Entwined: Great Art & Technology

Robert A. Flischel


The Taft Museum of Art is currently home to what can best be described as a unique fantasy experience, brought to life by world-renowned sculptor Patrick Dougherty. Dougherty, skillfully combining carpentry and his artistic vision with his signature love of nature,  took six tons of willow tree saplings – and with the assistance of 150 community volunteers – twisted and turned them into what is described as “whimsical, whirling shapes.” Located on the Taft’s front lawn, visitors, to their delight, were encouraged to touch the enchanting large-scale sculpture as they walked through it.

Yes, today’s museum visitors not only crave but expect sophisticated, exciting experiences, and the Dougherty sculpture, it seems, serves as a reminder of how art and technology can’t help but be entwined if a museum is to remain relevant in today’s a-screen-in-every-pocket society.

The Taft is responding by deploying a variety of behind-the-scenes technology-based tools to not only engage and immerse their visitors in its world-class art museum experiences, but to ensure its exhibits and collections are more accessible to a greater number of people more of the time.

From digitally-enhanced ticketing and collection cataloguing to museum visit planning – including dining and souvenir shopping – the Taft’s visitor-centric programming continues to evolve as it follows through on its commitment to deliver top-notch visitor experiences with the help of cutting-edge technology.

“Our mission at the Taft Museum of Art is to give back to people by engaging them with great art, and we do that here on-site and we also do it outside our walls and galleries,” says Lynne Ambrosini, Deputy Director and the Sallie Robinson Wadsworth Chief Curator, who has overseen the collections and exhibitions at the Taft since 2004.  “There are always so many stories, so many ways you can tell more about our works of art here, via tours and other traditional tactics. But technology is sort of the next level for us in telling and sharing those stories. So, we’re really excited to be working on a project to bring those stories together and put them in our galleries so people will come in more and explore more and learn more about the great history here at the Taft.”

Just how important to the Taft is technology as it deals with works of art that are hundreds of years old?

“In the 21st century, art museums store all critical information about their artworks digitally, using sophisticated software that is customized to their specific needs and fully searchable via numerous dimensions,” Ambrosini explains. “This enables the sharing of information within the staff but also, through add-on technology to a museum’s website, it’s accessible to the international public, including all art lovers, university scholars, and other museums. The Taft’s collection database includes high-resolution digital images of its artworks, and these may include enlarged details, conservation records, x-radiographs, infra-red images, and the like.”

“The Taft is in the process of transferring all information from an earlier, outdated collections database to a newer, more comprehensive and efficient one,” she explains. The museum now employs EmbARK, an affordable collections management software ideal for smaller institutions like the Taft, and their collections. All collection information is stored in one convenient place, while ease of export allows for easy collaboration with other professionals.

“Once that has been completed, we will load the information to a digital kiosk, linked to our general museum website, which will make all collection information available to anyone on a computer or smart phone throughout the world. Both data – artist, date, dimensions, medium, history, etc. – and images will be widely accessible for the first time.  As our mission is to ‘provide meaningful experiences by connecting people with great art,’ this effort is essential to fulfilling that mission.”

“From audio guides to interactive digital exhibits, technological tools that help visitors experience a museum’s collection have become part of what many guests enjoy and expect,” says Elise Solomon, Director of Learning and Engagement at the Taft. “Technology allows us to connect our visitors with our collection in a variety of ways. Labels and tours can only tell some stories, but technology expands our capacity to offer engaging experiences that can go beyond traditional didactics. As technology becomes more integrated into our lives, it’s reasonable to expect that our audience will be seeking to consume information in the way they are used to – through devices.

“I think that technology is really an exciting tool our museum uses to dive more deeply into the content that is present in our galleries,” Solomon adds. “I mean, we’re sitting here in a room that has so many incredible stories that our visitors want to know them, and this is the way we make them come to life. So, it’s very exciting to be working on this project to tell these incredible stories that connect our visitors to our collection and the history of this great city.”

According to Solomon, the Taft is excited about its use of a variety of digital components across its Bicentennial Reinterpretation Project, working toward offering visitors a variety of ways to learn much  more.

“From the audio guide that can be accessed by dialing a phone number on your mobile device to touchscreen iPads providing visitors a deeper dive into exhibition content, we are already experimenting with new ways of conveying information in the galleries,” Solomon notes. “As part of the Bicentennial Project, we are working on a new touchscreen kiosk experience. This device will tell the story of our founders and their historic house, as well as provide a closer look at some of the highlights of our permanent collection.”

The stories the Taft is looking to tell are a direct response to consistent visitor feedback asking for this sort of information.

“We are looking forward to sharing our rich content with our visitors in these new, interactive ways,” Solomon says.

A passion for art and making the Taft’s amazing collection more accessible is the key, Solomon and Ambrosini agree.

“But we need someone locally to help us with the engineering here on site and help us with maintenance that may occur after the project is completed,” Solomon says. “For that, we look to Global Business Solutions.”

The GBS Managed IT Services Connection

“The Taft Museum of Art is a small organization without a dedicated IT department but with many technology needs, from basic computer-based office work, to visitor feedback capture in our galleries, to the AV needs of major events,” says Nick DeCourcy, Director of Operations and Visitor Experience at the Taft. “Having a partner such as Global Business Solutions that is dedicated to making sure all these technologies work allows our staff to focus on the areas where they truly add value – in delivering an exceptional experience for guests, sharing our passion for our art, and connecting with our audience both at the museum and in the community.”

GBS, a full-service, fully integrated IT and business technology solutions provider serving Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, is dedicated to ensuring all of the technologies at Taft Museum of Art are integrated and performing at peak capacity.

“Maintaining the environmental conditions in the museum is extremely important for the care of the art,” DeCourcy continues. “We have a sophisticated zoned HVAC system with a network of sensors around the building that monitor both temperature and relative humidity. Additionally, our curatorial staff take manual readings each day. When these readings are not in line with agreed set points, our HVAC contractor can make system adjustments remotely via the internet to correct the problem and ensure the safety of our collections.”

For Taft Museum of Art, selecting GBS as its Managed IT Services Provider (MSP) has meant the integral difference between merely maintaining business as usual and evolving toward a more modern approach to IT deployment throughout one of Cincinnati’s beloved landmark facilities.

The iconic Taft Museum of Art was founded in 1932 after Charles Phelps Taft and Anna Sinton Taft bequeathed their house and private collection of 690 artworks to the people of Cincinnati. In 2004, the house, which dates from 1820, gained a significant addition that included a café, conference facilities, a special exhibition gallery and a multi-level parking garage.

“We are very much a seven-day operation; sometimes we’re a 24/7 operation. There are lots of events that go on outside regular hours of operation, and the [IT] partner we were working with before wasn’t able to provide us with service throughout all those hours,” DeCourcy explains. “So, we put out a Request for Proposal, and GBS responded to that. We were very impressed with the response that GBS made to our request.”

“GBS’ support is essential as we look to the future, using technology to manage our collection in a more holistic, integrated way,” Ambrosini concludes.

Global Business Solutions is located at 916 Monmouth St, Newport, KY 41071. For more information, visit www.gbs-inc.com