Bob and Jean Mallory of White Bear Lake remember when going to a see a mummy meant standing in line, shuffling past shrouded petrified remains inside a glass case and you’re done.
Last week, they stood in front of a “touch table” at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s new “Mummies” exhibit that allowed them to virtually unwrap specimens, zoom in and turn the skeletons for a 360-degree look-see.
Next door, at an exhibit on race, eighth-grader Peytyn Shevchuk intently played a sort of video game — guessing which of the six faces of varying races on the screen matched the voice that was speaking.
She said museums would be “boring” without attractions like these, that help her absorb information.
“Some people, like me, need to interact with something to learn easier,” she said.
Interactive displays are just one of the ways museums are harnessing technology to reel in younger, digital-savvy audiences. Just a few years ago, cultural institutions asked visitors to turn off their mobile phones — a losing battle, the more prescient leaders realized. Now they’re hiring social media experts and offering apps that let you customize and personalize every museum experience, from visiting in-person to iPad surfing at home to checking in from another continent.
“The way we’re using online content and social media, it’s a sea change from even five years ago,” said Fionn Meade, artistic director at Walker Art Center.
Recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced a major upgrade of its digital platforms and website. Director Thomas Campbell called the three-location museum’s digital presence its “fourth space.”
Museums once feared that digital media would encourage potential visitors to stay home and peruse collections online. In fact, the opposite is happening — audiences are more deeply engaged and more inclined to explore in person, judging from research and visitor surveys.
The Cleveland Museum of Art saw a nearly 40 percent increase in attendance as a result of a 2014 investment in interactive displays and other techno-boosts. And the National Center for Arts Research found that growing online programming nearly doubled museums’ community engagement, defined as interactions of audiences, artists, donors and volunteers.
This spring, the Minneapolis Institute of Art will debut Journeys, an app based on an inch-by-inch indoor map of the venue laid out by Apple. You can use it to create your own pocket-held tour of, say, 10 favorite artworks, then instantly share it with friends.
In May comes the launch of an audio-only feature called Overheard. The winner of a contest sponsored by Maplewood-based 3M Co., it’s meant to be “slightly mysterious and very experiential,” said Douglas Hegley, the institute’s technology director.
Users can “eavesdrop” on the conversations of made-up fellow visitors and choose whether to join them on a virtual stroll through the museum. “It’s like adding a bit of theater,” Hegley said.
“One of the great strengths of digital is that you can keep layering the content,” he said. “People can skim the surface or dig deeper wherever they want, without us plastering the walls with excess signage.”
The institute has had success with Verso, a digital-only magazine that’s rich in multimedia, and its online ArtStories, which give visitors an in-depth look at objects in the museum’s collection.
“Maybe you only had an hour to spend at the museum that day, but later at home you can explore what interested you by watching some videos about it,” Hegley said.
More ways to engage
Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, an early adopter of digital media strategies, has overseen the MNartists.org website for 11 years. The site aggregates short descriptions and images of work by more than 3,000 artists, warehouses nearly as many articles about (or by) them and serves as a go-to point for jobs and event notices.
The Walker’s own website has a newsy home page that allows reaction to of-the-moment cultural happenings. The site regularly commissions in-depth content, often dovetailing a current exhibit with social or political hot buttons du jour. To add a personal touch to last fall’s retrospective of abstract painter Jack Whitten’s work, Whitten contributed an “artist op-ed” touching on racism, violence and the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Walker also uses its virtual reach to expand its reputation geographically. Nearly 70 percent of visits to its website come from out of state, said Mike Bettison, director of new media, with 25 percent of those coming from outside the United States.
“We want to meet people where they are, not assume we will get them walking through the front door,” he said.
The Walker is even premiering select works online. The site will soon show short videos inspired by Belgian poet and artist Marcel Broodthaers — works that won’t make their physical appearance in the Walker galleries until next fall.
Feel the learn
Digital media are also obvious choices in keeping kids coming back after their school field trips.
The Science Museum of Minnesota is working on a plan to incorporate video gaming into its exhibits, sure to be popular with visitors of all ages. At the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, using newfangled gewgaws to teach memorable old-time moments is fitting in fine. It even has an acronym, BYOD — bring your own device — for those harder-to-engage tweens and teens.
The center’s “Play the Past” game features a Hollywood-style green screen so students can look like they’re stepping right out of Fort Snelling even though they’re in the basement of the museum. An app lets them take on different roles such as fur trader, for which they haggle over trades of blankets for fur pelts.
“Kids pick it up right away — it takes adults a bit longer,” said education director Wendy Jones.
While technology may dazzle, in the end, it’s all still about what’s on the walls and in the halls, said Hegley of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
“One thing I’m proud of is that people remember the art, not what it took to get them there,” he said. “We want the experience to be personal and delightful, and when people build their own tools to satisfy their own curiosity, it is.”