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Hack the museum: ArtBytes 3 invites all tech, just nothing ‘gimmicky’

At this weekend's ArtBytes Hackathon, teams will bring new technology to the museum-going experience.

Hackers in the statue court of the Walters Art Museum on the final day of Art Bytes 2014. (Photo by Andrew Zaleski)
For Julia Marciari-Alexander, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and an art museum deserve to be in the same conversation.

Whether it’s a small sculpture from another epoch or a tiny particle, the small, intimate elements that are the focus of both institutions are a window into deeper understandings of the known world.
As executive director of the Walters Art Museum, Marciari-Alexander is primarily focused on the museum experience. At last week’s TEDxBaltimore, she explained that works of art from another time serve as connecting points for new generations. They tell the story of their own time, Marciari-Alexander said, and the viewer filters that story through their own experience of the present — whether it’s on a personal or global scale.
“The intimate gesture of looking at something is like ticket out the back of your head to everything,” she said in her TEDx talk, titled “The Museum is a SuperCollider.”
Marciari-Alexander believes technology can upgrade that ticket by enhancing the museum-going experience. And she’s not just talking about it.
Along with captivating the crowd at Morgan State University last week, the TEDx talk was as an incisive overture to this weekend’s free ArtBytes Hackathon at the Walters.
Register for ArtBytes
The event, now in its third year, brings together teams of technologists, artists, scholars and others to create technology that’s specifically designed to enhance the museum experience. The teams will propose ideas at a Friday night kickoff event, then work on designing the technology in the museum on Saturday.
“We give them free access to the spaces,” Marciari-Alexander told Technical.ly Baltimore in a conversation prior to TEDx. “We give them free reign in the gallery spaces, and have staff members that help them get privileged access to the works of art that may or may not be on view.” 
On Sunday, they’ll put it in front of a group of judges. This year’s panel includes: MICA President Samuel Hoi, Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance director Jeannie Howe, Firaxis Games’ David McKibbin, University of Maryland professor and WYPR contributor Sheri Parks and Digital Streamworks President Murray Taylor. 
There’s $5,000 in cash prizes up for grabs, but the winning hack that’s chosen will have more longevity. The museum will integrate the technology into everyday use.

Blank slate, just no gimmicks.

Two years ago, the winning team developed an API for the museum’s holdings. Last year, the chosen technology was a game called “ArtLies.” Based on “two truths and a lie,” the game is designed to help museum-goers learn more about what’s in the museum. Both are currently used by the museum. 
Marciari-Alexander said the event benefits from embracing the unexpected. The two past winning projects weren’t technologies that museum staff was asking for specifically. Rather, they left it to the teams to determine what they wanted to see in the museum. In an era where the social web is changing how institutions interact with the public and art museums in general working extra hard to attract new patrons, the Walters is using the hackathon to engage viewers in a conversation about what they want.
“We want to have a conversation about what you know you bring to us, what know we bring to you, and then what’s the outcome of that,” Marciari-Alexander said. “It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”
She has just one requirement.
“Something I’m really committed to is the technology that we deploy in the museum and the technology that we create in the museum has to be something that isn’t kind of gimmicky,” she said.
ArtBytes 3 will be held Feb. 6-8 at the Walters Art Museum in Mount Vernon. Register here. It’s free.

Companies: Walters Art Museum
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