By simple definition, an art museum is a cultural institution, traditionally known for its efforts to collect, conserve, and display. And it is by this definition that I had come to understand and experience art museums. However, it has become clear to me that, in the digital age, this simple definition has become far more complex. Technology has granted these institutions access to new opportunities to engage, teach, and inspire visitors, creating a multidimensional museum experience.
While museums may not have been so quick to jump on the technology train, the shift was necessary in an effort to stay relevant and up to speed with the wants and needs of today’s visitor. Rarely do you enter an art museum to find visitors quietly contemplating paintings or objects in a gallery. Audio guides, smartphone apps, interactive touchscreens—you name it—are now at the visitors’ disposal, encouraging them to interact with art like never before. And don’t forget online content. Many museums, MoMA included, now offer online access to their collections, allowing interested individuals to view digital images from the comfort of their own home. It is this insertion of technology and its impact on visitor experience that got me thinking about how these advancements have transformed the role of art museums in society.
With these thoughts in mind, I decided to venture out west to pay a visit to a number of art museums in Los Angeles and San Francisco, two cities whose art scenes have experienced exponential growth. Through meetings at museums both new and old, I was able to learn much about the kinds of innovation being implemented at these institutions, and what surprised me most was the common thread that weaved through all of my conversations: education.
Technology has allowed museums to shine a brighter light on their educational nature, giving them new methods to present art and bring content to a more widespread, diverse audience in a way that’s less intimidating to those with no formal arts education. Visitors can now curate their own experience and learn about art in fun, creative ways. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), their recently launched mobile app lets visitors choose from a number of one-of-a-kind audio tours, all while keeping their phone in their pocket and their eyes on the art. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), online curriculum materials are available for teachers across the US, bringing art education into classrooms where it might otherwise have been inaccessible.
While museums’ traditional role as collectors and conservators remains important, there is a heightened understanding among institutions of their role in art education. I was once fearful of the future of museums, that technology would distract from the art and, more importantly, from the institution’s overall mission, that online content would discourage people from visiting the museum. However, my trip out west left me feeling confident about the approaches museums are taking to their relationship with technology. Museums have not lost track of their true purpose. Rather, they have embraced new changes for the betterment of the public discourse.
I also encourage you to take a look at Room to Rise, a recent study that speaks to the power of art education.