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Understanding Art? There’s an App for That

Museum apps could send the audio wand the way of the dodo bird.
November 23, 2011

The smart phone has delivered blows to entire industries: I don’t reckon I’ll ever be buying a stand-alone GPS unit again, for instance. A report in the New York Times shows how the smart phone is disrupting that most quiet of businesses: the museum.

Museums aren’t known as the most high-tech of places. But for years, visitors to museums have enjoyed virtual tours using “audio wands,” those funny phone-receiver-shaped devices you hold up to your ear, plugging into it the code next to that Caravaggio for the backstory on all that splattering blood.

The audio wand, though, might just be an endangered species. Two New York museums have just debuted mobile apps paired with new exhibitions: the American Museum of Natural History’s free “Beyond Planet Earth” app, and the Guggenheim’s $3.99 “Maurizio Cattelan: All” app. According to a source of the Times, fully half of the members of the American Association of Museums “will be using mobile devices in some way” by the end of this year, and a “cottage industry of technology companies focused on museum apps” appears to be emerging (fewer than one in 20 museums say they have designed their own apps, though both the AMNH and Guggenheim are among them).

Museum apps can do a variety of things audio wands can’t, adding animations, video, or even a level of augmented reality. Pointing your phone at an illustration of the solar system causes a 3-D model to pop up in the “Beyond Planet Earth” app, which the Times calls “kind of cool,” if not so informative.

There seems to be an interesting tension at the center of museum apps: on the one hand, curators want them to complement the experience of walking through an exhibit; on the other, they appear to want their apps to act as possible substitutes for visiting the exhibit. While the latter aim is admirable—who doesn’t want to open up museum exhibits to the world?—it appears that most apps don’t yet do a good job of replicating the museum experience. Currently, the Google Art Project appears to be one of the best creating virtual museum visits. One employee of the Tate museum recently called the project “the most interesting development in the last nine months.”

The Washington Post report from which that quotation is drawn does an admirable job laying out the various ways in which technology is shaking up the museum world, from apps to virtual tours to “imaginary exhibitions” that only exist in cyberspace. “The consensus among experts is that the field is still in the R&D phase,” wrote the Post’s Jason Edward Kaufman in September. “But all agree that museums are inexorably are moving into the brave new virtual world.”

For the time being, makers of museum apps or other museum technologies might do best to not bite off more than they can chew. First replicate and improve upon the audio wand experience; then tackle exporting museums, in virtual form, to the world.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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