Cleveland Museum of Art are contemplating their difficult second album. On 12/12/12 they launched Gallery One, a groundbreaking space jam-packed with playful ways to engage with their collection. In partnership with media design firm Local Projects, this gallery has been pimped out with the full works; gesture and face tracking, live indoor location and of course the 40 foot multi-touch touchscreen for browsing and favouriting artworks to RFID-enabled tablets.

Overall Montage, Gallery One/Cleveland Museum of Art from Local Projects on Vimeo.

How do you top that? More to the point, why try and top that when Gallery One is only 3 years old and still going strong? Their upcoming centennial in 2016 is probably a factor, but it soon became clear this was about settling unfinished business. Jane Alexander, Chief Information Officer and chief architect of Gallery One, has invited a delegation of bright museum minds to kick off round two: a simpler, more flexible, more robust Gallery One.

Cleveland is cold. Over two days I pace the 300 metres between hotel and museum, snow drifts lining the sidewalk, and buffeted by icy winds I contemplate the enviable position Cleveland Museum of Art find themselves in. Annual visitor figures sit at a healthy 650,000 with 80% coming from the local area. Gallery One has gradually been bolstering, then skewing, those figures. People are travelling from far and wide to appreciate not just a great collection but the fine design work from Local Projects. The interactive ‘Lenses’ each offer a playful taster of the collection.

‘Strike A Pose’ is a full-body invitation to mimic various sculptures and be marked on your accuracy. ‘Make A Face’ builds a passport photo strip of your mug next to corresponding expressions from the collection. Both can be emailed to unwitting friends within a few clicks. The ‘Collection Wall’ is a giant digital pin-board of scrolling artworks for whole crowds to swipe and browse in unison. ArtLens, the app for tablet and smartphone, is packed with clever tricks. Pick a tour (or build your own) and follow it round the gallery where the device will recognise artworks and load up videos and interpretation. iBeacon technology tracks your position in the gallery so you can hit the ‘Near Me Now’ button for an instant overview of the surrounding art.

The central atrium at Cleveland Museum of Art is stunning. Not all that long ago the museum closed for an ambitious architectural project that smashed down one wing, built another and erected an enormous roof between that and the newly polished marble facade of the main gallery. Light streams into the central space, allowing the buildings to breath and visitors to reflect. In the boardroom, looking out over the atrium, 22 of us start to nibble at the tip of the iceberg: make Gallery One properly perform its function as a spring board into the rest of the museum.

Loic Tallon has recently overseen the launch of the Met’s widely acclaimed mobile app. Fiona Romeo hasn’t been in her post long, but MoMA’s Director of Digital Content and Strategy is on the brink of taking the museum up a gear. Andrew Lewis, from the V&A, has steadily built a reputation as a prolific digital do-er and vigorous advocate of sharing the outcome. Douglas Hegley, formerly of the Met, is now winning plaudits at Minneapolis Institute of Arts. There are also local entrepreneurs, Keeli Shaw from Local Projects who designed and built the Gallery One tech, members of the board and best of all, CMA’s director, Bill Griswold. That he committed almost a full day to this event shows just how important the future of Gallery One is.

The fear is these slick digital executions might sacrifice depth for quick tricks, reducing them to the digital equivalent of a lightbulb surrounded by jostling moths. But the interactives clearly build rapport with non-traditional audiences, providing a gentle on ramp for families, teens and curious grandparents. The objective for the reincarnation of Gallery One is to help visitors look closer at art, broken down into four stages: Attract, Entertain, Engage and Connect. There’s a lot of technology working very hard to attract and entertain; the last two are slightly tougher nuts to crack. It means harnessing the attention visitors happily put into lighthearted touch-screen toys and directing it out into the gallery or deeper into the meaning of particular artworks. It’s understandable the Cleveland team want a second stab at combining all these touchpoints into a coherent experience that might genuinely help people look closer at art.

By the end of the session the group had gamely generated hundreds of ideas to take Gallery One forwards, at which point Loic posed an interesting question. He was reluctant to open a can of worms so close to cocktail o’clock, but it put things in perspective. Is this more a case of Gallery One Point One than Gallery One 2.0? It has already delivered some groundbreaking work that visitors love and that captured the attention of the museum community. His point wasn’t to deny progress, but acknowledge that sometimes our ambition, and the relentless march of technology, can cause us to over extend. Gallery One doesn’t need a major overhaul, just a little nip, tuck and polish.

Our final task was to explore potential new names because a mysterious and indignant copyright holder has been kicking up a fuss. Fiona summarised the spirit of the gallery in a few sentences; to be in perpetual beta, constantly reinventing itself, continually pushing the boundaries of what’s technically and humanly possible in an art gallery. So come 2016, whether it’s called Gallery One, Beta Gallery or Gallery 9 & 3/4, I’m certain we’ll all be looking wistfully across the pond at what Cleveland have achieved. Go forth and polish!

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