- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 19, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO

Art lovers, history buffs and science devotees, take note: To get the most out of your next museum visit, make sure you have your cell phone with you.

Not to gab on, of course, but to listen to audio tours that weave music, narration and recordings from historical archives designed to bring more context to the exhibitions. For many visitors, it comes as a welcome alternative to the decades-old system of museums renting out expensive hand-held devices.

Museums across the country, once averse to noisy cell phones, are suddenly encouraging their use. In the past year, about a dozen art institutions — including museums in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Calif., Tacoma, Wash., Minneapolis and Greenwich, Conn. — have begun offering cell phone tours, mostly for free. Dozens more are in the process of implementing the service.

One reason for the surge is the emergence of companies such as Guide by Cell of San Francisco, Ashburn, Va.-based Spatial Adventures Inc. and Minneapolis-based Museum411, which run computer servers and phone systems so museums don’t have to.

“I generally don’t buy the audio tours when I go to a museum unless it’s a Monet or somebody really impressive,” says Chris Mengarelli, 53, who recently used her phone to tour the exhibit “Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement,” at the San Jose Museum of Art.

“It was much more convenient than having to rent a head set and worrying about what kind of germs are being transmitted.”

Museums have been making audio tours available over cell phones since at least 2002, when Southern Utah University opened an exhibit of historical photos documenting 100 years of local theater. Matt Nickerson, a professor of library science, wrote the script and taped old actors recalling their performances in Shakespearean plays. He recruited an actor and engineer to record and mix the audio tour at a radio station.

“It turned out to be much simpler than I thought,” he says.

Using the museum services is as easy as dialing a number and selecting the code that corresponds to the artwork a visitor is viewing. While each museum’s system is different, visitors generally can stay on the same call throughout the tour and switch from one exhibit to the next by entering different numbers into their phones, similar to the way callers navigate a voice mail system.

At least one tour, offered at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, responded to voice commands, but museum officials there discontinued the feature because chatter and ambient noise often interfered.

Companies such as Spatial Adventures plan to offer text, pictures and video in the next year or so to take advantage of new capabilities being offered by cell phone carriers such as Verizon and Sprint.

For now, most museums offer cell phone audio for free, although users must deduct the time spent listening from their monthly allotment of minutes. They also must pay any roaming charges or other costs that may apply to their cell phone plan. Those costs differ widely depending on the carrier.

Many museums are able to give away the service because companies such as Guide by Cell, living off investor financing, offer free pilots of the service as they try to jump-start the trend. About half of Guide by Cell’s customers are paying for the service, while all of Museum411’s clients pay.

“When we have to pay, or someone has to pay, we may have to change things,” says Suzanne Isken, director of education at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which started using Guide by Cell audio for one of its exhibits in January.

The chief benefit of cell phones is their ubiquity. With almost 204 million Americans carrying a cell phone, according to wireless industry group CTIA, museums no longer have to maintain fleets of hand-held devices.

Miss Isken recently decided not to offer an audio tour using the dedicated devices for an upcoming exhibit on the work of artist Robert Rauschenberg. She estimates that her museum would have spent $20,000 just to pay the staff that checks out, cleans and recharges the dedicated devices, which are provided by a company called Antenna Audio.

“We were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to make back our investment,” Miss Isken says, explaining that under financial arrangements with Antenna, 20,000 visitors would need to buy the $6 service for the museum to break even.

Cell phones also make it easy for visitors who have decided to skip the audio tour to spontaneously change their minds.

“You don’t have to go back to the desk and rent something,” says Robin Dowden, director of new media initiatives at the Walker Art Center.

Not all museums are embracing the trend. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is studying cell phone audio tours but has decided to hold off for now. Instead, it offers audio files that visitors can download from the museum Web site and play on their IPods or other portable music players while viewing exhibits.

“Just because you have a phone in your hand and can call up a message about every piece in a gallery doesn’t mean those messages are going to be engaging,” says Peter Samis, associate curator of education at the museum.

“Museums themselves are relative novices at this and don’t have any experience producing this type of content in-house,” he says. “There’s a steeper learning curve than many proselytizers of the technology are willing to acknowledge.”

Miss Mengarelli, who toured “Visual Politics,” confessed to finding some portions of the audio tour “distracting.” She also complained that her arm got tired holding a cell phone to her ear for 30 minutes.

Still, the San Jose Museum of Art’s experiment with cell phone audio has already changed the way some visitors take in art.

Ben Patel, a 29-year-old hotel worker who arrived just before closing time one day last week, quickly snapped pictures of the images on his digital camera, so he could view them later on his computer while listening to the narration on his phone.

“It’s a good idea,” he said. “I’m short on time and the museum will be shut before I can view all of them.”

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