Saturday, April 30, 2016

Art & Design | Who’s in Charge at the Brooklyn Museum? It Could Be You

Juwan Stallings, 19, using the ASK Brooklyn Museum app. Credit Christopher Gregory for The New York Times
When Juwan Stallings visited the Brooklyn Museum last weekend, he wanted more information about the subject of an oil portrait by Henri Fantin-Latour in the museum’s newly refurbished European galleries.
Mr. Stallings, 19, looked intently, snapped a photo and then typed rapidly on his phone. Within seconds, he had an answer in the form of a text message.
“Hi there! that’s Madame Léon Maître,” it read, continuing, “I love comparing her to some of the other portraits of women on that wall — the others really confront the visitor, while Madame Léon Maître looks demure and quiet.”
Mr. Stallings wasn’t texting with a friend. The answer came from a museum employee two floors down, one of six full-time staff members dedicated to engaging with visitors through the museum’s smartphone app, ASK Brooklyn Museum.
First released for iPhone last year, with an Android version made available this month, ASK is startlingly different from most museum apps. There is no audio guide, no map and no store. You can’t search the collection. Nor can you use it to share your experience on social media.
Experts taking questions from visitors using the ASK app. Credit Christopher Gregory for The New York Times
What you can do with it is chat with a member of the ASK staff, which is trained to help visitors engage more deeply and make personal connections with what’s on display. It’s like having a curator in your pocket: When you send a question or a comment, a team member can immediately see where in the museum you are and what artworks are nearby. After providing an answer, the staff member often follows up with a personal observation or a question to prompt closer examination.
Asked if he visited the museum often, Mr. Stallings said he had not in the past. “But now I’m starting to, because the questions that I have can be answered,” he said.
Visitors may be tentative at first. But once they try it, they tend to keep going: The average user sends 13 messages during a visit, said Shelley Bernstein, the museum’s vice director for digital engagement and technology. And there’s more going on behind the scenes.
“The hidden power of it,” she said, “is in the other stuff that’s happening.”
All of the user chats are retained for future conversations in the app and as a resource for curators. This month the museum reopened three of its permanent-collection galleries after reinstalling them, one of the first visible shifts since Anne Pasternak became the museum’s director last year. Curators consulted ASK data before making their changes.
They realized, for example, that visitors to the Egyptian galleries were asking a lot of questions about an image of the ancient zodiac that was painted on the ceiling as a decorative element in 2003. The painting was removed during the reinstallation to shift the focus toward the museum’s rich collection of artifacts, like the ancient “Head From a Female Sphinx.”
The European galleries at the Brooklyn Museum. Credit Christopher Gregory for The New York Times
This emphasis on studying visitors’ reactions reflects a significant philosophical shift.
“Curators 35 years ago were not interested in what the public needed — they were interested in what the curators thought the public should have,” said Kevin Stayton, deputy director of the museum and former chief curator. He added, “Having this conversation with the visitor was something that we really didn’t think about.”
Each member of the audience engagement team has a major and a minor specialty area, and a rich library of reference material at hand. They are encouraged to use a casual tone and to share their own opinions freely.
Personalized communication is important for younger visitors, said Matthew Fisher, a principal at Night Kitchen Interactive, a Philadelphia firm that has designed apps and interactive elements for dozens of museums, but was not involved with ASK. “Digital natives are more interested in actively synthesizing than in passively receiving information,” he said.
The ASK app is free and does not require any registration or login. It works only inside the museum, which does not collect personal data from users, although the ASK team can gain access to a user’s previous chats.
That approach is unusual among museum apps, which are often larded with images and text.
Mr. Fisher contends that providing those things might not be helpful. When we’re in a museum surrounded by objects, labels and wall texts, he said, “we already have plenty of information.”
Mr. Stallings texting with an expert. Credit Christopher Gregory for The New York Times
When ASK was in the early stages of development in 2013, it became clear that visitors craved personalized information, Ms. Bernstein said. They wanted to talk about what they saw but were reluctant to approach docents or ASK employees who were assigned to the galleries.
After deciding to build a chat app, staff members first experimented with having Mr. Stayton, then still the chief curator, answer questions. (He was assisted by two typists.) The response was positive but also revealing. “It didn’t matter to them that I was the chief curator,” Mr. Stayton said. “It was the conversation that was important.”
The messaging interface mimics familiar chatting applications and is simple by design.
But a significant hurdle remains: In the first year of iPhone-only testing, about 10,000 people downloaded it. But only 1 percent of museum visitors were using it.
The museum hopes to raise that figure to 5 to 7 percent through its new Android phone capability, with a brand-new desk for the ASK team in a high-traffic area right off the lobby and by stationing employees in the lobby to talk up the app.
The project is supported by funding from Bloomberg Connects, which has pledged more than $80 million to 15 cultural institutions to improve the visitor experience through technology. Among the other grantees are the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern in London.
The chats invite users to share their own opinions. Some people viewing Judy Chicago’s pioneering feminist art installation, “The Dinner Party” (1974-79), on the museum’s third floor, have criticized the work’s exclusion of women who are transgender members of ethnic minorities. Responding was tricky; curators and the ASK team worked together to develop answers that would respect visitors’ opinions but also offer the work’s larger context. Those replies are now visible in the museum’s online page for the work, turning something that began as a personal conversation into part of the museum’s public face.
For a museum with origins deep in the late 19th century, it’s a major turnaround.
Recently, Ms. Bernstein said, someone asked her how the app had evolved. “I said: ‘The app hasn’t changed in the year that it’s been on the floor. The institution has changed around it.’”

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