reaction to when they saw it digitally rather than in person. That will aid in showing that visitors are really looking closer in the galleries.”

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Gallery One. The Cleveland Museum of Art

Enabling People to Look Closer

Alexander is hugely excited about the new space. “With anything like this, there is the possibility that it could be amazing, or we could fail terribly,” she admits. “The only thing I will say is that I have honestly not seen anything like this and I can’t wait to experience it.”

The gallery constantly exceeds expectations. Alexander explains that people always say it wasn’t what they expected. “Multiple times I have been like, ‘So, was it less than you thought? Were you underwhelmed?’ And they are always, ‘No. This is unbelievable. This is completely immersive.’”

Gallery One is giving people the toolset to look closer. That’s the big thing

She says the best compliment was from the director of the Met. “He said, ‘This is really fun but you know what is really amazing? You guys have a great collection.’ And I get that compliment a lot. What that tells me is that people, for the first time, are looking closely at the collection. They are really looking at CMA’s art. They are commenting on the collection, not saying, ‘Your tech is cool.’ That’s not what we want people to say. We want them to be like, ‘Oh my God, I went to see that object for real, and it was so much cooler when I looked at it. Or, ‘I actually am starting to know the collection.’ That’s the kind of compliment we want.”

Alexander pauses, and then adds. “Gallery One is giving people the toolset to look closer. That’s the big thing.”

All images kind courtesy The Cleveland Museum of Art except where stated otherwise.