6 Cool Museum Apps for 2010 Gift Giving, for iPhone & a couple for Android too!

Why not give your friends a smart phone app this year? If they’re into art, paleontology or just appreciate inventive interface design, here are some of my favorites, based on the following criteria. A really good app has to:

  • Have great content, designed for the small screen experience
  • Provide an immersive experience
  • Be a self-contained experience – no need to be at the museum to enjoy
  • Present content designed to be consumed in short sections – so you can complete reading something, playing something, listening to something in a few minutes
  • Allow you to access at least some content without an internet connection
  • Do one thing really well

It should also:

  • Link to social media so you can share what you’re doing/seeing/loving
  • Link to additional content on the web so you can find out more if you’ve been inspired

Here’s my list, in alphabetical order:

1.    Dinosaurs: iPhone, Free, from American Museum of Natural History.

Currently eight dinosaurs and their discoverers get the full treatment. Did you know Barnum Brown was a spy for the US government, as well as a prodigious fossil hunter, discoverer of three T-rex skeletons and an oil prospector? Neither did I till I had the app on my phone. I’ve read the label copy on the museum wall before but info didn’t stick until I was holding it in my hands.

You can navigate through the stories, or with the marvelous mosaic of dinosaur images and then share any picture you like via social media. Recently updated with new stories about Triceratops and Psittacosaurus, and with more updates planned, this app keeps on giving and giving.

2Exquisite Clock , iPhone: Free, from Fabrica

Based on the concept of the “Exquisite Corpse” this app uses crowd-sourced pictures of numbers to tell the time in hours/minutes/seconds. The numbers are represented by objects, landscapes, vegetables and other things that people have photographed and uploaded to the Exquisite Clock website. The site then feeds the app. Exquisite Clock is also available as a screensaver and an art installation. I came across it first at the Victoria & Albert Museum last year where it was part of their exhibition Decode: Digital Design. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing my photo on the clock more than once.

3.    How It Is, iPhone: Free, from The Tate Modern

In the museum version of the exhibition How It Is by polish artist Miroslaw Balka people could walk up a ramp to enter inside a “giant gray structure” and walk through its vast black interior, or they could walk beneath the structure and listen to “the echoing sound of footsteps on steel.” The app is a small screen version that manages to be immersive, creepy, and unlike any other app. It’s a compelling art experience in itself, rather than a tour. Use the onscreen joystick to zoom around the black environment and explore whatever you bump into. Have a good set of noise cancelling ear buds handy to hear the eerie 3D sound track, and it will help to be in a low light space as well.

4. Meanderthal: iPhone, Android, Free, from The National Museum of Natural History

Ever wanted to see what you might have looked like if you’d been alive 700,000 years ago? Now there’s an app for that! Meanderthal has a one-two punch that stimulates your curiosity about paleo-anthropology while bringing you literally face to face with our ancestors. Upload your photo and watch yourself morph into a male or female version your favorite early human. Then share your new self-portrait with the world on Facebook and follow the links from the app to the website, What Does it Mean to Be Human, and feed your growing curiosity about how we became the humans we are today. Fun!

5.    Smarthistory Travel: Rome, A First Look iPhone, Free

Smart History Travel is a project of Smart History, a multi-media web book about art and art history. The app is bursting with the trademark videos Smart History is well known for – videos capturing short, informal and very enlightening conversations between two engaging art historians who talk about some of Rome’s most famous buildings and artworks: the Pantheon, Column of Trajan, the Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s School of Athens and many more from Ancient, Rennaissance and Baroque periods in Rome. Drs. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker will give you a refreshing view of these cultural icons. Of course there are useful tips about doing a few other things in Rome too, like eating, shopping and getting around.

6. Yours,Vincent: iPhone. $3.99

This is the story of Van Gogh’s life and his art, evocatively told through his letters to his brother Theo. It’s an immersive, intimate, narrative experience with very well produced short audio and video clips. You can pinch and zoom the letters themselves to look closely at Vincent’s handwriting, his words, and his sketches. Most of the chronological sections conclude with a gallery of paintings, sketches or watercolors. You can’t enlarge them to look at details, but there’s a surprising amount you can appreciate, even at this screen size. Visual storytelling at its best, but no social media or web links.

I’ll recommend a few others in an update next week. If you have other favorites I’d love to hear about them!

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