by Katherine Hall, Staff writer

While museums have been utilizing the internet since the mid 1990s, technology available to visitors once they arrive at the institution has been more limited—and guided tours are still one of the most prevalent forms of visitor engagement. Frequently, the most vivid component of a visitor’s experience is the narrative surrounding the pieces that interest them. While museum tours are constantly evolving and improving, by no means does every museum visitor attend or even desire to participate in a tour.

Evolving from the tour model, one of the first pieces of technology to be integrated into museums’ audience outreach was the now-ubiquitous audio tour. This format allows visitors to listen to audio narratives similar to, but typically shorter than, information they would hear on a guided tour by typing the number listed next to a work of art. The same information can be recorded by translators into multiple languages, so visitors from different countries can still learn about the museum in their native language, even when a tour guide might not speak it. With the audio guide, the visitor is also given more agency than they would have on a group tour of the museum: rather than taking a tour at a specific time, with museum educators selecting the works that they feel are most important, visitors can use the audio guide at any time during museum hours and pick and choose which pieces they wish to learn more about.

Fortunately, smartphones are now so prevalent that museums can supplement their audio guides by providing apps for download onto visitors’ personal devices. Free mobile apps allow more information in the form of text, visuals, and videos to supplement the audio medium and provide more personalization and a wider variety of content as well. At several museums, smart phone or tablet devices are available to check out if visitors do not have their own.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has fully integrated their audio guide within their The Met mobile app. In addition to including information about their current exhibits, and sections for recent news, daily events and membership information, the app provides features “Highlights” and “Staff Picks” collections. Example offerings at the time of this article include: “Faces Through Time”, “Family Favorites”, “Grand Spaces and Hidden Nooks”, as well as “The Must Sees” in the “Highlights” category and “Art or Design?”, “Met-staches”, “Hidden in Plain Sight”, and “Strike a Pose” in the “Staff Picks” category. These collections offer a much wider variety of themes than a traditional museum tours. Users can choose a “Highlights” or “Staff Picks” whichever collection interests them and in effect take a mini tour of the museums, experiencing between five and ten pieces related to the theme they chose. For each piece there is a page with an image of the item, identification information, a one sentence description, information about where it is located in the museum (including a useful “show on map” option) and then a longer paragraph about the work and its background.

In addition to the curated collections, The Met app allows users to search the entire collection to learn more about a work they are looking at in the museum or are curious about. Users can then save their favorite works by tapping a heart shaped icon on any object page; it is also possible to favorite events and even entire exhibitions. One of the most helpful features is the map icon, at the top right of the app’s main pages. The map helps visitors find their way around the museum and points like staircases, elevators and restrooms are marked with easy to spot large, black icons. The Met app succeeds in pairing an easy to navigate, user-friendly format with almost all of the information available on their full website.

Watch this space for more information on the latest trends in technology, applied to viewing and interacting with art and Art Apps Part II.