Not long ago, art world etiquette was clear. Use of mobile phones in a gallery was considered crude. I’ve certainly tutted at selfie-taking tourists, rudely blocking my view. However, many museums and galleries are now encouraging visitors to use their phones. A new app, Smartify, allows you to point your smartphone at an artwork and receive instant information on it. Brilliant idea or big mistake?
Let’s take a look at Smartify. On course for artworld domination, it’s already partnered with 30 major galleries and museums around the world, including the Louvre in Paris, New York’s Met Museum and London’s National Gallery. Through the free app, you can scan artworks on your smartphone to receive on-the-spot information about the artist, significance of the work, and then save it in a collection of your favourite images.
But does this digital guide for gallery-goers enrich the experience or destroy it? Smartify, undoubtedly, offers a new and interactive way of viewing art. A free app, it opens up art historical learning for everyone. Targeting younger audiences, in particular, it’s a great way to encourage active participation with culture.
It also demonstrates museums embracing digital technology, as – let’s be honest – the battle against phones has already been lost. As Smartify co-creator, Anne Lowe, explains: “We hope to reframe the use of mobile phones in the gallery space as engagement rather than distraction.”
However, I have some problems with the use of apps in the gallery. For me, it offers a sacred space where you can escape distractions from the outside world. It allows for an hour or more of mindfulness. I deliberately (try my very best to) put my phone away. So much of life is experienced digitally, but museums and galleries allow us to value the tangible.
I also think that the appreciation of an artwork does not come solely from the knowledge of its amazing facts. Through the app, users will be focused on discovering dates and collecting details, instead of allowing it to invoke a creative, imaginative or emotional response. The best artworks have the power to make you feel something. Can people truly connect with art when they’re continually looking at a screen?
I much prefer an audio guide. Without visual distraction, I find that an educational audio tour can enhance the gallery experience. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery recently launched an excellent ‘Be Mindful’ audio guide for 30 minutes of self-care. Led by a professional mindfulness coach, it allows you to take a moment to relax and enjoy the art from a different perspective.
Apps, like Smartify, will forefront digital, screen-based interactions in front of artworks. It’s a game-changer for galleries. I know that cultural institutions must embrace all things digital to cater to the expectations of a new generation. But I worry that in framing artworks with our phones, something magical might just be lost. When it comes to art, an app doesn’t hold all the answers.