Recently I’ve started evaluating museums iphone applications, based on my experience as a producer of interactive and web based media for museums, and as an avid iphone user.
All the ones I’ve downloaded offer something to engage me when I need it most – on morning subway commutes, standing on lines, and sitting in airports. In other words, I use them the way some people download games or listen to music, to enjoy myself and keep boredom at bay.
So far my absolute favorite is Yours, Vincent: The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, developed by the Van Gogh Museum and the Huygens Institute – KNAW in 2009 to provide a portable experience of the Van Gogh Letters Project.
What I love is that it offers an immersive experience: you’re drawn into the intimate details of Van Gogh’s life and art. The narrative structure, the letters format, and the fact that his art was personal and small scale make this subject very well suited to viewing on your own device.
The story unfolds in chronological chapters through Van Gogh’s letters, mostly written to his brother Theo. The chapters tend to correspond to the different places where Vincent lived, and the time span he lived there.
Within each chapter there are multiple sections; most present letters themselves, filled with sketches, and read in English as Vincent describes his plans, dreams, troubles, pleasures and work. Others have short interpretive videos of curators filling out the backstory. You can enlarge the letters, to see details of the many sketches Vincent sent to Theo, or study his handwriting.
Most chapters conclude with a gallery of paintings, sketches or watercolors Vincent made during the period covered by the chapter. You can’t enlarge them to look at details- though you definitely want to do that. All you can do is take in the whole image. Yet there’s a surprising amount you can appreciate, even at this screen size. Each one is like a promise – that the real thing will be worth the effort to go and experience in person.
While it’s kind of frustrating not to be able to enlarge the paintings it’s entirely understandable. The app has many video and audio clips and is already a whopping 302MB. Adding higher resolution images might have meant cutting back on the number of images altogether, or on the insightful media clips.
From a user interface standpoint, the navigation clear. There are three main options: Items, the main menu of chapters; Insight, an option which allows you to filter the chapter sub-sections by topics such as “love,” “sex,” “nature” and several others; and Info, with production credits.
Within each chapter, the navigation is horizontal. One nice thing is that navigation slides away while you’re looking at artworks so your view of each image is unobstructed. You can make the video controls disappear too, by simply tapping on the screen.
One minor complaint is that galleries don’t present the paintings in chronological order. If they did, in the gallery devoted to the self-portraits Van Gogh painted while he lived in Paris, you’d be able to see how his image of himself changed over time rather than viewing them in a seemingly random order.
I’ve also begun to explore iphone apps from The National Gallery (Love Art), Minneapolis Institute of Arts (iAfrica), the Brooklyn Museum, and NARB (more of a crowd sourced guide to local museum exhibitions in cities around the world). I’ll be sharing the results of my research about them in the coming days and weeks. The ones from Portland Art Museum and AMNH are on the list next.
If you’ve used any of these applications please share your thoughts. If you have other ones to recommend, let us all know!