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Augmented reality (AR) is clearly here to stay. This month, in time for its 80th anniversary, Florida’s Norton Museum of Art became the latest institution to launch itself into the AR space with an app that offers users interactive encounters with art. Made possible by a generous $1 million grant from the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation, Norton Art+ aims to make contemporary art newly accessible and appealing to young audiences and their families who venture to the museum for in-person visits.

Available on iPads (sanitized, of course) at the institution, the app brings to life six works — by artists including Nick Cave, Ugo Rondinone, Danh Vo, and Claes Oldenburg — with digital interactions intended to deepen audience exploration. “Seeing Soundsuits,” the AR experience accompanying Cave’s Soundsuit, for example, allows users to digitally drape themselves in the artist’s iconic full-bodied costume, while in “Out of Many, One,” visitors get to “pick up” a virtual model of Vo’s sculpture, We The People.

These AR interactions, said Eric Mika, Creative Director of Local Projects, the studio that co-designed and built the app, have been “tailored to a specific contemporary artwork. The experience is much more than just an information layer. Each interaction is uniquely designed to spark visitors’ interest through playful and creative explorations of what makes the artwork so special.” 

Why it matters

Inspiring a new generation — The app builds on the institution’s commitment to a more accessible museum space and experience. By creating new, relevant entry points into contemporary art, Norton Art+ infuses its six artworks with new meaning and play — “new ways to place the six artworks’ form, content, and process into visitors’ hands,” in Mika’s words — which are bound to capture the imagination of a younger generation. “This engagement,” noted Glenn Tomlinson, William Randolph Hearst Curator of Education, “can spark dialogue, further exploration, and curiosity about contemporary art.”

The app offers visitors fun and insightful AR interactions with artworks including Danh Vo’s We The People (above) and Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Typewriter Eraser, Scale X (below). Image: Norton Museum of Art

Engaging with tech — Norton Museum of Art is far from the only cultural institution to tap AR in recent times to enhance the way art is presented. Much like The Met Unframed and LACMA x Snap, Norton Art+ arrives as museums emerge from COVID-related lockdowns with fresh impetus to reengage audiences on digital platforms or in person. It’s no surprise then that AR is having a mainstream moment: an advanced yet eminently accessible piece of technology, it’s tailor-made for engagement and interactivity.

Enriching the museum experience — Unlike AR experiences that users can download and interact with remotely, the Norton Art+ platform is only available on iPads at the institution for now (it’s included with the admission fee). While the museum does offer homebound activities as part of Norton From Home, the app represents an opportunity to draw audiences back into its physical galleries, where strict health and safety protocols are heeded, and an added incentive for in-person visitors. As institutions look ahead to post-pandemic reopenings, such engaging and interactive museum experiences might prove key to regaining foot traffic.

What the Norton Museum of Art says

“In imagining the Norton Art+ experience, we were inspired by the way technology can create an entry point for new museum visitors. Creating an interactive, engaging art experience demonstrates that there’s no one way to look at art, and that all perspectives and encounters are welcome.” — Annabelle Garrett, Norton Trustee, on behalf of the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation

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