Islamic Art Exhibit Showcases New Technology

When the Sackler Museum opened its exhibit “In Harmony: The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art” this week, the occasion marked the first time a Harvard art museum has made use of augmented reality, a technology designed to add a digital layer to a real-world experience.

The exhibit utilizes Layar, an app for iOS and Android devices, to allow museum goers to access supplementary digital material about selected objects in the gallery. Exhibit organizers say that the videos, photos, and sound clips made available by the technology are intended to enhance the traditional museum experience for mobile-minded visitors.

“It’s not meant to compete with the works. It’s just meant to augment it,” said Jeff Steward, the programmer behind the exhibit’s Layar technology. “We’re just exploring how we can bring out this content to people.”

The technology can be used with six items in the Calderwood exhibit, which features a collection of ceramics, illustrated manuscripts, and Persian lacquer primarily from the Persianate world. To access the digital materials, visitors can download the app and scan an item in the exhibit using their devices.

The technology works by “solely relying on the uniqueness of the object itself”—that is, by analyzing the item for contrast and unique shapes, Steward said.

Jennifer Novak, the digital communications manager at the Harvard Art Museums and the designer of much of the exhibit’s audio and video content, said that the technology is intended to make works of art “more alive” to museum visitors.

“It just gives you more of a backstory and more of a relationship with the object,” Novak said.

While peering through the glass at a sweetmeats dish, for example, one can use the Layar technology to simultaneously watch a video showing how the dish is made.

Exhibit organizers began discussing using technology to enhance the planned exhibit in April 2012, according to Steward, who is also the Harvard Art Museums’ director of the department of digital infrastructure and emerging technologies.

Organizers tested the technology in collaboration with students in a Graduate School of Education course who were asked to use Layar in one of their class projects.

After early tests proved promising, Steward said, the team moved ahead with integrating the technology into the exhibit in June 2012.

Mary McWilliams, curator of Islamic and Later Indian Art for the Harvard Art Museums, stressed that while the technology has great potential to enhance visitors’ experiences with the exhibit, it remains an experiment.

“We want to know how people use it,” McWilliams said. “We want to know if this is a distraction or if this will become the way people look at art.”

According to Novak, museum administrators have been discussing how to implement this kind of technology in other campus museums.

At the same time, exhibit organizers say that they recognize that the new technology might not be attractive to everyone. They keep magnifying glasses and printed catalogues available for those visitors who might be more comfortable with the traditional museum experience.

—Staff writer Gina K. Hackett can be reached at