MANILA, Philippines — Over the past few months, I’ve watched with envy as stunning museum shows have gone up in my old haunts in Los Angeles and New York. Back in the US, I could easily have popped into the respective museums and seen the shows themselves. Instead, I’m left with websites, reviews and tweets to relive the experience of seeing the show in person.
Thankfully, in recent months three museums have released exhibition-related apps for smartphones and the iPad. Unlike iPod-enhanced guided tours, the apps are designed as standalones. They could be used to tour the website and interact with the exhibits, but they can also be used as a casual guide, to be viewed far from the institution. And unlike a website, these apps can be carried around and shared with friends or even in a classroom.
The ultimate test, of course, is how the iOS adds value over a standard site. Is it simply a website or catalogue in your iPad, or is it something unique to the interface? To see how they stack up, I reviewed three apps (CA Design HD at LACMA, AB EX at MoMA, Cattelan at Guggenheim) in their iPad incarnations, but they’re also available for iPhone and iPod Touch.
CA Design HD / Los Angeles County Museum of Art
I’ll start with CA Design HD, the app released by LACMA for California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way, part of the statewide Pacific Standard Time going on right now in California.
The touch interface is an interactive education in historic California design, from important architects like Frank Lloyd Wright to industrial designers like the Eames Office and graphic designers like Deborah Sussman. Clicking and sliding through the app is simple and straightforward. Detail views let you see the designs in full, high-resolution glory. Professionally-produced designer interviews, which require an internet connection, add a personal touch and offer insight into the thoughts of these high-minded creators.
I like the potential of the Google Maps interface in this app. Those curious about the show can zoom in and pan around the state of California to see the location of the different designers and offices featured (not surprisingly, the majority are in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas). I’d like this feature a lot more if I could get directions or share the map on Twitter or via email, but the sharing features across the app point simply to the exhibition’s main web site, not to individual items.
Overall, the app is easy to use and very informative, a great overview of design in California. And it’s free.
AB EX NY / Museum of Modern Art
The Abstract Expression New York app put out by MoMA accompanied on the show that just ended a few months ago (though since all of the works are in the museum’s permanent collection many are currently on view in the permanent galleries), and it’s part of a series of apps MoMA has been developing.
Immediately, the app presents a more tablet-like interface, with paintings hung on a large, virtual wall. Their sizes are relative to each other: Pollock’s 7’x7’ “Echo: Number 25, 1951″ appears much larger than Franz Kline’s 11 x 9” “Untitled II.” It’s easy to pan around (but not pinch and zoom) to different works and click on them for more information. Unlike CA Design, however, most of the information is sparse: we glean only basic dimensions and materials information.
AB EX makes up for this with a broad selection of audio features that explain certain works. Some seminal pieces, like de Kooning’s “Woman, I,” feature full descriptive text and audio. As with CA Design, a map feature allow us to see where the different artists worked in Manhattan, and an Art Terms section helps us understand some of the technical language, from “allover painting” to “turpentine burn.” And the social feature lets us share specific paintings on Twitter and Facebook — a feature that may have been more useful a few months ago when the show was up, as a number of the images have since been taken down.
With a tablet friendly landing page and embedded social features, AB EX NY comes close to giving us a museum experience. And it’s also free.
Cattelan HD / Guggenheim Museum
Cattelan HD was released for Maurizio Cattelan’s All retrospective, the much-discussed installation currently up at the Guggenheim. I remember seeing photos of the show online, with all of Cattelan’s works suspended from the ceiling. I asked myself, “How on earth does that work?” It’s a puzzling, challenging exhibition that I would be thrilled to see in person.
Though I’ve never been to the show, Cattelan HD comes pretty close to recreating the experience. The “Works on View” section presents the entire installation from top to bottom. I can’t pinch and zoom, and it’s a little buggy when sliding through. I want to be able to rotate the installation in real time, and see it from above and below, but I’m left to slide to four different pre-determined angles.
Despite these snafus, it’s a lovely interface that does the best job of making the museum experience come to life in my hands. I can see each work hanging in physical space, and I can zoom out to see the full installation and details. I simply need to click on item for an overview, which presents complete curatorial texts about the piece. Many also come with a brief audio or even video clip, and alternative views of the objects.
The app features a slew of videos, though all require a wi-fi connection. The most interesting of the videos focus on the logistics of the installation. Additional sections include interviews with those who worked with Cattelan, and an overview of actions and projects. The “Toilet Paper” section is perhaps the most fitting for the iPad format — it recreates Cattelan’s new magazine in rich detail and color.
At $3.99, Cattelan HD is the only one of these apps that comes with a price tag, but it’s a steal for such an in-depth look at the artist’s oeuvre. It is also available for Android.
Overall, I’m happy to see apps being developed for such major shows. Considering the amount of work necessary, it may not be reasonable to expect museums to create a full mobile application for all exhibitions on top of the web site and catalogue but it is certainly desirable.
I spoke with Beth Levy, who directs publications at the Guggenheim. In describing the Cattelan app, she summed up what makes these programs so useful:
Through videos with conservators, fabricators and engineers, visitors or users of the app have a better understanding of how the installation was created and the works were hung. And for those who cannot visit the show, the photos and videos on the installation allow users to have an idea of what it would be like to experience the installation in the museum though we understand that it will not replace an actual visit.
I’ll take a controversial stand and say these apps should probably cost something. I believe access to arts education should be free, but that’s what web sites and libraries are for. Anyone who can afford an iPhone can certainly afford to shell out $5 to support museums (ideally Apple would take less of a cut too). But along with that, hopefully more apps will be self-contained, i.e., not require a wifi connection for content. It would feel strange to pay for an app that’s useless without an online connection, and it would be nice to be able to browse such a rich resource while sitting on a plane or anywhere else with limited wi-fi.
Putting shows into a mobile format better mimics the casual museum viewing experience than a website, and that’s a good thing. These apps can be a handheld visit for those who are unable to attend the shows, and they complement the visitor experience for those who want more.
What do you think? Have you used these apps on the iPad or iPhone? Are there other apps museums have developed that you’ve found particularly helpful?