Of Pixels and Paintings: Gallery One, ArtLens and the Role of Technology in Museums

Twice now, Google Art Project -- an effort by Google to photograph and share, via the Internet, many of the world's great pieces of art from many of the world's great museums -- has asked to have access to the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

By any measure, the collection housed within the Cleveland Museum of Art belongs in any catalog of the world's great treasures.

And yet, both times, we have declined Google's offer.


The answer is not that I am opposed to technology on principle. I'm opposed to how the art world has previously put technology to use in practice. For me, questions about technology go to a fundamental question facing the art world today: why do museums matter?

I believe the answer is simple: Only at a museum can people truly engage with art. The experience of standing in front of a sculpture or mosaic or tapestry or painting can never be replaced by a digital image on a computer screen. No matter how many museums Google Art maps, art viewed on a screen is, quite literally, an experience without true depth.

But that doesn't mean that technology has no place in a museum -- or in our engagement with art.

In fact, at the Cleveland Museum of Art, we've just unveiled the most technologically advanced interactive art experience in the world.

Since January 21, visitors to the Museum have been greeted by Gallery One. The result of five years of work and a $10 million investment, Gallery One is a unique interactive space that is both a breathtaking artistic experience on its own terms and a groundbreaking technological portal to our collection. See more here.

The signature element of Gallery One is a 40-foot long Collection Wall. The wall, the largest multi-touch microtile screen in the United States, displays nearly 4,000 objects from the Museum's collection - that is, every object on view in the museum.

Visitors to the museum can walk up to the wall and tap a high-resolution photo of any piece that captures their attention. This brings up information about the artist, examples of similar works, works from other artists and other eras on similar subjects, and much more.

In this way, the Collection Wall isn't a miniaturization, encapsulation, or substitution for our collection. It's a portal into it. Because another tap on the Collection Wall allows museumgoers to add the piece to a customized iPad "playlist" of works they'd like to find and view in the galleries.

This allows our guests to create their own guided tours based on their own interests. Or they can choose one assembled by a friend, a member of our staff, a stranger, or even me.

The app that makes this possible is called ArtLens, and it's downloadable free on the iTunes store. Accompanied by ArtLens, our visitors can carry the interactivity of Gallery One with them throughout the museum.

From any spot in the museum, ArtLens can track your location and tell you what you're viewing. Museum visitors can choose to add as much, or as little, extra content to their experience as they wish.

In addition, Gallery One has interactive activities in which visitors can "remix" one of our Picasso paintings, Still Life with Biscuits, model themselves as The Age of Bronze, one of our sculptures by Rodin, match line and form with Canova's Terpsichore Lyran (Muse of Lyric Poetry), or enter a small gallery that focuses intently on one piece of art in our collection from many different angles.

As a museum director, one of the elements of this technology that has me so excited is that it allows me to ultimately consider removing text and explanations from the walls of the museum, while providing much more information to museum goers who seek it out. The iPad is the new text panel, which means the art can speak for itself.

This means that visitors' experience of the art begins with the art on its own terms. Then, inspired by the emotional experience, they can use ArtLens to have the intellectual experience of learning about the piece, its origins, its creator, and its context.

The technology is stunning. But no matter how stunning the technology, a visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art is about the art.

Which brings me back to my original premise: museums matter because authenticity matters -- and because art matters.

As a home for engagement with art, museums should resist technologies that flatten and trivialize that engagement.

But we must embrace technologies that facilitate, deepen, and expand access to it.

Gallery One and ArtLens are tools to do just that. The Cleveland Museum of Art is proud to take this step toward expanding and enriching the possibilities for engagement with art. I invite you to come see it for yourself.

David Franklin is the director of the Cleveland Museum of Art.