Springing to Light

May 15, 2015
Index Magazine

Springing to Light

Chris Molinski, the Rabb Curatorial Fellow in the Division of Academic and Public Programs at the Harvard Art Museums, leads a program in the Lightbox Gallery.

The Harvard Art Museums’ Lightbox Gallery has been extra busy this spring, from artist talks to interactive database explorations to a film about “feral trees.” The diverse programming has taken advantage of the gallery’s powerful technology: nine large LCD screens and four adjustable projection screens that together become a 20-foot digital surface.

“The Lightbox Gallery is an R&D space where we can create digital experiences that map relationships among objects in our collections,” said Chris Molinski, the museums’ Rabb Curatorial Fellow in the Division of Academic and Public Programs. The gallery is a setting for the creative exploration of complex ideas, and “part of its mission is to be immersive and interactive.” Added Jeff Steward, the museums’ director of Digital Infrastructure and Emerging Technology (DIET): “The Lightbox allows us to create an infinite number of alternative museum experiences. In this space, we can imagine new systems for organizing and displaying our collections.”

The gallery has been designed to support collaboration with on-campus research partners. The inaugural project (on view until late May), by metaLAB (at) Harvard, dives into our collections database, looking at the digital records of objects on display and their associated raw code. In a recent discussion in the gallery, metaLAB principals Matthew Battles and Jessica Yurkofsky explained that the aim was to think about and encourage hands-on exploration, in part by giving users a chance to browse nearly all of the objects on view in the museums at once.

Using a remote control to scan through an “object map,” a visitor can select a single work and see raw code associated with that object in our collections records. This data reveals information such as the total page views of the object and the number of times the work has been exhibited. By clicking on any piece of data, visitors can also sort the entire group of objects on view by fields such as date, title, and medium.

“We want to make this precious data accessible, meaningful, and playful to our visitors,” said Ming Tu, the museums’ current technology fellow.

The technology also appeals to artists, as evidenced by contemporary Turkish artist Ahmet Öğüt’s recent program in the Lightbox. As part of the series What Is to Be Undone? Modernism in the 21st Century, Öğüt collaborated with the museums to launch a revised version of the object map. Instead of displaying objects on view, his map showed, on all screens surrounding the central screen, a selection of objects that are “inactive,” in terms of curatorial, conservation, or public attention. As Öğüt spoke about his own projects, featured on the central screen, the museums’ little-viewed objects served as a kind of frame to Öğüt’s discussion of his works that had been stolen, censored, vandalized, or attacked.

A few weeks later, as part of the Cambridge Science Festival, the Lightbox Gallery welcomed visitors with 10 days of “Lightbox Navigations” that further explored how technology can uncover the hidden lives of objects. In the spirit of a science fair, a different topic was discussed each day.

Among the highlights: a metaLAB-produced film about “feral trees” (the invasive species Ailanthus altissima), offering unique historical data on the topic; Jeff Steward’s explanation of how he virtually turned the museums’ objects into birds that flock and cluster based on factors such as location in the galleries, color, and page views (see a version of this project here); and Ming Tu’s demonstration of how he transformed an old-fashioned alarm clock into a means for virtually exploring hidden data in the museums’ collections.

While the Lightbox Gallery’s formal programming schedule has been packed, there have also been fruitful smaller-scale uses of the space, including visits by faculty and student groups. Those individuals have used the space to look at full-size digital reproductions of art in the collections, alongside x-ray scans, for example. Curators and conservators, too, have taken advantage of the high-resolution displays to compare paintings such as John Singleton Copley’s Thomas Hancock with their radiographic and infrared versions.

With such exciting programming now behind us, the bar has been set high for future explorations in the Lightbox. Up next: an undergraduate objects-based research class will exhibit projects tied to the Jesse Aron Green exhibition, opening later this month.