I wish everyday involved an exhibition visit or at least two or three each week. While institutions are putting more and more information about their collections and exhibitions on their websites it is the apps which for me are really making this type of content accessible.  With a website I’m very often multi-tasking when viewing but with an app I’m focused on being engaged with that content.  Headphones on and iPhone or iPad in hand I’m asking the app to entertain, engage, and inspire me. To take me on a journey.

Here I take a look at 10 iPhone apps for current exhibitions (divided into two posts with 5 each) to see how they compare in their approach to engaging the virtual visitor. Do these apps invite one to attend the related exhibition after viewing? And how well do these stand on their own as an experience for the virtual visitor? I start from the perspective of the virtual visitor because this visitor’s travel budget is limited but his curiosity budget is not and with these apps I can attend an exhibition anytime, anwhere.

Although I start from the perspective of the virtual visitor I am very interested in how these apps enhance the on-site experience as well. In some cases these apps have inspired me to plan a visit to the exhibition soon and when I do I will write a post from that perspective. Have you attended any of these exhibits with the app in hand? If so, please share your experiences in the comments. I’d love to know what you thought worked well on-site. (For Part 2 of 10 iPhone Apps for Current Art Exhibitions click here.)

1. Asia Society Museum: Yoshitomo Nara

Through January 2, 2011 - Asia Society Museum, New York

App icon for Nara

Rated Two StarsWhen the Asia Society Museum opened this exhibit for Yoshitomo Nara in September, Roberta Smith wrote a glowing review in the New York Times noting that, “Mr. Nara may be one of the most egalitarian visual artists since Keith Haring. He seems never to have met a culture or generation gap, a divide between art mediums or modes of consumption that he couldn’t bridge or simply ignore. His art is highly synthetic, representing fusions of high, low and kitsch; East and West; grown-up, adolescent and infantile; and so seamless as to render such distinctions almost moot.”

Not being familiar with Yoshitomo’s work, even if some of the images seem familiar, this app represents my first introduction to this artist. As such it’s an okay, if heavily text based introduction.  However, given that this is a paid app ($2.99) it’s a disappointing introduction to the artist. Compare this with the paid app (also $2.99) for the Tate’s Gaugin exhibition reviewed below. To begin with there’s very little multimedia in the Yoshitomo Nara app. The co-curators provide a video introduction giving the user a tour of the exhibition gallery (also available on the website) but that’s the only video. Additionally, there are only a couple of audio clips and one of those accompanies the screenshot here in which the image is missing months after the app’s last update.

Screenshot of Untitled with "Image Coming Soon" Message

I like the incorporation of social media but here the app falls short in my opinion.  For example, I thought a friend of mine would really enjoy the work “Hyper Enough (to the City)” (one of the few that contains an accompanying audio clip) and so I tapped on the quote bubbles above the image of this painting. A generic message about the exhibit populated the text box allowing the option to “enter a custom message” to post to Twitter or Facebook but no email option.  In attempting to customize the message I completely erased the generic message and so for any subsequent work I tried to post a message to Facebook or Twitter from this app even the generic exhibition information is missing.  What I really would like to see is a way to send a message that links to the specific picture I’m messaging from and which ideally would also include a link for the audio clip.

The Asia Society Museum: Yoshitomo Nara app is $2.99 on the website. I think you’ll find the website for the exhibition to be a better value and experience. Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.0 or later. Rated 12+ for infrequently touching on themes which parents may give pause/or not to exposing younger children.

2. Gauguin: Maker of Myth

Through January, 16, 2011 – Tate Modern, London

February 27–June 5, 2011 – National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

App icon for GauguinRated 4 StarsThe Tate Modern‘s app for the Gauguin: Maker of Myth exhibition is a pleasure to explore. The navigation options are simple and straightforward. There are four icons across the bottom: “Menu”, “Travels”, Gallery” and “Info”. The “Menu” icon gives the user five options: “Introduction”, “Explore By Theme”, Explore by Date”, “Biography” and “Copyright Info”.  Alternatively choose to explore the material on this app by tapping the “Gallery” and the user can choose from two periods of time: “1876-1890″ or “1891-1903″.  By whichever route the user chooses to explore one finds quality video and audio clips rewarding the journey and encouraging the user’s continued exploration.

In reviewing the exhibition at the Tate Modern the Londonist wrote, “Abandoning the usual chronological formula, the show pivots thematically around Gauguin, with the work arranged in various rooms around a pair of central spaces which look into the artist’s life and influence; one room covering his first trip to the South Seas, the other his second. The meaning is clear: the movement of this peripatetic journeyman is the key to understanding how he felt about himself, and how he reflected this in the art he produced.”

Screenshot of map showing North and South America and Western Europe with text boxes indicating dates and places Gauguin visitedSeeing this curatorial intent translated to the app so well in the design by Antenna Audio and Tate really enhances the user experience.  This is an app which not only  works as a stand alone experience (no small feat) but also seems to have been designed in concert with the exhibitions development and not as an afterthought.  In addition to the flexible navigation which invites exploration tapping the “Travels” icon reveals a map (screenshot above) with little boxes indicating places and dates for Gauguin’s travels.  Simply and effectively the map conveys the extent of Gaugin’s travels allowing the user learn a little bit more about the relevance of each to Gauguin and his work.  Everything in this app is delivered in delicious bite size chunks.


As a testament to the exhibit and the apps popularity it is worth nothing that this app is currently the 37th most popular “Education” app in the Apple’s UK App Store and is ranked in the top 1000 “Education” apps in 24 other countries (though oddly not the United States yet).


The Gaugin: Maker of Myth app is $2.99 on the app store and worth purchasing even if you don’t intend to go to the exhibition.   Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.0 or later.

3. Houdini: Art and Magic

Through March 27, 2011 – Jewish Museum, New York

April 28, 2011 – September 4, 2011 – Skirball Center, Los Angeles

September 30, 2011 – January 16, 2012 – The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco

February 11, 2012 – May 13, 2012 – Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison, Wisconsin

App icon for Houdini: Art and MagicRated Four StarsThis app is called Houdini at The Jewish Museum, New York – Acoustiguide Smartour.  This mouthful of an app name gave me certain assumptions beginning with expecting  this exhibition to be strictly a straightforward presentation of Houdini (whatever I had in mind with that thought).  For me at least, I thought of Houdini as an interesting entertainer from the vaudeville era but I didn’t really feel excited enough about Mr. Houdini to attend an exhibit.  This app though changed my mind.  Houdini as an app stands by itself and is worth exploring even if you are not going to attend the exhibition. However, exploring it might also intrigue one enough to catch this exhibition at one of its stops in the next couple of years.  Howard Kissel has a good review of the exhibition in his column, The Cultural Tourist.

Acoustiguide and The Jewish Museum, New York do a good job here of storytelling, of interweaving different voices and different elements from the exhibition.  I had, I’ll admit, expected a bit more dry narrative, something like what I feel the experience is for Acoustiguide’s Masada app.  However, in the app for Houdini, Acoustiguide has

Screen shot of "Materialization" by Ikuo Nakamura

Screenshot of "Materialization" by Ikuo Nakamura

done a marvelous job beginning with an introduction by The Jewish Museum’s Director Joan Rosenbaum. The audio guide is narrated by actor, singer and magician Neil Patrick Harris and includes commentary by Ms. Rapaport; world famous magicians David Blaine and James “The Amazing” Randi and University of Chicago Professor Emeritus of History and Art History, Neil Harris. There’s even a “Bonus” audio clip of Harry Houdini himself.

What intrigues me about this exhibition and gives it a different twist is the integration of contemporary art with the historic objects. Artists Jane Hammond, Vik Muniz,  Petah Coyne, Deborah Oropallo, Matthew Barney, Ryamond Pettibon, and Ikuo Nakamura (screenshot of his work, “Materialization” to the right) each discuss how the magician has served as an inspiration for one of their works. Including not only their works but also the voices of these contemporary artists within this app really serves as an excellent invitation to the exhibition. How is Houdini relevant and contemporary today? The audio clips and images from these artists do give me pause to consider this and to consider finding out more by visiting the exhibition.

Under each stop there is an icon for “More Info”.  Sometimes this is worth exploring as there can be additional audio or video clips.  But this is kind of hit or miss as often one simply finds a still of the same image on the original screen although tapping this one does allow the user to zoom in and explore the image. Hidden four taps deep in the app is two video clips from archival footage and old movies.  (Hint: the two video clips are under “Introduction” and “Celebrity”). Isn’t there a design rule that the user should never be more than three taps from any content? The extra video and audio clips here might be made more accessible by locating them under the “More” icon on the bottom of the app.

On a final note the app is Houdini at The Jewish Museum, New York and as I currently understand it there are no plans to make changes to the app for the next three stops on the exhibition’s tour. However, it might be nice if the other stops did take a look at modifying the logistical information and gallery map for their respective institutions as I do think this app is a good invitation to see the exhibition where users have the chance.

The Houdini at The Jewish Museum, New York app is $2.99 on Apple’s App Store and worth downloading even if you are not planning on attending the exhibition. Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.1 or later.

FYI: Thirteen and The Jewish Museum, New York are giving away 50 pairs of admission tickets and more here. Contest ends 1/3/11.

4. Infinity of Nations

Ongoing – National Museum of the American Indian -  George Gustav Heye Center,  New York

App icon for "Infinity of Nations"Rated Four StarsThe Infinity of Nations app is an absolutely beautifully designed app.  Yes, there are beautiful high resolution photographs of 60 of the art objects from this exhibition included in the app but that’s not what I mean.  I mean one should stop to appreciate the aesthetics of this design because they are so seamless you might miss them.  If you haven’t already downloaded this free app by all means do so now. Why? Because you have to experience the intuitive, super easy, visual navigation that the innovative folks at Tristan Interactive in collaboration with Daniel Davis, Senior Media Producer at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and his team at the Smithsonian, with audio content produced by Earprint Productions and NMAI, have created.  The beauty of this app begins with the tight integration of the app design with curator Cecile Ganteaume’s design of the exhibition right down to the color coding for different sections in the visual navigation matching exactly the exhibition graphics.  Now that’s attention to detail.  But the real beauty is the usefulness of this attention to detail.

When you first open the Infinity of Nations app you are greeted with a menu of four choices “Infinity of Nations Guide”, “About This Exhibition”, “Museum Information” and “About This Application”.  This app eschews the traditional menu icons at the bottom as well as any keypad option for entering audio tour stop numbers and replaces these with a simple, elegant visual navigation.

Screenshot of Map for Infinit of Nations Exhibit

Map View

Screenshot of Southwest Display Case View

Case View

Tapping “Infinity of Nations Guide” takes the user to a list view of the twelve different sections in the exhibition and an introduction. At the bottom are two options for the user to toggle between.  Tap the map view and the user gets a map of the exhibition which you can scroll back and forth. Tapping the section labeled “Southwest” and the user is presented a graphic representation of the display case as it is in the exhibition.

The user can scroll along the virtual display case. Numbers and a white boarder around several of the objects invite the user to tap on the object revealing a brief audio clip and an image of the object. The audio starts automatically for the user. The user also has the choice of tapping “Description” for a text version of the information in the audio clip.  Tapping the description does not interrupt the audio.

Screenshot of Hopi Manta Detail

Zoom View of Hopi Manta

Screenshot of Hopi Manta

Hopi Manta

Tap on the image, in this case of a Hopi manta, and the user can zoom in for a closer view and pan around the image to really appreciate the details. Again, doing so does not interrupt the audio. This only makes sense but that isn’t always the experience in every app.  It’s this type of attention to the user experience that really makes this app a pleasure to explore.

Accompanying the text description is a thumbnail of the same image and if the user chooses to tap on the thumbnail then again you can zoom and pan the image. Makes sense but again not every developer pays attention to the user experience the way Daniel Davis and Tristan Interactive have in this app.

One of the beauties of this apps design is that it works well for both the virtual visitor and the on-site visitor and allows for a seamless experience moving from one to another. If after viewing the app there are items I specifically want to view when I visit the exhibition I’ll know exactly where they are located.  And vis-a-versa after leaving the exhibit if you wanted to explore a section further you would be able to intuitively navigate right to the section.

Another aspect to this design is it’s scalability. As the NMAI develops more content for the pieces in the exhibit it will be easy to integrate into the app. An approach that makes sense for permanent collections.  I could easily see this becoming the app equivalent of the exhibition catalog.

On a final note I appreciate the absence of loose strings.  There are no extraneous half-baked components placed in the app because well, someone on the designed-by-committee said there should be or the app would be incomplete.  Everything included in this app works to enhance the user experience of the art. The technology gets out of the way. Form and function fit together perfectly here.

The Infinity of Nations app is available for free from the App Store,  has been downloaded more than 1200 times in a little over a month since its release and ranks in the top 1000 “Education” apps in 13 countries (not an easy feat for an exhibition specific app). I recommend that you give it a try. Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.1.3 or later.

For more information on the Infinity of Nations exhibition here is the Holland Cotter’s review in the New York Times  and here is a review by AP writer Ula Ilnytzky  in the Huffington Post.  Curator Cecile Ganteaume spoke with Chuck Scarborough on New York Nightly News about the new exhibition and you can watch a video of that here.

5.  Tuymans BC

Through January 23, 2011 – Bruges, Belgium

App icon for Tuymans BCRated Two StarsBruges Central City Festival: “Every five years Bruges provides the stunning setting for a large-scale cultural festival.  In this edition creative Belgians and artists from Central Europe take over the city.   Along with the art-historical exhibition ‘Van Eyck to Dürer’, the contemporary art trail ‘Luc Tuymans: A vision of Central Europe‘ will be one of the highlights of this major event.  The exhibition curated by Luc Tuymans and Tommy Simoens, gives a unique vision of the arts of an extraordinary region as their influences ripple out all over the world and back again.  The exhibition is full of para­doxes: light and dark, East and West, the experience of the past in the present and the pains of history.  Spread over 5 locations across the city, it includes the work of over 40 artists.” From the festival website.

This app is  designed to be experienced as a visitor at the Bruges Central City Festival.

Screenshot of menu for the 5 locations of the exhibition

5 Exhibition Locations

Screenshot for Grootseminarie Location

Artist Menu at Grootseminarie Location

As such it doesn’t stand up well as an app stand-alone experience. Essentially this is an audio guide with the content referencing spaces and works of art in a traditional audio guide format but which at times is difficult to follow as the audio and the image(s)are  not always aligning in an easy to follow format for the virtual visitor.

The navigation of the app is straightforward. As noted above this exhibition is an art trail at five locations across Bruges. Tapping the “Places” icon presents the viewer with a menu of the five locations to choose from (left screenshot). Selecting one of the places provides a menu of the artists at that location, in this case Grootseminarie (right screenshot). After selecting an artist the user sees a screen with the artist birthday and birthplace,  one or more images of the artist work and the option to play an audio clip. Sometimes, as in the case of Katharina Fritsch the app only presents the user with a single thumbnail image which doesn’t really allow the viewer to see the work of art being described.  In other cases there are multiple images of the artist’s work and it’s not always easy for the virtual visitor to tell which of these images are in the exhibition and which are provided as additional example of the artist work.

The best way for the virtual visitor  to enjoy this app is to abandon thoughts of the exhibition itself and take a moment to uncover the names of contemporary artists of which one might not otherwise have heard. In most cases I don’t think there is enough content on the app to give you a good understanding of the artist’s work but it is sufficient to discern which ones might of interest for exploring elsewhere.

The Tuymans BC app is a free app on Apple’s App Store. Although the app description indicates English as the only language there are French and Dutch options as well.  Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.0 or later. Rated for ages 12+.

(For Part 2 of 10 iPhone Apps for Current Art Exhibitions click here.)