Going Deep with ArtLens and Gallery One

Written by Erin Branham. 

Everyone has heard a lot about the Cleveland Museum of Art’s recent digital media projects, Gallery One and ArtLens. I  chatted with a couple of members of their education and interpretation department to find out a little bit more about how these projects fit into the department’s mission and goals. Here’s what Jennifer Foley, Director of Interpretation, and Seema Rao, Director of Intergenerational Learning, had to say about these innovative education efforts.

Conceiving with and Adapting to New Technology

Jennifer and Seema discussed how the museum engaged in a variety of audience research studies prior to beginning Gallery One and ArtLens.   One key study, a large audience research project in 2009, had a direct impact on the development of these digital media projects. The research revealed that visitors to the galleries were mainly falling into one of two groups: people either wanted a structured experience with a pre-determined path laid out for them, or a self-directed experience. The structured experience folks are the kind who go on tours and use audio guides, and the self-directed experience visitors tend to walk into a gallery, spy an object of interest, walk to it, then to the next one that catches their attention, and the next and so on. Most of us are pretty familiar with these two types of behaviors. I just encountered them myself while testing a game prototype – some people loved the structure a game gave them for experiencing the museum, others didn’t care for the way it interfered with their own exploratory impulses.

ArtLens in action in the CMA galleries

ArtLens in action in the CMA galleries

While talking to educators about their projects, again and again we have run across an interesting aspect of the integration of digital media into museum education work – the way we are all adapting traditional ideas to new platforms. ArtLens grew out of a project to revamp the CMA’s outdated audio tour, in which they were seeking to bring community voices into audio tours, and it was developing alongside the Gallery One project, which had grown out of the idea of creating a space for intergenerational learning and play in the museum. There were many earlier inceptions of what that space might be like.  Eventually it became conceived of as a space where education, technology and design would come together. The goal of this reconceived space would be to have a place where the museum could engage visitors in surprising new ways.  As that idea developed, everyone became involved – curators, education, design, technology, collections management, publications, and audience research. In the end, it was very much a group creation.  As part of the design process for Gallery One, an idea had been floated that there would be some small touch screens near objects. Then the iPad came out, changing the landscape and opening possibilities. The team working on the audio tours had already been thinking of designing an app, and the Gallery One team began thinking about an app – so the two projects came together and ArtLens was born.

The project team then developed ideas to meet the needs of these two visitor behaviors. It was delightful to learn how closely the museum responded to visitor needs.  The ArtLens App has both a tour section featuring predetermined paths through the museum created by museum staff as well as ones designed by other visitors.  But the “Near You Now” section identifies works of art with interpretive content which are near your current location, allowing people who like to wander and explore to find works that intrigue them.

Both of these digital media efforts have been in place for several months now and a huge evaluation project has been going on to gather data about them.  The CMA has an in-house evaluation and audience research team, and they won an IMLS grant to support doing the project. The evaluation plan includes observations, visitor interviews, and audience panels. The final report should be ready early in 2014 and the team will be presenting results at AAM, because we’re all going to want to see that!  In what is becoming standard thinking about projects using digital media, shorthanded as “perpetual beta”, the CMA team is also thinking of the data coming from this evaluation as formative to the next iteration.

Design Thinking in Action

My colleagues and I have been working to incorporate design thinking into our process and, from the sound of things, some of those principles worked very well for the CMA as well. In fact, some of the lessons for K-12 students that is presented in Gallery One focus on Design Thinking.

5 steps of Deisgn Thinking - repeat as necessary

5 steps of Deisgn Thinking – repeat as necessary

While discussing the process of creation for these projects, both Seema and Jennifer said that audience research is really, really key before you begin (I could hear the bolded words when they said it). “Do a really good study of what’s happening with your visitors so that you can engage them.” That’s Empathize – understanding what your visitors feel about their visit. Define would be how they made decisions such as: we want a space that surprises and engages, we want to give visitors control over their visit. Ideate is when you conceive many possibilities of how to reach your goal. So far, most of this is simply the way we all go about our work. But where museums tend to skimp is on the next two steps and the cycling back around to the beginning to go through it all again. The CMA, however, did use prototyping: Caroline Goeser, Director of the department of Education and Interpretation did the first revamp of the audio tour which functioned as a prototype for content that went into ArtLens.

ArtLens allowed the CMA to realize their goal of incorporating community voices.  There is video, audio and slide shows, and content includes interviews with a variety of people – curators, conservators, scholars, and community members.

ArtLens page on Prayer Niche (Mihrab), Iran, Ishfahan, early 1600s, Gift of Katherine Holden Thayer

ArtLens page on Prayer Niche (Mihrab), Iran, Ishfahan, early 1600s, Gift of Katherine Holden Thayer

For instance, for this Persian Prayer Niche (Mihrab), there are four videos attached. Two incorporate a variety of voices, such as an imam from a local mosque, and footage of congregants being called to prayer at their prayer niche, all of which is interlaced with curator interviews. Other interesting interpreters include a plant curator from the Natural history Museum to talk about a painting which brings together lots of plants that don’t really go together, and a ballet instructor to talk about works by Degas.

Gallery One from an Educator’s Point of View

All of the objects in Gallery One are in ArtLens, so the two projects are deeply woven together even as they have different goals and purposes.  Seema put it like this, “ArtLens is an extension of you, it’s a small group device, but Gallery One is a place that congregates people.”  She said lots of school groups are signing up for active learning experiences in Gallery One.  These programs are not quite a studio and not quite a tour, more like a lab experience in the space.  The Intergenerational Learning department offers a math, a science, and three language arts based programs.  Despite frequently expressed concerns across the field about making use of technology for educational purposes in museums, Seema has concluded that “the technology does not negate people – it needs people.” Volunteer Gallery One Hosts report seeing a large number of repeat visitors, something that is substantiated by the museum’s audience research, and more and more families are coming to Gallery One as well.

There are approximately 60 artworks installed in Gallery One. They spoke to hundreds of visitors to determine what they would want.  Again mirroring Design Thinking as it is recommended for use in museums, while outside contractors helped to develop the front-end protocols for gathering this information, staff implemented the interviews. And it was well that they did, for big basic questions emerged from visitors about art work and creativity.  People wanted to know how were art works made, what was happening in the world when it was made, and what was it used for? Staff then used those questions as beginning points and asked themselves how they could create groupings that interest and surprise people? Seema said, “We drew from across the collection.  We’re really well known for an Asian collection, but we have a very broad collection.  We wanted to really draw on all of those things. The curators were incredibly generous and sometimes removed art from their galleries, sometimes giving over very powerful objects to install in Gallery One. Design had a big hand in it as well. Design was an incredible partner and advocate for the space.”

Discussions about the reinstallation and new interpretive strategies fed into the object selection for Gallery One.  This helped to give some parameters to the selection of objects. “We present objects we know people love and that draw high level of return visitors. People have lifelong relationships with these objects and this factored into the choices,“ Seema explained.

Visitors explore connections to the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection

Visitors explore connections to the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection

Then she had some great nuggets of wisdom to share about the practical aspects of running the space.  “Always keep in mind that everything’s going to break.  Assume you’re never getting money again so you have to have multiples of everything, which also means you need storage.  Think of technology as flexible but don’t be tied to the device or the platform. Be tied to the idea. Scale the technology to meet your needs and be sure to spend under what money you have so that you have a cushion to deal with contingencies for when things break. Think about operating costs in terms of opportunities. Scalability is really important. A huge space may not be the thing for your institution; geolocation in an app may not be that important – think about your institution and match your tech projects to your capabilities and resources. Remember that content is king and everything else is just delivery.  There is some technology that really works and some that doesn’t, just like some people are great teachers and some people aren’t.  It’s just another tool. Museums are at the point that they don’t need to allocate specifically for technology just to prove they can, but if technology can serve a need, then it should be used.”

Jennifer added, “I used to work at the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the last several years there’s been an upsurge in the idea of digital humanities, but it’s not real to think about humanities and digital humanities as separate things. Eventually digital will just be part of the way we do the humanities.  It’s the same in museum education.  We’re in a bridge period, but eventually it will be fully incorporated rather than seeing it as something separate. We’re not thinking about it separately.”


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