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Museums Dial Into Smart Phone Technology

By Amy Zimmer | November 14, 2011 7:03am | Updated on November 14, 2011 8:51am
Visitors at a press preview for the Guggenheim's Maurizio Cattelan show take out their smart phones while looking at the art.
Visitors at a press preview for the Guggenheim's Maurizio Cattelan show take out their smart phones while looking at the art.
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DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg

UPPER EAST SIDE —  After years of telling visitors to put away their cell phones, curators are now telling museum-goers to keep them handy.

Several institutions are now seizing on smart phone technology as a way to expand their audiences and help museum-goers uncover added layers of information about exhibits.

“The reality is, people are looking at their phones,” said Aaron Radin, CEO of Toura, the company that developed the technology platform for the Guggenheim’s first-ever app, which was released last week.  

“In a lot of cases, people are using their phones to take pictures of art and then share them on Facebook. A lot of places used to have restrictions on photographing art, but how can you police that?” Radin added.

For its new retrospective of controversial Italian contemporary artist Maurizio Cattelan, the Guggenheim decided to forgo wall text with information about the nearly 130 works hanging from the oculus — and use an app instead.

The interactive app features behind-the-scenes footage of the massive engineering feat needed for the installation, plus 30 videos with artists, critics, curators and engineers. It also allows users to zoom in on each work for in-depth commentary and the artist's reflections on his works, read by filmmaker John Waters.

The app costs $3.99 on iPhones or Androids and $5.99 for iPads, and there are two rooms at the Guggenheim where visitors can access it for free on iPads.

Other New York museums have also embraced the technology. The Asia Society launched its first mobile app for last year’s show featuring the Japanese Neo Pop artist Yoshitomo Nara, and the Japan Society unveiled an app for the museum's “Bye Bye Kitty” show on contemporary Japanese art earlier this year.

Although the Museum of Modern Art’s website clearly states that cell phones are not allowed in galleries, its recently wrapped show, “Talk to Me: Design and the Communication Between People and Objects,” celebrated social networking and encouraged smart phone use of apps.

The New Museum, on the Bowery, launched its first app last summer in conjunction with the exhibition “Brion Gysin: Dream Machine," which turned a users smart phone into a similar light sculpture using a flicker effect. The New Museum also states on its website that cell phones are not allowed in galleries.

A three-year overhaul of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website, unveiled in September, includes portions optimized for smart phones so visitors can easily look up information while they’re gazing at works in galleries.  

Elizabeth Levy, director of the Guggenheim’s publications and website, said that the Cattelan app took more than a year to develop and was costly to produce, though she declined to reveal the price tag. But the museum still thought an app, with its visual capabilities, made more sense than wall text, which would require stepping away from the work.

More museum's are embracing smart phone technology by incorporating mobile apps into their exhibitions.
More museum's are embracing smart phone technology by incorporating mobile apps into their exhibitions.
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William Hook/Flickr

“It enhances the experience and doesn’t detract from it,” Levy said. “We wanted people to be present, and if they wanted more information they can get it.” In addition, the Guggenheim wanted to show the complicated process of the installation, which was rife with safety issues concerning the works and the landmark building.

Now,  the museums are finding that their apps are being downloaded not just by visitors to the galleries, but by art lovers from around the world.

For instance, the Cattelan app has been downloaded by many people from Italy, Radin noted. And the Yoshitomo Nara app was downloaded by many people from Japan, said Elaine Merguerian, Asia Society’s communications director.

Half of the app downloads for the Asia Society's show were from phones registered to users from 32 countries outside the U.S., Merguerian said. And even though the show ended in January, people are still downloading it.

“It’s extended the reach of the show,” she said.

Museums are still struggling with how to incorporate smart phone technology, especially because of intellectual property issues regarding photographing art.

But the research firm IDC said the smart phone market is expected to grow 50 percent this year worldwide, with 450 million devices being shipped out, compared to 300 million last year. An Analysys Mason study found that by 2016, half of all smart phone use will be for content instead of talking or texting.

“It’s a developing world,” Levy said of incorporating smart phones into the museum setting. “We’re all thinking about how people get information. ... We kind of haven’t figured out what is the best method. It’s a little bit of a learning curve.” 

Radin added, “The reality is you can’t control how people consume content. You want to be able to provide your media in the most user-friendly way, and smartphones are growing like gangbusters.”