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In conversation with: Heidi Quicksilver, Director of Technology at The Broad

The Broad in Los Angeles and their Director of Technology, Heidi Quicksilver

In May 2022, the Broad in Los Angeles opened the doors to its newest exhibition entitled Takashi Murakami: Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow. An expansive collection of 18 works, this special exhibition incorporates a number of immersive environments. These are the product of an exciting collaboration between Takashi Murakami and The Broad with support from Murakami’s own studio, KaiKai Kiki Co., the creative specialists at BUCK, and Meta.

This ambitious project not only brought together an incredible depth of talent and expertise but also marked the first AR experience of its kind to be featured at The Broad. To find out more about this important and innovative exhibition, MuseumNext caught up with The Broad’s Director of Technology, Heidi Quicksilver.

Having worked in museum technology for over 20 years, The Broad’s Director of Technology, Heidi Quicksilver is no stranger to pushing the boundaries in museums, having been involved with a range of innovative projects over the course of her career. Yet she explains that incorporating the immersive elements to Takashi Murakami’s exhibition required great agility and speed.

Screenshots of the Takashi Murakami AR installation developed by BUCK / ©2022 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved

“It was fast and furious,” says Heidi. “In addition to the more traditional aspects of an exhibition, incorporating an immersive experience added a whole new layer of questions around what needed to be achieved; what the components should be; how they would fit into the broader exhibition; what the timeline was; which partners to work with; and what the approvals process would look like.”

The exhibition features many of the works that Takashi Murakami believes to be his best, including In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow and DOB in the Strange Forest (Blue DOB), which shows DOB in a field of psychedelic mushrooms. Despite tight time constraints, Heidi suggests that bringing the digital elements of the exhibition to life surpassed the expectations of everyone involved in the exhibition. Between Murakami and The Broad, supported by Meta and the chosen creative agency, BUCK, an initial four AR elements were originally agreed. But the end product saw six stunning AR installations created.

“There were so many ideas, so many opportunities, so much potential between the exhibition and the technology that it became a case of reining things in rather than struggling for ideas. The more we played with things, the more it became apparent that there were no limits to the cool stuff we could create.

“For me, that’s what this project was all about: exploring what was possible and what we could deliver in order to open the door to new initiatives in the future.

The AR experience

One of the most interesting elements to this immersive experience is that it brings into play a Beta version of Spark AR on Instagram, released by Meta specifically for The Broad’s exhibition.

“We were basically testing a new technology in Spark AR on the Instagram platform. The experience uses target tracking to create a new indoor AR walk experience to place objects in space around the user.

“Essentially it builds on the kind of ‘filter’ technology that people are familiar with from Instagram. But the difference is that the AR component responds to a target or an anchor within a space which places the AR experience in a specific location rather than simply floating around your head in the way that many selfie filters would.

“This ensures that the experience functioned as a three-dimensional artwork in their own right: you can walk around it, see it from different angles and appreciate it as you would a painting on a wall or sculpture in a gallery. It’s just that you view it via the Instagram app.”

In total, the exhibition consists of six different AR installations – all of which are digital versions of existing Murakami artworks. As Heidi explains, just two of these reside in the ticketed exhibition itself, with two in the museum’s lobby and two more outside where the general public can view them without needing a reservation.

To access the AR experience, users simply need to scan a QR code on the floor to open an Instagram filter. With Instagram open on a phone, the viewer can then point their camera at one of the six target pictures in order to summon the AR artworks.

Interestingly, to ensure that the AR elements worked smoothly, Instagram released a global update to its app in order to accommodate the new features specifically required for the exhibition at The Broad.

Collaboration is king

Asked about the pros and cons of collaborating with external partners versus building internal teams on this type of project, Heidi is quick to suggest that the benefits of working with specialist partners far outweigh the drawbacks. Heidi suggests that the expertise and agility that external partners can bring to the table is a real asset for an institution like The Broad.

“In my experience there is a huge benefit to being able to collaborate with not just one tech partner but multiple teams in this way. To build an internal team that could replicate that skillset and deliver in those timeframes would require huge resources and, to be honest, we need project-specific personnel.”

“We are a small team and working with specific external partners on specific projects allows us to stay nimble and tap specific partners with specific skills for each project.”

Heidi also explains that there can be a benefit to bringing “non-museum technologists” to the table to help explore new or different ideas. Often, these are innovations that are being applied in different industries successfully to enhance experiences, drive sales or improve data acquisition.

“Certainly, Meta and BUCK were great partners to work with and we would love to collaborate with them again in the future. From permissions to accessibility issues to usability considerations and visitor flow ideas, they listened to everything that we needed to get across. And, of course, they brought so many ideas and innovations to the table. They really were a delight to work with.”

Screenshots of the Takashi Murakami AR installation developed by BUCK / ©2022 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved

Two camps in technological development

Asked for her view on how extended reality has advanced in recent times, Heidi admits that the pandemic has certainly accelerated adoption and technologies have moved on to make AR and VR more accessible. But she asserts that the pandemic may also have created two distinct camps of thinking:

“There are people who learned a lot more about how to use technology, enhance their lives and become digitally literate. Even things like ordering groceries. That’s made certain technologies more mainstream – like scanning QR codes to activate AR experiences. This has enabled museums to be a bit more adventurous without feeling like they are being exclusionary. Having smartphones in every visitor’s hand has simply made certain digital formats easier and virtually ubiquitous.

“Of course, there are also people who have had enough of technology being so central to their life. Those people simply don’t want to be reliant on apps, Zoom calls and other tools any longer. They are looking to return to the physical, in-person experience.

“For us, that’s fine too. We’re using technologies like AR precisely because they are not intrusive. It is possible for the extended digital experience to sit comfortably alongside the physical exhibition. Visitors can choose to engage with it or not.”

As has been well documented, the Takashi Murakami exhibition is heavily influenced by the pandemic. As Heidi explains, finding the balance between the online space – where people are isolated but can easily access art digitally – and the traditional museum experience is a challenge that this new exhibition tackles with real thought and care.

“There’s an opportunity here, not just for engaging a younger audience, but for understanding our audience better in a number of ways.”

Heidi indicates that the initial data produced by Meta based on Instagram activations has been incredibly encouraging. With over a million impressions recorded from the exhibition in the opening weeks there’s no doubt that footfall is well and truly back at The Broad. And within that data lies more detail relating to the location, age and gender of visitors.

“It helps us gain important insights and shows how, using this kind of tool, we can get a better grasp of what’s working. Ultimately, this should enable us to grow our reach, evolve our programming and keep engagement high.”

Although there are no immediate plans in place for another AR experience of this kind, Heidi says,

“Of course, I have a lot of ideas swimming around in my head. But whether it’s working with another artist in a similar way, running something focused entirely on visitor engagement or something entirely different that we do next, only time will tell.”

 

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