The headset and MP3 player of the traditional audio tour — pricey, lengthy, fussy — is ancient history at some museums, where instead, there’s an app for that. Rather than the typical audio guide, museums are beginning to offer visitors an iPhone and iPad app as a gallery guide, as well as dial-in audio information. The Phillips Collection is one of the first museums in the District to build an app that encompasses the entire museum experience, though some Smithsonian museums have made apps to supplement specific exhibits. The Phillips audio and iPad tours each will guide you through the gallery’s masterworks, but which is a better art experience? We tested both in a tour of the museum’s permanent collection.
The Audio Guide
Like: For the visitor who feels completely clueless, the audio guide does a great job of addressing the question in the back of your mind: “So . . . why is this famous?” and that question’s natural follow-up: “This is art? I could have painted that.” The guide provides context both for the works of art and for the physical museum, explaining the story of the space in which these paintings are housed. Only a handful of paintings get the audio treatment, but the Phillips made sure to include the highlights; Dorothy Kosinski, director of the Phillips Collection, speaks on Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” If you’re the person who gets that “Where am I supposed to look now?” panic in museums, the guide includes suggestions on how to read the rooms as you’d read a book, directing attention to the way works are strategically located to converse with one another. There’s a ton of history on the Phillips family, providing a clear framework for everything in the building.
Dislike: You will look like that jerk who is on your phone while at an art museum. Even people who work at the museum will glare in your direction, likely thinking you are using your cellular device for non-arty means, and also may be assuming you were texting at the movie they saw last week. The reception can be spotty (though the folks at the Phillips say they’re working on that). To reach an audio segment, you have to dial a full phone number followed by a two-digit number corresponding to the work of art. At the end of the clip — about three minutes long — the recording will prompt you to “press one to return to the main menu” over and over again. Unless you are seeing each painting in rapid succession, you’ll have to hang up and then dial in every time you want to use the guide.
Worth it? Only if you enjoy looking like a jerk at an art museum. Do you? We didn’t think so.
The iPad guide
Like: The Phillips iPad app — free, attractively designed and powered by free WiFi throughout the museum — offers art lovers and neophytes alike a way to connect to the collection. For the former, a collection search function expands upon the wall text, including anecdotes about the artists and their processes. For the latter, the audio guide, easily retrieved by entering a two-digit code provided on the wall text for select works (bypassing the reception and recording issues of the cellphone tour — just remember to bring your headphones) will give museum-goers the basics, while videos provide a lesson in creating and installing exhibits. You can see A. Balasubramaniam’s “Sk(in)” sculpture being lifted off a truck into the museum courtyard by a crane, for example, or the assembling of Will Ryman’s roses sculpture, “58th Street,” on display in front of the museum. Another video feature, “Love Stories,” charmingly interviewing couples who met or had their first date in the museum, promotes the Phillips as a place to find romance.
Dislike: You might find yourself looking at the screen more than the art in front of you. It’s hard to resist the interactive, glowing allure of an iPad, especially when you’re standing before a work you might not understand. You may be tempted to rely on the app to explain it all to you, but even though there’s information at your fingertips, it shouldn’t replace the simple act of letting your eyes wander across a canvas to make your own discoveries about the work. Because of the short attention span that results from consuming digital media, viewers might retain more information from the wall texts than from the guide. The app is a good enhancement, but only if you don’t let it become a replacement for the museum experience.
Worth it? Yes — but only if you look at the art in front of you as often as you look at the screen.