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Clark Art's New Interpretive System Enhances Visitor Experience
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
10:40AM / Friday, June 27, 2014
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Interesting details in many of the Clark's paintings are highlighted and explained on demand in the museum's new interpretive system.


Text on works like Degas' 'Little Dancer' will be available to read or hear at the Clark Art Institute as part of a 'multimedia' experience.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — When the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute reopens, the visitors center will feature art from the 18th century B.C, the white building will celebrate paintings from the 19th century and the Stone Hill Center will host a sculpting giant of the 20th century.

And the viewer's experience will feature the best of 21st century technology.

Among the improvements you will see at the Clark's July 4 grand reopening is an interactive interpretive system that the museum's curators and educators hope will help visitors gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the art on display.

Gone are the old audio wands that you held to your ear to hear background information as you toured the gallery. As useful as those guides were, the iPads and earpieces that replace them allow the Clark to tell stories in ways it never could before.

"We call it a multimedia guide, but it's bigger than that," Collections and Interpretations Project Manager Victorya Vilk said.

Visitors will be able to scroll through the the collection and call up text that they can then read or listen to. They'll be able to search the collection for a particular item of interest by the name of the artist or title or, if they come across an item in the gallery and know nothing more than the number, they can call up the appropriate screen in seconds.

And if they prefer, visitors can download a streamlined version of the interpretive guide for their smart phone rather than borrowing one of the 150 iPads that will be available free with museum admission thanks to a grant from Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The new technology is all about freedom of choice -- the device you use, the pace at which you move through the galleries, the depth of information you want to receive about a given piece. It's like a guided tour that combines the wealth of knowledge of the Clark's accumulated scholars but on each individual visitor's own terms.

"We wanted all of our interpretation to be layered so you weren't drowning someone with a 1,000-word essay, and it was all very targeted so you could keep going deeper if you wanted or move on to something else," Vilk said. "And we wanted it to be varied so it wasn't all one kind of media or one kind of message. ... For the readings, we included different voices from across the institution."

Indeed, the interpretive system was a multi-year project that included contributions from throughout the Clark's staff.

Vilk recently sat down to talk about the system with three other key members of the team that developed it: Director of the Center for Education in the Visual Arts Michael Cassin, Visual Resource and Media Manager Laurie Glover and Curatorial Assistant Rebecca Goldstein.

But they are just the tip of the iceberg.

"The way we got to this content is we spent eight months having weekly brainstorming meetings with all the curators and anyone else who wanted to pitch in," Vilk said. "We asked them, 'What are the things people ask you about the art?' 'What are the things you like to tell people about the art?'

"We started with a massive brainstorm and then whittled it down so no object would have more than three or four sections of content."

If you choose to use the interpretive guide on your mobile phone, the Clark will allow you to download the sizable app before your visit through a link soon to come on the museum's redesigned website,

If you go with one of the loaner iPads, you will have access to special interactive features like the ability to see items in the Clark's decorative arts collection from multiple angles.

"This is a lovely tankard in the collection," Vilk says as she demonstrates the app. "The interactive feature allows you to [virtually] turn it. If you imagine an object is under glass, it can only have one orientation. But a lot of things in our collection have interesting things on all sides."

And some of the things in the special exhibition "Cast for Eternity: Ancient Ritual Bronzes from the Shanghai Museum," have inscriptions that are hard to see with the naked eye. The app allows viewers standing next to a vessel produced 3,000 years ago and call up a rubbing made from that object on the tablet manufactured this year -- perhaps also in China, as well.

One of the more eye-opening interactive features in the system shows visitors how Italian Renaissance painter Domenico Ghirarlandaio's "Portrait of a Lady" was altered, how it was restored to the conform with the artist's vision and how a contemporary viewer in the Clark's gallery can still see echoes of the alteration.

"As well as being an example of the nice interactivity, it's an example of the way many things we have included have been designed exclusively to enhance people's delight in exploring and making their own discoveries," Cassin said. "It's not like we're telling you, 'Do this.' It's more like, 'If you do this, here's something interesting you can learn.' "

Cassin notes that the Clark has traditionally offered a strong program of gallery talks and lectures -- not to mention catalogs -- that can do many of the things the app can do and more. There certainly will be visitors who do not want to engage technology while viewing master works by French Impressionists.

On the other hand, there was careful consideration given to not creating an app that could detract from the art.

"When we first proposed this, as there would be at many institutions, there was some anxiety about ... You don't want to replace the act of looking at an object with the act of looking at a screen," Vilk said. "So we've been extremely deliberate about where we use these sorts of interactives. It's to point out things that you would never be able to get close enough to see or encourage you to 'touch' things that you'd never be able to touch."

Glover illustrated the point during the demonstration.

"This is a very unique painting," she said, pointing out a painting about the legend of St. Catherine of Alexandria. "It's very small, so it's very difficult to get your face in it without getting in trouble."

The iPads will come in specially designed cases that will feature shoulder straps that make the lightweight devices even easier to tote around the Clark's campus. And they will have single-ear earpieces that -- like the touch screens -- will be sanitized between uses.

You can use your own ear buds, but like everything about the interpretive system, the single-ear design was thought through.

"A lot of places have ear buds or earphones for both ears," Cassin said. "We like the idea of it being a one-ear thing because we like the idea of people talking with their friends and having conversations with each other, prompted by what they see in the works of art and what they haer in the guide.

"It's nice that it's not a one-person, silent, solitary looking thing. It prompts conversation and sharing with the people you come with if you want to."

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