Philadelphia Museum of Art

In-Gallery Digital

A woman holding an iPad with the Chinese Temple ceiling interactive, touching the screen.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is an iconic cultural institution in Philadelphia, housing over 240,000 works in its vast collection. Like many museums, the PMA is constantly looking for ways to educate and engage their visitors in the museum. I worked with their internal curatorial, education, and technology teams to design and develop several digital experiences that brought life, and delight, to several spaces in the museum.

Creating Engaging Experiences, Collaboratively

I worked with the Philadelphia Museum of Art on several projects over the years, building a strong relationship with their Education and Interactive Technology teams. Our successful working relationship was formed through a collaborative design and development process, creating digital products as a collective. The services I provided included workshop facilitation, project management and planning, user experience and interface design, content strategy, front-end development, and on-site installation. At many steps during the projects we worked on together, we often took a design studio approach to iterate on and test ideas to get buy-in on the fly to move projects quickly and in agreement.

Bringing Life to Period Rooms

Period rooms—recreations of historical spaces to showcase artwork and material culture like furniture—are under-appreciated spaces to many art museum visitors. The Eleanore Elkins Widener Rice’s Gilded Age drawing room, also known as the Rice Room, was no exception—visitors often looked into the room and left immediately. We worked with the PMA to conduct research, including observations and contextual inquiry with museum guests, to better understand how to improve the experience in the space. We used this feedback to prototype a new digital experience to serve as a model for period rooms throughout the museum.

Using 360 degree photography from different vantage points in the room, we built an interactive touchscreen experience that allowed visitors to move around the room and explore the history and artwork of the space. As part of our content strategy, we didn't want to just show the traditional notes about an artwork in the room. We explain why each piece is important and interesting, using high resolution imagery and understandable language, and draw connections to other works visitors can see in other spaces in the museum. We built in accessibility features throughout the interactive, including closed captioning in videos, text size controls, and alternatives to complex gestures.

A screenshot of the touch screen interface, showing a cabinet expanded with many ceramic pieces and one vase on display with its content showing.
The touch screen interactive showing an expanded display case with vases and figurines. Users can tap on any item in the room to learn more about it, draw to rotate around a vase to explore all angles, and watch videos on where the pieces originated.
A man exploring an artwork in the room on the touch screen, using two fingers to zoom in to see details of the artwork.
The experience allows visitors to tap on any piece in the space and learn more, then zoom in on that artwork too see it in detail on a high resolution display. In a future iteration of the interactive, we added over 80 new pieces to the interactive and mapped them to the panorama to make the full experience interactive.

The digital interactives were well received, and in the weeks after the initial installation, we conducted onsite user testing with visitors to hear first-hand what we can do to improve them. Shortly after install, we released several updates, including new content, an improved interface to address issues with navigation, and captioning throughout the experience, including the introductory tour to minimize the use of audio in the space (visitors could turn sound on using the accessibility features).

Explore the Interactive

Want to see how the digital experience works in practice? Watch the video on Vimeo.

Impactful Digital Experiences in Asian Art

As part of a major reinstallation of the Southeast Asian Art wing of the museum, the PMA's Educational and Curatorial teams looked to find ways to get visitors to engage with one of the museum's oldest artworks: a 14th Century Chinese Zhihua Temple. This beautifully carved, highly detailed ceiling is 30 feet above ground and cannot be lit without damaging the structure. We created an digital experience that allows visitors to see the ceiling in detail never before available.

A woman standing under the temple ceiling holding the iPad above her head to explore the ceiling.
The idea for the application came out of low-fidelity testing in the space, starting by giving visitors flashlights and asking them what questions they have about the ceiling. This inspired several prototypes that eventually became the final application.
An iPad with the app on-screen, showing the large central dragon with complementary material to learn about this icon within the ceiling.
The iPad-based app could be used in different modes: held above your head to help see the ceiling in high-resolution detail, or on your lap or a surface to read about the different icons in the ceiling's detailed woodworking.

How do you get people to look up in a museum? In close collaboration with museum visitors and staff, we prototyped and developed an app that lives on devices in the space to let people explore the ceiling's detail and history. Users are transported to 14th Century China using traditional audio and motion graphics, and given multiple ways to explore and learn: hold the device above your head to use it as an augmented reality viewport to see details not visible from the ground; hold it down or on your lap, and learn about the ceiling's icons and history. By experimenting with new and out of the box methods, an otherwise hard-to-see object has become illuminated for an audience that may otherwise never realize what lies above their heads.