IV. Collection Wall

Overview

The Collection Wall is a dramatic 40-foot interface displaying over 3,800 artworks from CMA’s collection at once, most of which can be viewed in the galleries. The Collection Wall also presents thirty-two curated themes, which can be changed by museum staff on an ongoing basis. These views are looped in a 40-second cycle.

“The Collection Wall reminds me of David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous (2008): it makes every artwork equally available, democratizing the collection…, it enables me to create a tour that threads me like a needle through all the various parts of the building. It disappears the architecture, the molecules, and replaces them with a new organizing principle: visual interest.”

– Peter Samis, Associate Curator of Interpretation, SFMOMA

Standing 5 feet by 40 feet, the wall is composed of 150 Christie MicroTiles and displays more than 23 million pixels, which is the equivalent of more than twenty-three 720p HDTVs. Every 10 minutes, an application content management system updates the wall with high-resolution artwork images, metadata, and the frequency each artwork has been “favorited” on the wall and within in the ArtLens app.

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Reflecting the Voice of the Community

From the beginning, the intention of Gallery One was to transform visitors into participants, rather than passive observers. The Collection Wall’s complexity, scale, and visually compelling screens revolutionized how CMA perceived user engagement with its collections in the museum space.

Users can save favorites to their iPad from the wall by setting their device in one of eight docking stations, which identify an iPad by detecting an RFID chip on the back of its case. The Christie iKit multi-touch system allows multiple users to interact with the wall, simultaneously opening as many as twenty separate interfaces across the Collection Wall to explore the collection. Software was written using open Frameworks and runs on two Windows 7 workstations supported by four Linux servers processing the video across the wall, and an RFID server managing the iPad station connectivity.

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The visitor’s favoriting and sharing activity creates metrics that enable museum staff to understand what artworks visitors are engaging with, creating a feedback loop with the museum. Visitors can also queue curated themes to display on the Collection Wall, playing them like a jukebox that changes every 40 seconds. These themes can be changed dynamically by the museum, creating another mode of expression for staff, and connecting with temporary exhibitions or creating new ideas for the permanent collection.

Visitors browse works individually or communally, and create their own tour and download it to an iPad. When they share their tours and favorites with the Wall, they contribute back to the museum and the experience. The constantly changing, organic nature of the screens encourages the creativity of the museum staff to introduce new themes and filters for browsing works on view so each visit delivers a new view and new discovery for the visitor.

The Technology

Why we choose MicroTile for the Collection Wall

The technical requirement for perfect black levels and precise touch interaction with multiple users was the starting place for research and testing of existing and emerging technologies to actualize the desired function of the Collection Wall. The displays were best solved by the use of the MicroTile, an LED-based rear-projection cube intended to be integrated as an architectural element. As a rear-projection emissive device, it has perfect black levels for showing art. These black levels could not be achieved with LED or LCD panels. The half-life of the light engine of the MicroTile is 65,000,000 hours, and the tile can be rebuilt from the front removable panel, facilitating maintenance.

Enabling Interaction

The next challenge was the interaction. Ultimately the best solution was developed by a company called Baanto with a technology called “Shadow Sense.” They were in discussion with Christie MicroTile to make a version that would mount on the MicroTiles, and the project team started testing this technology in 2011. The relationship with the manufacturers provided the museum with development and prototype hardware to use during development of the Collection Wall, and they finished the development of the touch hardware. When final development was completed in December 2012, CMA had the first and largest installation of this technology in the world.

Finally, there was a requirement to make the wall experience work with the ArtLens application that was also under development. Various interactive technologies were considered and tested, and ultimately RFID was chosen. The Collection Wall’s RFID server communicates with the museum’s content management system and ArtLens application to create a dynamic and content rich experience for the visitor to Gallery One. Visitors using their own iPads receive a Gallery One sticker with a unique RFID embedded in it to attach to their devices. This ID is configured on the first Collections Wall interaction and automatically connects on all subsequent visits.

Post Launch: Resolving Issues that Emerged over Time

In the planning stage, Collection Wall coverflows had been envisioned to provide a casual yet comprehensive browsing experience for visitors. Visitors could explore twelve random examples of artwork with similar Collection, Date, Material, and Location facets; or jump from Contemporary to 1950 to metalwork to the Armor court in four steps using hyperlinks in the artwork label.

In development, CMA had proposed using data already in the artwork records to support the coverflows and related record behaviors. Collection, Date, and Material were agreed to be the best facets for coverflow groupings. Information Data Analyst Andrea Bour and our Collection Management staff spent time standardizing values for sortable dates and medium descriptions, and mapping them to more generalized terms in order to group them. The records were loaded in to the artwork records in November 2012 to provide three simple thematic groupings to use in place of the ‘launchwall’ theme.

The interface allowed the visitor to browse examples of each facet along the way, without ever having to do a traditional database ‘search’ or ‘filter’. As the visitor browsed, he or she could ‘favorite’ artworks, saving the artwork to their connected iPad for in-depth review, and thereby updating the live data feed to the Gallery One Beacon. While the original algorithm for ‘favoriting’ artworks on the Collection Wall functioned as intended, after thousands of uses, evidence showed that it was self-cycling. As months passed, CMA found increasingly limited variety in the overflows. That is, once a facet was selected by a visitor, e.g. Contemporary, the same twelve images returned every time instead of a random sample. Comprehensive insight to the collection was diminished.

Working with the developer, the project team found that the algorithm which created the coverflow groups included boosted relevancy for artworks which were ‘favorites’, with the idea of providing a ‘hook’ for the coverflow with the best and most popular artworks. This small tweak made them increasingly likely to show in a coverflow, and therefore increasingly likely to be ‘favorited’ by the next visitor, further promoting those artworks’ relevancy and decreasing the likelihood that other random artworks would be shown. This behavior wasn’t apparent when the system was originally launched and tested, but six months after launch, the favorite objects had been presented and re-favorited so often that only the top favorites appeared. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. None of the CMA staff recall ever discussing, and did not approve, the use of favorites as part of the coverflow logic. The coverflow logic needed to be rewritten to restore diversity to the Collection Wall, so it could be used by our visitors as intended, to delve deeper into the collections. Both staff and the vendor committed resources to resolving this unforeseen, and unforeseeable, issue.