Growing a Program Together Before & After COVID

In April 2019, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) launched their first digital project, an in-gallery kiosk experience focused on “close looking” – that is, helping visitors to discover details within the painting, The Stigmatization of Saint Francis by Orazio Gentileschi. Following this initial project, the MFAH converted to the Enterprise License and expanded their digital program to include a mobile guide, which offered visitors audio guides through special exhibitions, and began development of a number of in-gallery interactives for their new modern and contemporary art wing.

In 2020 as a result of COVID-19, the MFAH interpretation team began to focus their efforts toward online engagement. The team pivoted quickly by launching online exhibits and expanded access to the CultureConnect system to nearly a half-dozen departments within the museum, including the Hirsch Library, for their own rapid response.

In just one year, the MFAH has become a prolific creator of CultureConnect apps and a partner during COVID-19 to help our team better understand the impact on exhibitions, app distribution, and digital interpretation.

  • Enterprise License
  • Mobile Guide
  • Advanced Interactives
  • Online Exhibitions
  • Custom Development

Mobile Guides: From Hardware to BYOD

The second project was an audio guide experience to be presented in English and Spanish. The initial plan was to launch a audio guide in the Museum’s permanent collection to help the museum team experiment with methods for app distribution, way-finding, and other visitor behaviors. In parallel, the museum would maintain their loaned audio guide hardware for paid special exhibitions.

Moving away from loaned devices to help ensure safe onsite experiences for visitors expanded the content scope in the mobile guide to include special exhibitions. Visitors are now able to enter temporary exhibitions spaces, scan QR codes, and instantly launch audio content on their personal devices. This has allowed visitors to more easily gain access to the content they want while also allowing the museum to easily add new content into existing galleries by simply adding QR codes to existing labels..

Upcoming additions to the Mobile Guide include audio explorations of the Museum’s new building of modern and contemporary art, opening November 2020, and a campus-wide tour of the permanent collection set to launch in 2021.

Outfitting a New Wing with Interactives

Alongside the opening of a new museum wing, the MFAH’sinterpretation team had been focused on launching a new series of in-gallery touchscreen displays. The kiosk plan was to be deployed across 3 use cases:

  • Dense Installations – galleries where many artworks and objects are displayed in a compact area, for example, within exhibit cases with no space for interpretive labels.
  • Primary Resource Materials – create onsite moments where visitors can explore primary resource materials and archival documents related to artworks on view.
  • Video and Media-Rich Materials – create onsite moments where the museum’s collection can come to life for visitors through video and other rich media experiences.

As new museum departments from the MFAH join the platform, the CultureConnect power-users on the interpretation team support colleagues through instruction and create ready-to-use app frameworks to help launch projects quickly.

A great example is the work being developed by the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA) at the MFAH. The ICAA’s Documents of Latin American and Latino Art project is a treasure trove of primary resources related to the museum’s collection of Latin American Art. The ICAA is using CultureConnect’s platform to share archival documents, journals, photographs, videos, and more, in English and Spanish to help bring historical context and interpretive depth to the Latin American Art collection.

"The museum team felt an imperative to get content to people. If our audience was going to stay engaged with us, we needed to give them something valuable."

– Chelsea Shannon, Interpretation Manager

Evolving Interactives During COVID-19

When the pandemic hit, the museum had to respond quickly to continue serving the public but also had to reevaluate their existing apps and plans for upcoming experiences in the new wing. To accommodate existing in-gallery experiences, the decision was made to include QR codes next to the touchscreens. This alerted visitors to the presence of a digital component and by making a QR code available, all visitors could open the app on their personal device.

With content on their own phone, visitors could now browse freely without rushing to make room for waiting guests. This also permits visitors to stand a safe distance from each other and more broadly, explore the content where they’re most comfortable. Having these options in place provided perfect testing grounds for their new building opening which is scheduled for November 21, 2020.

COVID-19 Response: Online Exhibitions

Solving access issues for onsite experiences was not the only interpretive obstacle the museum team had to overcome. The interpretation team needed to activate their staff to develop content and build online experiences quickly. In-person exhibitions and programs needed to be re-imagined for an online experience: 

  • Eye on Houston – the annual exhibition is open to high school students to contribute their personal artwork. While the exhibition normally takes place on-site, offering it online was a great opportunity to highlight local teens and their creativity and share it with an even larger audience. 
  • Stronger Than COVID – the project provided a platform for the  museum’s school partners, highlighting  high school photography students’s documentation of their Senior year experiences during COVID.

To optimize the build of each application, the museum team created a design standard for these rapidly launching online experiences. The museum team prototyped different layouts with a diversity of content to see which templates served them best across a variety of use cases and user devices. The masonry layout system for Advanced Interactive was the winner – it excelled at sharing a huge variety of collection items and pieces of media while also looking beautiful on desktops, laptops, mobile phones, and more.

Partners in Change

The MFAH is one of the most active Enterprise License clients and they were a valuable partner during the pandemic, with their feedback providing real-time ideas for evolving the online exhibition tools. Each new feature, new tool, or new CMS update further empowered the MFAH museum team to build content experiences for their audience.

Features launched for all customers that the MFAHinfluenced include:

  • Content duplication – the need to build content quickly called for faster approaches. Using our new duplication feature, clients can duplicate individual content pages or full experiences for rapid builds.
  • Nesting Content – Online exhibitions often call for deeper levels of content than an in-gallery interactive requires. With the museum team’s feedback, we expanded the page linking architecture now providing more possibility for content strategy.
  • Simplified controls – for sharing apps and linking people to external content via improved responsive designs.

What’s Next

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is looking toward the future. In addition to expanding their mobile guide audio content and continuing the launch of in-gallery interactives for the new museum wing, many more projects are on the horizon.

  • Several online exhibitions are launching during the Fall of 2020. The Glassell School of Art, a division of the museum, will launch online exhibitions to continue their annual tradition of juried student shows and even encouraging students to produce digital work from home.
  • The museum is not just expanding the content in their apps but also expanding access to the CultureConnect platform. The museum’s Hirsch Library joined early into the pandemic to create an interactive newsletter for members, replace their onsite special collections exhibitions, and even launch online experiences to showcase students’ work from the Art History department at University of Houston.

As new museum departments and divisions from the MFAH join the platform, the interpretation team act as the internal CultureConnect knowledge base. As power users on the platform, they are able to empower colleagues through instruction and create ready-to-use app frameworks and solutions for others who need to launch projects quickly.

With 2021 approaching, the museum team is now focused on solutions for the future of learning, collection stories, and connecting with diverse audiences through digital experiences.