Museum 2.0: High-Tech Gadgetry

The MFA goes high-tech to grab the attention of visitors.

Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

When you spend 18 months restoring a masterpiece—as the Museum of Fine Arts recently did with Gerrit van Honthorst’s dramatic 1636 work The Triumph of the Winter Queen—you want people to ponder it for more than a few seconds. Which is why when the restoration of Triumph was finally finished, the MFA created what amounts to a small theater, in which visitors are presented with a multimedia spectacle devoted to the work.

The whole thing—which lasts nine minutes, and is on display through July—feels a bit like the art world’s answer to a theme-park attraction. A recorded narrator tells the story of the painting and its historical characters. Movie screens on either side of the massive work provide maps and other visuals. And spotlights shine on particular areas of the piece as the narrator addresses them. As a result, visitors who might have only glanced at the picture before will now spend a lot more time getting to know it.

This isn’t happening just at the MFA. Art museums around the country these days are turning to high-tech gadgetry, not to distract visitors but to better focus their attention on the art. “What we’re always trying to do,” says Barbara Martin, the curator of education at the Museum of Fine Arts, “is slow people down. Technology is one tool to do that.”

By all accounts, the museum that’s leading the way in this regard is the Cleveland Museum of Art. Among the innovations introduced there just this year: Visitors can consult a 40-foot-wide touchscreen wall in the lobby, tap on any work in the museum, and receive a suggestion for a tour of similar works. Looking into a camera, they can scan their own face and receive recommendations of works featuring people with similar-looking facial expressions. And they can hold an iPad equipped with the museum’s app up to a piece of art in front of them, and the screen will display pop-up captions.

The MFA has nothing so dramatic as Cleveland’s giant touchscreen wall. But it’s moving in that direction. See, for instance, a screen in the Ancient Coin Gallery that allows users to design their own coins, choosing from materials and motifs represented among the pieces housed in the cases nearby. Or toy with a large touchscreen table in the Art of the Americas Wing that lets users create works in the style of several modern American painters. Both exhibits were designed with the help of local technology firms. And with Boston providing a home to so much great art and tech firepower, that’s the kind of collaboration we’d love to see more of.