cultureNOW: Guidebook for Museums Without Walls

App icon for cultureNOW-Guidebook for Museums Without WallsRated Four StarsIf you live in New York City, have an iPhone and an appreciation for art or a curiosity about NYC history then the cultureNOW: Guidebook for the Museums Without Walls is a must have app. Even if you don’t live in NYC this is an enjoyable app to explore as a virtual visitor.  For your $1.99 you get mobile access to a database of literally thousands of public works of art and architecture (4000+ in Manhattan alone!!). One of the real strengths of this app is the numerous ways the user can explore this vast wealth of content. If you are in the city you can search by location using the iPhone’s GPS. Planning to visit NYC or curious about a specific area then you can choose to enter an address.  The user can also search the entire cultureNOW database by the name of a work of art, a building, by artist, by architect, and even projects such as Arts for Transit and Percent for Art. Screenshot of Search Results for "Arts for Transit"The cultureNOW folks have “mapped any artwork paid for a public agency or visible from a public space” and this app makes it all so conveniently accessible. In yet another way this app is user friendly the handy “Prefs” icon allows the user to set over 20 search categories as on or off.  If you want to focus on only the historic buildings near a specific location this app makes it easy to do that. And the handy “Prefs” icon makes it easy to change to explore in a whole different direction when you choose.

Another way to explore the content on this app is to select “Podcasts” from the main menu and then choose from a selection of “Art”, “Architecture”, “Civic”, “Harlem”, “History”, “Neighborhood”, and “Parks” podcasts.  The range of authentic voices narrating the over 200 podcasts is part of the richness of this app. You hear from artists such as Franco Gaskin, “the Picasso of Harlem”; muralist Richard HaasJean Parker Phifer, author of Public Art New YorkAdrian Benepe, NYC Commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation;  Christine Haughney, Frontiers beat reporter for the New York Times, and actor and New York City native Matthew Broderick among a wealth of other voices. One design element of note with the podcasts which I like is a floating screen to play and pause the recording.  As the user listens to the podcast he or she can navigate around the related images, read text about the work of art or building on a different screen, biographical information about the podcast narrator, review the map and all while the audio continues.  Screenshot of Search CategoriesThe users can even continue exploring other works of art while listening to the continuing audio from the selected podcast (a very user-centric feature). Wherever your eyes take you as you listen to the podcast there is a handy “audio” icon in the lower right which allows  you to stop and start the audio without having to return to place in the app where you originally selected the podcast (although I do miss the presence of a slider control on the audio, particularly given that the length of some of the podcasts are over ten minutes).

With all this content to explore where do you start?  Well you might consider starting with one of the suggested tours.  cultureNOW has put together twelve tours including “Cultural and Historical 125th Street”, “Around Manhattan by Bike or Boat Tour”, “Great Crash of 1929: Tour of the Financial District” and one that I can’t wait to explore, though I might have to do so in stages, “Broadway Tip-to-Tail: A Walking Tour From the Bronx to Battery Park” with over forty stops. Or after selecting to search by “artist or architect” and typing in “Arts for Transit” one might spend an afternoon exploring the art in the metro stations. Once you download this app and start exploring you are certain to be inspired and may have trouble putting it down.

Featurewise this app is only missing a couple of things.  It would be nice to be able to save searches and to flag selected items as favorites or with other tags to facilitate the user being able to set up customized treks.  However, Abby Suckle, President of cultureNOW, indicates that we may see such things in future updates.  For the virtual visitor it would also be nice to be able to zoom in on images but given that the user is accessing on demand a database of over 10,000 photos its a fair trade-off in user experience for these images to be optimized for speed.  Screenshot of Podcast for Return of Spring, Onset of WinterAfter all the user may only have a New York minute to locate content related to a work of art before the bus arrives, the light changes or something else redirects the user’s attention.

cultureNOW is a non-profit which collaborates with Public Art Organizations throughout the country.  So with this app you can also access works located in several other city’s.  Their website has a map to give you an idea of how many works of art are currently in their database in which cities.  “CultureNOW is powered by a network of professionals—scholars, artists, architects, urban planners, educators, curators, historians and New York City specialists—who generously volunteer their time and expertise”. So, if after using this app you too are inspired to contribute content please be sure to contact them. In this context that handy “Contact” item in the center of the tab bar makes perfect sense.

cultureNOW: Guidebook for the Museum Without Walls is $1.99 on Apple’s App Store and worth every penny and more (I like that the information menu includes a donate option with a link to the cultureNOW website). Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.0 or later and requires internet access in order to access the database. cultureNOW also has an app focused on Lower Manattan which has 6 walking tours, 70 podcasts, and covers about 1000 sites and is available for free on Apple’s App Store.  Additionally, cultureNOW has 240+ free podcasts available on the iTunes Store if one wanted to download these to an iPod classic or nano.

Here’s a humorous video on the cultureNOW app: