Exploring Technologies in the Museum's Physical Space: The Media Lab at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

04/12/2013 01:41 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2013

Museums are increasingly trying to incorporate technology in their physical space in order to enhance visitors' experience. How can technology change visitors' experience of the museum's physical space? What are the new technologies that can be adapted to the museum experience? In this interview, Don Undeen, Manager of the Media Lab at The Metropolitan Museum of Art talks to us about: the goals, the value and the challenges of integrating emerging technologies in the museum's physical space and specific technologies the Media Lab is currently exploring.

What are the goals of the Media Lab at the Met?
The mandate of the Media Lab is to explore emerging technologies that could have an impact on the museum experience, for visitors, scholars and staff, in the galleries and around the world. Our goal, though, is the same as the museum as a whole; to spread appreciation and understanding of our encyclopedic art collection.

How can emerging technologies enhance the visitor's experience in the museum's physical space? For example, the experience of visiting the galleries and the museum's educational programs?
Sometimes they don't. Sometimes the best technology is no technology; just enjoy the art. However, visitors to our museum are bringing their technology and expectations with them. More often, they aren't thinking about how they are using technology; they are thinking about what they want to do. They're not 'texting on their mobile device,' they're telling Mom that 'I'm seeing a Monet in person for the first time!' They're not 'interacting with a touchscreen application to access digitally rendered information,' they're 'learning about Islamic tile making.' That's mainstream technology; there we just need to meet the visitors' expectations. 'Emerging' technology is something different, though. At it's best, an experience with new technology in a gallery space provides a sense of magic, breaks people out of their expectations and inspires a new way of engaging with our objects.

What are the challenges in integrating emerging technologies in the museum's physical space?
Matching the high standards set by the greatness of the works themselves. You are standing in the presence of some of the greatest cultural products in history ever, from anywhere. The right technology should just help put you in the best state to appreciate that work, in whatever way is best for you, at that point in time. Of course, exactly what that means is different for every person, every time they come to visit. And, you have to do it without disturbing the person standing next to you, who is having his or her own experience. Unless that person is your friend, in which case you might want a shared experience. Or not.

What are some examples of emerging technologies the Media Lab is currently exploring?
It's not a technology per se, but what we're excited by is the overall trend of increasingly sophisticated tools for personal creativity, empowering individuals to more deeply engage with our content, to create and tell their own stories. The implication is that the museum can become a platform where people can gather around our content to create and share those stories. These stories might be told in Flickr accounts, twitter streams, 3D models and mashups, animations, mobile applications, online interactive games, data visualizations, podcasts, computer vision/Kinect performances, Pinterest boards, video chats, animated gifs, Lolcats and other modalities we've not yet dreamed of.
There is just too much for any team to explore on their own. That's why we want to expand our work with NYCs rich culture of creative technologists, inviting them to use our collection and curatorial expertise to inspire their own creations. In particular, though, some technologies we've been spending time with are:

  • 3D Scanning and Printing: 123D Catch, Meshmixer and low-cost 3D printers are a powerful combination. 123D Catch lets you turn photos of art objects into 3D models, and Meshmixer makes it easy to create your own 3D art mashups. There are lots of other free software tools out there too; those are just a couple I enjoy because they are easy for me, a 3D novice. Even without a printer, you can make your own creations and share them online on sites like For example, look at what people have done with Marsyas, by Balthasar Permoser: . I find that after spending time with an object, photographing it from all sides and working on it in a modeling program, when I see the object in real life, I have a special friendship with it, like it's 'mine.' I'd like for more people to have that experience.

  • Augmented Reality: The idea that you can use your iPad like a 'magic window' -- seeing for example the x-ray of a painting when you hold your device up to the real thing, is compelling to me. AR applications can help people see our objects in their original context, or how they were originally used, which helps fulfill our educational mission.

  • Computer Vision: Using software to analyze the subject matter in a painting. Google goggles can tell you the name of just about any painting in our collection. Other software, like FaceOSC, can tell you if the person is smiling, frowning and where they are looking. Cleveland museum has an interesting app that will take your picture, and find a painting with a matching expression. If it makes the visitor think about the subject a bit more, imagine what they were feeling and how the artist conveyed it, then it's doing its job.

  • Linked Open Data: This is still a bit geeky, but the idea is that many museums would share their data in a way that makes it easy to search across all of their collections, easily finding relationships between objects and artists that previously would have required months of research. This has the potential to completely change art scholarship.