Changing the Face of an Exhibition: A Case Study in Incorporating New Media into the Small Gallery Context

Alison Langmead, USA

Alison Langmead and Isabelle Chartier
University of Pittsburgh
Department of the History of Art and Architecture
September 27, 2012

In the Fall of 2012, the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh was given five iPad 3 devices on loan for use in the upper division undergraduate seminar in museum studies. The use of interactive devices such as the iPad in the museum context is a vigorous discussion in the field at the moment, and with the introduction of these tools into the seminar, the students were given an incredible opportunity to actively participate in this debate.

Given that the course goals for the seminar have the students incubating an exhibition from initial brainstorming to actual installation and evaluation in less than one full semester, their experience mimics that of many small galleries, striving to present their works consistently and carefully but with major constraints on time, money and staff.

This paper will present the challenges, successes and outcomes of this first attempt to bring such technology into the art history classrooms at Pitt and also into the University Art Gallery context. This fall, the students worked with the concept of portraiture, and the devices definitely changed the way they visualized their audience and the art on display. Ideas for integrating the iPads into the exhibition ranged from using the devices to collect visitor survey data, to creating an interactive tour for the visitor’s onsite use, to actually incorporating the devices into the show by mounting the technology on the wall and encouraging visitors to create their own portraits and self-portraits with a collection of apps hand-selected by the students, some of which mimicked the experience of using paper media, others that inhabited more strictly the domain of new media.

It is clear that bringing the iPads into this particular classroom setting quickly engaged the students into thinking differently about portraiture, moving beyond the historical objects to be included in the show and moving into notions of how we as contemporary humans portray ourselves using digital media and social networks. The successes and failures of this experience can provide useful information for those trying to figure out cost-effective and valuable ways to bring interactivity into the process of curating an exhibition without a prohibitive outlay of resources. Even one iPad could introduce new avenues for exploring aesthetic experiences in the context of artistic display. The students immediately realized that devices like the iPad are capable of serving as more than mere accessories to an exhibition, they can also transform both the curatorial process and visitor experience of the show.