Seattle Art Museum’s first-ever CTO sculpts SAM’s technology future on a non-profit budget

Seattle Art Museum CTO Manish Engineer. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

Even in a region of technology giants and in an age of screens, it might be possible to overdo tech in an art museum.

“I’ve been in some museums where people are holding up an iPad, they’re walking around, and all they’re doing is looking at the art on their iPad, and they’re not even looking at the painting itself,” said Manish Engineer, Seattle Art Museum’s new chief technology officer. “They’re talking about this retina display on their iPad, but I’m like, ‘Use your retinas!’”

Maintaining that balance between technology and art fascinates Engineer, who joined SAM as its first-ever CTO in March.

“I always want to make sure that people are looking at the art more so than anything else,” he said. “When you think of things like visual hierarchy, I want to make sure that the art is first and on top of hierarchy.” And that phone or tablet with its supplemental information? “I want to make sure that’s secondary,” he said.

Engineer — who came to SAM from the well-known Museum of Modern Art in New York City — chatted with GeekWire for an episode of our special podcast series on the arts, popular culture, and science fiction. His new role is described by the 85-year-old cultural institution as overseeing technology and digital efforts to amplify the museum’s mission and improve its operations. That means guiding both what patrons see and what keeps SAM running behind the scenes.

Listen to the episode below or subscribe to the GeekWire Podcast to listen in your favorite podcast app.

And yes, Engineer is his real name, and yes, it’s pronounced exactly how it looks.

That’s created a bit of a challenge at times. “People think I have a fake job resume, a template resume like John Software or something,” he said. “So I always have to put in the cover letter, ‘Yes, this is my real name. Don’t throw it away. It’s not junk mail.”

Engineer’s resume also includes an unusual combination of credentials. He has a Masters of Art in contemporary art, an MBA, and an undergraduate degree in computer science and engineering, which may give him a unique perspective on art and technology.

Engineer thinks a lot of people don’t realize how much technology is required to power a museum. “There’s a lot of databases we use for everything from ticketing systems, to CRM systems to track our members and donors, to our collections database,” he said. “There’s this whole kind of sub-industry of collection systems, how we track our archives and our art that we have.”

Web archive of the Layar app augmented reality guide for a past SAM exhibition.

Then there’s the in-museum experience, which requires robust WiFi infrastructure and what is perhaps the most visible visitor technology: the exhibit, or audio, guide.

Engineer said the range of visitor guide technology starts with the old-style number on a wall that you enter into a device to get an audio description of art, to multimedia and handheld augmented reality. “You have a phone and you point your camera to the work of art and it will then show additional information on the painting,” he said. “There will be arrows pointing to maybe where the artist painted over, it may show an X-ray of something on the backside. Things like that are really neat.”

But because AR requires a visitor take several steps, including an app download, museums like SAM have to weigh what works best. SAM supports more than one approach, including AR experiences in some exhibitions using the Layar app.

Engineer says there have been some technology fails at museums, too, such as experiments with beacons that trigger content automatically when a visitor walks into a new area. “I think beacon technology has been hit or miss,” he said. “I know other museums that have installed hundreds of beacons all over their museum, and afterwards we asked what they’re doing with it, and I don’t hear a lot of results.”

Seattle Art Museum on Instagram, one of its several social media feeds.

Beyond the formal physical space, Engineer sees museums’ roles increasingly embracing an out-of-museum experience, both on the web and on mobile. He recalled being impressed with how MoMA defined its three locations: the main museum, a contemporary gallery, and then its website.

“The website had as equal importance as their physical space,” he said. “So when they were creating content and when they were deploying an exhibition, the website had a lot of prominence and they really worked with the artists to really put up information there.”

Engineer said that helped make the website a place for art discovery, education, and additional information. “People who couldn’t visit the museum could go there and just learn about the exhibition,” he said.

SAM also has recently hired its first full-time social media manager. It has a presence on Instagram (“the most visual” of its social media feeds, according to Engineer), Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

It’s still too early to see how Engineer’s thinking will fully translate to Seattle and SAM. He does plan to work with local tech giants, including SAM supporter Microsoft, even as he wrestles with them over new tech hires. “I think one of the challenges is budget. We’re a nonprofit so it’s tough getting a lot done here with little budget,” he said. “We’re competing against these people that have big, deep pockets.”

SAM’s Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park, now under renovation. (SAM Photo)

There are some light tech touches in the upcoming SAM exhibition about Native America, Double Exposure, which runs from June 14 through September 9. And technology is a part of other art on display. But perhaps the largest fresh technology canvas on which Engineer himself will be able to paint is the extensive renovation now underway for SAM’s Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park.

“We’re actively looking at different solutions there,” he said. “Everything from an interactive map when you first walk in to some more augmented reality, mixed reality” in, for example, the huge ceramics room. “An ancient pot from Japan … may have writing on it that you may not understand, and then looking at a app and see, it actually means this, or it is from this area,” he said.

But whatever is developed, expect its impact to be felt by individuals beyond museum walls. “We want to expose the images from our exhibitions to those people,” Engineer said. “We want to educate … and allow people to interact with the museum on their own terms.”

Listen to this episode in the player above and subscribe to the GeekWire Podcast in Apple Podcasts, Google Play or your favorite podcast app. Podcast production and editing by Clare McGrane.

Previously in this series: Inside MoPOP’s world-premiere Marvel exhibit: The human sides of heroes and their creators

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