The Brooklyn Museum is an excellent place to cool off on a scorching Saturday afternoon, unless you can be at the beach. But the beach doesn’t have the ASK Brooklyn Museum app and I wanted to try that out, especially after having an interesting conversation about the app with Seb Chan and Micah Walter.
Once I downloaded and opened the app in the lobby, (a quick and trouble free operation) I wandered into the Double Take: African Innovations gallery, preferring to stay away from the madding crowds upstairs in The Rise of Sneaker Culture exhibition.
Knowing very little about African Art, I wasn’t at all sure what would interest me enough to ask any questions but literally every object, whether contemporary or historical was magnetically attractive in one way or another.
Eventually I came across this copper plaque from 16th or 17th century Nigeria, depicting a Portuguese trader with his European style dress, flowing beard and mustache.
The African artist had seen his nose as sharp, and curved. I became curious to compare how the Nigerian artist saw the Portuguese with how Japanese artists depicted them after they arrived in southern Japan in the 16th century. (Remember Shogun?) I snapped a picture of the plaque in the app and sent it to the ASK team, as requested, then texted my question.
The answer came back almost immediately, from Stephanie, who texted:
Then before I knew it, another text arrived from her:
I used the link to see what the sculpture looked like and wandered around again until I found the Horn Blower, meanwhile stopping to admire several other dramatic and mysterious masks and figures. Here’s the Horn Blower with a kilt decorated with the faces of Portuguese men. You can see the faces, though not very well.
Then, because there’s an area where visitors can touch samples of different types of cloth from Nigeria, Mali, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and a few other countries I texted Stephanie to see if she knew what kind of cloth the Horn Blower’s kilt would have been made of. She didn’t, and unfortunately the app doesn’t save our conversation for very long so I’m not able to go back and show you how gracious her answer was.
I’m 100% sure that if I hadn’t had the opportunity to ask these questions through the app I wouldn’t have thought of them at all. For me the opportunity became kind of a responsibility. The app inspired me to look more thoughtfully at the works, and to come up with some not so obvious questions that I wanted answers to.
I know I’m not your typical museum visitor, but the visitor experiences that Shelly Bernstein, the Brooklyn Museum’s Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology, and Sara Devine, Manager of Audience Engagement & Interpretive Materials reported in their recent interview with Nina Simon at Museum 2.0, were very similar to mine.
“We were heartened when early testers told us they felt like they were looking more closely at works of art in order to figure out what questions to ask. They put down the device often, and they would circle back to a work to look again after getting an answer—all things we verified in watching their behavior, too. “
In that interview Nina notes that many museums position staff or volunteers in the galleries with Ask Me buttons, but usually visitors don’t ask. I’ve certainly seen these friendly people but would never stop to ask them about the art.
Why not? Why does the app work, while real people don’t? My first thought is because I don’t want to get trapped in a conversation with a real person, but it’s easier to dismiss or terminate a text chat.
Was using the ASK app an enjoyable experience? Did it make looking at the art more enjoyable – did I get more out of the experience? The answer is yes and yes. I think it’s going to set a new standard of expectation for visitors. I’m looking forward to going back and using the app again, with a friend so we can share our questions and answers.
You can find out a lot more about the development of the ASK app on the Brooklyn Museum’s blog.
I’d love to know what your experiences with the ASK app have been, so let’s compare notes!
After I wrote this we posted it to Linked In and several people did add their comments here.