In a small room at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, visitors use technology to fill the room with information and transport themselves around the world. Art++, an augmented reality program on display at the museum until late September, uses a tablet and an app to better inform, entertain, and illuminate a few select pieces in the collection. From Jan Van Der Heyden’s 1660 painting, Houses on a Canal, to one of Warhol’s Mao paintings, the program presents a new move toward technology-focused museum curation.
Maricarmen Barrios, who heads up the Art++ program at Cantor, describes Art++ as an “interpretation tool” meant specifically for museums. “It was developed in collaboration between engineering graduate students here at Stanford interested in research into augmented reality, and with Cantor staff. The point of it is to have visitors understand the history, context, and art historical importance behind the artwork,” she tells The Creators Project. Visitors to the art center use a tablet-like device to view certain pieces of artwork, which do everything from providing additional written information, to digitally restoring faded paintings, and more. Barrios describes one augmented experience where visitors can see one of Andy Warhol’s Mao paintings, and by looking through the Art++ app, can use see all the other iterations in the series side-by-side. This is just one way the app helps the Cantor Center “create context for our visitors.”
This collaboration with the engineering program speaks to an interdisciplinary urge within the University. “A lot of people coming through are just coming to the art museum,” says Barrios, “but when we have these collaborations we can introduce Stanford as a larger institution that is interested in innovation and digital projects.” The app itself has been designed so that everyone, including children and older visitors less comfortable with screen-centric technology, can access the augmented information. But how does it work? “It’s not spatial data that Art++ identifies—we work off of image recognition. So we have a file of images that we want the computer to match to. That’s great for two-dimensional artwork.”
What does Barrios think of the backlash against technologies like augmented and virtual reality in museums? “It’s not an unfounded criticism,” she explains, “but I would say, for example in visitor research studies, the median amount of time that people spend in front of a famous, show stopping piece of artwork is 10 to 12 seconds—and this is based on observation, so of course the measurements are iffy—but that’s the general standard. And I will say that at Cantor, people using Art++ are spending almost a minute on a piece of art that is not famous, that isn’t a show stopper. I don’t think using augmented reality takes away from the enjoyment of art if the app development is done correctly and isn’t gratuitous.”
While some may be nervous about the addition of technology into the museum, Barrios thinks this is the natural progression of museum work. “I think a lot of museums are open to experimenting with new media. Museums have always been places for experimental education projects, so museum education staff are usually very open to seeing what the next thing is. Our job as museum educators is to inform the public about what they’re seeing, and to give them the skills to better understand art on their own.”