The Human Experience

Danny Powell is using technology to revolutionize how visitors interact with art.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) Before he arrived here almost a year ago, Danny Powell, the curator of education at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum (CFAM), held the title of museum educator at two New York City museums—the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens and the Children’s Museum of the Arts in Manhattan. Those were different places with different core audiences than CFAM, Rollins’ 35-year-old institution, which offers free admission. But here he saw opportunity; “this place was going somewhere,” he says.

The job would be similar—to get people, specifically K-12 students, interested in more deeply exploring the museum’s artwork. But what Powell wanted was a chance to get his hands dirty, to build education programs from the ground-up, starting these things from scratch and seeing them through. He had something of a blank slate to work with: His position had been empty for months, so many of CFAM’s programs had languished.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) Powell relaunched CFAMilies, a monthly, hands-on art project designed to get children more immersed in the museum’s artwork. He leads film screenings and discussions, and provides guided tours to local schoolchildren. That kind of outreach is important, of course, and necessary to fulfilling CFAM’s mission. But what Powell is really excited about is the future.

In November, the museum began offering a mobile scavenger hunt—a way to get kids (and adults) more invested into CFAM’s artwork through their mobile devices, as they have to look closely into the individual pieces for clues. “It gets kids looking at the artwork a little longer,” Powell says, “a little more deeply.”

These come on top of the museum’s other educational programs: Express Yourself!: An Afternoon of Creativity, a program like CFAMilies that’s targeted at foster children; professional development workshops for area public schools teachers to learn more about or enhance their artistic skills; and Women in TV, a partnership with the Lucy Cross Center for Women, among others.

That’s a recurring theme in his efforts: using digital to get kids to engage in the analogue world of artwork. His two-year-old niece, he adds, can unlock and navigate an iPad almost like it’s an extension of her hand. Why not use this new digital paradigm to his advantage?

“We want to expand our interactive, tech-based experience,” he says.

Early in 2014, CFAM will begin offering audio tours of the permanent collection gallery, enabling guests to listen to special content about the artwork in that collection on their mobile devices, going on their own pace without the guidance of a docent. And sometime next year, the front gallery space will be home to touchscreens that will allow for a more thorough, digital exploration of the museum, especially the permanent collection.

“It’s a bit abstract to talk about, transforming a space rather than doing a program,” Powell says. “Hopefully it takes the experience of going to a museum and gives it a digital spin. That’s the goal for us—innovation-based things that enhance the experience.” In the end, that means taking the experience of looking at art and bringing it to kids’ tech-savvy level.

“Looking at art is a very human experience,” Powell says. “Things have changed. We need to provide them access to that experience in a way they’re familiar with.”