On a sunny September morning, I decided to visit the Guggenheim. Because it was Sunday and most of the trains weren’t running, it took a while to get there. But the anticipation grew. Being that it was September 11, the train station (that I transferred through) by the 9/11 Memorial was crowded, and got me thinking how the sight of the monument, without any digital interaction, successfully arouses people’s emotions. I wanted to follow the crowds and go. However, I had already made plans to go to the Guggenheim. Right away the outside of the Guggenheim just takes your breath away, but walking inside was a whole different story. The museum was turning over its exhibits. There were archival boxes everywhere, and the one thing I was looking forward to – an iconic feature of the Guggenheim, the ramp – was closed. This meant that the biggest part of the museum was off-limits and the thing I had wanted to see, because of its iconic placement in so many movies was now out of bounds. Nonetheless, I was not there to enjoy the pieces of art myself, but to see how others viewed and interacted within its spaces.
To start off, I went to the admissions desk and with my Pratt ID card got free admission for both my girlfriend and I (nice!). Then I asked the registrar if the museum had an app and if it was free. He then gave me a brochure and showed me that the info was available on the back page. What he did not tell me, which I had to find out on my own, was that they have a free audiovisual guide (which is their app on a protected IPod). Right away going into the elevator was pretty cool because I had my first taste of interactivity: the elevator had a touch screen option that presents each floor’s plan and its displayed exhibits. Through the touch screen you could navigate the floors and pick which floor you wanted to visit. With that said, it seemed that for the most part the “interactivity” ended there. As I was going up in the elevator I looked at my phone and realized that there was no connection so I thought let me connect to the Wifi – and let me say for such a famed museum the Wifi available was terrible. When I finally got it working the service was very slow and it took about ten minutes to download the app. Once the app was open I was told I needed to download an update that was 94.3mb (which also took a while) and then it installed and started again (all on its own). Once finally operating, the app had some cool interactive Bluetooth ping service. Otherwise, the app seemed very low tech with lots of necessary downloading of videos to view, but there was no streaming (click and play) possible; and most of the videos didn’t seem to work on my phone.
After not getting much from the app myself, I decided to observe if anyone else was using it. Right away I saw a guy using his phone but when I went to take a closer look, it appeared that he was in fact texting. What I saw on most of the floors was that many people were not using any devices. This, I feel is very common for an art museum, especially one that does not allow photography. At one point after not seeing anyone using apps I decided to ask a couple who were surprised to hear about any apps existence. “We did not know there was any app,” they said. After asking a bunch of different people it seemed this was prevalent. The app was only mentioned if asked or if seen in the brochure. Once I got down to their lower floors there were some people who you could see were using the museums audio-visual guide, something that was also not advertised though afterwards found out that it was free. After standing around in the exhibit, a big hall with backless couches, for about 20 minutes I saw some strange things: one person was on his phone looking up the weather; one person sat with headphones (couldn’t see what he was listening to); one lady was using her phone to look at images of the Statue of Liberty (wasn’t too creepy); one older lady was using Wikipedia to look up artists –it seemed she did not know there was any app.
As I was walking around, I noticed a gallery guide with a button on her shirt that said “ask me about art.” I decided to watch her and see who comes over and what questions she was asked. At this I was sorely disappointed. Most people ignored her and those that did come over were usually asking her where the bathroom is or for other directions. I got the feeling that she might be bored, so I decided to go over to her and ask her some questions myself. She said there was not much digital interaction, mostly human and usually a lot more people ask her questions when the art is ambiguous and needs explanation. While she was talking to me she ran over to a woman to chastise her for not listening to the signs, and taking pictures. (There were security guards standing in each and every room making sure no one touches or takes pictures). There was one room with a bunch of video displays but none of them had interactivity. There was a long couch with no back while two screens playing videos on repeat. Screens are not interactive, patrons just watch. There was one piece of art that had some interactivity (my description may not do it justice). There were circles and squiggles on the floor and there was a video camera showing live feedback on a screen 5 feet away. Whoever would stand on the circles would show up on the screen like a security camera. (It presence and function made sense since it was in the Middle East exhibit where many feel they are under observation at all times).
On a whole, I feel like there was not so much interactivity at the Guggenheim. Like many typical art museums, there is art on the wall and people look, stare and contemplate its meaning. Nothing more. My only comments are that they should be more forthcoming with visitors about their being an app and free audiovisual guides. My only regret is that I went at a time when the ramp was closed and wasn’t able to get the full experience.