MFA technology widens the dialogue

touch screen for artist Denman Waldo Ross (Globe photo / Dina Rudick) This touch screen for artist Denman Waldo Ross is one way the Museum of Fine Arts hopes to induce visitor interaction.
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / November 10, 2010

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Art historian Barry Gaither, wearing a sharp pin-striped suit, stood on the lawn behind the late artist Allan Rohan Crite’s South End brownstone recently and talked about Crite, one of the first African-American artists to have work acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts. Two high-definition video cameras were trained on him, capturing every word.

Gaither’s reflections were being taped in preparation for the Nov. 20 public opening of the MFA’s Art of the Americas Wing — not for a screening, but as part of the museum’s launch of technological initiatives meant to bring the MFA’s virtual universe in line with its snazzy new galleries.

The video will play on the museum’s new iPod Touch tours and on its revamped website, launched last week with a ramped-up level of interactivity, including a concept called “MFA buzz,’’ which aggregates social-media content from Twitter, Foursquare, YouTube, and Flickr. Sixteen new interactive stations have also been installed in 10 galleries throughout the Art of the Americas Wing.

The idea is to engage a range of people, from children walking through galleries to bloggers eager to discuss and debate the latest exhibitions on Facebook or the MFA’s own site.

One good opportunity for such debate will come with next year’s exhibition featuring famed glass artist Dale Chihuly, whose work has been both praised and questioned, said Chris Pape, chief creative officer of the Boston Web design and marketing firm Genuine Interactive.

“I want everything to be completely unfiltered with the exception of profanity,’’ said Pape, whose company was hired to update an MFA website that had been in place for more than five years. “If somebody makes a post and says, ‘He’s just a capitalist and he’s a machine,’ that, to me, is terrific. Art should either inspire you or if you hate it, that’s interesting. Everything in between, who cares? I would love to see a dialogue happen and people get charged up.’’

Pape recently clicked through the MFA’s new website from the company’s headquarters on Harrison Avenue, a short walk from the “SoWa’’ gallery scene.

“The old website was more of a monologue: ‘Here’s our art, here’s what our art is all about,’ ’’ said Pape. “This one is more of a dialogue.’’

To that end, the new site allows visitors to sign in and tag, or label, art objects to help categorize the museum’s collection. (Visitors can also flag offensive tags.) There are also direct links to the MFA’s Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, YouTube, and Flickr sites.

To replace the MFA’s standard audio tour, the MFA has loaded hundreds of iPod Touch devices with details about art objects, explanatory films, and assorted bonus features. Musical instruments curator Darcy Kuronen doesn’t just talk about the museum’s prized reed organ. He plays a song on it. So does Steve Brown, playing the spoons.

Other features include a video on ship models with artist and builder Rob Napier, animated characters for a children’s guide, collection highlights translated into seven languages, and tools to help deliver audio to blind and low-vision visitors. (Of course, with the iPod Touch comes security measures, including an alarm that will sound if someone leaves the museum building with one.)

Among the new interactive stations are touch screens that let visitors choose paintings to install in a virtual gallery, a decision that can be aided by curators whose prerecorded opinions have been loaded into the stations. In one of the period rooms of the 19th-century Roswell Gleason House, visitors can tap a screen to closely examine the work of the Dorchester metalsmith and manufacturer, scanning through images of his silver and pewter works and checking out advertisements for objects listed for sale years ago.

The museum also has a special interactive TacTable in one of the modern art galleries. Made by the Cambridge-based company of the same name, this electronic table allows visitors to manipulate signature works by the artists Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ralph Coburn, and Charles Sheeler. With a single tap, you can add or subtract an element from a painting, change the background, and share your work with others standing around the table.

“The idea is to let people explore an artistic process, people who don’t necessarily have artistic talent but want to get into the head of how an artist may have thought and to try out some of those techniques themselves,’’ said Henry Kaufman, president and founder of TacTable, which has also created interactive screens for Sprint, Accenture, and the Detroit Institute of Arts.

But even with these advances, the museum is making sure not to overload its spaces with technology.

“We’ve tried really hard to create balance, knowing that for most everybody who comes here, the museum is a respite,’’ said Jenna Fleming, the MFA’s manager of new media. “The goal that we had, based on visitor research that we had done, was to keep the touch screens very close to the artwork, so they become part of the experience of looking at the artwork. It’s a place for contemplation and relaxation, and it would be sort of inappropriate if we created this video arcade.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at