Visiting the museum? There’s an app for that

Imagine the museum of the future. You step inside your home tele-dec and settle into an armchair that self-adjusts to your comfort settings. “Computer,” you command, “load the National Gallery of Art.” The room brightens and you find yourself in the atrium of the great Washington institution. Let the virtual visit begin.

We’re not there yet, but technological leaps are rapidly making possible remote access not only to images and texts about collections, but also to audio and video guides and even to conversations with museum professionals and fellow museum lovers through social media. The consensus among experts is that the field is still in the R&D phase, testing strategies and new technologies to learn which approaches will best serve museums’ missions. But all agree that museums inexorably are moving into the brave new virtual world.

Here’s one example. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture won’t open until 2015, but the museum is working on an application that will let people look through their phone cameras at the future site and see a ghostly image of the building as it will one day appear.

Only a few museums have the resources to develop bells and whistles, let alone cutting-edge “augmented reality.” The vast majority has Web sites offering only basic visitor information, exhibition synopses with a few images and perhaps collection highlights. The world of art has been relatively slow at embracing all things digital. I think it’s going to be an explosion in the next two years.

The Tate, for example, is launching a redesign of its Web site in November 2011, introducing a new content management system that integrates social media so users can send out content immediately on Tumblr, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and other vehicles.

Progress is hampered by the diversity of often mutually incompatible user devices, software platforms and interfaces. Museums are often thick-walled buildings with imperfect broadband and Internet access. And there are chronic shortages of time, money and staff. Moreover, living artists often restrict online reproduction of their works for fear of unauthorized and commercial replication. And no one knows what visitors need and want in terms of digital enhancements to the museum experience.

There is general agreement that the fundamental task for museums is to expand and enhance digital presentations of their collections. And as museums add digitized images, texts, audio and video to their online databases, they also are connecting with audiences through social media and exploring mobile applications accessible on smartphones. In other words, there is a lot of chatter about chatter.

The Smithsonian surveyed visitors to the Mall in summer 2010 and found that about 30 percent had phones that could run apps. And by 2015 more people will access the Internet via mobile devices than via computers. The American Association of Museums calculated in December that only 5 percent of museums had smartphone apps, but one out of three planned to introduce some mobile technology this year.

A signal event in the transition to digital culture came last week when the Metropolitan Museum of Art lifted its ban on cellphone use in galleries. The Met’s first iPhone app accompanied the recent exhibition “Guitar Heroes” and allowed users to listen and watch Bucky Pizzarelli play some of the instruments on view. The Met’s primary effort has gone into its Web site, which attracts 45 million visits a year, compared with 5 million physical visits to the museum. Even if most Web surfers merely look up hours or restaurant menus, millions more seek intellectual content online.

The Museumof Modern Art is more in the vanguard, having developed mobile platforms and incorporated live streaming of events such as the Marina Abramovic performance last year. MoMA’s plan is to make content available for people to use on their own devices and to offer them a device if they don’t have one. There are concerns that visitors will spend time staring at their screens instead of the exhibits. The ideal is to provide on-demand answers to questions visitors may have and to do so unobtrusively on their own handheld devices. Putting aside battery life and roaming charges for foreign visitors, there are questions of content, connectivity and compatibility that will take years to sort out.

Another issue is how to interconnect museums. Libraries have created networks of shared information, but museums remain largely proprietary, reluctant to sacrifice their copyrighted assets to the commons, for example, someone has created an open-source platform for creating multimedia tours that has been adopted by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the San Diego Museums in BalboaPark; the Gemeentemuseum inThe Hague; and others. More recently, the Indianapolis Museum of Art has joined nine museums in the Getty Foundation’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative to develop information architecture that allows linking artworks and secondary materials, comparative images, audio and video.

Google Art Project is moving in that direction, gathering onto one site images of artworks from multiple museums. In addition to still images, a robot camera creates user-directed tours of the galleries. The project, free to museum partners and end users, involves 17 museums, including the Met, the MoMA, the Rijksmuseum, Hermitage and the Tate, and expects to draw 10 more in the United States by mid-2012, said the head of the project.

Image-recognition technology called Google Goggles lets visitors point their camera phones at a painting and automatically bring up related information on their screens. The system is in place at the well-wired Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where the application also allows visitors to take a picture of wall labels and have them translated into more than 50 languages.

The next iteration will improve the virtual navigation, increase content and geographic diversity, and include a feature that allows users to create personal collections from different museums.

And I wish you a nice summer’s holidays! To see you in September…

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