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Computers Guide Visitors At National Gallery of Art

On Oct. 29, the National Gallery of Art in Washington unveiled its new Micro Gallery. At 13 computer stations, viewers can learn about 1,700 works in the permanent collection. Modeled on a similar setup at London's National Gallery that opened in 1991, the Washington version uses color images, text, animation, and sound to teach the rudiments of art.

''It is our goal to draw the user into the works of art to make the technology disappear,'' says Vicki Porter, Micro Gallery curator. ''We want the content to be so exciting and educational that people will quickly get past the notion that this is new technology. So far, users are taking to it like ducks to water.''

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''You control everything,'' she adds, explaining that viewers choose from thousands of pathways to explore the collection according to their tastes. They can investigate the cultural background of a work of art, the artist's life, or technical terms. They can personalize tours by printing out a map of works that show, for example, jewelry.

With 16 million colors and high-resolution digitized images, the most visual, detailed works reproduce best. In contrast, Ad Reinhardt's abstract black-on-black painting, reduced to small scale on the screen, ''looks like a mistake.'' But a Monet landscape reveals texture, impasto effects, even a camel hair from his brush stuck in the paint.

If the experience in London holds true, people will spend more time in front of the actual works of art after visiting the Micro Gallery, ''on the theory,'' Ms. Porter says, ''that the more you know, the more you get out of it.''

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