How three big New York museums are embracing the app experience

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In a classic case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, museums and art galleries around the world are embracing the opportunities of new technology in an effort to keep up with the times and grow their audiences, or, in some cases, just to hold onto them. The Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Modern Art — some of New York’s most prominent museums and art galleries are all are developing and showcasing their own apps as a way to enhance the experience.

The Guggenheim
While relatively late to the party (the New Museum has been experimenting with the technology since last year), A firm called Toura has created an app that can be downloaded and allows Guggenheim visitors to appreciate the retrospective exhibition from Italian-born Maurizo Cattelan. It’s a bold step for one of the world’s most prominent and respected museums. A display of some 130 artworks from that great “jester” hangs from the rotunda of the Guggenheim, each without context or explanation of when and where they were first seen. While a fold-out paper describing each work is available, the app developed by the museum truly takes the experience to another level. As you walk up the spiral stairs of the museum, you can touch the picture on your iPad or iPhone and find out more information about a particular work — be it how Pope John Paul II came to be shown struck down by a meteorite or how Hitler was brought to be depicted on his knees.

The app works effectively because the nature of the display is not conducive to labelling on the walls, as with most traditional exhibitions. So your experience is wholly enhanced by interacting with both the artworks in front of you and the app, explaining and detailing the tidbits of information — be they video, or audio explanations in the words of the artist, or more pictures from the works’ original setting. You can take the app home with you, or it can be downloaded to view outside the city, but it is best explored with the exhibit in front of you, enhancing the way you interpret the art you see.

While the museum doesn’t have any specifics to share about the costs involved or plans for the next app, it does report that visitors’ response since it launched on 3 November has been “extremely positive.” Lauren Van Natten, Associate Director for Media and Public Relations says: “On site in the galleries, visitors have commented on how useful the app is to identify particular works and then learn more about them.”

Museum of Modern Art
Other museums here are also exploring their own specific ways to use apps. MoMA has developed its app in a more general sense, giving information for the whole museum or a whole section of the gallery. But it doesn’t work in the same way as it does for the Guggenheim. One can listen to audio snippets describing the particular artwork, as I did for the De Kooning exhibition, but there are no added pictures/illustrations or ideas to work with. What adds to the experience at the Guggenheim is being able to see the artwork, in many cases, in the first setting in which it was originally experienced, and compare that with its contemporary space.

The Natural History
The Natural History Museum takes this to the next level. Last year, it spent $1-million to create a Wi-Fi network throughout its building to encourage visitors to use its mobile apps. Its most recent exhibition, Beyond Planet Earth, has an app that conjures up 3D images of solar systems and spacecraft on visitors’ phones, so in effect, going beyond what the exhibition can show, casting an eye not to the past, but towards the future.

Like the Guggenheim, the Natural History museum employs technical staff to develop apps in-house. While these museums and galleries continue to look at issues of budget, design and how best to use the technology, there is one note of certainty that comes from the American Association of Museums. It says half of its member museums will be using mobile devices in some way by the end of the year, and has encouraged the institutions to embrace this.

Image: [bastian]

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