In that context, Elkins’ time expenditure of 100 hours on one work seems miraculous – and even the Met’s 17 seconds per artwork appears lavish, especially when you observe today’s museum-goers at blockbuster exhibitions who seem to live through their phones in a selfie-fest.

But does all this mean museum “consumers” want more easily digested, postable “content”? Visit any major gallery and you’ll see many visitors using their phones. Might technology, rather than detracting from visitor education and enjoyment, actually be a tool for enrichment?

Audio is now a fundamental part of gallery visits.

Audio is now a fundamental part of gallery visits.Credit:Getty Images

Many museum professionals talk about visitors wanting “embodied” experiences, via devices such as MONA’s ground-breaking O device and ACMI’s new take-home “Lens”. There are even plans to use advanced eye-tracking technology to better understand and cater to visitors.

Senior research curator at MONA Jane Clark is an evangelist for the O (now also available as an app), which has been an enormous success since its arrival with the Hobart museum’s 2011 opening, replacing traditional wall labels, known as “didactics”. The MONA website informs visitors they can either ignore the O “and wander around in a state of pleasant reverie/moderate anxiety” or use it to read and listen to stories, essays, music and interviews “that are 70-80 per cent art-wank free at any given moment”. Or they can save their visit and look at all this later.

Clark says the O “becomes a part of you” through your hand. One of her roles at MONA is writing text entries for the device but what she loves is the way it allows a visitor to decide at what level to engage.

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As a younger curator, Clark resisted the first audio tours but says they have since vastly improved in quality and at least get people to stand in front of an artwork and slow down. The O encourages autonomy. “Even if they [visitors] are flipping around doing selfies and being a bit quick in the space, they can have all that material later on their laptop or desktop – which means they can come back to it and read what I or [MONA owner] David Walsh say. It’s a more considered response. But it is still nothing like standing in front of the object for a nice long time.”

The O is now up to version 3.4.4, and its creator,  Art Processors – based in Melbourne and San Francisco, has designed similar “visitor experience” applications for the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington and the Sydney Jewish Museum. Los Angeles’ Getty Museum is expected to launch its AP mobile application in April 2020.

AP’s co-founder and delivery director Nic Whyte started developing a MONA collection management system in 2006, years before the museum’s opening. This process led to an idea to replace wall labels, subverting the traditional museum experience into a “choose-your-own” adventure.

“A lot of people thrive on that,” Whyte says. “But some people like to be handheld.” The O does both and MONA’s current exhibition, Mine (Simon Denny), embeds the device in the viewing experience. While Whyte observes museum audiences have changed rapidly in the past decade, becoming adept at managing vast amounts of information, he is excited about the future, seeing device-based experiences as a stepping stone to “wearables” offering many new layers to art-viewing.

Observing visitors at at MONA, the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) and the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), various behaviours seem commonplace – younger people tend to snap selfies, and those using audio guides or O devices seem to go at a much slower pace. As one visitor at Mine tells me, it is fun to go through the show with the O, enjoying all the “extra layers” because you feel “part of it”.

A visitor to the NGA's Matisse and Picasso show records his impressions. 

A visitor to the NGA’s Matisse and Picasso show records his impressions. Credit:NGA

People of all ages frequently use their phones while viewing art – partly as an efficient form of note-taking by recording images and labels. At the NGA’s current Matisse and Picasso show, one woman took multiple close-ups of Matisse’s Still Life with Oranges (1912), so that she could study the details later. “It is just such a marvellous painting,” she said. Early in the day before crowds arrive, she was also able to spend time with the work.

That can be a luxury during popular exhibitions or before popular works – which is why the Louvre recently introduced a new queueing system to reduce waiting times and allow viewers more time in front of its treasured Mona Lisa. Of the gallery’s 10.2 million annual visitors, 80 per cent come just to see Leonardo’s painting.

One Polish tourist told The Daily Telegraph the new system meant he only queued for 10 minutes: “I’ve already been in the Louvre for two hours and will stay another two, so 10 minutes for the Mona Lisa isn’t much. But I’m shocked at people’s attitude because most don’t look at the picture, they take pictures.”

Looking, though, is still the prime objective for museums. NGA director Nick Mitzevich is proud of the gallery’s role in educating people to look at art: it has Australia’s largest number of school tours per year. Mitzevich points out that this is often a child’s first experience of a high-quality collection. His own first experience was at the Art Gallery of New South Wales where, as a boy, he was mesmerised by Sir Edward John Poynter’s The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (1890). Its gaudy lusciousness drew him into a lingering gaze that, clearly influenced his life and career.

Likewise at the NGV, students are offered a rich experience during tours. Donna McColm, acting assistant director of curatorial and audience engagement, has for two decades watched the explosion in tech and visitor numbers – from 1,490,422 in 2002-03 to 2,936,480 in 2018-19. While she says museums are traditionally slow to change, audiences and creative practitioners “push us forwards”.

The Mona Lisa draws a tech-savvy crowd at the Louvre. A new viewing system aims to spread the love.

The Mona Lisa draws a tech-savvy crowd at the Louvre. A new viewing system aims to spread the love. Credit:Getty Images

Technology can be a disruptor, in positive and negative ways, she says – but also a superb facilitator for learning. Instead of fighting device use, NGV educators encourage students to explore the gallery, take photos or work with coding to build a visual narrative of what they’ve seen and share it with the group.

“As we all know, when we are enjoying ourselves, we learn a lot more,” McColm says. “The feedback is very positive from teachers and students saying they have learnt so much through that experience.”

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McColm says audiences and museums have evolved from a perspective where the museum’s role is to tell visitors what it is all about “by putting object on view and that’s it”. Because many artists now make work that is interactive or participatory, there is more emotional engagement, she says. “We often try to blame technology for desensitising us to the world, but sometimes it actually helps us to feel more. I think artists have picked that up because they get emotional responses from their audiences much more when they invite them in.

“I would say most people coming into the gallery are coming with a device in their pocket, and they are going to use it in some way. Even the fact they share a photo with family and on social media is a measure for us of their engagement. Some people might find that irritating in the museum environment – taking selfies and so on – but for us it is a mark that we are doing our job well.”

Allowing visitors a “real-time” focus on displays is part of the motivation for ACMI’s “Lens”, a project overseen by chief experience officer Seb Chan ahead of the museum’s re-opening next year. Chan has been working in the visitor experience/engagement arena for 20 years, including at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York and Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. He is convinced simplicity is the secret to heightening visitor interaction.

“But simplicity is a challenge,” he says. The Lens resembles a Viewmaster disc, which visitors receive on arrival and can take home. It can be casually tapped against objects/displays of interest, then accessed at home. It is, says Chan, “in the moment”. “It does one thing and nothing else – it saves stuff.”

As a bridge between the physical experience within the gallery and the connectivity of the web, the Lens emphasises the special nature of ACMI – a museum about film, television, video games and other moving imagery. “If you come to the museum, the intention is you will leave changed in some way by that experience, not necessarily in a massive way – but it might be you have discovered something about a film you really love or about the video game you are now curious about.” In this way, he expects the Lens will extend a visit but also enchant the visitor.

Chan has seen a lot of change in museums in the past 20 years, with more emphasis on the experiential – in essence, he says, it is another type of leisure activity. “The difference between the art museum and the shopping mall is not as great as you might think,” he says. “What we are trying to do is become experiential in a multi-sensory way, not just looking – to remember with other parts of your body, not just the eye.”

The difference between the art museum and the shopping mall is not as great as you might think. What we are trying to do is become experiential in a multi-sensory way, not just looking.

Seb Chan

UNSW researcher Michael Garbutt is proposing eye-tracking projects with the NGA and QAGOMA, dependent on a grant application to acquire wearable eye-tracking devices known as Glasses2, produced by Tobii Pro.
Garbutt says the objective of eye-tracking is to see what visitors actually look at and, ultimately, how they might look at things differently – with practical benefits for exhibition designers, art educators and curators. The device can show whether visitors look at a work, what parts they look at, how long they spend, whether they read labels and so on – but, crucially, it also reveals the complex “body routines” that make up actual art museum journeys rather than our idealised assumptions about them.

Garbutt has applied for funding to support a three-year collaborative research project with the galleries, working with art and design researchers, cultural theorists and psychologists with an interest in vision perception.

“We don’t just look at art, we look at art in an embodied way,” Garbutt says. But, as he points out, hardly anyone is taught precisely how to look at art – art education courses teach art theory and criticism, but generally don’t teach about the embodied activity of engaging with art.

Garbutt’s ideal is conscious looking, via his Mindful Eye Project (a.k.a. “101 amazing things to do in the art museum”), which presents visitors and art educators with alternative ways we can encounter art, ourselves and others in the museum. He is fascinated by “slow art” and the contemplative gaze – rarities in what he describes as our “attention economy”. Which is why he thinks it is so interesting to view art museums not only as cultural repositories, but as places where we can look at how we look at art. Attentively.

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