Revamped San Francisco Museum Merges Modern Art With Interactive Tech

May 16, 2016
Originally published on June 7, 2016 12:20 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We're going to start this week's All Tech Considered with a trip to the museum.

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MCEVERS: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reopened this weekend after a three-year closure for the construction of an addition. Its expanded collection included works by modern icons such as Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko and Richard Serra, along with some new interactive technology. And like a growing number of museums, the San Francisco MOMA hopes that new tech doesn't get in the way of looking at the art. Here's NPR's Laura Sydell.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Looking at art is the core museum experience. When I was a kid, I remember seeing van Gogh's Starry Night for the first time. I stood for what seemed like hours, staring at the think paint and swirling colors in a quiet gallery at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But San Francisco is not just any city.

KEIR WINESMITH: Silicon Valley, San Francisco is a place of innovation. And so we feel a - quite a strong pressure to play a role in that in the museum space.

SYDELL: Keir Winesmith is head of web and digital platforms at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He's given me a walk-through of new technological features in this museum in the heart of downtown San Francisco.

Most of the experiences are outside of the galleries. Interactive touch screens tell you more about what you just saw. But within the galleries themselves, how much tech to use has been an ongoing question.

WINESMITH: Most museums, especially art museums are trying to balance this intent that they have about creating a really quiet or an engaged, almost religious commune with the art with this real strong need to be relevant to modern audiences, to millennial audiences, to attract new audiences.

SYDELL: And Winesmith says they built an app for that. And you can download it to your own phone.

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LOUISA BECK: Hey, I want to walk you through the art and life of postwar Germany.

SYDELL: What's key is that the app gives you directions, and it knows where you are. This particular tour is narrated by a German-born radio producer Louisa Beck.

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BECK: Face the forward-leaning man, and take the exit to your left. We'll walk diagonally again back to the room where we started.

SYDELL: And Beck won't start talking about the art until you get to that spot.

WINESMITH: We described it as an eyes-up experience, a phone-in-pocket experience. So really, we wanted the device out of people's hands 'cause we want people not playing on their devices when they're in the museum.

SYDELL: Other museums are more cautious about introducing digital technology into the galleries even here in the heart of Silicon Valley.

CONNIE WOLF: In our busy lives, in our crazy lives, we're always connected to technology. People want to come into museums and put that technology aside for a moment.

SYDELL: Connie Wolf is director of the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. The Cantor does hand out some very old technology - packages of colored pencils and sketching paper for students and families.

WOLF: You can walk through our museum at any point, and there's some kid lying on the floor, looking at a work of art and drawing. And there's no better way to experience art than to really be active in looking.

SYDELL: Still, Wolf says they don't ban mobile devices from the galleries. They let people take photos, including selfies. When they share photos, it's great publicity for the museum. But even letting people take pictures in the galleries is too much for some museums.

Kate Levin at Bloomberg Philanthropies oversees a program there that has handed out $83 million to museums, including SFMOMA, to allow experiments with technology that may help enhance the museum experience. She says some museums have found allowing selfies can be dangerous.

KATE LEVIN: And it wasn't just that everybody trying to look at a work of art had to brave a thicket of cell phones but that to get the good shot, people were starting to back up into each other and into the furniture.

SYDELL: As SFMOMA opens its doors to the public, the museum's Keir Winesmith says they're nervously waiting to see what happens. In tests, people still looked down at the app.

WINESMITH: There's something about that beautiful, shiny screen that's so attractive. People still have that phone out, and they're still looking down a lot more than we'd like.

SYDELL: Winesmith said there's old technology that they've put more of in the museum to encourage looking - benches where people can sit down and stare at the walls. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.