San Jose Museum of Art iPod Tour

Chester Arnold, Tailings, 1996. Oil on linen, 60 x 72 inches. Collection of the San Jose Museum of Art.

Chester Arnold, Tailings, 1996. Oil on linen, 60 x 72 inches. Collection of the San Jose Museum of Art.

Challenge: In 2005 the Executive Director at the San Jose Museum of Art, Daniel Keegan, tasked the Museum Experience and Education Department to create an iPod tour for the museum. The museum up until that point had no experience in the area and the department was at a loss as to how to create one. It was decided that the exhibition to focus on would be the politically charged exhibition Visual Politics: the Art of Engagement. Additionally, the museum had committed to be the trial museum for a new company called Guide by Cell, which offers audio tours via visitor cell phones.

Action: At the time Dan Keegan put forward the challenge to the Museum Experience and Education Department I was currently employed as the Assistant Registrar. I had been reading a lot about podcasting and about a mode on the iPod called Notes-Only, or “Museum Mode” and was eager to become involved with the project. After some negotiations between departments I received the green light.

Using my iBook and the iLife suite of applications on it I was able to create 12 tour stops for 12 works of art in the exhibition and an introduction by the museum director. The scripted stops were recorded by two vocal talents associated with the museum. The scripts written by the Director of Education and the Manager of Visitor Services tied the subjects in the selected paintings with current California events. Using the recorded vocal tracks I spliced in popular music at the beginning and ending which related to the themes and subjects in each featured artwork. The combination of music and vocals created a rich audio experience used to enhance the visitors understanding of the artwork. Here is an example of one for artist Dihn Q. Le:

Ten video iPods were purchased by the museum which were offered to visitors who did not have their own. With the audio loaded on each device I was able to lock each one into Notes-Only mode. In this mode when the iPod is launched the typical iPod menu structure is non-existent. Instead the user is presented an iPod “note” which is basically formated like a small webpage. The note can contain links to other notes, audio, video or images. Here is an example of how it works (on a different exhibition):

Additionally, as mentioned above, we offered the content via cell phone as Guide by Cell’s first prototype. The audio clips that were created were uploaded to the Guide by Cell system and made available via visitor cell phones. The works that were selected to have audio commentary were labeled with special labels directing visitors to either checkout an iPod or take out their cell phones. On the label was a number which visitors would enter on their phone to listen or match up the number to a list presented on the iPod note page.

Results: The tour was well received and eventually led to the creation of my position as Manager of Interactive Technology. The director Dan Keegan, who has since moved on to the Milwaukee Museum of Art, saw the need for an additional layer of technology in the galleries because of our location in Silicon Valley and the movement of museums towards a participatory culture. Since this first introduction of iPod use in the gallery we have consistently offered some form of iPod component with at our museum in selected exhibitions.

Our exhibition, Visual Politics: the Art of Engagement, traveled to the Katzen Arts Center at American University, and when they heard we had the audio component to the exhibition they insisted on offering it to their visitors.

The cell phone component garnered the museum the most press coverage because it was one of the first implementations of its kind in a museum setting. The museums phone was ringing off the hook because an article about it was picked up by Associated Press. Guide by Cell has become a successful company and currently lists over 200 museums, galleries and other institutions who are using their service. I still work closely in my position at the museum with Guide by Cell and offer thoughts toward improving the service and adding new features.

One Response to "San Jose Museum of Art iPod Tour"

  1. Ch, ch, changes… :

    […] the years I’ve worked with a variety of mobile delivery methods for audio and video content. Cell phones, Video iPods in Notes-Only Mode, and lastly iPod Touch/iPhone.  The iPod Touch tour we launched in 2008 was one of the first of […]

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