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Art Museum Brushes Up Against 20th-Century Technology

February 14, 1995

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ At the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, some works in progress could be titled ``Pixels at an Exhibition.″

Since 1990, multimedia wizards on the museum’s staff have created five interactive video stations within galleries. Visitors can poke a computer screen to summon film clips, animation and narration about nearby works of art.

Other art museums, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, are installing interactive computer programs or already have them. But the Minneapolis Institute of Arts was the first to put its kiosks right in the galleries, encouraging people to connect what they learn from the programs with the actual artworks, said Scott Sayre, manager of interactive media for the museum.

Created with $1.5 million in grants from General Mills, the interactive kiosks are meant to reach out to people who may like art, but who have no background in it, Sayre said.

The newest kiosk opened in November in the ``Art of the Americas″ gallery; others are nestled in the African, Asian, European painting and photography areas. More are in the works. They’re among several computer projects the museum has on its palette to help demystify art so more visitors can enjoy it.

The museum’s programs, which have won several national awards, contain a wealth of information, but are easy enough for a child to use.

On a recent Sunday, 7-year-old Sonja Crockett was engrossed in the photography gallery program. An animated sequence, directed by on-screen buttons she pressed, demonstrated how cameras work and how photographs are developed. Other sequences described various photographers and showed examples of their work.

Sonja’s father, David Crockett, a self-professed photography buff, said he was impressed by how the program discussed how photographers choose their subject matter.

``It’s really fun, especially for kids her age,″ said Sue Crockett, Sonja’s mother. ``They work with computers at school, so there’s a comfort level.″

Sayre and his colleagues turn artworks into pixels _ the little dots that make up a picture on a computer monitor _ by scanning images of the works. They work closely with curators, educators and outside cultural experts to arrive at the final display.

In the past 25 years, museums have recognized the need to increase their ``intellectual accessibility″ by becoming educational centers for their communities, said Edward Able, executive director and CEO of the American Association of Museums in Washington, D.C.

``It’s not the issue of attracting new audiences. It’s the issue of being better institutions,″ Able said.

Interactive technology has been used for years in science and children’s museums, he said. But applying the same technology to art museums is more challenging, and MIA’s work in the field is ``on the leading edge in the art museum community,″ Able said.

In the past, museum visitors with no background in art history sometimes have found art intimidating and unfamiliar, said Louise Lincoln, curator for African, Oceanic and New World cultures at MIA.

``It seems very remote from their own experiences,″ Lincoln said. ``(The kiosks) change how you look at an object completely.″

Dave and Michelle Krueger, students at Bethel College in Arden Hills, Mich., agreed.

Through narrated animation, the ``Scrolls and Screens″ module in the Asian gallery program showed them how decorated paper pasted onto light wooden frames _ similar to screens in MIA’s collection _ was used in traditional Japanese homes as moveable walls.

``Unless you take a class in Asian culture, a lot of the art is over your head,″ Michelle Krueger said. ``I had no idea it was such a part of their homes.″

The latest digital project at MIA will let home computer users visit the institute on line. Beginning this month, anyone with Internet access will be able to take a ``virtual tour″ of the museum through the Minneapolis Telecommunications Network’s River service, said Tamara Blaschko, MTN’s development specialist.

To start, the tour will offer information about the museum and 100 images from its collections. A later phase of the project will include film clips and narration similar to what’s in the gallery kiosks.

``It makes (the Institute) available to people in Duluth, Mankato, Papua New Guinea _ anywhere in the world,″ Sayre said.

Users will make local calls to their Internet gateway providers and then contact MTN’s ``home page″ at http:/www.mtn.org to reach MIA’s section, he said. Other American art museums already offer images, discussion forums or bulletin boards on the global computer network.

Sayre said several other Minnesota museums, including the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Walker Art Center, are preparing to join MIA on the Internet.

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