What’s the point? Two case studies of introducing digital in-gallery experiences
AbstractStaff members from the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) and the Phillips Collection address the challenges, successes, surprises, and triumphs of digital in-gallery experiences by sharing the implementation of the same digital self-portrait app for two Neo-Impressionism exhibitions. The authors seek to provide approaches to the challenge of introducing technology in art museum galleries. The discussion furnishes real-world examples of how a museum, regardless of size or available resources, can experiment with engaging its visitors through emerging and well-explored technologies. The progressive integration of technology in the galleries at the IMA is the result of the implementation of a new visitor-centered exhibition-development model that has been in place for over a year with the support of the upper management (top-down model). At the core of this new approach, whose objective is to increase visitors’ engagement with art, is the key role that interpretation specialists and evaluators play in the exhibition-development process. The integration of these staff into a team-based method for development has resulted in a more consistent and strategic use of technology-based interpretive tools, demonstrated most recently in an in-gallery app, Pointillize Yourself. The Phillips Collection, lacking resources and experience with large-scale projects, implemented a grassroots, bottom-up model. First, the Phillips tested small, one-off, in-gallery activities at public programs to gauge audience interest and staff capacity. Then, building on successes and learning from experiences, they implemented larger and longer-term projects. Throughout the process, informal evaluation and user testing provided important feedback for development. Meanwhile, internal shifts in mission and goals refined interdepartmental working groups. These experiments with technology culminated in the implementation of the #NeoImpressed app, a modified version of IMA’s Pointillize Yourself.
Keywords: digital, exhibitions, hands-on engagement, prototype, mobile, in-gallery interactive
Successfully implementing participatory in-gallery experiences using technology often poses challenges, regardless of museum size. In 2014, the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), a large regional art museum in Indiana with a wide-ranging collection, and The Phillips Collection, a small private modern and contemporary art museum in Washington, D.C., each organized a separate Neo-Impressionism exhibition. While different exhibitions, each museum implemented the same digital self-portrait app in different iterations: Pointillize Yourself at the IMA and #NeoImpressed at the Phillips While the basic experience for the visitor was similar, each museum executed the in-gallery digital experiences in different ways. The Indianapolis Museum used a top-down approach, building on a new exhibition development model that stimulates the implementation of in-gallery technological experiences. The Phillips’s use of the app organically expanded on existing projects and structures. By examining each process in detail, museums of all sizes can find suggestions and cautions of how best to implement technology-based participatory experiences in their galleries.
2. The Indianapolis Museum of Art
In an effort to fulfill its mission of developing new audiences and engaging visitors in innovative ways, the Indianapolis Museum of Art has recently undertaken a significant shift toward becoming a more visitor-centric institution. Key to this approach is the implementation of a more collaborative exhibition development process, which is mainly based on existing practices outside of art museums. Requested by the IMA’s upper management, the model ensures that exhibitions are accessible to visitors (including those who have little or no previous knowledge of art or art history), that audience engagement with artworks and the institution is supported, and that ultimately, in the hope of increasing repeat visitation and attracting new audiences, visitor satisfaction is guaranteed.
Until about two years ago, exhibition development was very much an individual process, centered around the curator, who would come up with the idea, select the objects, create the content, and decide the layout. Only at later stages would the curator work with designers and eventually interpretation specialists on aspects related to the layout and what they hoped visitors would learn from the experience.
Today, the exhibition team (called the “core team,” which includes a curator, an interpretation specialist, an evaluator, a designer, and an exhibition manager) convenes in the early stages of the exhibition-development process, when the idea is still in its infancy, and works as a group to identify the exhibition’s main thesis (i.e., big idea) and learning outcomes, which are then tested with visitors through formative evaluation. Once refined, these are then used by the core team to develop an interpretive plan, which maps the identified outcomes with the various analog and digital interpretive tools that will be used to tell the story. The learning outcomes are also taken into consideration by the team when creating the gallery design and layout, finalizing the object checklist, and developing public programs, thus ensuring that the many elements of the exhibition are strategically chosen, cohesive, and well integrated.
Another key aspect of the new exhibition-development model is evaluation, which is carried out at different stages of the process. Feedback is collected from visitors and sometimes also non-visitors to test the initial concept for the exhibition, refine the big idea and learning outcomes, and gauge people’s preference for branding and marketing material. Concepts for hands-on and participatory activities are also tested, along with prototypes, wireframes, and designs, to guarantee that the final product is intuitive and easy to use.
The implementation of this process, which has thus far been applied to four exhibitions, with seven others currently in development, has already resulted in a number of positive outcomes, including higher attendance and higher visitor satisfaction levels, as well as better communication of key messages (Filippini Fantoni, 2014). Another benefit brought about by the new model is the development and integration of interpretive tools into permanent exhibitions. In addition to traditional labels and wall text, the visitor experience is enhanced with mobile guides, visual didactics, videos, iPads, and hands-on and participatory experiences. As a result of the new exhibition-development process, not only have the number of interpretive tools and participatory experiences increased, but they are also easier to use and better integrated into the exhibition (both conceptually and physically), thus resulting in high take-up rates (Filippini Fantoni et al., 2014).
Developing Pointillize Yourself
Using the new exhibition development approach and building on the lessons learned from the implementation of previous analog and digital experiences, the IMA created a new participatory application for the exhibition Face to Face: The Neo-Impressionist Portrait 1886–1904 (June–September 2014), which explored the relatively unknown realm of pointillist portraiture. The application, Pointillize Yourself, allows visitors to use the interface on an iPad to take a “selfie” (figure 1); apply a pointillist filter; select small, medium, or large dots (figure 2); adjust tint, temperature, and saturation (figure 3); add a digital signature (figure 4); and then share the finished portrait via e-mail or Facebook (figure 5).
The app, created in cooperation with local software development company E-gineering, was made available on two iPad kiosks installed in one of the exhibition galleries. Using Lilitab cases (http://www.lilitab.com/) with a hole for the camera, the iPads were mounted on tables (figures 6 and 7), and visitors were invited to sit on stools to use the app. The completed self-portraits were also projected outside the exhibition; visitors were often observed waiting to see their photo appear or taking photos of themselves standing in front of their self-portrait (figure 8).
The application, which is in line with the IMA goals of engaging visitors in innovative ways and creating entertaining and playful experiences, was developed for visitors of all ages, including those with limited technology exposure (which includes the majority of our paid exhibition visitors). While we hoped that the interaction with the app would reinforce some of what the visitors had observed and learned in the exhibition, the main objective was not educational. The application was developed mainly to support social interaction among visitors (since socializing is one of the top reasons why people visit our exhibitions), provide visitors with a digital souvenir of their museum experience (which can be useful in cementing relationships with the IMA and serve as a promotional tool for the exhibition), and promote a positive attitude toward the museum as an engaging institution that provides learning as well as playful experiences.
Despite some initial resistance from the exhibition curator who was concerned about the lack of educational objectives and the fact that the app would give visitors the wrong impression about the way pointillist artists worked, thanks to the core team approach, which includes multiple voices in the decision-making process as well as support from the upper management, we were able to move forward with the app. Following the principles of the new exhibition development process, the app was tested multiple times during the course of the project with modifications made at each step. This testing helped to progressively simplify the final product and ultimately make it more intuitive and easier to use.
Evaluation results and lesson learned
The team-based and visitor-centered approach used to develop the exhibition and the Pointillize Yourself app, along with lessons from previous participatory experiences, likely contributed to its success. We evaluated the exhibition and its related interpretive tools to determine who used the app, how they engaged with it, and what they thought of it. Visitor feedback was collected through the exhibition survey (777 responses, margin of error: 3.45 percent) and thirty post-visit interviews—both the survey and interviews included questions about the app—as well as through Google Analytics.
Approximately nine-thousand self-portraits were shared during the course of the exhibition. Based on Google Analytics data, the number of people that created a self-portrait but decided not to share it corresponds to about 34 percent of app users, which means an estimated thirteen thousand portraits were created. This is in line with the survey results, which indicate that 61 percent of visitors used the app, making this the most successful participatory tool the museum has ever developed for an exhibition. Previous participatory experiences both analog and digital have had take-up rates ranging from 22 percent to 40 percent. The level of participation with Pointillize Yourself was also higher than some of the other interpretive experiences developed for the exhibition (table 1).
People of all ages interacted with the app (table 2), including a high percentage of visitors aged 45 years or above, which normally represents the majority of our special exhibition audience. The app was also used by visitors in different social contexts: alone (19 percent), with another or other adults (59 percent), and with children (12 percent—child visitation of our temporary exhibitions is usually around 10 percent). This indicates that we met our objective of serving different age groups and supporting interaction between visitors (outcome 1), as confirmed by the high percentage of facilitators—people who want to share quality time with family/friends in an educationally supportive environment (Falk, 2009)—among app users.
Compared to exhibition visitors that did not use the app, Pointillize Yourself users were more likely to be younger, visitors with children, non-members, and first-time visitors. This result is in line with data collected for other participatory experiences, indicating that even if used by various age groups, these tools can be particularly effective in engaging younger audiences and families with children.
The main reason provided by exhibition visitors for not using the app was the fact that there was a line of people waiting to participate (29 percent), followed by the preference to “just focus on the art” (27 percent) and lack of time (20 percent). This data helps to confirm the popularity of the app and the need to provide more stations for this type of activity in the future.
Visitor satisfaction with the activity was very high (4.73 out of 5 among those that used the app), as evidenced in the high number of favorable comments. When we asked in the survey what people thought about the museum offering this type of activity, we obtained 463 responses, of which 447 were positive. The majority of the comments (265) were very general, indicating that the app is “great,” “fabulous,” “fun,” and “easy to use.” Visitors appreciated in particular the interactive nature of the experience (51). One visitor noted, “[The app] made the exhibit interactive and personal and the technology keeps it current.” While some commented on how the app was suitable for all ages (“It was really fun. Good for all learning and interest levels. Makes content accessible, but can skip over it if not interested in the activity”), others noted its particular suitability for children (“I love it! My children won’t leave, they are 9 and 11 and they want to stay until closing because of activities like this,” and “I believe that providing guests, especially parents with children with interactive opportunities to create their own Neo-Impressionist portrait is a unique method to cultivate enthusiasm for the subject.”).
Even though the objective of the application was not educational per se, we received a number of comments (34) indicating that users had learned something from their experience—from understanding “how color theory works in practice” to the “blending of colors.” A few visitors also commented on how the app offered a good opportunity for “experiential learning.”
Despite a few negative observations (21 total), including the wish for more choices on the app (5) and more stations (5), the overwhelmingly positive feedback indicates that we were able to meet our institutional objective of helping visitors develop a positive attitude toward the museum as a more “engaging” institution (outcome 2). The app was also useful in serving as a promotional tool for the exhibition (outcome 3), as seen by the number of comments reflecting positively on the opportunity to create and share a souvenir of the experience (42 total). This was further confirmed by the fact that 16 percent of those who chose to share their portrait decided to do so via Facebook (4 percent of the total app users), thus promoting the app and the exhibition on their pages. This percentage, however, was lower than anticipated. Considering the challenges associated with setting up the Facebook API, we have decided not to include this step in future iterations.
Given the popularity of the app and the positive feedback—especially about its suitability for a young audience—we decided to install it in one of our family activity spaces after the exhibition closed. Since its installation two months ago, an additional 1,600 self-portraits have been shared. This year, we plan to install the app in the Neo-Impressionism galleries, together with a number of other interpretive tools that were developed for the exhibition. This move is part of a deliberate strategy that the museum has recently adopted of developing interpretive tools for temporary exhibitions and eventually integrating them into the permanent collection. This approach not only helps reduce costs, since the same equipment and content is reused, but also guarantees that longer-term installations in the permanent galleries will be refreshed with content that has been tested and proven successful.
3. The Phillips Collection
The Phillips Collection’s mission of being “an intimate museum combined with an experiment station” (Phillips, 1926) has long provided a foundation in programming and exhibition development for the institution. Recently, a new strategic plan emphasizing public engagement infused this mission with urgency and an opportunity to introduce in-gallery participatory experiences for visitors using technology—one of these was the app #NeoImpressed. In examining what led to the successful implementation of the app, an arc of development traced back to smaller experiments of using technology in the galleries, as well as structures and programs that already existed. The Phillips’s path may help other small organizations wary of taking on ambitious, technology-based in-gallery projects find manageable points of entry into this area.
Early in-gallery digital experiments
Before diving into long-term in-gallery technology-based programs, the Phillips created one-time events to gauge visitor interest and begin building staff capacity. The museum’s monthly after-hours event, Phillips after 5, provided an excellent opportunity for such experiments. Phillips after 5, with its lively mix of art, entertainment, music, and food and drink, draws a varied crowd that typically includes a large young-professional sect and others eager to try new things.
Early in-gallery digital experiments utilized social-media platforms and analogue hands-on creative activities. During a Phillips after 5 inspired by the exhibition Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Sculptures (September 2012–January 2013), attendees crafted small LEGO sculptures inspired by Kirkeby’s artworks, then shared these creations on Instagram for a chance to win prizes (figure 9). The event proved popular, with 139 participants of all ages and 81 Instagram submissions (compared to other non-digital Phillips after 5 participatory activities that usually draw 50 to 80 participants). Another Instagram contest encouraged visitors to arrange provided fruits, vegetables, and other props to create their own still-lifes in conjunction with the exhibition Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928–1945 (June–August 2013). This activity expanded from a “bring your own device” approach to offering iPods loaded with the Phillips’s Instagram account for those who wanted to participate but did not have their own accounts, and resulted in 120 participants and 50 submissions.
The Phillips then moved beyond the social-media and contest-based model. Using Phillips’s iPads loaded with a LiteBrite-inspired app purchased from the iTunes store, participants created their own works of art based on masterworks at the Phillips (figure 10). Even without the possibility of winning a prize, there were 150 submissions and a waiting list for the iPads throughout the three-hour event.
These one-time, event-based experiments demonstrated that visitors were interested in using technology in the galleries to connect with the art. Furthermore, the low-risk, single-event programs gave Phillips staff a greater comfort level with new technologies. It allowed staff to learn about mobile devices, apps, hardware components, and other software needs, providing a foundation to expand into more complicated and long-term projects.
The first of these long-term projects was uCurate, launched in conjunction with the exhibition Made in the USA: American Masters from The Phillips Collection (March–August 2014). uCurate, adapted from a program originally developed for use at The Clark Art Institute (http://remix.apps.clarkart.edu/#uCurate), allowed visitors to explore the role of the curator either on site in the galleries via touchscreens or on the Phillips website (http://www.phillipscollection.org/ucurate). Users created virtual exhibitions by picking wall colors, selecting art to display, and drafting wall text and a title (figures 11 and 12). uCurate received 407 submissions over the six-month run of the exhibition.
The project provided many lessons learned. While visitors were engaged with the program, this engagement did not necessarily translate to completing and submitting an exhibition; future projects should be less time intensive and involve fewer steps to encourage user completion. Also, because uCurate was a fully designed program, the only tailoring to Made in the USA we could do was to load it with art from the exhibition; future iterations should be more in line with exhibition themes and goals.
The most important outcome from uCurate, though, was the informal team of staff that emerged to shepherd the creation and implementation of the experience. Communications, IT, education, and curatorial staff collaborated on the project in an ad hoc way. After the completion of uCurate, it became clear that each stakeholder should be involved from the beginning of projects to ensure all perspectives are considered and tasks appropriately assigned.
For the exhibition Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities: Painting, Poetry, Music (September 2014–January 2015), this informal team came together with a goal of developing an in-gallery digital experience for visitors to explore key themes of the exhibition. The exhibition focused on the Neo-Impressionists’ use of color, light, and pointillism to transform reality and evoke certain moods or emotional experiences. The team deduced that the best way to illustrate this theme would be through a creative experience that allows users to pointillize a photo, adjust elements like color, tint, and tone to suggest a certain mood, and finally share their creation. But where to begin!
Since the museum had had success with other ready-made apps, the team started with the Apple app store and discovered a mobile app called Seurat Yourself, which pointillizes photos from the user’s photo library. The Phillips reached out to the app developer, who was eager to collaborate, and discussions began about creating a new app.
However, around the same time, the museum learned about the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s exhibition of Neo-Impressionist portraits and their in-gallery app, Pointillize Yourself. An initial conversation with the IMA proved promising, as their app included nearly all of the features the Phillips sought. In addition, the IMA app had been user tested and had months of in-gallery use to work out bugs. Perhaps most significantly, collaborating with the IMA would provide the Phillips a chance to benefit from the larger museum’s long and dynamic history of in-gallery digital experiences.
The user experience with #NeoImpressed was very similar to that of Pointillize Yourself: the user takes a selfie, applies a pointillist filter, adjusts dot size and color elements, adds a digital signature, and shares the portrait via e-mail. The completed photos were also displayed, but on a monitor directly in the interpretive space.
The IMA Lab at the Indianapolis Museum of Art graciously made a few changes to the app to fit the look and feel of the Phillips exhibition, including loading a new homepage, title, and colors. Adjustments were also made to the in-gallery setup to better realize the exhibition themes; while the IMA exhibition was focused on portraits, the Phillips exhibition consisted mostly of dreamy landscapes. Instead of sitting in front of an iPad like at the IMA, Phillips visitors stepped between an iPad and an enlarged wall mural of the Washington Monument (figure 13). The countdown to the camera clicking after hitting the “take photo” button was lengthened from three to five seconds so that users had time to step away from the kiosk and integrate themselves into the background (figure 14). The resulting creations deviated from the IMA submissions, with more full-body portraits that often included groups, gestures, and poses (figures 15, 16, 17, and 18).
The #NeoImpressed app proved a popular element of the exhibition. During the eighty-eight days of the exhibition, the app received 6,752 submissions, with 15 percent of the 42,217 exhibition attendees completing a portrait. In addition, there were 919,461 impressions generated from 191 users on social media via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
The implementation process of #NeoImpressed at the Phillips, even with the IMA’s support and experience, provided a number of lessons learned that will inform future technology-based projects.
While members of the informal interpretation team were on board with the app conceptually, conflict inevitably arose. It was important to remember that, despite the differing priorities of the staff members, everyone had the same goal of success for the project and the exhibition, and compromises had to be made. For example, a key element to #NeoImpressed was the Washington Monument backdrop. The education team envisioned this blown-up photograph to be visible from the exhibition galleries to entice visitors into the space, especially since the space is slightly set off from the main galleries. The curator, however, worried that making the large vibrant image too prominent would distract from the art in the exhibition. To compromise, the landscape was shifted to a wall that was not directly visible from the exhibition galleries, but the iPad stand and visitors using it would be, drawing curious people to the space.
Since this was the first time the Phillips had installed an in-gallery app, there were many hardware elements staff had never encountered before. Determining which iPad stand would best suit the installation required several rounds of purchasing, testing, and returning. Other issues such as power-chord length, user-screen manipulation, and accessibility also became evident. While some problems were solved with ingenuity from the installation staff, others required overnight shipping, e-mails to professional list-servs for advice, and reprogramming by our IMA Lab partners. Even when the app was live, small adjustments had to be made throughout the run of the exhibition. We learned that we have to build in more time for installation and user-testing—even with a ready-made app—and involve installation staff earlier on in the project.
Evaluation and measuring success
Because #NeoImpressed was one of the museum’s first significant in-gallery participatory activities, measuring its success was important to building momentum for future projects. Unfortunately, the Phillips doesn’t have a formal long-term interpretative plan, history of evaluating digital projects, or evaluation staff.
Inspired by the IMA’s evaluation methods, the Phillips implemented a modest interview evaluation to better understand how visitors were using the app and to gather opinions about the project. Education staff members stood near the space where the iPad stand was installed and randomly approached visitors after they had completed using the app. They asked: “What can you tell me about using the app?” “Would you participate in something like this in the future? Why or why not?” “Do you think museums should offer participatory experiences like this? Why or why not?”
The results confirmed the success of the app: 92 percent of those interviewed said they would do something similar in the future and thought that museums should offer experiences like it. Overwhelmingly, visitors described the experience as “fun,” “easy,” and “not overdone.” It is important to note, though, that due to limited resources, the Phillips was only able to interview thirteen people over the course of the exhibition.
The interviews also provided feedback as to what future technology-based interpretative experiences should look like. One visitor noted that when a museum offers an experience like #NeoImpressed, it should be done “sparingly,” saying, “I don’t want to be bombarded because I come to museums to get away from these experiences.” Many visitors emphasized the ease of use and simplicity of the app, indicating that future experiences should also be as easy to understand to remain fun for the visitor.
Another way to evaluate the success of #NeoImpressed is to consider the rigor of the project and whether it connected and demonstrated themes from the exhibition. We knew that we would have to prove this success to our curatorial team and museum director, though it would be hard to measure. Some feedback from our evaluation did reflect visitor understanding, with users mentioning how the app “helps you understand the [pointillism] technique” and that it “looped in what we were doing to the exhibition.” Social media also provided indicators of engagement. One visitor commented on the museum’s Facebook page about the impact of the app during her family’s visit: “After visiting, someone asks our 11-year-old what she did this weekend. ‘Well, we went to The Phillips Collection and looked at Neo-Impressionist art. Then they had this iPad—so we took pictures and experimented with Neo-Impressionism. We have some images that I can share with you.’ Well done, Phillips, well done.”
While both Pointillize Yourself and #NeoImpressed provide examples of technology-based participatory experiences in galleries, neither should be viewed as a “how-to” model. Instead, they should be considered as a spectrum of what structures for implementation might look like. The Phillips, using a ground-up model building on existing structures and programs, will use #NeoImpressed as a springboard for future programs. The Indianapolis Museum of Art sees the success of Pointillize Yourself as an indicator of what a team-based and visitor-centered interpretive approach can achieve. When comparing our methods and outcomes, it becomes clear that while experimentation and iteration may be necessary for small museums to get started with projects like these, ultimately, long-term success necessitates a formal strategy. Putting staff, structures, and support in place from the beginning to develop and implement in-gallery technology-based projects ensures their integration into the process and life of a museum and therefore the best experience for the visitor.
Falk, J. (2009). Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
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. "What’s the point? Two case studies of introducing digital in-gallery experiences." MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published January 30, 2015. Consulted .