Monday, August 3, 2009

Virtual tours and the Chicago Experience

The Art Institute of Chicago is one of my favourite museums for two reasons: One is that is contains a wonderfully diverse collection of fine and decorative art, including a unique collection of miniature interiors from around the world, known as the Thorn Room (a gem I can never resist revisiting whenever I go there). The second reason is that it lies adjacent to the city itself between the city and the lake, so you never have to think hard about how to get there. Anyway, the Art Institute has just opened a stunning new wing designed by Renzo Piano. I was there in April just before it opened and can attest to its stunning beauty from the outside, and given the record numbers that have poured through since the opening in May, the inside is pretty special too.

Now comes news that along with the opening of the physical, the Art Institute has also redefined the virtual. As the promotional blurb says: Pathfinder is the museum's new interactive floor plan and virtual gallery tour system on its website. The first art museum in the world to dynamically combine its floor plan with fully up-to-date high-definition and panoramic views of its galleries, the Art Institute now offers web surfers and visitors planning a trip to the museum a completely unique experience of the galleries. Pathfinder features not only the interactive floor plan, which is part of the wayfinding system installed throughout the museum for the opening of the Modern Wing, but also the ability to zoom in and out of the panoramic views for closer looks at works of art, direct links to the available catalog information for individual works, and Spanish-language prompts and on-screen navigation tools.

Sounds very impressive and from an initial road test, it looks very good. But I keep asking myself with all of these on line museum tours, who is going to use it. Is a forth coming visitor really going to bother to spend the previous evening trawling around the web site looking at virtual panoramic views of the galleries? Perhaps he or she is and I am quite wrong about this. But I just get the feel this is about what the technology can do rather than what people really want. I so well remember being in awe of the first 3D rendition of an object (a Greek Vase) that I saw, and being told that this was the way of the future now that we can look at an object on screen from all sides. I think looking at the real object achieves this, doesn’t it? I am all for finding new ways of disseminating information on objects and improving access to them, which I acknowledge this does, but I shall still be really interested to see who uses it.

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