Reprint from New York Times
Tour a Museum From Anywhere
Apps Offer Virtual Tours of Museums, and More
By MOLLY WOOD OCT. 23, 2014
Museum apps, done well, can be the digital equivalent of a museum gift shop: a place for browsing beautiful things, mentally redecorating and aspiring to a higher-culture lifestyle.
Some serve as pocket-size docents, guiding visitors through exhibits and crowded halls, offering audio tours, expanded information about particular works and helpful maps. Most let you browse pictures of a museum’s many paintings, sculptures and other objects.
Few, however, are themselves works of art that engage and entertain whether you’re at the museum or not — which makes the new app from theMetropolitan Museum of Art so impressive.
The free app for iPhones is beautifully designed, as you’d imagine, but it’s also a rich, accessible experience on its own, primarily because of original content and a pleasingly cheeky tone.
The app covers museum basics like opening hours, ticket sales, donation links, exhibitions and daily events. But it also contains useful lists of must-sees, guides to hidden corners of the museum and even suggested family favorites. The Staff Picks section highlights “art to make you smile, think and LOL,” and contains cleverly curated image collections like Medieval Love and a hipster-friendly collage of Met-staches (artworks featuring great mustaches).
The goal of the Met app, said the museum’s chief digital officer, Sree Sreenivasan, was to be “simple, useful and delightful.” The Met’s team spent a full year developing it with funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies.
“We thought, let’s make our digital presences so good that people would want to come to the museum at some point,” Mr. Sreenivasan said. “And make it so good that if they do come, they want to come back and keep in touch.”
As art and technology come together, some museums are going device-specific, using phone apps to enhance the museum experience during a visit, and tablet apps for lingering after.
For example, the Museum of Modern Art offers a free app for iPhones that helps visitors navigate the museum itself, including maps, audio descriptions of specific pieces and full audio tours that even include audio customized for children.
In addition, MoMA makes some of its books available as digital offerings for the iPad, and a separate MoMA Books app (also free) collects them all in a lovely virtual bookshelf where you can shop, store and read purchased books.
You can browse existing titles and download samples or the entire book, which is then viewable in the app. Titles cost up to $50, but many are $4. The collection includes a selection from the museum’s own artist series, and MoMA Highlights, for $10, which collects 350 notable works from the museum’s history. It’s the iPad as coffee table art book.
Continuing its child-friendly theme, MoMA also offers a free iPad app called MoMA Art Lab (free), which lets children create free-form art or choose from nine activities based on existing works, like shape poems, painting experiments and sound compositions.
Others use technology to immerse you in the art, and to upsell. The Prado in Madrid has a Second Canvas app (free for Android, $3.99 oniOS) that offers, for an additional 99 cents per work, 15 famous images in ultrahigh resolution, so one can zoom in to specific details and get an audio explanation of the work.
Despite the cost, those who are serious about technique or art appreciation will enjoy the ability to get such a detailed look at various works without having to fight the crowds or fly to Spain.
Images and information about 60 other works are included free. The app also includes social sharing so admirers can post favorite images on Facebook and Twitter. And the museum promotes the app with a YouTube video.
Many of the world’s great museums offer apps with some tour features built in, including the Guggenheim and Guggenheim Bilbao; the much fuller featured Bilbao app factors in visitors’ time constraints and whether children are along. It also offers social sharing.
Among apps designed for use in the museum, the app for Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum (free for iOS and Android) stands out as a full multimedia affair, although it doesn’t offer the editorial richness of the Met app. Available in nine languages, it offers 45- or 90-minute tours.
It can even entertain younger visitors. The app includes a relatively new feature called Family Quest, a game each member of the family can play on an individual phone. It challenges up to four players to work separately or together to unravel secrets about eight objects in the museum and decode a final message.
Other museum apps simply let you appreciate great works from afar, even if you have no plans or ability to visit the physical locations.
The official app of the Louvre (the Musée du Louvre HD) is free foriOS and offers a beautiful digital gallery of images of works of art and of the interior and exterior of the Louvre and the Louvre palace. The high-resolution images are stunning, although navigating and loading images can be slow, especially on the iPad.
Much faster and easier to navigate is the $1.99 Louvre HD app for iOS, created by Evolution Games. It is also available on Android and contains more than 2,000 images of paintings from the gallery and groups them into categories for browsing.
Another favorite for visiting from afar is the app for the Istanbul Modern in Turkey. While an in-person trip to the museum and lunch on its terrace overlooking the Bosporus has much to recommend it, the app (free for Android and iOS) is a fascinating tour all its own, an easy-to-navigate mini-gallery of the museum’s decidedly different collection.
Mr. Sreenivasan of the Met said technology, and mobile technology in particular, could completely change the museum-goer’s relationship with the museum.
“Museums in the past are about visitorship, but the meaning of visitorship has changed,” he said. “You could be sitting in China, sitting in India, and this will only cause you to put us on your bucket list.”