Pentagram Sculpts Interactive Media for the Gallery Space

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Credit: Peter Mauss/Esto
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Pentagram's latest museum project brings overhead video projection and touch-screens face-to-face with Ancient Greek, Roman and African artifacts, making the Detroit Institute of Arts' recent six-year, $158 million renovation far more cyborg than the typical fresh coat of paint.

Working with DIA's education and interpretation department, Pentagram engineered exhibits that illuminate the works on display through interactive and media technology not often found inside art galleries, says the project's lead designer and agency partner Lisa Strausfeld.

"A lot of digital media we'd seen in museums up until this project was reference-oriented. It would take people into another space or experience, take them out of the gallery space to provide reference material about the work of art. We wanted the media inside the galleries to accompany the works of art, not to steal the show, but to inspire people to look more closely at the art," she says.

Interactive installations include digital book kiosks in decorative art galleries, life-size rear-projected films, interpretive captions projected onto the walls of modern galleries and a sound installation.

Technology offered the opportunity to go beyond the text-based supplementary material often found in art museums, says DIA's lead interpretive educator, Jennifer Czajkowski. "We know that video and visual images can convey so much and can also play into viewers' sense of imagination. We wanted to broaden our menu of ways for visitors to engage with the works of art and the collection."

Pentagram employed the engagement, context and reference (ECR) visitor model from Microsoft research director Curtis Wong to garner viewer engagement and to provide information about time, place and interpretation. "We used the model to represent three levels of connection between the viewer and a work of art; they are serialized and dependent. The first level is engagement, without which you can't provide reference or context, if they're not interested," Strausfeld says.

Bringing media into an art museum posed a special problem, as opposed to interactive exhibits in science and cultural museums, she says. "There is a humility and quietness in an art museum. You need to take a different, subtle approach. We tried to avoid putting computer screens in the galleries; we tried site media that was embedded."

For example, the team created an interactive installation, "Art of Dining," to provide context for DIA's collection of 18th-century French porcelain and silver. Via overhead video projection, the viewer can sit at a horizontal, "table" video screen and experience an aristocratic, three-course dinner served on objects displayed in the gallery, all while listening to a soundtrack of people speaking French. Pentagram filmed the video in its New York office with food stylist Anne Ferril and objects on loan from the museum.

"We're putting technology right in there with the object. It's a link, not an end in itself like a database. It helps bring people closer to the objects and connect with them," says DIA's Czajkowski.

Similarly, "Antiquities Silhouette," depicts a Roman wine ritual through a three-minute animated film projected on a wall in the antiquities gallery. The film illustrates how the vessels—on display to the left and right of the projection—were used for mixing and serving. Furthermore, the characters in the film mimic the human representations depicted on the artifacts.

"There was a danger of making things kitschy. It was important to not have 'Antiquities Silhouette' be a dramatization or reenactment," Strausfeld says. "So, we abstracted the imagery. We didn't want it to look like the History Channel."

Pentagram also designed digital book kiosks for the "Egyptian Book of the Dead," a 16th-century "Book of Hours" and "Artistic Houses," a 1883 picture book of interiors including the Vanderbilt House and Louis C. Tiffany's apartment. The books are rear-projected onto glass and allow viewers to flip through the pages alongside translations and supporting information.
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