One last look at Infinite Variety and a little spiel on the contemporary exhibit experience. In a feat as impressive as the physical exhibit itself, the American Folk Art Museum has also created a digital catalogue of every single quilt, which of course is available as an app for smart devices. This is extremely helpful for seeing the detail in quilts which are hanging 6 stories overhead (especially if you were without glasses, as I was) and even better to create a virtual tour (when coupled with some overall shots as well) for anyone unable to visit the exhibit itself.
This fusion of technology and museum experience presents an interesting history: first there was the official audio tour where visitors exchanged some form of collateral (photo ID, credit card, firstborn child) for a headset pre-programmed with information about each display. In the past decade, several groups felt these official audio tours were too, well, official and began offering unauthorized audio tours which provided alternative themes and “the commentary museums don’t want you to hear.”
Next, consider the inventory of personal electronics already glued to our fingertips – GPS, iPods, cell phones, to name a few – and the ease with which we can fill these drives with any files imaginable. Napster (and others) revolutionized the world of music production by releasing the digital content (audio files) from its physical form (at that time, mostly CDs), which obviously enables the content to be distributed more freely (and freely) among users. Realizing this, many museums also unleashed their audio tours from the rented headsets, so visitors could now access the information via their own cell phones or MP3 players, rather than a walkie-talkie-on-a-lanyard hanging from their necks. That takes care of the audio. Now, add in the visual capabilities of our smart phone, iPad, and e-reader screens and the virtual museum experience is almost complete.
Finally came the dawn of YouTube, podcasts, and apps where anyone and everyone has the ability to create and share content. With this change of technology also comes a demographic changing of the guards, as younger generations are particularly adept in this digital lifestyle. Museum-goers once guided by the voices of well-studied experts now have the opportunity to be enlightened by the questionably-sober musings and MoMA re-mixes of a generation in their 20s and 30s.
Which brings me back to Infinite Variety – while the word ‘quilt’ tends to conjure up black & white images of women gathered together in the age-old craft of quilting, the exhibit is actually made very contemporary and appealing to a wider audience through both the physical set-up in the Armory and the incorporation of digital technology in our handheld devices.
It comes as no surprise that media giant Google has pioneered the ultimate digital museum experience, Art Project, which combines the interface of Google Streetview with the collections of several renowned museums. While it is an innovative substitute when you just lack the airfare miles or vacation time, hopefully people will use it as a placeholder until they can view the actual collections firsthand.
Because there is certainly something to be said about the hours waiting in line, security frisks, and camera confiscations required in order to catch a glimpse of your favorite work of art.