The Cone Collection

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Maggie Leak

Published on March 21, 2012

  • Description:

    The Baltimore Museum of Art exhibition, The Cone Collection, though quite traditional in design, includes a fascinating piece of technology. In a gallery designed to resemble the home of sisters Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, an interactive virtual tour of their apartment helps the visitor see how their European Modern art collection fit in with the Cone sisters’ lifestyle.

    The interface is a computer generated, real time reconstruction of the original space created by the Imaging Research Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in collaboration with The Baltimore Museum of Art. The reconstruction is based on thirty-seven photographs from the 1940s that documented how the Cone sisters lived with their collection. This is a fine example of collaboration to produce engaging technology.

    The interface is straightforward and easy to use. In its screensaver mode the large flat screen showed images of the recreated rooms. Instructions on the screen said, “Touch screen to begin.” A few people were sitting on a nearby couch watching the screen saver—even that was engaging. When I began interacting with the piece, others enjoyed watching what I was pulling up on the screen, which speaks for its entertaining factor. I started in one room within the apartment. Three guide buttons at the bottom of the screen are available for additional information. The first, in the shape of a compass, pulls up a map of the apartment with a cursor showing where I am. The second, in the shape of a question mark, is an instruction sheet that invites me to touch windows, doors, hallways, paintings, and objects to learn more. The third button pulls up the original black and white photograph of that particular space for reference. From there, I explored by touching paintings and sculpture. The virtual tour shifted to move my view directly in front of the painting I touched and its basic label information pulled up. Then I touched a closed door. It opened and moved me into the next room. In total there are 13 rooms available to view, including a bathroom with paintings on the walls. I used the map to make sure I had visited each room.

    In one room, a large wooden box sat on the bed. I touched it and it opened. Inside were examples of the Cone sisters’ textiles. As I touched the pieces, they unfolded before my eyes and gave me a close-up view, then folded back up and settled in the box. This feature enhances the textile collection, which could otherwise get overlooked. It also rewarded my curiosity and let me see what I wanted, which expanded my knowledge. Lastly, by touching a window, the virtual tour zoomed me outdoors and panned to a large map of Baltimore. Slowly it zoomed in, noting landmarks such as the Baltimore Museum of Art, until it zoomed in to the exterior of the apartment building. The illustrations started out as an aerial view of the city, based on a black and white photograph, but as we zoomed in, the view switched to street view, creating a color 3-D effect. Details such as moving cars, snowflakes drifting through the sky and sunlight refracting on windows made it seem realistic. This feature helps create a sense of community, emphasizing how the Cone sisters fit in to the surrounding city. It provides an opportunity to extend my experience, allowing me to compare the vintage view to the city today.

    Overall I was impressed with the interface. I learned about the collection and gained a greater appreciation for it, seeing it in the eyes of the donors. It teaches the value to understanding the history of a collection. How the donor displayed the works is important. The creative elements are also impressive. The colors and clarity of the illustrations are brilliant. The program is soundless and calming. I was the only visitor using the interface on that Sunday afternoon, but I can see how a busy gallery might encounter problems with multiple people wanting to use the program. Perhaps having more than one kiosk would solve that problem and/or making it available on the museum website.

    There are other areas that could be improved. At times the virtual tour was disorienting and I had to rely on the map to understand where I was. I couldn’t always get it to navigate where I wanted to go. I gave up on trying to move through doors and instead clicked on the map and the specific room to where I wanted to go and it then took me there. The speed of movement is fairly slow, but good for taking in the atmosphere. If I tried to move it too quickly a warning popped up on the screen that said, “Be patient!” Parts of the program require reading, though I believe the interface can be enjoyed without reading the instructions. The written information is only available in English and accessibility is not addressed. Those who do not read English, unsupervised children, and blind individuals may have problems with the interface. Lastly, the location of this kiosk is tucked away in a back gallery and not visible from the adjacent gallery. There is no advertisement for the program.

    In conclusion, the interactive virtual tour of the Cone apartment is a great example of collaboration. Its audience-focus is based on the average museum visitor and could further address the needs of audiences of all ages and abilities. The interface is entertaining and engaging. It enhances the learning experience, expands knowledge, and extends the viewpoint outside the gallery walls. In terms of extending, however, there could be room for development. For example, the user could build a collection of his or her favorites and later access more information via the website once returned home. This is a good example of well-made technology with room for improvement.

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