Museum goers know that sometimes getting up close to the art can be difficult and, in many cases, frowned upon. However, the Birmingham Museum of Art has found a way to fix this problem by merging the traditional gallery experience with modern technology.
“The Look of Love” is an exhibit of 100 small pieces of decorated jewelry. In the center of each is a hand-painted eye meant as an anonymous token between lovers.
Begun by George IV of Wales as he pursued a forbidden love, these pieces were popular during the 18th century and were very ornate and detail-oriented, sometimes even including clouds and locks of people’s hair. By the 19th century, people had even started painting the eyes of deceased loved ones in order to mourn.
Due to the tiny size of each piece, viewing was sure to be an issue. Although the museum provided individual fiber optic lighting for each piece, museum director Gail Andrews said everyone involved knew this would not be enough light to satisfy the viewer.
“We were all concerned about the lighting,” Andrews said. “Magnifying glasses like the ones we used in a Leonardo da Vinci exhibit two years ago weren’t going to do it.”
Graham Boettcher, curator of American art at the museum and designer of the catalogue to supplement the exhibit, had similar concerns about people not being able to get close enough.
“We knew these objects were really small and presented a challenge since you could only get so close to them,” Boettcher said.
With the direction of owners Nan and David Skier and Sean Pathasema, the museum’s photographer, the Look of Love iPad app was born.
In addition to providing the pieces for the exhibit, the Skiers also donated 20 iPads so gallery visitors could get an all-inclusive experience in one visit. Visitors are allowed to check the iPads out for free by turning in a government-issued ID and can then explore the app.
With the app, gallery goers can magnify the jewelry by up to 20 times its original size, letting them have a better look at brushstrokes and construction. Visitors can also see the backs of the pieces and how they open. So far, the app has been quite successful.
“It’s been extremely popular,” said Boettcher, “On the first weekend of the exhibit, we had 1,500 individual page views.”
Since the opening of the exhibit on Feb. 7, the app has been approved by Apple for free download on iTunes and has since gained more than 700 additional downloads. The future of apps included with the museum’s exhibits looks promising as well. Both Andrews and Boettcher expressed enthusiasm for new apps.
“I really do think it’s something we will continue,” said Andrews. “For us, it’s really a matter of time and what the staff can manage.”
The “Look of Love” exhibit is at the Birmingham Museum of Art until June 10. Both admission to the Museum and the iPad app are free.
“I think it is a perfect example of how technology can enhance a visitor’s experience because the items are so tiny and detailed,” Boettcher said. “If not for the iPad, the visitor would not have as rich of an experience.”