Enriching art via cell phone

New audio tours explain works, transform museum experience

August 15, 2007|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

With a cell phone pressed to her ear, Carolyn Henly seemed torn between looking at Mark Di Suvero's massive steel sculpture in the Baltimore Museum of Art's leafy outdoor sculpture garden and listening to the voice on the other end of the line.

The voice wasn't a nagging relative or a flustered co-worker, but that of Di Suvero himself, talking about his sister Lu, the inspiration for the piece, which he calls an "ideogram" of her spirit.

Call it the latest wrinkle in a technology that has reshaped everyday life and now bids to transform art museums and galleries: the packaged audio tour that lets anyone with a cell phone hear about the artworks they are seeing on the same device that keeps them in touch with the rest of the world.

Cellular technology enables teens to swap text messages between classes, sports fans to track Orioles scores and tourists to find directions on the road. But it's also giving museum visitors like Henly a chance to hear the BMA's curators, conservators and artists talk about the artworks on display, deepening their understanding and enjoyment of what they see.

At some museums, cell phone technology lets visitors share their impressions of the art with other viewers, at the same time allowing the institutions to promote a wide range of related events - lectures, concerts, discussions - as part of the audio package.

"I love it," said Henly, a Richmond, Va., resident who was visiting the BMA on Saturday with her husband, Tim. "It doesn't cost anything, and you don't have to see anything in a particular order. It's a really clever use of technology."

A decade ago, when lightweight digital audio players replaced the old tape recorder and headphone sets that museums had been using for tours, the switch was hailed as a major advance: Just press a button to hear exactly what you want, when you want. No more wading through stuff you'd rather skip or rewinding to catch up on things you'd missed.

Now cell phones are replacing the once-revolutionary audio handsets in museums around the country - including the BMA and the Walters Art Museum, which will use the technology for the first time in a coming show - because they offer significant advantages over the older equipment for museums and visitors.

Cell phones are cheaper to use, easier to maintain, more hygienic and far more versatile in terms of the type and quantity of information they can convey. Most people use up only a few of their cell plan minutes on a phone tour, so the cost is pennies rather than the $10 or $12 paid to rent audio handsets.

"It's becoming the primary way museums will deliver interpretation," said Dave Asheim, founder and president of Guide By Cell, the nation's largest provider of cell phone and podcasting technology for cultural institutions, which include museums, parks and botanical gardens.

"That's because 90 percent of visitors already have a phone, already know how to use it, and they're comfortable with it," he added. "It's an a la carte way of getting information that's great for visitors, because it gives them more information and a deeper experience of the art whenever they want."

Asheim said museums and other institutions typically pay $200 to $300 a month for a cell phone server that lets them record unlimited amounts of information. By contrast, audio phone units cost $500 to $1,000 apiece, museums are responsible for keeping them charged and showing visitors how to use them, and once a program is recorded it can't be easily changed.

The BMA's first sculpture garden cell phone audio tour ran for two months last fall. Since it resumed in June, nearly 300 callers have accessed the number, said museum communications director Anne Mannix. The system operates exactly like a conventional audio phone after you key in the museum's access number: Each stop on the tour has a two-digit code that you punch to get information about particular artworks.

Mannix said that, for now, the BMA's cell phone tour just covers the artworks in the sculpture garden, and it doesn't yet allow visitors to respond directly to what they're hearing. But that could change as the museum develops new strategies to interpret its collection.

The Walters Art Museum, by contrast, has committed to an ambitious cell phone tour that will accompany its fall show, Deja Vu? Revealing Repetition in French Masterpieces. The exhibition, which opens Oct. 7, explores the changing significance of repetition and copying in the French painting tradition.

"What I like about the cell phone is that it's very agile and nimble and opens the door to a closer connection between the museum and the people who use it," said Walters director Gary Vikan.

"It's a first step forward in trying to engage with younger [visitors] through the communications technologies that are their own," Vikan added. "We're moving toward something more like a conversation between people who've spent their lives studying the art and visitors who will have their own ideas."

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