The Future of Art Museums

Interactive digital tables at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Photo courtesy of the Cooper Hewitt

Take your traditional museum visitor experience, introduce advanced technology (like a digital pen that allows you to save and “collect” the works of art you most enjoy, or a cutting-edge mobile app and tour guide), and you’ve just upgraded to an interactive, 21st-century museum experience.

Over the past few years, many museums and cultural institutions are doing exactly that: increasingly leaning on mobile and digital projects to reinvent the visitor experience. Some of these major changes have been partially fueled by the desire to engage the millennial audience, who, according to an Invaluable survey conducted earlier this year, are more often discovering art digitally.

With the dual goals of making their collections more accessible and diversifying their patron base, institutions like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum are taking leaps to stay relevant with today’s museum-goers. To help us understand the process of creating technological interactions for museum-goers from inside out, Brendan Ciecko, founder of Cuseum, and Micah Walter, the Director of Digital and Emerging Media at the Cooper Hewitt, joined our forward-looking conversation.

A Tech Partner POV: Cuseum

One way institutions have been strengthening their connection to visitors is through the introduction of engaging mobile apps. The growing demand for non-traditional art experiences has led to the emergence of a large number of independent apps that allow for deeper engagement with works of art. Apps can assist in way-finding, guiding, and education for visitors. SFMoMA, for one, recently unveiled an app that supports indoor and outdoor location-aware touring, map-based navigation, and a shareable visual log of the user’s visit. The Met’s app, a 2015 Webby Award Honoree, offers an interactive museum map, recommendations on what to see, exhibition listings, and the ability to save your favorite art, events, and exhibits.

Enter Cuseum, a tech company that assists museums with these types of digital objectives. The Boston-based startup partners with museums to power mobile apps that enhance the visitor’s experience. Visitors can easily access content through a variety of ways, including curated tours and highlighted notifications based on their location. Their platform provides institutions with cost-effective tools for mobile, content management, iBeacon support, indoor way-finding, and social engagement. The primary goal of Cuseum is to help cultural institutions better engage their visitors using digital solutions.

“In the museum space, education and visitor engagement are always extremely high priorities,” says Ciecko, who started his first company to develop online experience for the music and entertainment industry when he was 13 years old. “There is a growing interest in using these different digital avenues to drive and improve engagement, education, and context between the visitor and the objects they might experience at the museum.”

Photo courtesy of Cuseum

Ciecko decided that his passion for museums coincided perfectly with their need for interpretive materials that they can adapt “without needing to design or build themselves.” He adds, “although this is Cuseum, it’s truly being built by the museum and the visitors based on their feedback.”

“We’re not ‘developing’ apps for museums, in the traditional sense – we’re partnering and providing institutions a turn-key platform to effectively activate their content in a new, mobile-friendly way for their visitors,” says Ciecko. “Cuseum is very much a suite of tools available for them to pick and choose what areas they’d like to focus on. Once you have this companion in the hands of a visitor, it creates a lot of opportunities for the museum to extend the conversation, to gather feedback, to encourage or incentivize visitors to become members, donate, or join the mailing list.”

On the institution side, Ciecko says “compared to anything else that they might be working with or thinking of building themselves, it gives the institution the ability to be agile and lean so that they can rapidly launch, iterate, and respond to the needs of their visitors. We’re always focused on our museum partners, their visitors, and speed of deployment.” For the visitor, the end result is “simple, convenient, and allows the information and works of art to shine through.”

A Museum POV: Cooper Hewitt

Digital experiences, both online and on-site, are becoming a major part of museums’ overall growth strategy. Dubbed “The Museum of the Future,” the Cooper Hewitt turned heads when it digitized its collection and created exciting on-site technology to enhance and enrich the visitor experience.

The museum reopened after a physical renovation and restoration project, alongside an extensive digital redesign, in December 2014 and completed their vision in March 2015 when they unveiled interactive digital creation tables throughout the museum. The tables are equipped with a digital pen with a dual function: first, a stylus that lets the user manipulate the tables; second, the pen doubles as a Near Field Communication antenna that allows users to collect information about their favorite pieces during their visit, and later research the works on a personalized webpage.

“The core idea is to create a way to have your own experience and taste in a museum through technology.” – Micah Walter

One impetus of this digital strategy was the desire to broaden the audience at the museum to millennials, families, and design professionals. Walter says, “in order to do that we knew that we needed to be much more savvy, much more robust of a museum and digital technology and digitizing the collection and creating a more immersive experience seemed to be one way to approach that problem.”

The pen solves several problems. First, it eliminates the need for visitors to disrupt their museum experience by taking photographs of wall labels. As Walter states, “often times you don’t want to be encumbered by having to read everything; you want to be able to stay in the moment and enjoy the paintings, but you also want to be able to save it for later.”

Photo courtesy of the Cooper Hewitt

The pen encourages the visitor experience to continue even after they exit the museum, a difficult but desirable outcome for institutions. In addition, Walter considers the pen to be a fairly passive device. “You don’t have to use it if you don’t want to, it’s not critical to the experience. Depending on your level of engagement you can decide how much you want to use it. It’s very much serendipitous browsing – I call it ‘swimming through the collection.’”

Their focus on technology also enables the Cooper Hewitt to analyze and interpret data on, and in turn enhance, the visitor experience. For example, they’ve discovered that people spend between 15 to 20 minutes out of the typical two-hour trip to the museum at the digital tables. Data like this, as well as analysis of the most popular objects, has begun to inform exhibition design and curatorial practice.

Looking Ahead

So what’s next? For Ciecko, the future may include adapting Cuseum’s technology to “art fairs, biennials, galleries, cultural districts, all kinds of public attractions related to arts, history, corporate art collections. There’s so many different avenues we could take.”

Photo courtesy of the Cooper Hewitt

Other institutions are following the Cooper Hewitt’s lead and moving forward with their own plans for digital immersion both online and on site. The Museum of Modern Art in New York recently announced it would be digitizing its entire holdings, including exhibition records from 1929.

The Google Cultural Institute project partners with more than 1,000 institutions from 70 countries on one platform for artworks, manuscripts, and archival documents. Google has assisted places like the Academy of Natural Science of Drexel University and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation in providing quality images of their collections along with online interactive experiences for users at home. The Academy of Natural Sciences, for example, has 360 degree videos, fun facts, and tours of their signature exhibits on their page.

In years to come, Walter’s team at the Cooper Hewitt is focused on digitizing and activating the collection and improving user technology. He says, “there are definitely ways to improve the visitor experience of the device itself make it easier to understand, easier to pick up and use, making it more real time. The core idea is to create a way to have a personalized experience in a museum through technology, and that’s really interesting.”