Not Your Mother’s Museum

You might call Oscar Galvan both a creative and a social entrepreneur. At the time of his participation in the 2015 Creative Startups accelerator, his Mexico City-based company, Ver Con Los Manos (“see with the hands”), had a mission of making the great works of museums accessible to the visually impaired. Using 3-D modeling and printing, the company created replicas of the Frieda Kahlo paintings and other masterpieces. Visually impaired museumgoers could actually touch those masterpieces — seeing them with their hands, as it were. There was one big problem, though. “Museums don’t want to put it in their galleries because it’s different than what the artists were trying to express,” Galvan says.

In reality, museum visitors are always trying to touch the art — hence the velvet ropes and the watchful guards. In the main hallway of the Albuquerque Museum, for example, there’s a painting — not under glass, not behind ropes — that people are always touching. They walk by, they touch the painting. Right across the hall is an interactive quilt — a huge screen with a nearby kiosk where museum visitors slide the images of art they like into a pattern. The pattern is replicated on the large screen behind them and they can also email their creation to themselves. In the Only in Albuquerque gallery, 3D computer animation demonstrates how a “carreta” — a two-wheeled ox cart with no metal parts — was built. A real carreta is a few feet away, behind the velvet ropes. Four mini-theatres play rapid-fire video of Albuquerque scenes. Visitors can film themselves talking about why they love the city. Yes, there are plenty of artifacts and information — but it’s a lot more than stuff hanging on the walls. It’s a rich, multimedia experience and the visitors have plenty of opportunities to touch things and learn about Albuquerque’s history in a more active way than just reading a placard.

Welcome to the new era of museums — and their uniquely 21st century struggle. Staid, stoic, meditative — some museum professionals may not embrace the flash and noise of the smart phones, electronic way finding, video and audio installations. Nonetheless, it’s a field that’s ripe for creative startups. Richard Lewis Media Group in Boston (the city seems to be a hotbed of a marriage of creative content and technology) created Albuquerque’s interactive quilt, the computer animation, and four mini-theaters where a fast-paced film of cityscapes zooms by. It’s now experimenting with transparent LED screens. Another Boston company, Cuseum, landed a $1.2 million round of seed funding in February. Cuseum deploys tiny Bluetooth beacons around museums that visitors can then use to navigate, using their smartphones, through the galleries. The app is socially smart, sending visitors to places friends liked on Facebook or allowing users to post images of their own favorites. “Cuseum is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform with options for museums of every shape and size,” explains Brendan Cieko, founder and CEO. “We license our platform to museums and provide them with a suite of tools to produce mobile experiences with their own white-label app. This gives museums a comprehensive, constantly evolving, turnkey solution at a fraction of the cost of building it from scratch, hiring expensive developers or agencies. That’s a big part of our value proposition.”

Ivan Gris, of Inmerssion, who we profiled on this blog a few weeks ago, and Oscar Galvan (the two met through Creative Startups) are working together to develop virtual reality, artificially intelligent characters (imagine asking a seemingly real Da Vinci a question) and experiences that could be used in educational, museum and heritage sites to enhance learning.

Creative content and technology that connects visitors to the art and narrative in a bigger, more robust way has endless possibility. And with the average age of a museum visitor over 50-museum management is keen and eager to see beyond dinosaur bones, glass cases and placards of text. Cieko notes that museums are trying to attract, engage, and retain younger and more diverse audiences more than ever before. There is no question that this has become a very high priority especially as museums react to major economic, demographic and philanthropic shifts. That all said: we’re building experiences for visitors of all ages, but do see this as a great way to engage millennials.”

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