Tuesday, June 13, 2006


The Dreck of Tech

Back when using technology to enhance museum visits was the next new thing, I wrote a whole series of articles about art CD-ROMs, museum websites, high-tech audio tours and the use of computer stations in galleries. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, under the leadership of its then tech expert, Scott Sayre, was king of the kiosks, installing interactive media throughout the museum. It sounded so intriguingly state-of-the-art that I wanted to go surf for myself. But I couldn't persuade my editors to send me on this specialized mission.

Last week, I finally got my chance. As it turned out, the MIA was probably lucky it took me this long to report on my digital disappointment. I found the museum's "Art Finder," for example, to be a worthy but half-realized idea: Type in what you're looking for (i.e., Matisse) and the computer is supposed to tell you how to find it---a Masterpiece Mapquest.

But all you get is an unlabeled schematic map of the mazelike museum, with the appropriate room marked in red. Nowhere is there an arrow marked, "You are here." Nor can you print out a map that might actually help you navigate to your distant object of desire.

Scattered throughout the museum are "Interactive Learning Stations," some right in the galleries, many secluded in alcoves, but all capable of emitting noises that would disrupt the art-viewing experiences of those preferring peace and quiet. And, as is to often the case with such devices, some proved to be glitchy.

The content loaded onto these computers is deep and rich---so much so that a visitor could be tempted to sacrifice a great deal of art-viewing time in favor of screen-viewing time. This is not necessarily a plus, when great works by Rembrandt, Poussin and Claude are close at hand.

There's a time and a place for this worthy electronic enrichment, and it's before or after the gallery visit---on the Web or perhaps in the museum's library. Let the artworks speak, eloquently, for themselves.

Coming soon: Let Your Fingers Do the Walking at the Walker.

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