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For an art tour, press the # key

Some museums' audio tours are now available via cellphone. On the plus side: less jabbering.

April 05, 2006|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Next time you see museum-goer in front of a Rembrandt with a cellphone pressed to one ear, don't assume this is some philistine more interested in gabbing than in art.

He or she might be listening to the museum's audio guide to the exhibition.

In recent months, a number of museums nationwide -- including the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles -- have begun offering audio tours that can be accessed via mobile phones as an alternative to the audio devices often available for rent at exhibitions. Museum visitors are given a phone number to dial to begin the tour. Then information on individual artworks is heard by entering various codes on the keypad.

"I think the phone tours have gotten a lot of attention because cellphones are kind of a taboo in museums," says Margie Maynard, director of visitor experience and interpretation for the San Jose Museum of Art, which also offers the service. "But what we've found is that people don't yak away on their phones when they are listening on their phones."

Suzanne Isken, MOCA's director of education, says that there's been only one problem with its phone-based guides, which MOCA is offering for the first time for the exhibition "Painting in Tongues," which runs through April 17: "We've had guards at our museum tell people to put their phones away," she says.

At MOCA and the Japanese American, the only cost to visitors is in using up cellphone minutes. And should museum-goers want to listen again, after leaving the exhibition, they can dial in from any phone, provided they know the number and access codes.

As elsewhere, the quality of cellphone reception depends on where you are standing and the phone itself. "Little Tokyo has some dead spots," acknowledges Lisa Sasaki, manager of museum education for the Japanese American, which is trying out phone tours for the first time with "Isamu Noguchi -- Sculptural Design," which continues through May 14. "But our visitors are well aware of that; they move around until they get better reception."

Sasaki noted that patrons are discouraged from putting the tour on speakerphone. (For a taste of the audio, dial (408) 794-2826 and enter 100# at any time for an exhibition overview.)

Museum representatives call cellphone tours the next wave of audio guide technology, following such recent innovations as PDA-based tours -- with the museum providing the equipment -- and podcast tours that can be downloaded into the visitor's own MP3 device.

Maynard says that the San Jose museum gives patrons the choice of borrowing an MP3 device, or accessing the same audio via cellphone. Both options are provided free.

"Our goal is to address the whole 'gadget phobia' problem -- if they have a cellphone, they probably know how to use it," Maynard says. "You have the option of the ease of your cellphone, or the heightened sound quality of the iPod."

And, Maynard adds, the cellphone tours mitigate the "ick factor" of borrowing a headset. Although equipment is cleaned between each use, germ-wary patrons still tend to avoid shared devices.

Providers of cellphone audio tours include Guide by Cell Inc. of San Francisco, founded in 2004, and Minneapolis-based Museum411, founded in 2005. Spatial Adventures Inc., of Ashburn, Va., which has provided phone-based audio guides for outdoor tourist attractions, such as zoos and historic landmarks, since 2000, is moving into the museum world with a project for the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond.

For the art world, cellphone tours are relatively new. Among the first to try one was Southern Utah University, for a 2002 exhibition of historical photos. The Tacoma Art Center in Washington state and Walker Art Center in Minneapolis also have offered the service, although the nation's largest museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington, D.C., have not.

Guide by Cell persuaded MOCA and the Japanese American to test-drive the technology by offering it as a free trial for up to six weeks. After that, if they continue, the museums would be charged and would have to decide whether to pass along the costs.

It can be prohibitively expensive for museums to provide the equipment and staff required for a traditional audio tour, says Guide by Cell founder Dave Asheim, whose guides are recorded over the phone "just like recording voice mail." The technology can accommodate a simple voice tour by a staffer or a professionally produced recording using sound effects and music. Asheim says the company has 10 museum clients and that others plan to sign up in the near future.

Asheim says visitors don't seem to object to spending their cellphone minutes on art. "A lot of people have unlimited evening and weekend minutes, and that's when they go to museums."

So far, Guide by Cell and other companies are using mobile phone technology to provide audio, not video, content. Asheim says the company tried adding visual elements for test marketing groups, but "it got too complicated for the user. And instead of bringing the experience closer, it got a little disengaging, because people were more focused on their phone than the image they were looking at."

Scott Sayre of Museum411 thinks the jury is still out on how much technology the average museum-goer can handle: "We know that many people are not very technically savvy; even if they have a phone that's capable of displaying photos or text messaging, only a small percentage are going to understand how to use that functionality.

"We think that as time goes on, all the hand-held technology -- the MP3 players, the phones, the PDA-type computers -- they're all going to merge together, and I think the phone is going to be the hub."

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