At Getty Museum, revelations of art via tech

Known for its collection of classic European art, the Getty Museum in L.A. uses technology to enhance visitors' experiences and to study its masterpieces. CNET Road Trip 2012 stopped by.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
A look at a panel of Dutch artist Maerten Van Heemskerck's 1544 triptych Ecce Homo, using three different methods: natural light, X-ray, and infrared radiography. Getty Center

LOS ANGELES -- Walking through gallery after gallery of classical European paintings, sculptures, and other antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum here, it's easy to get lost in the history and beauty of the often centuries-old art. Especially if you're toting today's latest mobile technology.

Home to some of the most celebrated European artwork in the world -- and one of the most visited museums in the United States -- the Getty has also become one of the museums most devoted to adopting technology aimed at enhancing guests' experience, as well as at using high-tech tools in the research and archiving arms of the related Getty Research Institute and Getty Conservation Institute.

For the 1.3 million annual guests who make their way up the hill to the Getty via tramway from the roadway below, the blending of classic art and 21st century tech can begin almost from the moment they enter the museum's gleaming lobby. I've come as part of Road Trip 2012 to check it all out.

By using Google Goggles at the Getty Museum, visitors can scan a painting with their iOS or Android device and get instant information about the artwork. Melanie Gilbert/Getty Museum

It starts with the Getty's decision to make hundreds of its paintings searchable and recognizable using Google Goggles, the search-by-sight feature that is part of the free Google app for iOS and Android devices. (Don't confuse the Goggles search software with the Google Glasses high-tech eyewear.)

According to Maria Gilbert, the Getty's senior editor for content development, the idea was to offer an upgrade to standard museum audio wands, especially since so many people now carry smart phones with them wherever they go.

Using Google Goggles, visitors can scan any one of more than 400 paintings -- all of which are in the public domain -- and instantly get back historical information about the artwork. By uploading high-resolution imagery of each painting to Google, the Getty has made it possible for visitors to quickly get the same kind of information delivered to their own devices that previously would have been available only through their rented or borrowed audio-guide device, or from the small placard beside each work.

Because the museum uploaded hi-res imagery, Gilbert explained, visitors can successfully use Google Goggles to get information on the paintings by scanning either the whole work, or even small areas of it. And they can create their own personal history list of paintings in the app, and refer back later if they want to follow up on what they've learned.

At the same time, the Google app will also translate the text placards next to each work into one of several available languages. And for many works, the app will also offer audio clips explaining what the visitor is looking at.

Life of art
Another interesting nod to modern personal tech at the Getty is the museum's Life of Art exhibition. Here, explained assistant director for education Toby Tannenbaum, the Getty has taken four objects from its permanent collection and given visitors an entirely new way to interact with them -- through a dedicated iPad app.

Visitors to the Getty Museum can use the 'Life of Art' iPad app to learn more about a series of art objects on display. Screen shot by CNET

"From the time an object is made until the day it enters a museum's collection, a work of art may be displayed, used, and perceived in different ways," reads an introduction to "The Life of Art" app. The app "takes selected objects from the Getty's galleries and encourages visitors to sit down and spend time with them, offering the opportunity to examine them closely to understand how they were made and functioned, why they were collected, and how they have been displayed."

The exhibition currently focuses on four items -- an 18th-century French wall light; a 17th-century porcelain lidded bowl made in either China or Japan; a 17th-century French silver fountain; and an 18th-century French armchair -- all of which have pairs elsewhere in the Getty so that visitors have additional context about each when they see them in their permanent locations in the museum.

For each item, the iPad app provides several historical notes, as well as the ability to rotate the item on screen and see it from different angles. What's particularly noteworthy about the basic app is that while it works on any iPad at any time, visitors to the museum can use a special version of the app that adds augmented reality features that are displayed when the visitor holds one of several museum-owned iPads up in front of the items.

One of the most important goals of the project, Tannenbaum explained, is for the museum to learn whether apps like The Life of Art encourage visitors to spend more time with particular pieces of art, and whether they spend time with both pieces of each pair. Indeed, despite the fact that the Getty Museum is often packed, the institution is eager to inspire its visitors to stay longer examining and learning about each individual artwork, said Merritt Price, the museum's head of design.

High-tech peeks below the surface
While visitors will use their mobile devices to learn more about the artworks they encounter at the Getty, they're also being encouraged to learn how the museum's scientists use technology to study and maintain art there.

Daniel Terdiman

More from Road Trip 2012: Tech out West

Check out the latest from Daniel's tour of all things geeky in the Golden State, with jaunts into Nevada, and Arizona.

This is currently being showcased in the presentation of Dutch artist Maerten Van Heemskerck's 1544 triptych "Ecce Homo," which is on loan from the National Museum in Warsaw, Poland. Located in a special gallery at the Getty, "Ecce Homo" offers visitors the chance to see how conservators use technology like X-Rays, stratiradiography, infrared reflectography, and multispectral and hyperspectral imaging to examine every element of the masterpiece -- the front, the back, and even below the paint.

X-rays, explained Yvonne Szafran, the Getty's senior conservator of paintings, are useful because the technology can provide a glimpse of the structure of a painting, and how an artist applied paint to it. That works, Szafran explained, because the pigments in paint vary in their radio-opacity. So, for example, anywhere Heemskerck used lead white paint shows up in an X-ray as very dense.

With stratiradiography, Szafran and her team can examine a painting at an angle while spinning it around in order to see if there are elements that have been obscured. For example, with "Ecce Homo," she was able to determine that on the back side of the triptych's left panel, Heemskerck had originally included a swan, and then painted over it.

By using infrared reflectography, Szafran explained, it's possible to see just below the layer of paint, but not all the way to the wood below, something that's particularly valuable in trying to see the artist's original drawing. With "Ecce Homo," Szafran said, it's possible to see that the drawing below the painting was done with black chalk.

Conservators also use ultraviolet light to discover post-painting restoration, as well as to identify certain kinds of pigments.

Finally, Szafran and her colleagues can use multi-spectral imaging and hyper-spectral imaging to identify the different kinds of materials used in an artwork without having to take a sample.