Monday, January 31, 2011

Museums, Smartphones and mobile applications

Where are apps at? Well the first thing to be aware of is the speed with which take up of smartphones is occurring. New Nielsen figures show 24% of internet users (isn't that the entire planet now?) are considering buying a Smartphone over the next year. Last year a trifling 269.6 million smartphones were shipped worldwide, a substantial improvement over the 173.5 million number from 2009!

And we know that the museum sector is embracing this aspect fast, judging by the rollout of site specific apps for them.

Here are a few:

  • MoMA’s app, so far downloaded over 400,000 times, offers a selection of audio tours with images and videos and access to one fifth of the museum's collection.
  • The American Museum of Natural History’s app is neat with the app Explorer allowing you to share finds in the Museum with your own networks on Facebook and Twitter .
  • The LA County Museum of Art has been an early player in the museum tours using apps.
  • The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam was one of the first in the world to offer an audio tour in the 1950s, and they also have been early pioneers of app use.
  • In Madrid the Reina Sofia Museum is focusing purely on audio programing in an effort to keep visitors' eyes on the artworks, providing four audio podcasts that can be downloaded onto smartphones.
  • The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art allows you to interact with over 200 works of art in the permanent collection. One of the problems of working out whether these apps are any good is finding out quite what their offering is. The Nelson Atkins allows you to preview.
  • Check out also the Dallas Museum of Art.
Where does the audio tour now sit in all of this? Well one issue is that you normally have to pay for an audio tour either as a stand alone purchase or as part of a special exhibition ticket. App downloads to date cost nothing, although the Stedelijk is considering offering a premium edition for which there would be a charge. This is going to have to change.

And the next issue is that audio tour providers who have had control of this aspect of museum visits are going to need to work out how they embrace Smartphones. Judging by the websites of the two leading players internationally, Antenna Audio is not there yet but Acoustiguide is fast developing an offering for this space.

And finally the MONA experience about which I blogged last week is an interesting one. Although not strictly an app, it is relevant to this issue. MONA has purchased 1340 iPod touches, which are provided free to visitors. No exhibit has a label, with all content delivered via the iPod. Two separate Wi-fi systems are used, one for content delivery, and the other being a real time location system (RTLS). No guidance is given on the basis that visitors should be able to navigate according to their free will. It is an interesting (and I suspect immensely costly in terms of R&D) experiment that we shall all be watching closely. My first use of it, admittedly in the hurly-burly part of the opening, was positive, and certainly the data that MONA can gather on visitors, the path they take, what they like (and don’t) is going to substantially add to the value of these technologies for museum evaluation.

But on that matter await another blog!

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Museums and mobile phone tracking

I'm off to the Museums and the Web conference in Philadelphia in April. It will be the second time I have been to this annual conference, at which over 800 of the great and the good from this world come together. Judging by 2009 (my last one) it will be four days of total stimulation overload, but at least I am contributing this year, giving a paper on the use of mobile phones for visitor tracking.

One of the great advantages of this technology is its ability to provide the quantative data that is currently gathered by museum guides. Check out an illuminating article on the evaluation process in the Wall Street Journal "The Museum is watching you". It details how evaluation staff spend their time watching how visitors interact with exhibits, driven by museums wanting to know that their investment in exhibitions has been well spent both through engagement and increase in traffic. But gosh it is inefficient, the article citing one observer at the Detroit Institute of Arts spending 2 hours recording a mere 14 observations on his computer of which he discarded 8 because the visitors stayed in the gallery for less than one minute. The critical issue here is a) the amount of staff time being spent inefficiently, and b) the fact that critical information is being discarded, i.e. keep the data about the 8 visitors that only stayed for less than a minute as that provides vital information on over half the visitors that entered the gallery in that time - why did they move on so fast?

What mobile phone tracking can achieve is not only the information that the DIA observer recovered but much more of it. Indeed data can be captured for every minute the museum is open. It also provides a much more complete picture such as the ability to understand where the 8 that moved on went to so their movements can also be understood.

More broadly the use of mobile phones for visitor tracking in museums and galleries can:
  • Ascertain the sequence of routes followed, and the percentage of the most popular
  • Work out the most common routes followed
  • Identify the total time spent in the museum or gallery
  • Identify the time spent at each stop along the way (i.e. dwell time)
  • Identify whether the mobile phone owner has visited before, and if so, how many times and the average gap between visits
  • Identify where the phone is registered thus providing an international visitor profile
  • Show the impact of promotional events/special exhibitions on traffic movements
We are developing a range of solutions in this field, and are always keen to hear from others working with visitor tracking solutions.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

MONA and the Wow factor

We have been helping MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, with a whole range of conservation issues over the last eighteen months, so I was lucky enough to be asked to the opening on Friday 21st January.

And my goodness what an opening it was! The morning rain cleared, so the ferry ride from Constitution Dock up the Derwent showed off Hobart at its prettiest (takes c20 minutes and is the BEST way to approach the Museum), and we were then deposited at the pier from which a flight of steps takes one up onto the top of the Museum, rather like going up the side of a pyramid. A scene of great splendour met us assisted by a vast array of fine Tasmanian food, and wine and beer from the adjacent Morilla Winery, including the famous Moo Brew beer. Standing there in the evening light looking out over the enchanting vista of the Derwent River and the hills rising to Mt Wellington, helped no doubt with a glass or two of the Moo Brew, our senses were certainly heightened for all that MONA was going to reveal.

From there a large circular staircase, rather like, but on a smaller scale, than the Vatican Museums staircase carries visitors down to the lowest floor of the Museum to begin the tour. The staircase has been cut into the sandstone, and at its base one passes through a passage way of two spectacular rock faces with shades of entering Petra. And it was quite a spectacle that greeted us. Apart from tables literally laden with food of all descriptions, all beautifully arranged like Dutch still life paintings, the art is everywhere. There is no chronological or thematic sequence, and no labels, and one wanders through antiquities and contemporary art all interposed.

And does it work? – impossible to tell with such a crowd there, but my gut feel is that this is something pretty special that is going to have a major impact on the Australian museum sector. The controversial items, particularly those themed on sex and death, did not seem to me to be as shocking as I thought they might be, but what I did get a feel for was the wonderful use of space and vistas and voids that the architect and museum team have achieved. It is a truly awesome building which constantly appears to have been designed around the art (which I think is what has actually happened in a number of cases).

One particular feature is the lack of labels, with all content provided via iPhone. These are handed out at the entrance (and hopefully collected on the way out, though I did constantly hear the alarm at the exit going off during the evening – absent minded guests?), along with some minimal instruction on their use. Perhaps because of the party atmosphere, no one was particularly listening to the instructions, so I did hear people asking each other how it works and getting somewhat exasperated with their use. When you are in front of an artwork you push the update button and the iPhone works out where you are, and identifies the artworks in your vicinity. The information is a simple image and artist and artwork details, but there are further options to get more information on the artwork and artist, read a quirky view on it (these apparently change so your next visit may reveal something different), listen to some audio, and also vote on whether you like it or not. At some stage to keep the iPhone live, you have to type in your email address, a neat idea for keeping in contact with visitors, sold as MONA being able to keep you updated and also advise how long you spent in front of each artwork. I liked it, but suspect it is going to need quite a bit more refining and visitor instruction to fulfil its potential.

Above all it is a place with undoubted Wow factor. Ignore the costs (reputedly $70m for the building housing a $100m collection) and ignore the questions as to whether some of the offerings are actually art. MONA has moments of taking your breath away. It is a stunning new attraction on the museum scene and one that I would encourage you to visit as soon as you can. Check out a couple of reviews from The Punch and Taste Travel.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, January 21, 2011

Increasing those visitor numbers

I blogged in April last year on the subject of building museum revenue and cited the Dallas Museum of Art's success in using qualitative visitor surveys to identify four types of visitor clusters, namely: Observers, Participants, Independents and Enthusiasts. The innovative strategies that have been implemented as a result of the surveys has resulted in a 100% increase in attendance, and is about to be published by the DMA with Yale University Press under the title Ignite the Power of Art; Advancing visitor engagement in Museum Experiences.

So what are these strategies?

• Establishment of the DMA's Center for Creative Connections, which encourages visitors to explore their own creativity and introduce them to new ways of experiencing art, ranging from filmmaking workshops to performance activities

• Introducing an Interactive exhibitions based program, by including immersive soundscapes with appropriate exhibitions, adding performances, and artists' talks within a dedicated space within the galleries, and including musical interludes

• Using Smartphone tours, cleverly marketed under the smARTphone label. This is an increasing part of the art museum scene, and DMA have taken to it wholeheartedly to provide access to supplemental information about the works. They cite examples as watching a video of Jackson Pollock painting whilst standing in front of one of his artworks, listening to excerpts from Ovid's Metamorphoses that inspired Jacques-Louis David's 1722 painting Apollo and the Diana attacking the children of Niobe, and discovering the meaning of Aramaic inscriptions that appear in a Roman mosaic.

• Developing public programs, especially after hours tours, during which there are multi-disciplinary events and performances. I particularly like the idea of 'insomniac tours' led by DMA's director Bonnie Pitman, and bedtime stories for the younger visitors.

I am particularly interested in where smartphone use is going in museum and gallery interpretation and will be blogging more about this shortly. Meanwhile the lessons from DMA's success are surely a) get to know your audience well and b) tailor your offering (within reason) to what they want, remembering that it will not be one size fits all.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Monday, January 17, 2011

Art valuations

The art auction world is one that I must admit to following only peripherally. But there is of course an overlap with the art gallery world, not least with the movement of staff between the two (note the new head of Sotheby's Australia, with the resignation of Tim Goodman, is Geoffrey Smith, formerly curator of Australian Art at the NGV).

However I do find the statistics coming out of the international art auction market fascinating. Try a few of these for holiday reading:

• Last year 1,269 works by Picasso sold worldwide at auction (i.e. this excludes private sales) for an incredible $405,708,629. Just think what the total body of work of Picasso must therefore now be worth!
• The next six artists (by total value of works sold) after Picasso were Andy Warhol ($355m), Giacometti ($238m), Matisse ($196m), Modigliani ($156m) and Roy Lichtenstein ($124m).
• The most expensive painting to sell at auction was Picasso's "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust" for $106m, followed by Giacometti's "L'homme Qui Marche" for $103m and Modigliani's "Nu Assis sur un divan" for $69m.
• The two most surprising lots were "Rubbing" by an unknown artist, which sold for $136,701 against an estimate of $1,500 (7,566% above estimate), and "The North Transept and Choir Chapel of the Saint Janskere, Utrecht" by Pieter Jansz Saenredam, which sold for $2.3m against an estimate of $40,000 (4,820% above estimate). Not a bad result for the vendors!

With the total Australian art sales last year a mere $105.8m, you realise what small fry we are in the world art market.

But in true holiday mode, when the zany can be discussed, check this out.

This details the story of one of the weirdest artworks requiring valuation, namely a Koran written in Saddam Hussein’s blood. Held under lock and key in a Baghdad mosque, it was written using 7 gallons of Hussein’s own blood as a homage to his religion. "What is in here is priceless, worth absolutely millions of dollars," said the Koran's caretaker, Sheikh Ahmed al-Samarrai, who heads Iraq's Sunni Endowment fund.

As an auctioneer once said to me, the value of an artwork is as simple as what someone is prepared to pay for it. Maybe the caretaker is right!

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, January 14, 2011

Museums post GFC

Much current museum talk is focused on where the sector is at in the post GFC world. Quite whether we are yet in a post GFC world is a matter of debate. In the US the sector was hit hard early on, due to their reliance on endowment revenue, whereas in the UK and Europe, government subsidies cushioned museums from having to make the extensive cut backs their US colleagues were making. In the UK however, despite some protection of the national museums from government austerity measures, the current situation is pretty gloomy for the foreseeable future, just as the US museum sector begins to show some signs of recovery.
What all commentators agree is that the post GFC museum world is going to be different, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Museum veterans comment that out of adversity museum leaders have an opportunity to frame a new vision for the future.

And as often is the case with such debates, some of the most interesting discussion is amongst the side issues.

Looking at three of these:

1) The shrinking pool of museum quality art and artefacts. With the substantial proliferation of new museums particularly in the Middle East and China, I have been wondering where their contents are going to come from - there is after all a finite amount of historic artistic material. Colleagues that attended the ICOM General Assembly in Shanghai in December commented on this issue, given the rate of new museums the Chinese are building, along with the slightly easier problem to solve of how to find professional staff for them.

For mature museums this is not much of a problem, and indeed one of the sources of these art and artefacts will in the future be the vast storehouses of the major museums of Europe and the US, witness the satellites the Guggenheim has created, and the Louvre and the British Museum are establishing in Abu Dhabi. For a fascinating New York Times article on this.The money being spent on the buildings alone is extraordinary with $800 million on the Frank Gehry designed branch of the Guggenheim 12 times the size of its New York flagship, and $500 million on the Louvre Abu Dhabi, on top of which the government will be paying France $1.3 billion to borrow art.

So my view is that we are moving into a period of more sharing of collections rather than a shortage of artworks to go round.

2) The contested status of many historic objects. This is an interesting issue highlighted by the media attention given to repatriation of indigenous material, the return of Nazi artworks illegally taken, the highly publicised return of Getty treasures illegally exported from Italy and of course the status of the Elgin marbles.

Again my view is that all of these events are ultimately good for the museum sector, emphasising that we hold public collections purely as custodians of the past to hand onto future generations, the exact location of which is not materially significant, so long as they remain publically accessible.

3) The game changing effects of technology. Certainly the game has changed - I like the analogy that we have moved in the museum sector from the age of travertine to the age of terabytes, i.e. that the focus is now on investing in digital infrastructure rather than famous architect designed museum buildings. Given the costs of that infrastructure both in capital and in maintenance, it may not be much cheaper.

But when you see how those who embraced the process early are now benefiting, e.g the Tate who had all their 60,000 collection on line by 2006, the opportunities are very considerable in terms of networking, cross referencing and in depth research.

So indeed it is a different world we face post GFC, but one ripe with new opportunities.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director