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What Can Augmented Reality Do For Museums?

I tend to me a bit skeptical about the use of technology in museums. But on a recent visit to Denver, I stopped in at the Clyfford Still Museum to see Still & Art, which puts augmented reality to an interesting use.

The Still has an issue in that it is a single-artist museum that cannot display the work of other artists. That’s what Still himself wanted. He also famouslt declared “My work is not influenced by anybody.” But he clearly was, as Still & Art shows. The museum sidesteps the issue a little by saying that:

While many observers have regarded this view as merely typical of the artist’s notoriously unyielding singularity, in hindsight Still’s words ring true at a deeper level. The concept of “influence” suggests external forces acting upon a passive mind. Still’s vision, however, was intensely active. His deep knowledge of world art history enabled him to “take and break” a wealth of images and ideas ranging from the distant to the recent past. Still & Art illustrates how he channeled these points of reference into his own intensely personal style.

I’m not really buying that line, but I found the use of augmented reality to be appropriate here, if not always successful. The iPads passed out to to visitors are a little balky unless you hold them as if you are filming the exhibition–which is a little clumsy.

The exhibition includes more than 80 Still paintings, works on paper, photographs, and sculptures, and along with them it presents images of other artists. Some are simply printed reproductions, but some appear on an empty gallery wall “by way of a handheld device that presents the Museum’s first augmented-reality experience—in striking juxtaposition with Still’s.”

Still’s engagement with artists, as shown here, runs from Leonardo through his contemporaries.

Above, I’ve inserted two pictures of what the augmented reality shows–the one at the top, juxtaposing Still with de Kooning, is the best example.

Below, I’ve pasted shots of what the more traditional presentation–with reproduced photos of Van Gogh, O’Keeffe and Monet–is like.

Neither, in all truth, are completely satisfying. But augmented reality is still in its infancy at museums. Let’s see how things develop. If they do.


  1. Christopher Crosman says

    Like the Still Museum’s introductory statement, these images seem to be a stretch unless backed up by some direct connection offered by Still or plausible research by art historians. I have always been of a mind that Still was deeply influenced by a romantic sensibility explored many years ago by Patrick McCaughey in his article on Still and the Gothic Imagination (or some such title). Even so, the case is speculative and just because Still used an odd palette that somehow evokes a Monet haystack, comparative images do not add up to anything more than clever visual retrieval aided by computer search technology. Critically, the sheer size of Still’s paintings blows these comparisons off their virtual walls. Still’s visual literacy is unquestionable and the idea that other artist’s work resonates with his paintings is undeniable. But most of these one to one comparisons (save the Van Gogh) just don’t seem to hold up. Just saying…

    • These are just a few examples. You may have to see the entire exhibit–which fills 9 galleries–to make an informed judgment. Nonetheless, one of the good things about this exhibit is that it’s thought-provoking. Personally, I could see some very direct allusions in some pairs, but more distant ones in others. That doesn’t mean that still was or was not consciously thinking about the supposed influence. It’s what we see now.

  2. Michael Brown says

    Thank you, Judith, for covering an important new development in curatorial practice. We’ve been developing Augmented Reality experiences at the San Diego Museum of Art using our Museum App. There was (and still is) a great deal of skepticism about the technology, what it offers, and how we can best harness its power. We’ve found that it is incredibly popular, especially among younger audiences. AR is here to stay, and it seems like the Still is employing it in creative and responsibly ways.

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