Showing apptitude

Advances in technology could signal the end of the exhibition catalogue as we know it. John Stones discovers how mobile apps for tablets are being used to enliven and enrich the exhibition visitor experience

There is a definite ritual involved in going to exhibitions. Quite apart from looking at the exhibits, there are the rickety headphones offered for the audio guide and then, at the end, there is often a heavy and expensive catalogue (and other merchandise) to be carried home wearily and placed on the shelf to gather dust.

But as in the case of so much printed matter, the need for this venerable exhibition catalogue is now being questioned by the arrival of tablet computers such as the iPad. For the smartphone, there are already a variety of clever and unusual apps that make the exhibition experience easier and richer such as those offered by the Graphic Design Museum Breda in the Netherlands. But the iPad, with its much richer visual experience, has the potential for something more ambitious still a ’curator app’, gathering together the catalogue and audio guide and adding a layer of its own.

This approach costs very little, and yet the customer has a very nice and attractive product, with large high-quality images that they can zoom in on and that has easy navigation

Frédéric Durand, Smart Apps

For Abstract Expressionist New York, a major show that opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last year, a highly ambitious iPad app was developed in conjunction with local consultancy Deep Focus. From listening to one of the curators talking about techniques to sharing an image you like with friend, or being prompted about a local place of significance as you wander around the city, it demonstrates a whole new set of rituals that could become part of the exhibition experience.

Impressive and virtuosic as Moma’s app is, it is clear that museums and galleries have only begun to scratch the surface of what is possible. Here are two contrasting approaches created closer to home.

Cranach et Son Temps iPad app
By Smart Apps

For Cranach et Son Temps, a recent show at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, the Réunion des Museés Nationaux commissioned its second-ever app, adopting the conservative, yet highly effective approach it did for its Claude Monet blockbuster last year. The result is aimed at a sophisticated French audience and eschews the populism expected in Anglo Saxon countries.

Its creator Smart Apps believes that marketing something all singing and dancing is not always necessary. Instead, the app it developed recreates the experience of the catalogue while gently integrating two further features four video essays and exquisite, ultra-high-resolution images (50 megapixel with curator-checked colorimetry), allowing the reader to zoom in by a factor of ten to examine the paintings in minute detail.

’We start from the files that are sent to the printers we don’t change the design or produce content, we just try to adapt what is there in the best way possible,’ explains Frédéric Durand, co-director of Smart Apps.

’Ultimately, you’d like to develop special content, but the costs are very high and you won’t recoup them,’ adds Durand. ’Something like the Moma app is very sophisticated and expensive, but this has been done for PR purposes, not financial ones. This approach costs little, and yet the customer has a very nice and attractive product, with very large high-quality images that they can zoom in on and that has easy navigation. It is also cheaper €5 (£4.50) instead of €10 (£9) for the printed catalogue.’

Perhaps because German Renaissance portraits have a more specialised market than Monet, sales of the Cranach app have not been particularly vigorous. ’But for the Monet, we sold 5000 apps, which is very good for the iPad,’ says Durand.

Cult of Beauty iPad app
By the Victoria & Albert Museum and Toura

For its Cult of Beauty exhibition (on until 17 July) the Victoria & Albert Museum decided to develop an iPad app out of the audio guide, narrated in expensive tones by Rupert Everett.

The museum’s in-house teams worked with New York-based Toura, which offers a template-based ’app producer’, to create an app that adds high-resolution imagery and additional textual commentary to the mix.

Both the smartphone and iPad app feature the ’Walking Tour of Chelsea’, using maps and images like a local tour guide, but the former is intended to be used on the hoof at the exhibition or in the surrounding areas, while the iPad is expected to be used from home.

Though the printed catalogue is something that people ’use’ at home, there was no wish to replicate this digitally.

’I think that apps bring something new to the exhibition experience, rather than supplanting the traditional catalogue,’ explains Jo Prosser, head of V&A Enterprises.

’One of the most exciting things about the new technology is that it allows us to use different formats according to their strengths and let the audience decide what kind of experiences they want to engage with,’ she continues.

’With The Cult of Beauty, the audio guide allows us to bring contemporary texts and readings to life. The iPhone/iPad app adds a visual layer of images and extra features and the beautiful book is a beautiful book something physical, lasting and to be enjoyed for its own sake. We are happy to have something to offer to all three audiences,’ says Prosser.

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