Art and technology mingle at S.F. museum

The rebuilt de Young is using everything from podcasts to cutting-edge displays to get patrons closer to the art.

Alorie Gilbert Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Alorie Gilbert
writes about software, spy chips and the high-tech workplace.
Alorie Gilbert
4 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Even famous old art, like Fredric Edwin Church's "Rain Season in the Tropics" and Aaron Douglas' "Aspiration," can use a little high-tech promotion.

Next month, the newly renovated de Young Museum here in bucolic Golden Gate Park will start offering podcasts featuring museum directors and curators through its Web site.

The podcast is one of several high-tech outreach programs the museum, which opened earlier this month after a five-year, $200 million rebuilding project, is offering patrons. Although the podcast is bound to generate buzz, perhaps the most cutting-edge tech project at the de Young is a one-of-a-kind, high-tech presentation of the museum's major collections that lets visitors "turn" pages on a floor-to-ceiling screen.

The Collection Icons, as the museum calls the new display, even makes a subtle whooshing sound when the virtual pages turn.

The digital display was developed by the San Francisco design firm Propp + Guerin. Although other museums, including The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., are using some elements of the technology, the de Young's use of high-tech presentation tools is likely the most comprehensive, said Scott Aronian, a digital designer at Propp + Guerin.

It is also likely the biggest installation in the world of HoloPro, a transparent, high-tech material embedded in the Collection Icons' glass panels. Developed in Germany, HoloPro's gelatinous surface is laser-etched with tiny prisms that enable rear projection from the ceiling rather than from directly behind the screen. The result is sharp, colorful images--even in bright daylight. A museum spokesperson declined to say how much the display cost.

The panels are in the museum's free Kimball Education Gallery, located just inside the main entrance. The sparsely furnished room is dominated by four large floor-to-ceiling glass panels, which function as high-tech touch screens for interactive presentations on the de Young's major collections, which focus on American art from the 17th through the 20th centuries, and on art of the native Americas, Africa and the Pacific.

Tech and de Young art

The images, which are projected from the ceiling, appear to come from within the glass panels themselves. The panels are also touch-activated, allowing visitors to select and interact with segments of programs such as African art, 20th century American art and ancient American art.

Turning virtual pages
Sheila Pressley, the de Young's director of education, demonstrated the display to CNET News.com by dragging the tip of her finger across the corner of a book displayed on the screen in order to "turn" its virtual pages. "We wanted something beautiful," Pressley said.

The panels indeed deliver a certain wow effect, like the first time you see a flat-panel television. Sleek, transparent and wire-free, the screens are, in essence, the ultimate

flat-panel display. Turned off, they become glass partitions that blend with their surroundings when the museum uses the room for student exhibitions, receptions and workshops, Pressley said.

To create the touch-screen feature, the company installed invisible, infrared lasers in front of each glass panel along with movement mapping technology, which converts hand gestures into mouse controls, from a company called GestureTek.

A special audio system is designed to cut down on noise in the room by using directional acoustic technology from a company called American Technology. Speakers above each panel are supposed to funnel sound, making programs audible only to people standing directly in front of them, though the museum is still working out some kinks in its particular installation.

The decision to house the Collection Icons in their own gallery and not next to the actual works of art was a conscious one, Pressley said. The museum did not want the technology to distract viewers from that art. It's meant to be an introduction to the museum and a preparation for looking at the art.

The de Young's Web site is another place visitors can further familiarize themselves with the museum's collections. An online tool called the ImageBase allows Web visitors to search through more than 82,000 pieces of art from both the de Young and its sister museum, the Legion of Honor, and view high-resolution images of them. The program even allows visitors to assemble their own virtual exhibitions and to invite others to view them with the My Gallery feature.

The museums started the image database about a decade ago as a tool for curators. It soon found that the public was just as interested in it, said Bob Futernick, associate director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. With only about 2 percent of the collections ever on display at a time, the image database opens up the museums for deeper exploration, he said.

"One of the big ways we serve the public is by their visits here," Futernick said. "But we're also hoping to extend the experience of the museum visit beyond the walk in and the walk out."

Hence the podcasts. The de Young isn't the first museum to do them. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, already offers a podcast on its Web site. The de Young is working with Antenna Audio, which also supplies the museum's audio tours, to develop monthly podcasts, featuring interviews with museum directors and conservators. It plans to launch its first podcast next month through its Web site, according to de Young spokeswoman Alexandra Quinn.

Antenna Audio, based in Sausalito, Calif., has also begun to make entire audio tours available as podcasts, allowing visitors to download them on their own MP3 players. Antenna Audio recently inked a deal with Audible, which sells downloadable audio programs, to distribute the tours, including one for the de Young's major inaugural exhibition, "Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh," which is available for $14.95.

The de Young reopened on Oct. 15. The original building was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and had to be leveled to make way for the new building.