In the Spring, our Director of Integrated Media, Jim Olson, Caroline Herr, our Web Associate, and I attended the Museums and the Web conference in Portland, Oregon. Now in its seventeenth year, Museums and the Web is an annual event showcasing advanced research and exemplary applications of digital practice for cultural, natural and scientific heritage from around the world. In short, if you’re interested in the intersection of digital technologies and museums, it’s the place to be in April.
Jim and I have been attending this conference for over a decade and always come away with some useful idea or inspiration. One of the most enduring hallmarks of the MW community is its generosity. You can find out about the latest triumphs and failures. As Jim says, “Folks are willing to share their successes as well as their failures. The closing plenary last year was called Epic Fail. Several brave souls publicly exposed the flaws in major projects and shared the valuable lessons learned from those failures.” These are heady times for museums exploring new technologies as ways to deliver on their missions.
New museum frontiers: 3D printing and openness
One of the highlights of the conference for me was attending a workshop on 3D scanning and printing, titled “Please Feel the Museum”. It was a crash course on the basics of 3D scanning and printing that had us roaming the halls of the Portland Art Museum turning objects on display into 3D scans, and disassembling a 3D printer to see how it works. The technology is truly revolutionary, in that all the tools exist for you to capture a 3D scan of an object, clean it up and manipulate it digitally, and then print it out in a variety of materials. Museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago have made 3D scans of select objects available online and even hosted “scanathons” where they’ve invited the public in to scan objects and learn more about 3D printing.
The ability to turn just about anything into a physical model is amazing, and the possible impact on museums could be transformative. Will we be able to produce accurate, touchable versions of delicate objects for interpreters? Will you someday be able to print out versions of your favorite object, or curate your own virtual gallery full of 3D scans of PEM objects?
Another extremely popular session featured the Rijksmuseum’s new website Rijksstudio. After a decade of renovations and closure, the Amsterdam museum has made quite a splash by creating a web portal that not only allows users to look at high resolution images from their collection, but practically demands that you take their art and remix it. Reuse it, they offer, and turn masterworks from their collection into a case for your phone, a temporary tattoo or decal for your car. Caroline can’t say enough good things about the simple layout, lush visuals, and cool stuff you can do with the images. If you still need more Dutch Golden Age fun, check out this wonderful re-enactment of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” in a Dutch mall, which celebrates the museum’s reopening.
The Rijksmuseum’s willingness to provide open access to imagery is part of a larger movement in museums to make the collections we hold more accessible and freely useable. It’s not just a European phenomenon. Institutions like the National Gallery of Art, The Walters Art Museum, The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and others have all made large portions of their images and collections data available under very non-restrictive Creative Commons licenses. As PEM looks for ways to engage with a global audience, these kinds of initiatives offer tantalizing glimpses of new kinds of museum experiences we might make.