Bloomberg Gives Museums 17M

Bloomberg Philanthropies Gives Museums $17 million Push Toward Digital

Brooklyn Museum and American Museum of Natural History to Receive Funding

Visitors at the American Museum of Natural History use their Explorer app. A new version of the app, Explorer 2.0, is in the works. Photo: Denis Finnin/AMNH

At the Brooklyn Museum, staffers stationed at a hub will use an app to field questions in real time as visitors move through the galleries. At the American Museum of Natural History, a new app will offer a glimpse of the science happening behind the scenes. And at the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, a digital pen will allow visitors to save information on their favorite objects in the collection, and create their own designs.

Other recipients of the expanded grant program, now called Bloomberg Connects, include the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Science Museum in London and Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay.

“Each of the institutions we’re supporting is using technology in different ways to engage, educate, and immerse their visitors—and to make their world-class resources available to a greater number of people, more of the time,” said Michael Bloomberg, the philanthropist and former New York mayor.

Including the latest grants, Mr. Bloomberg’s philanthropic foundation since 1999 has given $83 million to arts institutions around the world. Building on its history of funding museum audio guides, the foundation last year announced $15 million in grants for five cultural institutions to harness mobile-device technology.

Those recipients included MoMA, the New York Botanical Garden and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which last week launched its resulting app. Among its more whimsical features is a set of themed lists, including “Met-staches,” a sampling of “the Met’s choicest mustaches.”

The Brooklyn Museum’s question-and-answer app will launch in the spring. The museum is taking an unusually human approach, creating a hub of museum educators, modeled after Apple’s Genius Bar, to greet visitors and invite them to download the app.

Those educators, or hosts, will receive and respond to questions that visitors submit through the app as they move through the building.

Shelley Bernstein, the museum’s vice director of digital engagement and technology, said the aim of the project is to make the museum more responsive, and make the museum-going experience less intimidating.

“You may be greeted by the person who is going to answer your questions,” she said. “Literally, you can say hello and goodbye on your way out. It’s very us.”

When a person types a question, the app will allow the host to pinpoint the person’s location and see the artworks nearby. The museum hopes to install iPads in fixed locations for visitors who don’t have their own mobile devices.

And the museum hopes to learn from the most-frequently asked questions and incorporate the answers into wall labels, Ms. Bernstein said.

At the American Museum of Natural History, developers are working on a new iteration of its “Explorer” app, which launched in 2010. That app was the first of its kind to offer turn-by-turn navigation, an offering other museums are hoping to replicate.

Now, the natural-history museum is exploring the idea of allowing visitors to use a cellphone to interact with exhibits. The new app, Explorer 2.0, will also showcase some of the discoveries being made in the museum’s in-house science labs, said Anne Canty, a spokeswoman for the museum.

Like other museums, the natural-history museum hopes to use its app to reach visitors before they arrive and stay in touch with them after they leave, she said. The app is scheduled to launch late next year.

At Cooper-Hewitt, which is set to reopen in December after a three-year renovation, every visitor will be lent a digital pen, a piece of technology now being developed by the museum and a team of partners.

The pen is intended to turn visitors “into participants and actual creators,” said Jake Barton, whose firm, Local Projects, is the media-design firm for the renovation. “You’re suddenly a designer. That’s the big idea.”

Visitors will be able to tap the pen on the wall labels of their favorite objects, and save that information to personal accounts that they can access later online from home, and the next time they come to the museum. Fifteen digital tables throughout the museum will offer visitors opportunities to explore those objects, and to create new ones, from a newly imagined ceramic vase to a new pattern of wallpaper, projected onto the walls of an immersion room.

“We’re handing you a pen, we’re saying: ‘Draw on the walls!'” Mr. Barton said.

The pens and digital tables will also allow visitors to browse objects from the museum’s collection that aren’t currently on display.

“Nobody realizes that we have 210,000 objects,” said Caroline Baumann, Cooper-Hewitt’s director. “It’s a wonderful way to open up our walls.”


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