Skip to main content

Digital deity provides museum visitors with data as art

Last summer, visitors to the fifth-floor Asian art gallery at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art were confronted by an odd juxtaposition: A computer monitor, keyboard and mouse sat close to a nearly life-size stone and clay statue of Guanyin, a Buddhist deity known in the West as the goddess of mercy.

A sign warned viewers not to touch the Guanyin, but instead to use the keyboard to leave their impressions of the deity. On the computer screen, over a translucent image of the Guanyin, a river of words keyed in by previous visitors -- "calm, imposing, wooden, beautiful, serene, thoughtful, respect" -- gently floated by. The words used most frequently were enlarged; seldom-used adjectives or comments were small.

Each word could summon information, but not about the art itself. Clicking on the word "carved," for example, called up graphic lines emanating from the Guanyin's midsection connected to pink or blue Buddha-like icons announcing the gender and age of each person who typed the word, the reason for visiting the Johnson Museum, the person's previous number of visits to the museum (data was supplied by users), along with sometimes startling sounds that visitors recorded in reaction to the statue. A composite of the sounds evoked everything from deep Buddhist chanting to a barnyard in full cry.

This is ArtLinks, a project created and developed by Andrew Herman '07, Jenna Holloway '09 and Jonathan Baxter '09, who work in the interdisciplinary Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Laboratory.

"We wanted to show these impressions to other visitors to the museum so they could reflect on them and find their own feelings and words," said Herman. "This visualization sat there next to the statue, and people could walk past and take a look at it."

Taking in many impressions of the Guanyin, said Holloway, "levels the playing field. There are no expert opinions. Everyone is equal. In a traditional museum setting, you might want 'official' information from a curator or docent. This is less of a learning and more of a reflective, social experience."

Getting the ArtLinks interface ready for public viewing took months of programming and refinement. Every aspect came under scrutiny: The final icons representing visitors evolved from stick figures and mandalas.

Said Baxter: "Reaction was split: Some people liked the technology, some didn't. Some liked the information, some didn't. People experience museums very differently. This is an entirely new dimension because it gets you thinking on a deeper level of engagement."

The ArtLinks team and its faculty mentor, Dan Cosley, assistant professor of communication, work in the HCI Lab's office suite in Collegetown. "They had an idea to do something in the museum on social connectedness," Cosley said. "We came to a consensus. I guided them, suggested design alternatives, helped them learn rapid deployment in the iterative design process. They did almost all the tangible work."

A wall of Post-It notes in the lab vividly illustrates the thought process behind ArtLinks. "Affinity diagrams" list key concepts and observations; quotes and categories of activity are color-coded.

The three students said they learned a great deal developing the installation and after ArtLinks went live at the museum. Their work resulted in an article that will be presented at CHI 2008, a selective conference of art and science that reaches an academic and professional audience. Holloway and Geri Gay, the Kenneth J. Bissett '89 Senior Professor of Communication, will present their findings at the conference in Florence, Italy, in April. For a decade, Gay and her students have been working with the museum to use technology to improve the visitor experience.

"The ArtLinks project is part of a larger initiative on affective computing," Gay said. "The original projects were funded by Intel, and we have run a number of mobile and affective computing studies at museums ranging from the Renwick (Smithsonian) to the Chicago Field Museum. We are using mobile computing systems in context to look at how human emotions define and shape peoples' experiences and their interpretations of these experiences."

Not all visitors to the museum appreciated the presence of technology. "We did this in a very traditional museum setting, in the Asian art gallery, where people don't like a lot of technology per se," Holloway said. "They suggested to us that if this was in a science museum or at a video art installation, they would be a lot more accepting of it."

"A lot of people seem to think that art should be static and something that you just sit back and look at," Herman noted. "We wanted to find their opinions on that, but we really wanted to foster thinking: What is this art? What do you think about it? How do your thoughts pair up with the thoughts of other people just like you?"

Generally, the researchers report, older people reacted less well to the presence of a computer. They said young children spontaneously embraced the concept and often drew their parents into participation and discussion.

The HCI Lab and the museum have investigated the use of technology to enrich the experience of patrons for years. "Working with Professor Gay and her students at HCI has been an extraordinary experience," said Cathy Rosa Klimaszewski, associate director for programs and the Ames Curator of Education at the Johnson Museum. "This collaboration has resulted in two hand-held tours of the Asian collection. It would not have been possible for the museum to create these valuable interpretive tools without their help."

Herman, Holloway and Baxter are now at work on an "iTouch tour" for the museum's visible storage study center, to open in 2010. They are applying concepts learned from ArtLinks that will allow visitors to customize their tour through a sleek, handheld, touch-screen interface.

"It will be interesting to see if 10 years down the road museums have something like this next to every exhibit," Baxter said. "Or if people want that."

Holloway and Baxter say they are strongly interested in making technology easier to use. Similar user interface technology is used in medical mobile services and doctor-patient interactions, long-distance visualizations and even a new version of the Cornell campus tour.

"The business world is just now adopting social networking technologies such as chat and Facebook," Holloway said. "We're past that and into reflective, ambient, ever-present mobile technology."

Media Contact

Media Relations Office