The Museum of Modern Art app puts information at visitors’ fingertips.September 10, 2010
The next time you’re about to visit a museum, do yourself a favor and drop in on your favorite app store first. Although this article is not about augmented reality we believe that museum guides of this magnitude are a great development for the mobile industry. We are already working on indoor museum features right now so it’s just a matter of time before we will bring these concepts to your local museum. Just imagine transporting yourself to the atelier of Picasso or Mondriaan when looking at one of their sketches and paintings. We already did a great AR project with Stedelijk Museum ARTours. Have a look at the blogpost over here.
Most institutions have not yet created a mobile app, but as a group, museums are headed in that direction. In the last few months, free apps were released by the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History, in New York; the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (which also has an Android app).
I recently tested the newest museum apps for New York. While they take distinctly different approaches, they demonstrate the vast potential for technology to help people make the most of a museum visit.
They can also point to a restroom in a hurry.
The Museum of Natural History Explorer, which arrived in July, features a navigation system that, while flawed, helps users find exhibits and museum facilities more easily than with a printed map.
While visiting the museum with my wife and two children, for instance, we knew we couldn’t tackle the entire building in a few hours, so we opened the Tours section of the app and chose the Highlights Tour from among the four itineraries listed. (We could have also found specific exhibits in a nicely arranged directory.)
The Highlights Tour includes three options, depending on the number of preferred stops. The real magic of the app begins when it finds the nearest attraction, or plots a course between you and any other exhibit you choose.
Unfortunately, it can be unreliable. In various places in the museum — near the Giant Sequoia exhibit, to name one — the device had a hard time finding me.
A spokesman, Lowell Eschen, said the museum was still working out the kinks in its geolocation technology. But even when the app can’t spot you, the map offers step-by-step directions to an exhibit from the last place it saw you, so you can find your way easily enough.
The navigation system also points to dining areas, shops, exits and restrooms.
The app is free, but I would have happily paid for the restroom finder when we were near Lucy, the legendary Australopithecus afarensis, when my children heard the call of nature. Rather than wander in urgent circles seeking a museum worker or restroom sign, I tapped two buttons on the iPhone and it led us toward relief.
For a reality check, later the same day we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has no dedicated app. Finding restrooms was no problem, since the Met fairly teems with security guards who can guide visitors. But I would have much preferred a more guided, multidimensional experience to the Met’s paper map.
Purists will claim that museums are made for getting lost, and that art is not about efficiency. But by 4 p.m., we had hungry children with sore feet, and we had a train to catch. Only the Temple of Dendur remained on our list. Getting lost in the Dutch Masters would not have enriched anyone.
A few days later I made a solo run to the Museum of Modern Art, and found its new iPhone app helpful in the extreme. (The app’s lead developer at MoMA, Spencer Kiser, said the museum hoped to release an Android app by the end of year, and a Web site tailored to other mobile devices like BlackBerrys.)
The MoMA app is fine at guiding visitors around the museum, with an adequate floor map and floor-by-floor exhibit listings, but its real sweet spot is its Modern Voices audio tours.
Instead of standing in line for one of the museum’s audio devices, or skipping the audio completely and fighting my way past crowds to read the wall descriptions, I pulled out my iPhone.
I stood before Kara Walker’s “Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart,” on MoMA’s second floor. Thanks to Ms. Walker’s description, the experience far surpassed what it would have been with my lazy eye.
The app can also take users on an audio tour of various floors before they even enter the museum, but only about 15 percent of the works have an audio complement, and some of those works cannot be pictured on the app because of copyright limitations. (That was the case with Ms. Walker’s work.)
The software includes another appealing feature, in which users can e-mail a snapshot of a particular work, and it will arrive to the recipient with the MoMA brand on the photo. The three photos I sent never arrived, but Mr. Kiser said he had heard no similar complaints.
Aside from museum-specific apps, iPhone users can also get help finding museums and exhibits in New York and Washington with the Museum Guide apps ($3 for New York, free for Washington). The New York Art iPhone app ($1) is a worthy rival.
IPad users can also check out the new Diana Curran app ($5), which is an interactive coffee table book, of sorts, featuring photos taken during Ms. Curran’s museum visits.
With the exception of the San Francisco MoMA app, Android users don’t have many museum-specific options. They can find nearby museums easily with the free Museum app, which is fast and generally effective, if a bit shallow.
Wolf Mountain Apps, likewise, offers an interactive map with Web links to an institution’s Web site, in its free Montreal Museums and Stockholm Museums apps. Androids Future, another developer, presents more in-depth information for cities like Philadelphia and Boston, through its free apps like Museums in Philadelphia.
BlackBerry users can try the Artnear app for similar information. Or, if they happen to be near Gatineau, Quebec, they can download the Canadian Museum of Civilization app, which offers interactive floor maps, a calendar of events and audio tours (also available on Apple devices).
It’s about as close as you can get to a combination of the Museum of Natural History and the New York MoMA app. Put another way, BlackBerry owners finally get to test a nearly state-of-the-art app.
They just have to get to Quebec to put it to use.
Bing fans now have a shortcut on Android phones. The Bing app is free, but so far it’s only available on Verizon phones. … BlackBerry users can reload their Starbucks Card or check their balance while on the road, with the free Starbucks Card Mobile App. The app, which is also available for iPhone and Android devices, will point you to your next cup of java, too. Go to Starbucks.com for the app.