MoMA’s iPad bookstore application (photos and screenshots by author)

With the release of a brand new iPad application, the Museum of Modern Art forays into the territory of digital publishing. The free application is a smooth way to buy the digital versions of MoMA’s exhibition catalogues, but the app also presents several advantages over simply buying PDF versions of the books. An elegant interface plus a visual shopping center make the MoMA app an easy place to access digital versions of some of the best catalogues around, though no real value is added to the digital versions save perhaps the ability to zoom in with your fingers. (Don’t we have monocles to do that for print, or something?) Also included in the app are free samples of the catalogues presently up for purchase.

The homepage of MoMA’s catalog app

Upon opening the app, viewers are presented with a digital bookshelf of MoMA catalog titles (seen above). This window will eventually become an exhaustive list of the Museum of Modern Art’s publishing history, as the institution plans to upload their entire archive in PDF form. Titles are currently available both as downloadable PDF ebook files on the museum’s website and through the iPad app. Up for purchase through the iPad now are Objects of Design by Paola Antonelli, Contemporary Chinese Art Primary Documents by Wu Hung, Modern Women by Cornelia H. Butler and Alexandra Schwartz, Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon by Jodi Hauptman and Atget by John Szarkowski (all the catalogues are also available in MoMA’s online store). The spines of catalogues that haven’t yet gone online are also visible, though they’re transparent. Click one and you’ll be asked if you want to buy it in print. If you’re like me, you probably don’t.

Otherwise, check out one of the available titles and publishing information plus a short blurb will pop up, with an option to sample or buy the digital version. Prices vary from $49.99 for the Modern Women catalog to $19.99 for Objects of Design. Art catalogues are stereotyped for being expensive, and obviously the funds go to producing more exhibitions and high quality catalogues, but $49.99 for a PDF seems to be pushing the current pricing envelope. Still, the Modern Women catalogue is available in sections for those who’d rather buy it a la carte. Notable is the fact that all of these catalogues were published after 2000; no earlier works are yet available, which is slightly disappointing.

Two-page spread from Szarkowski’s “Atget” catalog, plus zoomed detail on photo

The downloadable catalogue samples are free, but are limited to 14 or so pages of the book. Navigation is easy, as with most iPad PDFs, and a swipe of the fingers will skip to the next page and zoom in or zoom out. The resolution of the digital catalogues is gorgeous, with the photos in Szarkowski’s Atget coming out particularly clear. It’s fun to explore images this way, but it’s no real innovation — I hope that eventually MoMA will join other museums in releasing exhibition applications that form interactive catalogues, including digital media, videos and interactive features. That’s not a reality yet, so don’t expect any virtual tricks from MoMA’s digital bookshelf.

It is the museum’s plans to put the entire archive of MoMA catalogues up for download that make this app really valuable, and potentially game-changing. The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition history pretty much provides a guided tour of the important moments of Modernism’s development, and early catalogues can be exceedingly hard to track down outside of an encyclopedic university library. This app could put the source documents of art history in public hands in a smooth and accessible, if not exactly cheap, way. Maybe MoMA could sell subscriptions to their entire digital archive for a yearly fee that would allow viewing of any title?

The MoMA app does pretty much what you expect it to, which is both a blessing and a failing. The app isn’t surprising, but then it doesn’t need to be — the content of the books themselves is certainly rich enough. Over time, this app could become an indispensable resource for scholars and amateurs art historians alike, but I can’t help wishing that some titles from the 1950s and 1960s were available at launch, or that downloaded catalogues from recent exhibitions came with added content. MoMA produces excellent audio and video features for exhibits, why not include them for the cost of the catalogue?

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...