Modern Isn't Even The Word For It

New York's refurbished MOMA boasts futuristic technology to guide and inform visitors

Think of it as the modernization of the Modern. Four years ago, New York's Museum of Modern Art embarked on an $858 million rebuilding project. The new facility, which opens to the public on Nov. 20, has been widely lauded for its soaring atrium, wide-open galleries, and huge windows opening onto mid-Manhattan.

But MOMA's transformation goes well beyond steel and glass: Management grabbed the chance to install state-of-the-art technology, too. The upgrades -- developed with help from IBM -- include a wireless network, multimedia personal digital assistants that guide visitors through the exhibits, and a 35-foot flat-panel display in the lobby where pulsating photos of art will be interspersed with instant updates on shows or lectures. The museum also is considering using wireless-tracking technology to monitor its 150,000 works of art, from three-ton sculptures to the tiniest drawings. When you "start with a clean slate," says MOMA Chief Operations Officer James Gara, "you're not anchored to the past. And that includes how you deal with technology."

MOMA's moves put it in the vanguard among tech-savvy museums at a time when many are under intense pressure to improve operating efficiency and draw more visitors. If these experiments pan out, wireless multimedia guides and other elements of MOMA's strategy could pop up at museums worldwide.

MOMA has big plans for its PDAs, which are basic Toshiba Corp. (TOSBF ) Pocket PCs. The first offering will be an architectural tour of the museum, featuring historic film clips and video interviews with architects and curators. "We want to enhance the art, not supplant it," says Steve Peltzman, MOMA's chief information officer. As the system gets up and running, the staff hopes to tap into the wireless network so visitors can access information on the fly from the museum's digital archives. Ultimately, art watchers should be able to log onto MOMA's Web site and customize their tours, which will be downloaded to a handheld when they arrive.

There's plenty of new technology coming behind the scenes as well. Next year, MOMA will experiment with the radio-frequency-identification technology used by the likes of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT ) to track inventory. The museum hopes RFID can be adapted to track works of art.

Don't expect MOMA's tech relaunch to be glitch-free. During a recent test, CIO Peltzman had to make minor adjustments to the ticketing system. But once the kinks are worked out, this stuff could be nearly as artful as the art itself.

By Steve Hamm in New York

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