Boca Raton Museum of Art
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May 4, 2016
Pros and Cons of Smartphones in the Museum

Andre Gisson, Museum, 1991, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches. Permanent Collection 1992.147. From Michael and Peggy Gourgourinis and Galerie Mihalis on behalf of the artist.

A recent article in the New York Times, “From Picassos to Sarcophagi, Guided by iPhone Apps,” addressed the omnipresence of smartphones and the insatiable lust of their users for new and better apps. In this case, the topic is, what apps are useful or could potentially be useful in a museum setting?

Renowned museums like the New York Museum of Modern Art, the American Museum of Natural History and the Brooklyn Museum make use of smartphone apps to better lead their guests through the exhibitions. In general, once the app is downloaded to the mobile device (each family of smartphones require a unique platform specific app) and the user is in the building they can click through information on specific artworks. Some of the electronic information supplements the material available on the wall text, some expand the experience with audio feeds while others offer no more than what is on view in the museum.

Writer Edward Rothstein notes the differences between the more common museum audio tour equipment versus the information available via the smartphone app. In sum, he isn’t overly impressed with the apps but notes there will most definitely be improvements to come, as the programs are still in their infancy.

About the MoMa app he writes, “Moreover, apart from the audio itself, information is slight and availability inconsistent. Search for works by Warhol: some have almost no commentary; others offer excerpts from a book; others link to audio commentary. The app never got easier to use; it remained fussy and interfering. It was a relief to turn it off.”

Overall, the applications are meant to supplement the viewing experience, not detract from it. Even if the first version is a bit tedious, it is no doubt that subsequent versions will become more streamlined as time passes.

I, myself, remember wishing I could lug all of my Contemporary Art History texts into the Centre Pompidou so that I could better show my friend the genesis of video art (which I had studied at university) while we looked at each piece in the exhibition. Instead, I could only suggest some preemptory reading for the train ride, and then had to rely on my own fallible memory once we were inside. I pity anyone who owns a smartphone who dares enter a museum with me now. There is no doubt I would hijack it in the name of on-the-spot research.

Which brings us to an obvious contention that many curators must have with using applications. Curators tend to mount shows in such a way that the artworks conduct a dialogue with each other. The visitors to the show are expected to consider the layout as a whole, and then focus more finely on specific areas. For instance, what does this gallery have in common with other galleries on this floor? What is different? And then, is there a theme to the series of artworks on this wall? Or, why is this specific painting hung above that drawing? The nuances of how a show is hung could easily be lost with most of the audience’s heads bent, looking up the corresponding image on their phones. It is possible that one could miss a larger concept found in the gallery at MoMa while looking up the specifics of Francis Bacon’s biography on Wikipedia.

But, the world is moving on, as they say and we shall move with it. The BRMA has an application available for viewing on our website through a Cooliris feed or through the Cooliris app on an iphone or ipad. It presents images from the permanent collection with their provenance on a 3-D wall. This presentation allows you to either continually scroll laterally through the exhibition or step through it in a traditional slide show format. The Museum’s eGallery makes viewing the works infinitely easier.

We have not yet implemented an application on the scale of the New York museums, but a visitor can use our eGallery while in the museum to identify which artworks they would like to see as well as read wall text that accompanies the pieces. Because Executive Director George Bolge chose the artworks as if he were planning a traditional gallery exhibition a visitor can experience a contextually complete experience from anywhere in the world or use it as a guide while visiting the Museum to find some of its most cherished pieces.

What kinds of applications would you like to see available at the museum?


Posted by: Kelli Bodle, Curatorial Assistant @ Tuesday, October 26, 2010 4:09:35 pm 
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