Chicago museums use technology to enhance exhibits

2012-02-20T18:30:00Z Chicago museums use technology to enhance exhibitsBy Lisa Weidenfeld Medill News Service
February 20, 2012 6:30 pm  • 

CHICAGO | When you think of the Field Museum, do you think of the 67-million-year-old Sue the T. rex? Do you also think of using a Sue card in an electronic card game against an opponent armed with an enormous-eared leaf-nosed bat?

Maybe this isn't your first thought, but it is one of the features of Specimania, a free iPhone app from the Field Museum.

"We want to foster a lifelong love of science," said Jessica Sandy, web and new media projects manager.

Specimania is the second app the Field Museum has developed, after staff created a gems e-book. Sandy described the efforts as "a way of enriching the visitor experience."

The app is one example of how local museums are embracing new technologies to engage increasingly tech-savvy visitors. The Specimania cards display a cartoon image of the critter (or object) and the abilities of the card.

At the Museum of Science and Industry, staff is interested in the intersections of science and industry when it comes to using technology for exhibits, said Steven Beasley, director of digital media.

"We want to inspire the inventive genius in everyone," he said. "We do things that are big and beautiful because we want to inspire you, but it's not just to show off the technology."

He said the museum had been looking for a way to use mobile technology, but not just for the sake of saying the museum had an app. The museum will release its first app Friday.

It's a Virtual Heart app that teaches users about how the human heart works and includes flashes of light to highlight the heart's electrical system and red and blue color streams to visualize blood flow. The app allows the user to speed up and slow down the pulse of the heart.

At the Art Institute of Chicago, developing new technology is a must, said Sam Quigley, vice president for collections management, imaging and information technology.

The challenges involved in publishing big glossy art books have grown enough that the Art Institute turned to a paperless version. Working as part of a venture called the Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative, the Art Institute has created two previews of scholarly catalogs. Both can be accessed online for free at

When the work is completed in 2014, it will be two volumes containing 78 works of art found at the museum.

"We made an effort to make it look like a book, so it's got columns on the screen, and it's compatible with an iPhone or an iPad so it expands or contracts according to the size of the device you're using to read it," Quigley said.

The catalog offers users the ability to zoom in on any part of the paintings to see individual paint strokes on the canvas, which is not generally possible within the Art Institute itself.

"Although I'm biased, I think it's fair to say it's pretty riveting information," said Quigley, who is also the institute's chief information officer. "We're fairly confident this will represent a model, or at least a milestone, in the evolution of the new model for the publication of scholarly work online."

The Art Institute is also working on a pocket guide to help visitors discern which works of art to view when they're in the museum for a limited amount of time.

Matt Matcuk, exhibitions development director at the Field Museum, said he considers a lot of factors when deciding how to incorporate technology into exhibits.

"What is it that we want to communicate to the visitor regarding the content of this exhibition?" Matcuk said. "What kind of experience do we want visitors to have in this exhibition?"

Overuse of technology can be equally problematic, as in one exhibit Matcuk described where visitors had trouble understanding how to work the remote control. The museum continues to strive to find effective ways to incorporate technology, though, and the mummy exhibit that opened Friday offers a 3-D interactive view of a mummy.

Both Quigley and Sandy acknowledged some problems with updating the museums for the 21st century, since both are housed in old buildings. Installing wireless was a challenge for the Field, said Sandy, pointing out that there are problems inherent in modifying a building that is a historic landmark.

"The floor is marble. There's no way you're going to be able to drill through it," Sandy said. There were also challenges in hanging network access points in a way that would be unobtrusive.

Russell Lewis, chief historian and executive vice president at the Chicago History Museum, said that there are both price and bandwidth issues when it comes to incorporating new technology.

He added, "The potential for using technology is tremendous and you can't turn a blind eye to it. You really have to get on the bandwagon."

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