The Art Gallery of New South Wales -- a century-old institution -- has been faced in the past two years with the disruptive force of endemic mobile technology among its visitors, the National Digital Forum in Wellington recently, heard.
In 2010 a new content management system had been acquired and a web presence built, but mainly with PCs in mind. When the web team started thinking mobile, they encountered a less than enthusiastic reception internally. Most gallery staff didn't use smartphones and they needed persuading, via a series of presentations, that many visitors didn't share their view of the world.
The first mobile app was devised for the "First Emperor" exhibition, featuring life-size Qing dynasty statues from China from December 2010 to March 2011. But the app was conceived as a marketing tool for that particular exhibition, said gallery speakers at the National Digital Forum in Wellington this year. Staff wanted to use the technology in association with its permanent exhibition space. They produced a report comparing the mobile and web presence of 50 other galleries with New South Wales.
This was a deliberate pushing of what was referred to many times in the conference as the MoMA effect -- the drive to emulate New York's Museum of Modern Art, a pioneer in the development of digital and mobile tools. By pointing to what the leading galleries are doing, it's easier to win the decisionmakers in the executive and the Gallery Trust round, the presenters say. The rise of the iPad helped fuel enthusiasm.
A reorganisation of floorspace in the NSW gallery allowed a space for patrons to sit and explore material in comfort on phones and in-house iPads.
In 2011, the Museum of Old and New Art opened in Tasmania and led to a "MONA effect" within Australia. "Suddenly everyone had to have a shiny new app for their exhibition," says web-manager Brooke Carson-Ewart -- something with "the same buzz" as MONA's mobile apps, but oriented to each institution's own style.
The NSW gallery chose a Picasso exhibition as the first testbed for apps that, while specific to that exhibition, would cater for more general and longer-lasting information on the gallery collection as a whole and be flexible enough to adapt to future exhibitions.
An important aim was to enable website and mobile apps to be fed from the same content management system (CMS). But owing to the speed of development, "we haven't done it as seamlessly as we would have liked," Carson-Ewart says.
Initially, the mobile pages were a reflection of the website, but not everyone was happy with that and a more app-based design was worked up quickly for iPhone.
Unfortunately the gallery doesn't have the budget to produce Android app.
Getting wi-fi working in a 100-year-old building had its problems. The IT team "needed convincing that it could and should be done and that out public weren't going to try to download [commercial movies] in the foyer," says Carson-Ewart.
The wi-fi is now working well "and we're working on improved ways of enabling visitors to engage with the gallery's content both on their own devices and devices we supply," she says.
Geolocation is not yet accurate enough to deliver content related to the work the visitor is standing in front of, so the gallery continues to rely on physical signage and navigation through the app to find the right information.
QR codes sound like a feasible alternative, the speakers said in response to a question from the audience, but in practice visitors "get stage-fright" trying to scan them quickly in a crowded room.