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The Wired-Up and Wireless Museum

by Jerome Weeks 21 Aug 2008 9:31 AM

KERA radio story: Expanded online story: [UNDER: sounds of museum gallery] At the Dallas Museum of Art, there’s an nkisi nkondi [pronounced en-keesee enkondee]. It’s a wooden statue from the Congo that bristles with iron nails hammered into it. It stands in the Center for Creative Connections, the museum’s new learning center, and there’s a […]


  • KERA radio story:

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[UNDER: sounds of museum gallery]

At the Dallas Museum of Art, there’s an nkisi nkondi [pronounced en-keesee enkondee]. It’s a wooden statue from the Congo that bristles with iron nails hammered into it. It stands in the Center for Creative Connections, the museum’s new learning center, and there’s a touch-screen computer nearby. Laura Olson is a University of Oklahoma student visiting the DMA. As she presses onscreen buttons, up pops background information about the figure, even images of its internal organs.

WEEKS: “Have you tried this one?” [touches screen]

OLSON: “Oh no, I have not. Oh, so that’s the X-ray. Oh, that’s intense.”

What Olson sees isn’t just an X-ray. It’s a glimpse into the DMA’s future.

Art museums are doing what everyone seems to be today – trying to turn digital technology to their advantage. To attract a younger, web-savvy audience, North Texas art museums are offering blogs and podcasts. The Amon Carter Museum ran an online poll of viewers’ favorite artworks; the DMA is hosting a club for members of Flickr, the photo-sharing website.

These aren’t just add-ons or marketing ploys. They can illuminate efforts the public rarely sees. The Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, for instance, has a blog that often documents artworks being installed. We see construction crews manhandling or forklifting giant sculptures into place. The contrast between the pristine galleries and the level of gruntwork going on can be startling — as is seeing art works begin life as dismantled and crated pieces.

Dustin Van Orne, the Modern’s media relations coordinator, says the purpose is to show some of what happens behind-the-scenes.

Installation of Roxy Paine’s Conjoined at the Modern

VAN ORNE: “We felt that if we could help demystify the process and show what exactly goes on to put up an exhibition, it’ll help show how complex and how important what we do here is.”

What the public sees out front in the galleries, of course, is only a fraction of a museum’s entire collection at any one time. And the galleries themselves are only a small portion of the museum’s workspace, with the larger portion devoted to research, preservation, archiving, education and fundraising.

In a different kind of exposure, the Indianapolis Museum of Art startled many in the museum world by putting on its website reports from those backstage areas: real-time data about gift shop revenue, energy consumption, investment income – precisely the kind of information most non-profits try to keep discreet if not completely secret.

The statistical display is called the Dashboard, and this is one part of it:

Dashboard Series: 2008 Contributed Support


Contributed Support

The IMA’s contributed support income as a percentage of the projected budget since January 1, 2008. Currently, the IMA’s support is 28% under its projected income for the 2008-2009 budget period.

Actual contributed income of $1,066,886 divided by budgeted contributed income of $1,476,874 yields 28% under projected income for this budget period.

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Says Maxwell Anderson, the director of the Indianapolis Museum and co-author of The Wired Museum:

ANDERSON: “We think — on our staff and our board of governors — that it’s very important to talk about ourselves in as open a way as possible. What it really allows us to do is make the possibility of relevance of the institution in people’s lives.”

Anderson admits that he wishes some of those statistics on the website were better. But, he argues, the transparency gives the public a richer and more accurate sense of a museum than the crude metric that’s usually the only one applied: how many tickets have been sold. Is today’s museum to be judged, instead, by the average time viewers spend on its website?

Even as Indianapolis throws open many doors to public online examination, other museums have been wrestling with the conundrum of adapting to the freewheeling internet while maintaining their serious reputations. Museums, after all, are in something of a contradictory relationship with the internet: Museums deal in studying, preserving and displaying valuable, often one-of-a-kind objects. The power of these works and the diligence with which the museum treats them grant the institution a degree of authority and importance.

Yet today’s internet is enthusiastically anti-authoritarian and demotic. It also rapidly replicates anything, anywhere, regardless of copyright. As a result, art museums have approached the internet warily for years — even as they often have tried to embrace it.

In Fort Worth, the Kimbell Art Museum is running an online photo contest. The Kimbell calls itself “a byword for quality and importance at the very highest level,” and it’s running a photo contest. With prizes.

But Malcolm Warner, the Kimbell’s acting director, explains that while the web offers new avenues of outreach, it also can offer institutions some flexibility.

WARNER: “In the actual galleries, we want to be very smart and very dignified. In the website, we can be perhaps a bit less relentlessly dignified but we still want to stay smart.”

Tyler Green, the well-regarded blogger of Modern Art Notes, contends that what museums should be doing online is getting their collections out there — making research and study universally accessible. But even this seemingly basic task is a very different matter for, say, the Kimbell, which has 350 artworks, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which has 346,000 — all of them searchable online.

Jessica Heimberg, the DMA’s senior web developer, argues that even just the idea of “getting the collection online” hides some significant issues: What should go online? Should it be only what curators call the “tombstone” information (name of artist, name of work, birth date and death date)? How does that help art students or teachers who know that sort of information already? And what if historians are turning to this particular museum because it has extensive resources in its archives? For that matter, what about sculptures? A single image often doesn’t really reflect a statue’s full achievement. But if you’re going to put up a series of images of it, why not simply offer a video?

And so the floodgates fly open. For some museums like the Indianapolis and the DMA, questions like these have prompted a wholesale re-thinking of the way we experience museums on the web. Anderson calls this “the museum without walls” — or la musee sans murs, Andre Malraux’ description of an art book. (And not to be confused with the MIT storytelling project of the same name.)

The DMA’s ambitious effort in this regard has been called “turning the museum inside out.” It involves, basically, putting almost everything online. The kinds of images and background data that Laura Olson found on that touch screen for that single African figure would be available for all the DMA’s 25,000 items: documents, lectures, donor background, X-rays (if available), timelines, etc. In fact, the Center for Creative Connections is not just ‘the children’s wing.’ It’s part of the DMA’s multi-million dollar research into the different ways that people – art historians, teachers, casual visitors – would handle all of this content. Patrons have different “levels of engagement” — as a DMA-sponsored study put it. So the DMA’s online “Arts Network,” as it’s called, could offer different “channels.”

In effect, as we enter an exhibition, we could pick the “easy listening” channel or the “History Channel,” depending on our need or tolerance for biographical anecdotes, curatorial interpretations, etc. The DMA is already wireless, so to connect to the Arts Network, you would be able to use a laptop, an iPhone, any device that links to the web. This has already been done, more or less, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — but only with the audio tours. You can think of the DMA’s Arts Network as a very elaborate audio tour. With video. And text. And calendars. And interactive responses.

Ted Forbes, the DMA’s multimedia producer, explains how the Arts Network would work in practice:

FORBES: “You’ll be able to go into a gallery, I can turn on my device, and it’ll actually know where I am. So for instance, in this room right here, it would know that I have the Olmec statue and the Frank Gehry chair. And I could get more information on it.”

You could call up a video of critic Susan Sontag, for instance. Or a curator’s blog. Or print out a tour. Or you could type in your own reaction to a particular work. The DMA plans to phase in the Arts Network over the next two years. In developing it, the technology hasn’t been the issue (it doesn’t matter much what gizmo you’re likely to use). The real difficulty has been in organizing all of the resources, the archived video tapes and correspondence and curatorial lectures and provenance background, and finding a way for all this information to flow from every department in the museum.

So — in a fairly short time, much of what the DMA has in its galleries and archives will be available to anyone online. In which case, why would people visit the museum at all? The virtual world trumps the real world.

Actually, studies of museum visitors indicate the reverse: The more people know, the more they want to see. And we shouldn’t discount the power of the rare, the authentic, the singular to draw an audience. Nothing digital replaces a direct encounter with a particular artwork. Ultimately, that’s what all of these digital efforts are for: increased foot traffic and increased understanding.

To illustrate this point, Heimberg tells the story of a schoolgirl who, on a recent visit to the Center for Creative Connections, became fascinated by a golden wreath from ancient Greece that she saw on a DMA computer screen.


Wreath, gold, Greece, 4th century B.C.

HEIMBERG: “One of the teachers stuck her head around. And she said, you know, it’s just around the corner. Bang, up out of the chair, out of the room, went to go look at it. To me, that’s a perfect demonstration.

Why wouldn’t you want to see it in person?”

  • What we are not talking about is what the online audience would like. That should be part of the mix too.

  • Jessica Heimberg

    Excellent comment — and we are indeed very interested in what the online audience wants. In fact we just wrapped up the first of several planned studies with Randi Korn and Associates of about 1000 online users and will be publishing the result soon. One of the primary goals of the Arts Network is to build a system (both physical and business) agile enough to be able to quickly respond to our users’ preferences for programming and delivery method. We also want to be able to experiment easily – in my mind the best part of the whole thing 🙂