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Technical Corrections: Metropolitan Museum Zaps Its App; SFMOMA Cans App’s Claptrap UPDATED

In preparing for my recent interview with Max Hollein, the Metropolitan Museum’s tech-savvy new director, I decided to revisit the museum’s app, much ballyhooed four years ago, but disappointing when I recently app-lied it in the galleries.

Loic Tallon, the Met’s current chief digital officer, seen here introducing the app to journalists four years ago
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

To my surprise, I discovered that the app’s been zapped. (Read the black box at the bottom of my screenshot, below.)

Screenshot taken after clicking the Met’s app on my smartphone

In June, I had criticized the “noticeable degradation” of the Met’s digital presence, which occurred in the wake of “the overhaul and downsizing of the digital staff. Evidence of neglect include the Met’s insufficiently updated app (poorly rated, for good reason, in the App Store).”

The app had made a conspicuous splash on the Met’s floor, back in September 2014:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Now it’s no longer in the App Store, creating another problem: If you search the App Store for “The Met” or “the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” you come up with inferior, privately developed products that museum visitors might believe were perpetrated by the Met.

During my recent conversation with Hollein, I had asked him and Ken Weine (rhymes with “Hollein”), the Met’s chief communications officer, about the mysterious dis-app-earance.

Here’s our exchange:

Rosenbaum: I notice that the app got zapped. 

Weine: It’s a strategy of our digital team. Visitors come to the mobile website, as opposed to apps.

Hollein: We had actually experienced the same thing at San Francisco [the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which he previously directed]. That usage is really going down. 

Rosenbaum: Was it a fad? 

Weine: They download the app, use it once and then never again. But mobile site usage is through the roof. 

Hollein: We kind of consolidated and made the information more accessible. Apps were a kind of moment. An app is a differently designed website.

I had actually app-reciated the Met’s app, especially after it was tweaked to make it more user-friendly. It was, for me, the most efficient way to get quick information about exhibitions, events and schedules. But one feature that I particularly liked—the ability to access complimentary audio guides on one’s own phone, as an alternative to the museum’s pay-to-play equipment—was compromised by what I flagged (in my above-linked post) as the “chronic problem of glitchy wi-fi coverage” in this far-flung museum.

A more recent digital initiative at the Met involved the appointment, almost two years ago, of a “Wikimedian-in-Residence,” Richard Knipel, to foster and facilitate “use of the Met’s images to illustrate articles on Wikipedia.” (Knipel previously had short stints as Wikipedian-in-Residence at the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum, according to his LinkedIn bio.)

Richard Knipel

While this Wikipedia project may give the Met’s images wider circulation, I’d much prefer seeing the museum’s staff, expertise and resources focused on its own unimpeachable scholarship and publications, rather than on a project at the mercy of the dubious reliability of crowd-sourcing.

There was another defunct museum app cluttering my phone’s homescreen, which I wasn’t at all sorry to delete: CultureGrrl readers may remember the Twitter storm that erupted over my highly critical Wall Street Journal review of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s exasperatingly quirky audio tour (available via app or equipment rental). It relied on commentary by such amateur connoisseurs as high-wire artist Philippe Petit and San Francisco Giants pitching coach Dave “Rags” Righetti.

In my July 26, 2016 skewering of that trial balloon, I wrote:

Would that the contents of SFMOMA’s app were as smart as its technology. Many of the offbeat audio tours seem geared to those who rarely, if ever, set foot in a museum, underestimating much of SFMOMA’S audience. The narrators for the app’s audio tours often come off as cool but unschooled—individuals with interesting professional or personal lives but lacking art smarts. And they tend to be more fatuous than factual, clogging the earbuds with extraneous (occasionally erroneous) details….

In future iterations, SFMOMA would do well to rely more consistently on its own curators for cogent, pungent audio commentary.

That app-alling app is now history and in what may (or may not) be a related development, Keir Winesmith, then SFMOMA’s head of web and digital platforms, decamped from the museum at the end of June. When I visited last Sunday (taking in the Magritte and Donald Judd shows), I sampled some of SFMOMA’s audio offerings on its new, improved app, and was gratified by its wise reliance on expert explication, informed by the insights of curators and artists.

That said, my spirits crashed in the tech overload of the Magritte show’s “Interpretive Gallery,” billed (in the press release) as “an immersive environment” that adds “a third dimension in which human perception may be manipulated through motion, altered visuals and 3D software. The result is an experience that complements the exhibition, in which visitors can gain a deeper understanding of Magritte’s art [emphasis added] and explore visual perceptions of the world and each another.”

The only “deeper understanding” imparted to me in that gallery, which anticlimactically ends the otherwise revelatory, well-orchestrated show (curated by SFMOMA’s Caitlin Haskell, in partnership with the Magritte Foundation), pertained to the foolish extremes to which museums will sometimes go, in an attempt to boost their popular appeal.

UPDATE: Although Haskell was associate curator at SFMOMA when organizing the show, she moved to the Art Institute of Chicago in June, becoming curator of international modern art.

Here are my own facial features, digitally Magritte-ified. Participating in this “immersive environment” made me feel faintly ridiculous, doing nothing to enhance my “understanding of Magritte’s art”:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The one conclusion to be drawn from all of these steps and missteps is that art museums’ navigation through the perils of tortuous technologies is prone to crashes and recalculations. Like the self-driving cars that I saw during my Silicon Valley sojourn, museum tech is still a work-in-progress.

That said, by physically (not digitally) inserting myself into a Donald Judd chair, I did enhance my understanding of his work, as I reported in this tweet:

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