Could this be … the first decent museum app?

sfmoma

Last week my wife and I went to San Francisco. Our second full day there was mostly spent within SF MOMA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. And for the first time ever, I used a museum/heritage app that actually enhanced my visit.

Part of what made it so successful was the infrastructure that made it easy to download and use. I didn’t have to plan in advance and download it before my visit. I wasn’t even aware of it before I went, but if I had been, I would have been unlikely to download it, because our hotel’s free wifi only allowed one of us to use our device each four hour lease period.

We’d started our visit walking through the museum to the opposite entrance to contemplate the Richard Serra sculpture. It was early in the day, the museum was just opening, and there was a team-brief on the tiered seating that surround the piece. But they moved on and we sat for a moment to contemplate the enormous steel structure (I can’t deny the meditative quality of Serra’s work, or the calming impact it seems on have on the psyche when encountered, but really I sometimes feel “seen one, seen them all”) and to plan our day.

My wife noted a label on the wall directing people who wanted to know more about the art to SFMOMA’s app, and helpfully pointing out that you could log into the museum’s free wifi to download it. I think it said that it was iOS only, but if you didn’t have a suitable device, you could borrow one.

The first pleasure was logging onto the wifi. This was possibly the most hassle-free process I’ve ever encountered on public wifi. The signal was strong (everywhere), reliable and speedy too. The app downloaded quickly, and upon opening gave me three screens introducing what it offered, such as the one below:

It wanted access to my location services (of course), camera and, unusually, to my activity (the “healthy living” function of more recent versions of iOS), but having been so pleasantly surprised and satisfied by the process so far, I was very happy to allow both. All this had taken very little time, but enough time for my wife to have wandered away towards the elevators to begin our exploration of the museum, so I hurried after her, scanning what was on offer from the app as I went.

There’s a highlights function, which includes “Our picks for forty must-see artworks that are currently on view”, a timeline function that enables you to record and share your visit, and section on other “things to do”, and of course the ability to buy tickets, membership etc. At the core of the app are “Immersive Walks”: a range of fifteen to 45 minute audio tours of the galleries.

On no! I’d left my earphones back at the hotel.

But that wasn’t a problem, because as I caught my wife up by the elevators, I saw a stand stacked high with cases of SFMOMA-orange ear-buds. These were given away free and of a somewhat disposable quality, but good enough to last the day (and to pass on to my son when we got back from the holiday) with in-line volume controls for ease of use. The thought and effort that SFMOMA put into the infrastructure around the app deserves to be commended.

But lets get to the meat of the app’s functionality. The key thing here is indoor positioning. I’m guessing it’s achieved through wifi mobile location analytics, but I haven’t confirmed that. I can confirm that its pretty accurate, though with a little bit of lag, so it takes a while after walking into a gallery, and then standing still for a moment, before your device can deliver to you the buttons for the content relevant to the artworks on the gallery. Some, but not all, of the artworks are accompanied by a specific bit of media (mostly audio) to offer more in-depth insight into the work. This can include commentary, reviews or snippets of interviews with the artist.

I also took an immersive walk. I chose German to Me, a personal exploration of post-war German artists from radio journalist Luisa Beck, in which she shares her reaction on some of the works in the collection and interviews for mother, grandmother and cousin to uncover more about her own German-American identity. As the tour progresses you are guided, not just by Luisa’s spoken directions, but also by the app’s indoor positioning, as shown below.

I have to say, I would have given these galleries the most cursory of glances, had I not been captured by Luisa’s tour. As it was, her (wholly un-sensational) story, and her commentary upon the art engaged me emotionally to a degree I wasn’t expecting. It enhanced my visit like no other app has achieved.

The phone also recorded my “timeline”, my journey through the museum, on-line so that I can share with others the photos I took, the artworks that caught my attention enough to seek more information from the app, and the tours I went you. As you can see, I spent three and a half hours with the app, walking 3,369 steps (or 1.7 miles). This timeline is the only slightly disappointing aspect of the app – I would have like to have clicked through this on-line version to listen to some of the media again, now that I am back home, maybe even to be reminded (though the apps abilities to determine location) who made some of things that I took photos of.

You’ll know that I’m not a massive fan of looking at things through my phone, but this app did well enough to almost convince me otherwise.

The museum had other digital interventions of interest. You might have spotted in my timelime that one of the first things we looked at was a surveillance culture-inspired artwork by Julia Scher that turned the museum in to Responsive Environment, changing according to visitors actions.

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There was also a fun activity in one of the cafe’s that allowed you to create your own digital artwork, printing it out on thermal paper instantly, but also linking to a hi-res online version, which I used for the illustration at the top of this post (you will note that those free earbuds are the stars of that piece).

SFMOMA, with their technology partners Detour on the app, and the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, are doing good things in the digital sphere. If your are there, you should check them out.

One thought on “Could this be … the first decent museum app?

  1. […] The idea of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs across digital and possibly even realworld platforms is attractive. Not just for the trailblazer to look back on, but for other users to follow. But should it be more explicit than, say, Amazon telling us “people who bought this also bought these” or Google ranking popular links? Could an open badge system residing in the background on people’s phone discreetly create a visit timeline, like the one I left at SF MOMA? […]

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