Not so long ago, art museums were known as temples of quiet contemplation, despite daily invasions by raucous school groups.
Now, the onus is on the museums to bring the mountain to Mohammed. Those kids have smartphones. How long can a museum hope to stay relevant—nay, survive—without an app?
Many of the museums who’ve already partnered up with Smartify—an app (Mac-Android) that lets you take a picture of artwork with your phone and instantly access information about them—have existing apps of their own in place: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, to name a few.
These institutional apps provide visitors with an expanded view of the sort of information one commonly finds on a museum card, in addition to such practicalities as gallery layouts and calendars of events. More often than not, there’s an option to “save” an artwork the visitor finds captivating—no word on what this feature is doing to postcard sales in museum shops, so perhaps print isn't dead yet.
Given all the museum apps free for the downloading, for whom is Smartify, a "Shazam for art," intended?
Perhaps the globetrotting museum hopper eager to consolidate? Its developers are adamant that it’s intended to complement, not replace, in-person visits to the institutions where the works are housed, so armchair museum goers are advised to look elsewhere, like Google Arts & Culture.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries will be the smaller galleries and museums ill equipped to launch freestanding apps of their own. Smartify’s website states that it relies on “annual membership from museum partners, in-app transactions, advertising and data sales to relevant arts organisations.”
Early adopters complained that while the app (Mac-Android) had no trouble identifying famous works of art, it came up empty on the lesser-known pieces. That's a pity as these are the works visitors are most likely to seek further information on.
One of the developers compared the Smartify experience to visiting a museum in the company of “an enthusiastic and knowledgeable friend telling you more about a work of art.”
Maybe better to do just that, if the option exists? Such a friend would not be hampered by the copyright laws that hamper Smartify with regard to certain works. A friend might even stand you a hot chocolate or some pricey scone in the museum cafe.
At any rate, the app (Mac-Android) is now available for visitors to take for a spin in 22 different museums and galleries in the UK, US, and Europe, with the promise of more to come.
Those whose knowledge of art history is vast are likely to be underwhelmed, but it could be a way for those visiting with kids and teens to keep everyone engaged for the duration. As one enthusiastic user wrote:
As a childhood Pokemon fan and avid art fan, this is a dream come true. This is like a Pokedex for art lol. If you ever watched the anime, Ash Ketchum would scan a Pokemon with his Pokedex and get the details of its name, type, habits, etc. This app does that but instead of scanning monsters, it scans and analyzes art work then gives you the load (sic) down about it.
Those with Internet privacy concerns may choose to heed, instead, the user who wrote:
Be aware, they want to gather as a "side effect" your private art collection. I just wanted to try it out with some of my art pieces (Günther Förg, Richter, etc) but it doesn't work if you don't give them your location data. Be careful!
Museums and Galleries Whose Images/Art Appear in Smartify as of January 2018
J. Paul Getty Museum
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
Laguna Art Museum
Museum of Contemporary Photography
Freer | Sackler GalleriesThe Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met Cloisters
The Bowes Museum
Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art
Ben Uri Gallery
The Wallace Collection
Royal Academy of Arts
Sculpture in the City
Museo San Donato (MPSArt)
The State Hermitage Museum
The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
Download Smartify for Mac or Android.
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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.