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RUBIN MUSEUM OF ART PROJECT: NOTES ABOUT SITE VISIT OF 18 MAY

The museum is new, having opened in 2004, but generally does not make much use of advanced technology within its galleries (a separate education center opened a year ago and is not yet discussed in these notes). This is in keeping with its stated goal to encourage visitors to “look deeply, think deeply, and feel deeply,” fostering “a deeper experience . . . through close observation, discovery, thinking, and emotion” (www.rmanyc.org/education). The museum wants to establish an atmosphere of serenity and calm that is in keeping with the nature of the mostly Buddhist and Hindu objects displayed. Each floor houses a separate exhibition, none of which is overly large. The galleries are arranged around a central open area that houses the original staircase preserved from the building’s longtime use as the home of the Barney’s department store.

These notes follow the set of images included in the gallery on this page and cover all instances of technology use (and some additional information features) encountered in the six exhibit floors.

First (Ground) Floor: There is a large screen (fig 1) when you first enter the building that displays information about the current exhibits. Visitors can rent an audioguide device (fig 4) at the admissions desk. Having gained admittance, one enters into a central area. To the left are the shop and café; in the center is the grand staircase, and on the wall to the right is an introduction to the museum with some wall text and a slideshow of still images projected on the wall in a loop (figs 2 & 3). The quality was good, but the technology is not cutting-edge.

The first exhibit, on the 2nd floor, “Gateway to Himalayan Art,” introduces the themes, iconography, and materials of the objects displayed. It begins with another projected wall display (figs 5 & 6), which is where the audioguide tour begins. The audioguide device is simple and easy to use (same as or very similar to the British Museum device described in class??): when there is relevant narration, wall panels (fig 8) or object labels display a number in a very clearly designed headphone icon (fig 9a); the user punches in the number on a keypad and presses the green button to start. The small video display on the device (figs 13a & 13b) helps the user orient him/herself by showing an image of the specific object or, if the discussion is more general, one of the objects in a case or display area. The numbering is floor-by-floor (i.e., all items included in the narration on the second floor are in the 200s, those on the third floor are in the 300s, etc.). There is a definite order to the narration, but the user does not need to follow it if s/he is walking through the gallery in a different order or wants to skip ahead.

Very occasionally in the exhibits (once or twice per floor), there are wall-mounted tablet-sized screens (fig 7) or slightly larger case-mounted monitors with video displays (figs 14 & 17). These generally do not include touch features or interactive options; they are providing additional description where a video can provide a better understanding than wall text would. For example, fig. 7 shows a tablet display with an animated description of Buddhist temple architecture; fig 17, from the third-floor exhibit, shows a 3-D reconstruction of a mandala.

Additional technology is not particularly necessary. Large wall-text panels (figs 8, 10, & 12) are written in clear, straightforward language; the text is not burdensomely long. Although the specific vocabulary—Buddhist and Hindu, Tibetan and Nepalese, etc.—of the field is introduced, it does not overwhelm the description. The line drawings also clarify elements that can be difficult to discern in paintings and painted textiles, and even in sculptures. A printed “Looking Guide” (fig 11) contains the same text and drawings as the set of wall panels that explain the figures, postures, gestures, and implements that appear in the art, allowing visitors to refer back to them as they look at specific objects throughout the galleries without having to return to the wall text for a reminder.

Each floor/exhibit ends with a small resource area that usually includes a technological element (fig 15). The touchscreen monitors on the 2nd-floor (figs 16a-c) provide more detailed descriptions of a limited number of artworks, allowing the user to touch predefined areas within each work for more specific information.

The museum has paid some good attention to matters of accessibility; a rack on the second floor contains printed guides with high-contrast, large-print labels (fig 18). Next to it are magnifying glasses (fig 19) that could be useful not only to visually impaired visitors, but to anyone who wants to examine an object in greater detail. This location (and in the same location on each floor) is also where there is a QR code (fig 20) linking to additional resources on the museum’s website.

The third-floor gallery continues the presentation of the museum’s permanent collection with the exhibit “Masterworks: Jewels of the Collection.” Here we encountered another special element of accessibility, the museum’s monthly “Mindful Connections” tour for people with dementia and their caregivers (fig 21). The staff member conducting the tour actively engaged the members of the group and encouraged them to participate. Those who may need extra visual assistance are provided with tablets (fig 22); only one member of the group that day was using a tablet.

There were several instances on the second and third floors where fixed-station listening devices were provided (fig 23). The narration matched that of the audioguide for the item in question, but allowed all visitors to take advantage of the information provided. These were situations where wall text would have been far too long to read easily; the narration provided the longer explanation required.

The fourth floor housed a temporary exhibit, “Illuminated: The Art of Sacred Books,” which compared Tibetan written materials with medieval European and Islamic books. No photographs were allowed, but the exhibit itself did not include any technology. The resource area for this exhibit, however, was a perfect example of how the RMA seems to prefer simpler, lower-tech solutions. Rather than having stations with touchscreen displays, they had three microscope stations, each with three available slides of various kinds of paper fiber. Enlarged photographic images of the fibers were mounted on the wall above the microscopes. Aside from the identification of the fibers on each slide, there was no further information. To the right of these microscope stations were two wall-mounted screens each running the same video of Tibetan paper makers and printmakers at their craft and discussing their techniques.

The fifth-floor exhibit, “Casting the Divine: Sculptures of the Nyingjei Lam Collection,” presented objects on long-term loan from Nyingjei Lam [I’m reasonably certain from the element “lam” in its name that this is a monastery, or lamasery, in Tibet]. These are normally included in general exhibits but were here being presented as items in a coherent collection. The resource center for this exhibit was the most technologically sophisticated. Four objects were selected (fig 25), which users could learn more about via touchscreen display. Once selecting an item and seeing the basic description, further options were presented (fig 26) that allowed users to see how the object had previously been displayed in RMA exhibits, listen to the audioguide narration about that object from a past exhibit, or read a more detailed (and specialist) description of the object on the asianart.com website (fig 27). Even here, the options were limited; the touchscreen did not allow any other sort of exploration of the object, did not provide any opportunity for the user to register his/her own opinion or thoughts about it, and did not allow panning or zooming in on the object.

The final exhibit, on the sixth floor was “Modernist Art from India: Approaching Abstraction,” another temporary exhibit. Here again, use of technology was limited. On opposite walls of the gallery, two films were being projected; each had a single listening station in front of it (fig 28). For an animated film being projected onto a third wall, there was a case with a printed book written by the artist that explained the philosophy behind the work and its program. Next to it was a monitor that contained scanned images of each page of the book, browsable by the user by means of touchscreen scrolling (fig 29). Again, the images could not be manipulated in any way; it was just a nice way to allow people to view the book. For this exhibit, the resource center (no photos allowed; figs 28 & 29 were taken illicitly) once again had three monitors displaying an interactive timeline that had been created for the exhibit (available on the RMA site at http://www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/6308/The-Modernist-Art-Movement-from-India/). Here one uses a mouse rather than touchscreen technology, scrolling left and right along the timeline and selecting images to view. Developments in Indian art are shown on the upper row; historical dates/events are displayed on the lower row. Each of the 73 "stories" has brief descriptive text; there is the possibility of audio and video, but I found only 2 with audio and no video. It was informative but not terribly interesting or "interactive."

[End description; analysis/evaluation to come…]

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