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Art Institute to use iPads to add to visitors’ experience


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Updated: November 27, 2012 10:52AM

Steve Jobs, meet mid-19th Century English architect Augustus Pugin.

The two men’s work — and the works of dozens of other artists — merge on Sunday when the Art Institute of Chicago rolls out LaunchPad, a series of iPads filled with custom information available throughout the Eloise W. Martin European Galleries of Decorative Arts.

The iPads are loaded with sounds like the chimes of a 300-year-old clock, extreme close-ups of artistic details, like jewels on a Pugin chalice, and demonstrations on how the objects were made. They’re strategically placed on custom-designed stanchions or in specially-designed pockets in benches throughout the galleries.

“The guards would never let you get this close to it,” said Sam Quigley, vice president for collection management, imaging and information technology, standing between an ornately-painted 1859 sideboard and an iPad explaining the humorous story of “Saint Bacchus” told on the piece of furniture. “One can do this on the Web — we do this all the time. But we want visitors to go back and forth” between the new information and the actual piece of art.

The supplemental information highlights 50 of the 250 pieces on display in the European Decorative Arts collection.

LaunchPad gives visitors unprecedented access, said Ghenete Zelleke, the Samuel and M. Patricia Grober Curator in the Department of European Decorative Arts.

“We want to give the experience we have as curators where we can open drawers, pick things up, feel the weight,” Zelleke said.

Starting next month, LaunchPad will expand into the Byzantine art galleries, and will eventually be found museum-wide. The Art Institute also plans to offer free WiFi throughout the museum early next year, all part of an effort to enhance the technological experience for museum visitors.

“People are coming together for a multitude of reasons and they want to get a multitude of needs addressed” at the Art Institute, Quigley said. “We’re trying to utilize the technology of today.”

The Art Institute experience eventually will include ways for anyone in the museum to access additional museum-related content on their personal mobile devices, Quigley said.

Museum staff worked for nearly two years on the LaunchPad project, which involved everything from creating custom animations of different objects to drilling holes through the floors for electrical wires to designing iPad-holding benches that work within the gallery’s aesthetics.

The funding for LaunchPad came from Art Institute trustee Melinda Sullivan, daughter of Eloise W. Martin, whom the decorative arts galleries are named after.

Sullivan “saw this as a way of capturing the attention of the new generation raised with things like iPads, touching and zooming,” Zelleke said. “They’re manipulating their own path.”

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