10 September 2015

Access In Museums: A Research Project in 6 Parts (Part 5)


Beyond looking at what museums have done in the past and present moment, it is crucial to look toward the future of access in museums. The 2014 TrendsWatch produced by the Center for the Future of Museums points to new technologies being developed for the explicit purpose of synesthesia, or multisensory museum experiences senses other than sight. Digital scent technologies will soon be entering the market in the form of scents that will be transportable using texting and Bluetooth technology, as well as the creation of the Smell Screen, an LCD screen that releases a scent to match the image it is showing.[1] Though it is early in the development phase, researchers at the University of Singapore are currently working on a device called the “digital lollipop” to simulate taste.[2] The 2015 TrendsWatch is pointing to wearable technologies entering museum spaces as a prosthetic attachment to the bodies of visitors. Though this is nothing new when we think of disability, one thought is that as wearable tech becomes more ubiquitous, it may actually destigmatize the use of assistive devices.[3] Googleglass has also been used to expand field of vision for people with vision impairment, and act as a hands-free mediated resource through voice activation. While wearable tech might not be for everyone, and it might not fit smoothly with all disability, it is a trend to look out for in both the day-to-day and the museum space.

Figure 4: The de Young Museum’s Virtually Touring Robot (Video Still Via CBS)
Robotics is also finding its way into the museum. Earlier in 2015, the De Young Museum in San Francisco, California unveiled a new program in which a robot operated remotely will walk visitors who aren’t in the museum on a virtual gallery tour (figure 4). What’s particularly exciting about this robot is that it has a video screen that connects to the webcam of the virtual visitor, offering a real-time engagement tool for the person virtually wandering the galleries.[4] In-person visitors can potentially strike up conversations with the virtual visitor about the works they are simultaneously viewing. These robots were first discussed as a possible museum-tool by Henry Evans, a former Silicon Valley executive who became disabled after suffering a stroke in 2002, and are now fully operational for use in the museum. The program has been deemed successful thus far, and the de Young is hoping to procure more robots for use by visitors who are unable to visit the museum due to a variety of reasons, including disability, financial, and location-based based obstacles. 

Figure 5: Touchable Replica of the Mona Lisa (la Joconde) at the Museo del Prado in Madrid (image via the New York Times)
Another highly discussed museum trend is the introduction of three-dimensional touchable painting reproductions created for the Touching the Prado exhibition, which opened in January of this year (figure 5). For this exhibition, the Prado commissioned the creation of reproductions of six collection favorites, including a copy of the Mona Lisa (made as a study by one of da Vinci’s pupils), and paintings by Goya, Correggio, El Greco, van der Hamen, and Velázquez.[5] This collection of paintings was produced at a studio in Bilbao, Spain, and each reproduction was custom-made using a relief printing technique developed by Estudios Durero, and the cost of $6,680 per painting.[6] These new paintings were created with the specific intent that they would be used by blind and vision impaired visitors as a new way to interact with the predominantly visual collection. While there are still some kinks to work out, particularly with distinguishing the difference between the texture of hair and textiles, this exhibition has been deemed incredibly successful for both sighted and non-sighted visitors, and might predict a turn toward touchable engagement in future museum practice.

[1] Merritt, Elizabeth E. “Synesthesia: Multisensory Experiences for a Multisensory World.” TrendsWatch 2014. 2014. PDF (pg. 19)
[2] Merritt, Elizabeth E. “Synesthesia: Multisensory Experiences for a Multisensory World.” (pg. 19)
[3] Merritt, Elizabeth E. “Wearable Tech: when ‘bring your own device’ means shirt and shoes*.” TrendsWatch 2015. 2015. PDF (pg. 44)
[4] Cascone, Sarah. “Robots Give Virtual Tours of the de Young Museum.” Art Net News. March 2, 2015. Web 4 April 2015.
[5] Minder, Raphael. “At Museo del Prado, Blind Visitors Can Touch Masterpieces.” The New York Times. March 6, 2015. Web 4 April 2015.
[6] Minder, Raphael. “At Museo del Prado, Blind Visitors Can Touch Masterpieces.”

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