The Hackathon at the Museum

Contestants gather each year to create apps for the Museum of Art

By Sean Woodruff

Visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art often feels like stepping back in time. Its galleries are filled with 2,000-year-old ceramics, 100-year-old paintings, and statues crumbling with age.

But in a backroom of the museum, the environment feels more like a Silicon Valley startup than a 142-year-old fine arts institution.

A dozen people sit in front of computers, their screens a flurry of movement. If you look closely, you can catch glimpses of paintings by Monet and Degas as the programmers toggle between windows of complex code. The coders are here as part of the museum’s Hackathon, a six-week long competition to design innovative new apps that integrate technology with art.

The team that comes up with the best app will take home a grand prize of $2,000.

“It’s really about finding new ways to connect people to the art, and finding new ways to connect with each other,” says Ariel Schwartz, Associate Director for Interactive Technologies at the museum.

According to Schwartz, the program been a big success so far. What started as a small weekend event three years ago has grown to include almost 100 contestants.

Today, the museum is hosting a “Hacklab”, where the teams can test out their apps in the galleries and collaborate with museum staff.

Snacks and soda line the tables at the edge of the room, but they are left mostly untouched. The coders are too busy discussing plans with their teammates and tapping away at their keyboards.

***

Lacy Rhoades furrows his eyebrows. An app developer by trade, and a recent Philadelphia transplant, Rhoades thought the Hackathon would be a great way to get to know people and contribute something to his new city.

But his team has been struggling to come up with a workable idea. The biggest challenge, he says, is walking the line between engagement and distraction.

“I don’t want our app to be too game-like,” he says. “I don’t want people’s eyes to be glued to a screen.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Rhoades spent some time exploring the museum, which gave him the inkling of an idea. He was struck by how much of a personal relationship he felt with certain galleries.

“After I walked through the museum, I felt that I was changed, but also that the museum was changed in a way too. I want to catalog that feeling,” Rhoades says. “I want to create a collective virtual memory for the museum.”

Rhoades envisions an app that can track people’s journeys throughout the galleries. “Imagine seeing the virtual footsteps of people who have walked here before,” he says.

Visitors will also be able to publicly tag and comment on art pieces they feel particularly connected to. This way people can look at the app and get a sense of the history of personal connections within each gallery.

He’s excited about his idea, but he rubs his eyes as he thinks about the work left to do.

“I’m a bit of a procrastinator,” he says. But admitting that seems to give him a renewed sense of urgency and he turns back to his computer screen.

***

At the next table over, Yilin Wu lets herself subtly smirk. “We have a great idea,” she says. She speaks quietly, but without mumbling—she deliberately enunciates every syllable.

Their app, called Art Mind, is a recommendation system that will match people with works of art that they will enjoy.

“It’s like Tinder for art,” she says, “It will help you find the works of art you’ll love.”

The app will show visitors 10 works of art before they enter the galleries. People then swipe right or swipe left depending on whether they like each piece. Based on those preferences, the app will use a complicated machine-learning algorithm to build a custom museum tour for each person.

Even more impressive is that the algorithm learns over time. So the more that people use the app, the better it will get at recommending art.

If Wu’s team has time, they also wants to implement a forum feature, so that people can start discussion threads about each art piece.

But even if they don’t get a chance to implement that feature, Wu is confident that her team will make it past the preliminary judging round on May 16th.

***

Another team sits in the corner, deep in discussion. They are debating the best layout for their user interface. Rob Mruczek strokes his bright orange beard, which almost seems to glow underneath the fluorescent lighting.

His team has integrated their app with the music streaming service Spotify to create a social network based on music and art.

“The idea is that people can share songs that they associate with specific works of art,” Mruczek says. Other people can then vote on those songs, creating a crowdsourced playlist to pair with each artwork.

One benefit of a music focused app is that it encourages people to look at the art instead of down at their phone.

The app also provides a way to bring a piece of the museum back home with you. Now, once you listen to a particular song, you can think back to the work of art you saw while listening to it at the museum.

Mruczek scrolls through the app they have built so far with satisfaction. It looks polished and professional.

“Music and art are both really personal, so we thought it would be great to combine the two,” he says.

***

Schwartz, the organizer of the Hackathon, beams as he walks away from the clatter of keyboards and back towards his office. He’s proud of the way the Hackathon has grown, and is inspired by the contestants’ imaginations.

“We never know how fresh minds will attack the challenge, and we’ve been rewarded every year with approaches we’ve never thought of,” he says.

With so many innovative and ambitious projects, it’s hard to know whom the judges will award the $2,000 grand prize.

But the judges aren’t the only ones to select a winner. On May 25th, the five finalists will have the chance to showcase their apps to the public. Museum visitors will then get to choose the recipient of the $500 People’s Choice Award.

Regardless of who wins, Schwartz thinks that everyone involved in the Hackathon is important. To him, it’s not just about the final product, but about community building and creativity.

“We’re turning around the thinking of what a museum does, and should do,” says Schwartz. “It’s really exciting.”

 

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