Today we bring you an article by Christina Errico, currently a Tufts student in the Museum Education Master’s program. For the Tufts course Museums and Digital Media, students investigate and critique the real ways that museums are implementing a variety of digital media.
As I made my way through the tapestry room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, I noticed one small, unassuming black stand with an iPad. The visitor had three options from the main menu of the iPad: to watch a video detailing the cleaning and restoration process of one of the tapestries, to scroll through slides that told the story of five of the tapestries collectively, and to scroll through another set of slides that discussed the acquisition of the tapestries by Isabella Gardner herself. But as I explored the entirety of each option on the iPad, I found myself conflicted about whether or not I found this use of digital media successful. What I did like about it was the video explaining how the tapestry was restored. I felt like I was getting a ‘behind the scenes’ look at one aspect of the conservation process. The slide show about the acquisition of the tapestries was also nice; however, there were only three slides with basic information and I wanted a bit more insight and some interesting or notable facts about the acquisition process.
The slide show about the five tapestries in the room that collectively told the life story of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, was what I struggled with the most. For each of the five tapestries there were 1-2 slides describing the scene from the tapestry, and while the content of this slide show was quite well done and informative, the way in which it was delivered was what I believed to be the problem. The tapestry room itself is quite large and it is hard to see the details of all of the tapestries at once. Each tapestry has similar colors and because the slides only showed certain parts of each tapestry and not the entire piece, it became difficult to identify which tapestry the slide was discussing without walking over to each tapestry and looking for the recognizable image from the slide. Although the slides showed the tapestries in the order of the story, all of the tapestries were out of order on the walls and interspersed with a totally different cycle of tapestries. I found myself confused as I tried to compare the images from the iPad to the images in the tapestries because I had assumed that the tapestries were hung in order. I personally felt that, for this slide show, the use of digital media was not necessarily successful. Because the slides were not videos, they could easily have been put onto laminated sheets of paper and placed in front of each respective tapestry. This would make it easier to be looking at the slides and the respective tapestry at the same time, and the sheets could have the corresponding number of the tapestry on them so the visitor could view them in order. The museum already uses laminated sheets of paper to label works of art in every other room, so the sheets would not look out of place. For the rest of the digital media (the acquisition slides and the restoration video), however, I thought the use of digital media was absolutely appropriate.
In terms of the aesthetics of the iPad, I felt that since it was very small and discreet, it didn’t compete with the grandeur of the room itself or the art inside the room. The iPad was installed inside the black stand so all the visitor saw was the screen, which made the screen seem more streamlined and like it was part of the exhibit. It was not something that you would immediately notice upon entering the room and I enjoyed that I had the choice of whether to participate or not, instead of a glaringly large screen playing the videos and slides on repeat which would have distracted from the art and my experience. The iPad was very easy to use and I also enjoyed that there was the option to take a short survey because I felt that the museum truly cared about how this digital media installation worked and wanted to use my feedback to make it better. Despite the drawbacks of the Cyrus the Great slide show, I think the iPad complemented the non-digital elements and was a good used of digital media in the Gardner Museum.