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Art Museum Interactivity

To our delight, The Davis LAB opened on the first gallery level of the IMA Saturday. (To learn more about the LAB, read Daniel’s most recent post.) From my opening-day-experience, I found that a wide range of museum visitors were drawn into the space, tempted by the shiny touchscreens or the cool pseudoscience, atomic age design and lighting. My favorite comments from the day included a little boy who was squeezed into a chair with his older sister watching live ArtBabble projected in HD on the wall.

“This is really cool,” he said timidly, referring to the space. Daniel showed him the new animated trailer for ArtBabble, to which he replied, “That was not cool…I mean that was not long enough.” 

Another visitor asked if he could take a nap in the corner because he found the furniture and atmosphere so relaxing. It was a pleasure to watch kids, teens, parents and docents use the computers and ArtBabble video Web site as tools for learning and for fun.

img_5679This leads me to a larger question I’ve been asking myself (and some of you): What are the pros and cons of interactive games in art museums, and how far should we go with the concept? The Davis LAB doesn’t include games per se, but getting on a computer and exploring ArtBabble is, like a game, a lot of fun. For the purpose of this post, I’ll classify interactivity as anything from paper scavenger hunts to computer kiosks in the galleries. All these activities turn upside down the traditional museum experience of walking through galleries and looking at the art on the walls with an element of relational interactivity between the visitor and the art.

NPR recently explored the topic in a piece called “Interactive Games Make Museums a Play to Play”, by Elizabeth Blair, which highlighted the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Luce Foundation Center for an alternative reality game they created. A teacher I know testified that interactive games in museums prompted her students to look more closely at the artwork. NPR noted happiness, clear instructions, feedback, shared experience and being part of something bigger as benefits to interactivity.

I wonder if some museum visitors find interactive games disruptive or cause them to focus less on the physical art as they attempt to check off a work they just found through the interactive game and rush off to the next masterpiece. Should museums use interactive technology like video or audio tours as a revenue generator at the risk of taking attention away from the physical piece of art? Or is it our duty as museum professionals to ensure that the technology only enhances the connection? Are games a marketing tool to woo new audiences to art, or are they the future of art? I have heard the argument that “high brow” art clashes with “low brow” games. Do we need to be entertained at an art museum by something else, or do we go to let the art entertain us?

Filed under: Education, Marketing, Musings, New Media, Technology

7 Responses to “Art Museum Interactivity”

  • avatar
    Daniel Says:

    The digital content experienced in a museum setting should focus on building a better connection to actual work of art. If the IMA were ever to develop an interactive game or multimedia guide, that would be the driving theory behind all of the content development. But, when you consider the delivery of online content, it’s completely different. Of course we would rather someone come and experience the new Robert Irwin installation in person, but we also have an opportunity through web delivery to reach people all over the world and spread the stories of art and artists. Someone in another country can hear directly from Robert Irwin regarding the installation, his career and so on. IMA’s focus has been on this approach to the visitor experience.

  • avatar
    Ed Says:

    Noelle, you may have inspired a future post. For now, though, I’ll just say that I agree with Daniel. Part of the beauty of a great educational game is the integration of engagement and enlightenment. When we do develop such experiences, it will be our intent to strike a good balance between achieving educational goals and offering an opportunity for exciting, engaging, and perhaps novel interactions.

  • avatar
    Despi Says:

    Great post, Noelle! An interesting topic!

    I love interactives, mostly because I have worked on some. But I am also quite a traditionalist when it comes to my own art viewing. I like to look, getting closer than the gallery attendants might like, and really inspect things. Then I peruse labels to see if there is anything good for me there…then if I happen upon a kiosk or a video I poke around, but I like the option of my art-viewing experience being uninterrupted. I think that is what makes technology such a versatile option. I can bring my iPod with a video or audio guide and not bother anyone. Similarly, the Davis LAB is a fun place to be and explore in a different way, separate from art-viewing.

    But, I am not such a typical museum visitor…I think many people, especially kids, would really rather have something to focus their visit. What is most “important”, what should I absolutely see before I leave…stuff like that.

    I think finding a way for the differing styles to coexist is the biggest challenge.

  • avatar

    I don’t think it has to be a choice between ‘interactive technology’ and the ‘traditional museum experience’. People are different and ‘change every day’ as the octogenarian choreographer, Merce Cunningham, said last year when asked why he had incorporated the iPod shuffle into his ‘eyeSpace’ performance ( some days I might want a more solitary and passive experience, just soaking up the art in the museum; on others I might want to engage more actively and play a game with my companions that helps me discover things I might not have otherwise have found.
    And interactivity, as you rightly point out, does not have to be technology-driven. I love Tate Britain’s paper brochures that suggest 10-object tours of the collection on various themes: the ‘I haven’t been here in ages’ tour and the ‘I come here all the time’ tour; the ‘I’ve got a hang over tour’ and the ‘I’ve just broken up’ tour; the yellow tour and the funny faces tour… – they all recognize how complex and mercurial we are as individuals, not just as demographics. Because the focus is on the content and visitor experience, the technology becomes invisible (until, of course, I want to share them with you, and am then frustrated that they aren’t online!).
    But that said, I am incredibly excited by what I have seen happening in the American Art Museum with the ‘Ghosts of a Chance’ game. (Detailed summary available at Every time people play the game, they transform our museum from Acropolis – that remote, forbidding treasury of precious objects – to Agora, a space of community, encounter and exchange (and thanks to Steven Zucker of for that analogy!). In a world that is increasingly networked and collaborative in the production of knowledge, museums can play a valuable role in creating platforms for and ‘curating’ the conversation around their collections. I personally think this is as essential to fulfilling our educational missions and ensuring our survival as relevant institutions as safeguarding and expanding our collections. As Colleen Macklin from Parsons said in the Smithsonian 2.0 conference (, we must not be stingy. Hoarders and walled gardens will find themselves as isolated and forgotten as remote islands in the digital ocean.
    On which note, it’s great to see your Davis LAB is open and so successful as a forum that it is already needing more chairs! Congratulations!

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