Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Click! Mobile Media at the MFA

Over the holidays, I took a trip to Boston and visited the new Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts.  I'm not a huge fan of audio tours, but thought I would try out their new multimedia guide after I read about it online (and by the way, having found that information once, it now seems hard to find there).

After the recent discussion by Arianna Huffington and Nina Simon's thoughtful, impassioned rebuttal, I thought it made sense to think about this guide from a visitor's perspective.  What did I want from it?  What did I expect?  Was it easy to use?  and most importantly of all, did it deepen or change my experience?  Did I bug other visitors?
The front desk attendant gives you a brief verbal introduction to using the player. I don't know how that would have worked if it had been really crowded when we entered.  There was a charge for the guide, but a discount for members.  I sat down and played with a bit before entering galleries.   This is most definitely not a tour, but rather a tool to use as you go through the galleries, as the only way you find a piece to learn more about is by seeing the headphone symbol on the label.   I expected to be guided from place to place, but then, once I figured it out,  just went in the galleries and explored.   I found myself juggling the media player, my camera, and a map; occasionally pulling out a notebook to make a note.  So it seemed like a lot to handle--I wonder if the next step in media players in museums is one that allows you to take pictures as well.  Wouldn't that wind some people up!

I found myself not so interested in the audio, as usual for me.  But two particular components I found really compelling--they drew me in and I'll remember them for a long time--I think they illustrate what these kinds of guides may be best at for visitors--or at least visitors like me.
At Mary Cassatt's In the Loge (above) I got to see a sketch for the painting and also learned that this woman's curious look at other operagoers was not considered appropriate behavior and saw a painting (Renoir, perhaps?) that depicted what was appropriate behavior.  So in a very short time, I learned a bit about Cassatt's artistic process;  appreciated the work and thought that goes into creating a painting, saw the work of another artist on the same topic, and even learned a bit of social history.   It would have made for a long label, but it was a perfect sized bit.

And then there was Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley.  One of the masterworks in the Americas wing, it had a bustling crowd around it.  I sat for a minute and listened (and watched) to an African American community member (and member of the board of trustees, I think) discuss this painting on my little media player.  He remembered seeing it as a young man and was struck by the authority of the black man commanding the boat--and how rare it was to see, in life or in art, an African American shown in a position of authority.  I was touched by the memory--but it also caused me to look closer at the painting--to really look at that man commanding the boat.
These two pieces reflected what I often want when I visit a museum.  I want some context (that's the history museum part of me) and I want to connect emotionally.  Honestly, I don't care so much about dates or styles so that sort of catalog entry available on the guide didn't encourage me to explore more than a couple of those.   And of course, I liked being able to explore at my own pace and in  my own way.  Disturb other visitors' experiences?  I don't think so.
I didn't have a kid with me so I can't speak for the kids' guide (above)  from a kid's perspective.  But from an adult perspective, I found it pretty so-so.  Somehow an adult narrator speaking from a kid's perspective made it all seem both dull and a bit phony.

And a quick shout-out to the MFA's member program.  We were enthusiastically greeted at the door and asked if we were members and the free admission, discount parking, discount on the media guide, and discount in the restaurant made that Christmas present to my husband seem like a great thing!


Samantha said...

Great review! In November-- for my Introduction to Museum Education course--I had to review an educational program at a local museum. I choose to review the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art's mobile audio tour. The audio tours could be accessed on a personal smartphone, iPod, or borrow an iPod from the information desk. Since I was using an iPhone to acces the audio tour, I could easily go back to the tour after taking photos.

Overall, I really enjoyed the Nelson-Atkins audio tour (I focused on the Ancient collection; includes Greek, Roman and Egyptian)--esp. the music files before the introduction(s) to a different time period or area. Including music in the tour grabbed my attention!

I think mobile media in museums can allow all ages, esp. those that are always on their phones, to learn more or at least grab their attention.


Rye History said...

Great post -- thanks. I had a similar experience at the Rubin Museum. The audio provided context - historical, cultural and artistic - that labels just can't do.

Linda said...

Thanks Samantha and Nantucket Cook for your comments. Interesting to see that for some visitors, like us, really a way to go deeper, but not just with audio.

And Nantucket Cook--since you're a cooking person as well, hope you'll check out my other project, The Pickle Project and share with others. Enjoy!

Anna Leshchenko said...

Hello, Linda!

I'm a Russian museologist and I'm going to comment on your blog in my thesis. I just need to know how to define your profession... "Fulbright Scholar"? :)

Linda said...

Hi Ann--how nice to hear from someone in Moscow--what's your thesis on? Hmm...independent museum professional and Fulbright Scholar to Ukraine I think covers most of it.

A very good friend from Ukraine, very interested in museums has just (like this week) moved to Moscow--do you work at a museum or still at university? I'd love to visit Russia one of these days.


Anna Leshchenko said...

My thesis is on museum terminology, I study basic terms and how they are used in the context :)

I'm teaching Museology:

Samantha said...

Since you are one of my favorite museum-related bloggers, I'm passing the Stylish Blogger Award on to you!

There's a little web badge that goes with it and everything! Who says museums can't be stylish? Haha.

You can pick it up here if you want to participate:

Danee Gilmartin said...

Hi Linda- As a frequent museum visitor, I am always looking for new ways to interact with the art so it's interesting to see these new multimedia audio guides, especially for children. I think most museums need to make themselves more accessible for non-frequent visitors and children and these guides look like they can do that and keeps kids interest with that TV-like screen. Cool to see- I hope they come to some museums in NYC!

Linda said...

Thanks Danee for your comment--I bet there are mobile devices like the MFA's in NYC museums--I just haven't had a chance to see them yet--if you come across some, I'd love to hear about them. Thanks for reading!

Mobile Media said...

Hi Linda, I must admit that I haven't seen many uses of mobile media at museums and galleries over here in the UK, but I think they would be a fantastic addition and definitely add a lot of value to any tours. Especially for the younger generation, this might be the perfect bridging point to engage them in the history and beauty of museum and art pieces.