The tranquil, introspective air of the Detroit Institute of Arts was suddenly violated by the phone I was clutching in my hand and its unsolicited decision to blare a tribal drum beat. At lightspeed, I pressed down on the volume controls all while fellow museum-goers cast disapproving looks in my direction. To all the people I secretly giggled at when your phone went off in class, I’m sorry. I now understand your pain.
The room couldn’t clear out slower as I sat on a cushy bench inspecting my shoelaces. When the last person left carrying my eternal embarrassment, I could finally freely use the reason I came all the way downtown. The main attraction of my latest DIA visit is what the museum calls Lumin, a mobile tour that uses Google’s Tango augmented reality (AR) platform to supply visitors with a modern way to innovatively engage with the museum’s collection. However, it is less a tour than it is a personal learning tool. The entirety of Lumin is loaded onto a single Android smartphone that the DIA rents out to visitors; you become the tour guide and decide what you want to experience in this strange new digital world.
The seven exhibits currently integrated with Lumin each implement the technology in distinct ways. A variety of AR experiences are available at one’s fingertips, from a Persian cylinder seal rolling out an impression on virtual wet clay to a tree stump gradually being carved out to match the Yoruba royal presentation bowl sitting behind a glass case. Sight is not the only sense Lumin manipulates — my aforementioned brush with societal ostracism turned out to incorporate sound effectively (just when I was the only person listening). In front of me hung multiple war drums with depictions of thunderbirds embellishing them. Tapping on one of them via Lumin added a musical layer that combined to beautifully produce traditional Native American piece.
Due to the inanimate nature of most visual art, what one sees is what one gets. There may be written descriptions next to a painting, or knowledgeable museum staffers present to enrich one’s understanding of the art, but they are accessory. The central relationship between art and audience is defined by the latter; only the viewer can decide how they personally interpret the art and what emotions it evokes. With Lumin, however, the smartphone becomes a living lens, a third party that connects the other two through a whole new dimension.
The presentation of Lumin lends itself to education. While I was circling an Egyptian sarcophagus to reveal an X-ray view of the skeleton inside, the device also revealed information. Touching key points on the mummy brought up slides and images that described the process of mummification and how the curators cared for the artifact. The whole experience connects visitors with art in global contexts beyond the physical walls of the museum. In a press release about the technology, current DIA director Salvador Salort-Pons praised these educative values, saying “augmented reality allows the user to see the unseen, imagine art in its original setting and understand how objects were used and experienced in people’s everyday lives.”
There is no denying that today’s youth is acutely accustomed to technology all across the board. While this has created separate problems in and of themselves, this connection can be positively exploited to trick kids into learning without them even realizing. Although I loved going to museums when I was young, I dreaded having to sit through guided tours and being overwhelmed with waves of information. I wanted to explore at my own pace and learn in my own way, but unfortunately, to a child’s mind, most art is surface-level, and trying to explain it to them usually leaves them more confused than they were before. Yet after my latest adventure at the DIA, I am convinced that technology like Lumin is prime for education; it sits perfectly at the crossroads of explanation and exploration.
The problem, however, lies in the fact that Lumin has a bit of an identity crisis. It is only in the prototype phase, but there are minor issues with the experience. I had to go back and get a second device after my first one froze, and only select artifacts on the first floor are given stops, rather than centerpieces of the collection like Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals — the DIA does assure though that similarly requested stops will be added in the coming months. Silly enough, I also couldn’t shake the feeling that I was some vapid YouTube personality vlogging due to the mounted grip that was used to hold up the phone. Despite these, the real issue is that Lumin is more geared towards a sophisticated adult mind rather than a child’s. Kids would definitely be able to use the technology with the help of an adult, but the whole experience is not very kid-friendly; the UI is sleek and modern, but caters to the tech-savvy. It asks a lot of the user and almost requires them to have a previous understanding of similar technology to truly get the most out of it.
While I’m not trying to say only children should be getting educated in the arts, the most important factor in cultivating an appreciation for the arts is starting at an early age. Kids possess a genuine sense of wonder and awe when experiencing art, but they don’t know how to make the most out of it. Giving them an innovative avenue like Lumin, which not only excites and entices them but also teaches them in a method suited towards their sensibilities, can help them understand art on a fundamental level and tap into their own creative potential.
During my excursion, I came across a local troop of Brownie Scouts about to embark on a guided tour of the museum. I overheard their troop leader telling them that the point of today’s journey was to see the pretty pictures as more than pretty pictures. And as the bright sun shone upon them through the windows of the atrium, I realized they were about to encounter that amazing moment of artistic illumination, the same mysterious and magical illumination that Lumin is named after and attempts to recreate. Although Lumin and other AR technology like it still require retooling before it can become a truly intuitive and educational tool, holding the phone in my hand, I couldn’t help but feel like a kid again.