November saw the release of a number of culture apps on the Apple App Store. Some were as alive as a business card or flyer but others were very creative, fun and inspiring in their approach to engaging users in this space. Here is a review of ten culture apps which give a representative range of the releases from cultural institutions in the month of November.

App icon for Ancient Egyptian Book of the DeadRated Two Stars1. Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead

Does your heart weigh more than the feather of truth? Answer 7 questions correctly and you will unlock the Book of the Dead of Hunefer, one of the many of the British Museum’s collection of Books of the Dead featured in the the exhibition Journey through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Get the answers wrong, and you will be eaten by the Great Devourer.

This app is more of a trailer for the exhibit than an app for engaging in the exhibition. If you are planning to attend the exhibition (which runs through March 6, 2011) and have children then the app journey through the netherworld may be a good teaser to get them intrigued. (Rated for children 9+ for infrequent/mild horror/fear themes).

Given the apps trailer premise my one suggestion would be for the “Events programme” page to be integrated in an easy to read format for the iPhone. Instead one is directed to the exhibition website which while I do appreciate the link it is a bit more difficult to navigate than if this information had been integrated into the app itself.

Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead is a free app compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad and requires iOS 3.1.3 or later.

App icon for BristolRated Three Stars2. Bristol: The Blitz and the City We Lost

Bristol was the fifth most heavily bombed British city of World War II. The presence of Bristol Harbour and the Bristol Aeroplane Company made it a target for bombing by the Nazi German Luftwaffe who were able to trace a course up the River Avon from Avonmouth using reflected moonlight on the waters into the heart of the city.[1]
Between 24 November 1940 and 11 April 1941 there were six major bombing raids. In total Bristol received 548 air raid alerts and 77 air raids with:
919 tons of high-explosive bombs and myriad incendiary bombs
1299 people killed, 1303 seriously injured, 697 rescued from debris
89,080 buildings damaged including 81,830 houses destroyed and over 3000 later demolished.(From the Bristol Blizt in Wikipedia).

This app gives you information on what old Bristol was like, and the effect the Blitz had, through an engaging audio commentary, and using archive photos and film provided by Bristol Record Office, and other pictures from Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery.

Bristol: The Blitz and the City We Lost is a step up from a basic audio tour and something I am seeing pop up on the App Store for many historical areas throughout the world. If you are in Bristol the app uses the phone’s GPS to play the right audio clips, and show the right archive images and films in the right places as you walk around Bristol’s old city. But for the rest of us there is browse option which I enjoyed. Two things are missing from the browse option: a map of Bristol to help locate visually how the different stops relate spatially; and also, there are no present day photographs of the stops given the design for a walking tour. All in all though I found the app an informative and easy to use bit of history.

Bristol: The Blitz and the City We Lost is $2.99 on the App Store and is compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.0 or later.
App icon for Extraordinary HeroesRated Two Stars3. Extraordinary Heroes

The Imperial War Museum London opened the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, its first major permanent gallery in ten years, on the 12th of November with Extraordinary Heroes.

The new gallery, paid for by a £5million donation from Lord Ashcroft, KCMG, will house the Extraordinary Heroes exhibition containing the world’s largest collection of Victoria Crosses (VCs), which has been established by Lord Ashcroft since 1986. The 162 awards, which range from the Crimean to the Falklands wars, are on public display for the first time alongside 48 VCs and 31 George Crosses (GCs) already held by the Museum. The VC is Britain and the Commonwealth’s premier award for extreme gallantry in the face of the enemy, while the GC is Britain’s most prestigious civil decoration.

The Extraordinary Heroes app which accompanies the exhibit indicates that one can “explore 29 stories of bravery across 7 different themes” but it does so in the manner of a fancy flyer for the exhibition. One can read the brief descriptions but one doesn’t feel really drawn into the stories. On the “How to Use This App” screen there are icons and instructions for audio and video clips but it appears that this is from Toura’s (the developer) template, rather than specific to Extraordinary Heroes, as there are no audio or video clips available in the app. Which is a shame. After Bristol: The Blitz I was geared up for more history but found Extraordinary Heroes to be less than ordinary as an app. This is a step down from an audio guide.

Extraordinary Heroes is available for $0.99 on the App Store. Save your change unless you want to make a charitable donation to the Imperial War Museum. Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.0 or later.
App icon for Golden Gate Park Field GuideRated Four Stars4. Golden Gate Park Field Guide

This is a really cool app from the California Academy of Sciences and let me start by noting the coolest feature, “Sightings”. With “Sightings” “citizen scientist” can search for recent sightings of plants and animals in the park. For example, a Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) was spotted on the grassy slope between deYoung and JFK on Thanksgiving day. Users can also upload a spotting with a picture. Unfortunately the picture of the Red-shouldered Hawk wasn’t the best and you can’t zoom yet on the picture but this is still a pretty cool way to explore the park. However, the field guide tells me that this is an uncommon sighting and even provides an audio clip of the Red-shouldered Hawk’s voice. The app also keeps track of your sightings in folder for handy reference.

A field guide highlights more than 170 of the park’s animal and plant species, “including a few surprises like wild coyotes and blackberry bushes“. An “Adventures” section includes two nature walks, two bike tours, and four scavenger hunts. This app is well thought out and easy to navigate.

The Golden Gate Park iPhone app is currently free for a limited time and then will be $2.99. If you are planning to visit the California Academy of Sciences in the coming weeks show the app at the Academy ticket window for $5 off the price of your ticket from 11/29/10-12/24/10. (Valid for up to four guests.) This app is compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.0 or later.

App icon for MasadaRated Two Stars5. Acoustiguide Smartour – Masada

“On the cliff of Masada, at the edge of the Judean Mountains, rising over 400 meters above the western shore of the Dead Sea, unfolded one of the most dramatic events in the history of the people of Israel.

When all hope of halting the advance of the Roman forces was lost, Elazar Ben-Yair gathered the warriors of Masada, with their women, their elderly and their young in the square beyond the wall and addressed them, calling upon them to take their own lives…

“…and die we shall ere we serve our enemies in bondage, and free men we shall remain when we leave the land of the living, we, our wives and our children…’ ” (from the developer’s description)

This app from Acoustiguide is pretty much one would expect from a leading provider of audio guides. There are 41 way points and an introduction. Each is accompanied by a still photograph. I had been hoping that there would be more multi-media available to really bring Masada to the user who may not be able to visit. While this audioguide is informative it seems to fall short of really being an app. I wish this app would take a page or two from the National Constitution Center’s app.

Acoustiguide Smartour – Masada is $1.99 on Apple’s App Store and is compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.1 or later.
App icon for Mori Art MuseumRated One Star6. Mori Art Museum Official App

The Mori Art Museum “is Tokyo’s highest museum, on the 53rd floor of the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower. Opened in 2003, it features state-of-the-art galleries with 6m-tall (20-ft.) ceilings, controlled natural lighting, and great views of Tokyo. Innovative exhibitions of emerging and established artists from around the world are shown four times a year, with past shows centering on contemporary Asian, African, and Japanese art.” (from the New York Times).

The Mori Art Museum Official App is the app as business card. There is basic information about the current exhibit, “Odani Motohiko: Phantom Limb” including biographical information about the artist and pictures of six pieces in the exhibition. There is no additional audio or video included. I’m not sure I understand the point of creating this app other than, as I said, as a business card. Odani Motohiko’s art looks intriguing but this app isn’t going to help the user gain a better appreciation of his work.

Mori Art Museum Official App is available on Apple’s App Store at no charge and is compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.1.2 or later.

App icon for National Constitution CenterRated Four Stars7. National Constitution Center

The National Constitution Center worked with Drexel University’s School of Education to create this excellent app. There are five navigation icons across the bottom of the app. The first icon, “Home”, provides the visitor with basic logistical information including directions via public transportation and parking rates. Let’s skip the second icon for a second. The central icon appropriately enough is of the “Constitution” and provides a full text of this historic document. The fourth icon is “Newswire” provided by YellowBrix, Inc. a service of BusinessWire. The newsire highlights articles in the news which affect constitutional issues, although not all articles seem to meet this criteria. And the fifth navigation icon is “More” which allows the user to send an email about the app, provide feedback to the NCC or take a survey.

Now back to the second icon, “Tours”, which is the heart of this app. Here the NCC introduces an in-app payment system which I applaud. There are four tours, “Art of the American Soldier”, “We the People-Constitution”, “Signer’s Hall Exhibit”, and “Ancient Rome and America”. Each tour has between twenty and forty-five waypoints and includes rich media. For example, a video of George W.H. Bush, Chairman of the NCC, welcomes the user to Signers’ Hall. After a couple of provided preview way points the user can choose to purchase the rest of the tour for $0.99. A very reasonable price considering the content provided here. If the NCC had started with the app being priced at $3.99 on the App Store users might be reluctant to purchase the app. With this model users can download the app and have convenient access to some basic features and then pay-as-you-go with the tours after you’ve previewed the content of several waypoints first.

Overall I think the NCC did a good job of creating an app that is engaging both for the on-site visitor and the at-home app user. I haven’t visited the NCC yet but after viewing this app I’m looking forward to the chance to do so soon.

The NCC app is free to download from Apple’s App Store and then charges $0.99 each for four optional tours. Try one and I think you’ll agree you’re getting your moneys worth here. This app is compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.0 or later.

App icon for The Phillips CollectionRated Four Stars8. The Phillips Collection

The Phillips Collection has released a very professional app with great features, easy to use navigation and lots of content to explore. The audio guide consist of three tours, “Intersections” with 6 stops, “Permanent Collection” with 9 stops, and “TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art 1845-1945” (a current exhibition running through January 9, 2011) with 9 stops. A variety of voices are featured on the audio guide including Museum Director Dorothy Kosinski, artists, curators, and educators. The last time I visited the Phillips Collection the audio guide was available for access via your cell phone, which I find an improvement over many of the audio guide units distributed by museums but still you have to dial the access number repeatedly during a visit which gets old. So having the audio pre-loaded for a visit is certainly an improvement, although some of it seems lifted from a dated audio guide. When I heard curator Vesela Sreteno refer to a work from the “Intersections” series being on view until May 2, 2010 I had to double check to be sure this app had debuted in November.

But the real fun with this app is when you begin exploring the other content available. There’s a veritable treasure trove of videos to get lost exploring with content ranging from behind the scenes views of artists installing their works in the museum to visitors commenting on the recent Georgia O’Keeffe Exhibition Abstraction. There really is so many wonderful surprises in exploring the videos included in this app.

A real gem of a surprise in this app is the “Love Stories from the Phillips Collection”. I haven’t seen anything like this on another museum app and found these stories very touching and really enriched the experience of my time exploring The Phillips Collection app. Do yourself a favor, download this app and take a look at these “Love Stories”.

One other feature which I really appreciate on the Phillips Collection app is the donation icon at the bottom of the app. This reminds me of the glass boxes often found in museum lobbies which provide an opportunity to donate what you wish. The Phillips house recently suffered substantial damage from a fire and so they have launched a micro-donation campaign to allow supporters to contribute to make a $5 donation, by texting “phillips5” to 20222 and to make a $10 donation, they can text “phillips10” to this same number. Even if this donation were not for a special cause I do appreciate that the Phillips Collection provided this way to say thanks for a great app experience.

The Phillips Collection app is available for free from Apple’s App Store and is compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.1.3 or later.

App icon for TakeItArtside!Rated Three Stars9. TakeItArtside!

This wonderful app from Central Kentucky’s Museum Without Walls Project represents a collaborative effort between Christine Huskisson of the University of Kentucky department of art, Lisa Broome-Price of the Gaines Center for the Humanities, Allison Hosale, a recent graduate of UK with an MA in Art History, and the direct involvement of students from the University of Kentucky and Georgetown College. The design of the app really encourages user involvement with the public art in Lexington, Kentucky. A user can browse a map of public artworks in the Lexington, Kentucky, follow directions on a Google map to the artwork and check-in to earn points (naturally, you need to be in the area for this to work). A “My Gallery” folder allows users to keep track of which art works they have visited. As a result of the check-in feature the Museum Without Walls “team will be able to track which pieces of artwork are being viewed the most and at what times and even by certain demographics, because each user will create a small profile that will give a little information about themselves,” according to Brian Raney of Apex Software, who partnered on the app development.

Museum Without Walls has even created a page for lesson plans. The lesson plans were created by Allison Hosale as part of a graduate level assignment and tested in a local elementary school.

The only thing missing currently is audio and I read that there are plans to include audio from “artists and interpretive comments from curators and administrators, as well as those who might simply want to share their experiences”.

TakeItArtside! is a free app available from Apple’s App Store and is compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.0 or later.

UPDATE December 6, 2010: The Project Team at Central Kentucky Museum Without Walls informs me that the lessons plans for the current app were designed by Sarah Piester & Jeanette Tesmer, graduate students at the University of Kentucky.

App icon for ZahnerRated Two Stars10. Zahner

Zahner has produced, what in it’s present form is, the app as digital portfolio. This pioneer in the architectural metal industry has collaborated with an impressive list of clients all over the world.

According to their website, “The Zahner iPhone App was designed to give art and architecture lovers a taste of the great works by great artists. Included in the App are many of the best designers, architects, and artists of our day, showing the works they’ve produced in Zahner metal.
The Zahner App is one of the best ways to get a taste for the projects that Zahner has done around the world. The Zahner App includes several mapped locations so that users can visit Zahner projects completed in their own area. There is no better way to understand the quality of Zahner metal-work than by seeing it in person.”

The app as it is now does include hundreds of photos and the resources section contains interesting and useful articles however, the app itself is missing a pulse. There’s no video or audio from the artists and architects. No commentary from Zahner on their processes. Nothing. Just a silent digital portfolio of admittedly impressive work. Check out the video on their website for a demo of the app.

Zahner’s app is available for free from Apple’s App Store. I’d recommend waiting until they add some more engaging content. This app is compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.1.3 or later