Today we bring you an article by Christina Errico, currently a Tufts student in the Museum Education Master’s program. For the Tufts course Museums and Digital Media, students investigate and critique the real ways that museums are implementing a variety of digital media.
Recently, I visited the MFA for the first time and, realizing that I would most likely be overwhelmed by the vast amount of art in the museum, I decided to make use of their mobile guides while I was there. I didn’t mind paying the $6 because I had gotten into the museum for free with my Tufts ID, and I liked that the guide was free for those who really needed it. But if I had to pay the full $25 admission fee, it might have been a little harder for me to justify paying an extra $6 for the audio guide.
The actual device was simply an iPod touch fitted into a sturdy case that had a durable lanyard attached to it. The headphones were standard plastic headphones, nothing fancy, but what I liked about them was that the cord ran up the lanyard and came out where your collarbone would be so that the cord wouldn’t get tangled or caught on anything. As someone who owns an iPhone, I found the device’s interface very familiar and easy to use. The only issue I had with the device itself was that the case didn’t allow you to lock the iPod which meant that it was using its battery the entire time I had it. For someone like me who wanted to use the guide for multiple exhibitions, it became an issue because I eventually ran out of battery. Overall though, I really enjoyed the device itself because it was easy to use, comfortable, and well-designed.
I decided to start with the “Class Distinctions” tour and I have to say that it really enhanced my experience in that gallery. As someone who has an interest in Dutch painting but not a lot of knowledge about it, I really appreciated how they included the curator in almost every tour stop. The curator was very down to earth, engaging, and never condescending. She pointed out interesting things about the context of each painting rather than simply describing what was going on or the techniques used to paint it. Almost each stop had a “Going Deeper” section and what I loved about these were that they often focused on a different painting that was right next to the original one. These were then compared to show what the differences and similarities were and what themes were present in Dutch painting as a whole, making the entire guide seamless with the exhibit. I also liked that it usually gave directional cues on where to go next or where to look. Many of the stops had videos which were very interesting, and I appreciated how the guide would tell me exactly when to look at the screen for a video and when to look back at the art so that I never had to worry if I was missing something.
While the audio guide as a genre is not the newest idea in the museum world, I think the way the MFA handled it still made it fresh and new. By including a “Going Deeper” option, they allowed the visitor to have some choice on how much they wanted to explore rather than locking them into a specific time frame. I also liked that they brought in different voices like the curator and a poet, for instance. I additionally appreciated that, by including secondary artworks in the “Going Deeper” tracks, the audio guide actually covered most of the paintings in the gallery. For me, I felt that the “Class Distinctions” audio guide really met its learning goals of helping the visitor to slow down and learn a lot about the paintings in the greater context of Dutch art, culture, and history.
Overall, the benefits of the MFA’s mobile guide greatly outweighed the few drawbacks. I thought that it was absolutely an appropriate and almost essential use of digital media given the size of the museum and huge amounts of art. The small, personal size of the device did not take away from the art or the museum experience and the headphones didn’t bleed sound into the galleries. The MFA’s mobile guide was well-designed and well-executed and I would definitely go back and use it again.