Los Angeles -- Next time you see a museum-goer in front of a Rembrandt with a cell phone pressed to one ear, don't assume this is some philistine more interested in gabbing than in art.
He or she might be listening to the museum's audio guide to the exhibition.
In recent months, a number of U.S. museums - including the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles - have begun offering audio tours that can be accessed via mobile phones as an alternative to the audio devices often available for rent at exhibitions.
For the art world, cell phone tours are relatively new. Among the first to try one was Southern Utah University, for a 2002 exhibition of historical photos. The Tacoma Art Center in Washington state and Walker Art Center in Minneapolis also have offered the service, although the nation's largest museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., have not.
Museum visitors are given a number to dial to begin the tour. Then information on individual artworks is heard by entering various codes on the keypad.
"I think the phone tours have gotten a lot of attention because cell phones are kind of a taboo in museums," says Margie Maynard, director of visitor experience and interpretation for the San Jose Museum of Art, which also offers the service. "But what we've found is that people don't yak away on their phones when they are listening on their phones."
Suzanne Isken, MOCA's director of education, said that there had been only one problem with its phone-based guides. "We've had guards at our museum tell people to put their phones away," she said.
And should museum-goers want to listen again, after leaving the exhibition, they can dial in, provided they know the number and access codes.
As elsewhere, the quality of cell phone reception depends on where you are standing and the phone itself. "Little Tokyo has some dead spots," acknowledges Lisa Sasaki, manager of museum education for the Japanese American, which is trying out phone tours for the first time. "But our visitors are well aware of that; they move around until they get better reception."
Museum representatives call cell phone tours the next wave of audio guide technology, following such innovations as PDA-based tours - with the museum providing the equipment - and podcast tours that can be downloaded into the visitor's MP3 device.
Maynard says that the San Jose museum gives patrons the choice of borrowing an MP3 device, or accessing the same audio via cell phone. Both are provided free.
"Our goal is to address the whole `gadget phobia' problem - if they have a cell phone, they probably know how to use it," Maynard says.
And, Maynard adds, the cell phone tours mitigate the "ick factor" of borrowing a headset. Although equipment is cleaned, germ-wary patrons still tend to avoid shared devices.
Providers of cellphone audio tours include Guide by Cell Inc. of San Francisco and Minneapolis-based Museum411.
Guide by Cell persuaded MOCA and the Japanese American to test-drive the technology by offering it as a free trial for up to six weeks. After that, if they continue, the museums would be charged and would have to decide whether to pass along the costs.
It can be prohibitively expensive for museums to provide the equipment and staff required for a traditional audio tour, says Guide by Cell founder Dave Asheim, whose guides are recorded over the phone "just like recording voice mail."
Asheim says visitors don't seem to object to spending their cell phone minutes on art.
"A lot of people have unlimited evening and weekend minutes, and that's when they go to museums."
Diane Haithman writes for the Los Angeles Times