Saturday, October 02, 2010

Museums take baby steps with iPhone Apps

Edward Rothstein, art critic for the New York Times, gave his take on the museum iPhone apps that are popping up all over New York.  I think he is right on target when he points to GPS as the key to make the retrieval of information about objects in a particular collection much more seamless for the visitor.

Imagine standing in front of an object with an app that, sensing your location, is already displaying precisely the right information. It might offer historical background or direct you through links to other works that have some connection to the object. It might provide links to critical commentary. It might become, for each object, an exhibition in itself, ripe with alternate narratives and elaborate associations. And, best of all, you could save it for later, glance up from the screen and look carefully at what faces you, all scrims removed, all distractions discarded.- Edward Rothstein, From Picassos to Sarcophagi, Guided by iPhone Apps
I must admit, though, that I was surprised he pointed out that the app information may not even be equal to the information on the item's printed ID card.  Why aren't museum inventory databases connected to such information retrieval systems so a visitor can view at least all of the information on the ID card if nothing else?

I was also surprised that he complained that many objects' search tags are so obtuse.

Monet’s “Church at Vernon,” (from the Brooklyn Museum of Art) we learn, is tagged “blue,” “dreamy,” “hazy,”  Rothstein observes, puzzled.

At first I thought he meant that only those tags were entered.  However, by looking at the link Rothstein provided to the Brooklyn Museum's actual object record for this painting, we see there are 28 tags for this work of art and the museum invites visitors to add more tags.  Tags like "dreamy" actually serve to record a visitor's emotional response to the painting and although such a tag is subjective I agree with the museum's inclusion of it since art is suppose to evoke an emotional response from the viewer.  I had never thought about tagging art with emotional terms before but I like it!

For those of us who are trying to assist educators and students by providing photographs that we have taken of museum art objects and artifacts, how about an application that we can use to sync the Geocoordinates recorded as XIF data in the images from our cameras with the museum's inventory records so we can be  certain we are labeling images correctly.  Now I have to remember to photograph the image's ID card and, if the information is provided in a list of object descriptions, align the information in such a way that I can distinguish it from entries above and below it.  Similar objects are often displayed together so its not always obvious which description goes with which object unless you take an image that includes the item's number.  I take a lot of detail closeups that do not include the item number so I may not have a number for reference when I am working on my images in post production.

In fact, a perfect application based on the Flickr API using the Flickr Uploader interface would match the image coordinates with the inventory records then use the Title, artist, date, location made, and medium for the Title field, populate the tag field with the museum's tags formatted as needed for Flickr then populate the description field with a "Photographed by (photographer name) at (linked Museum name)", like I do now manually. 

I like the way the Brooklyn Museum displays related works by tag groups in their records.  Ideally, I think it would be even more helpful if the related object images were linked to a gallery map indicating each related object's location so a visitor that was interested in comparison could easily find them.

In fact, a visitor tracking system based on GPS could alert visitors to small exhibits in adjoining alcoves that might have been missed if the visitor begins to leave a main gallery space without a travel path into the adjoining alcove.  I usually try to be quite thorough when I am photographing museum collections but on my second visit to the Getty Villa, I noticed a display of ancient coins and jewelry in a small alcove off of one of their main galleries that I just hadn't seen on my first visit.  I'm very fortunate that I travel to the LA area on business at least once a year so I've been able to visit the Getty three times.  However, when I'm overseas, I may be in a museum only once - perhaps in my entire lifetime - so I don't want to miss little treasures tucked away in obscure areas of the museum. 

Museums could also analyze these travel path records to determine if objects could be displayed differently to avoid visitor oversight.

Understanding GPS: Principles and Applications, Second Edition   GPS: Theory, Algorithms and Applications    PEACH - Intelligent Interfaces for Museum Visits (Cognitive Technologies) 
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