Back in 2011, I attended a fantastic session led by Kris Wetterlund and Sheila McGuire at the National Art Education Association conference about how the Minneapolis Institute of Arts was using iPads with their docents — and how they were training the docents to use this newly adopted technology. I remember sitting in the audience thinking: “A. I will probably never own an iPad myself,” and “B. Our docents will probably never use iPads.” It turns out I was wrong on both accounts — I got my own iPad 2 within a couple months of attending that session (I think Apple still owes Kris and Sheila their commission), and we now have about half a dozen docents using an iPad on their tours at the Saint Louis Art Museum — a number that I hope grows in the next year.
So what’s the big deal with the iPad? Does it really add anything to a tour that we couldn’t already do without this device?
A study from the Pew Research Center released earlier this year indicated that 19% of adults in the United States own a tablet computer, and that statistic is rising significantly (probably much higher by the time I write this). I also read somewhere that Apple has sold approximately 200-220 million iPads worldwide since the product’s first release in 2010. So I thought it was about time that I more fully utilized this device in my own teaching practice, and then lead a workshop for our docents on the ways in which the iPad (and tablet/mobile technology in general) can add a new dimension to the museum experience for our visitors.
I personally began using my iPad on tours a little less than a year ago. My first experience was with a group of 2nd grade students from an city public school, and we were scheduled to visit the African art galleries. It had always been a bit of a challenge to make those galleries come alive, since they were small, dimly lit spaces with the objects up high in big plexiglass cases. Was there something I could load onto my iPad that would enrich the experience? I found a video of an African buffalo mask (similar to the one in our collection) being performed in a ceremony in Burkina Faso, so I downloaded that to my device just as I was heading from my office to greet the group. As I led them into the African gallery with the “Buffalo Mask,” I was nervous that something would go wrong and my iPad experiment would crash and burn. I popped out the mobile device, clicked play on the video, and quickly noticed that every student in the entire group was silent and paying very close attention to the video.
I had intended on only playing about 20 seconds, but we actually stayed and watched about 3-4 minutes (not recommended, but it worked with this group). While the video of the African dance ceremony played, I invited the students to discuss everything they noticed in the video: the movements of the dance, the sounds of the drums, and the community gathered in the background. Then our discussion turned back to the “Buffalo Mask” before us in the gallery — a really great exploration that had the students looking more closely and connecting in a more meaningful way. Their level of interest had skyrocketed. Was this just because I brought this short video clip into the galleries with me? Was it this simple to deepen the level of understanding and engagement on my tours? I remember leaving this tour with a lot of excitement about using the iPad in the galleries, but questions about whether the focus was truly on the objects … or was the focus too much on the technology?
Research and Best Practices
Back when I attended Kris and Sheila’s NAEA session last year, there were not a lot of resources to guide the use of iPads on tours. I remember contacting Kris after the session, and she sent me some thoughtful tips based on her own experiences with docents. Since then, though, she, Sheila, and their colleagues have written some useful “best practices” based in their research on using iPads in the galleries. Here are links to the most useful:
- “iPads on Tour,” written by Kris Wetterlund and Sheila McGuire for the Museum-Ed Blog. Nice short overview of key things to keep in mind when enabling docents and educators to use multimedia on the iPad to enhance their tours. Their best tip (and a “Golden Rule” for me) is Organize Your Stuff. I have used FileApp Pro, which they recommended, and it seems to serve my needs for bringing video and images together into an easy-to-access folder. This means I’m not fumbling around to find the content while I’m in the middle of my tour.
- “Enhancing Group Tours with the iPad: A Case Study,” authored by Ann Isaacson, Sheila McGuire, Kris Wetterlund, and Scott Sayre, now a chapter in the American Association of Museums 2011 book entitled Mobile Apps for Museums. This more in-depth article discusses a study that the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts conducted on their docents’ use of iPads and visitor response. They found that “all of the museum visitors were engaged during the iPad portion of the tour” and that “all thought it added to their understanding of the works of art.” A good tip that you can pull from this article is that, like any gallery prop, the iPad or mobile device should be used judiciously to avoid making it the focal point of the tour.
Other than bringing the iPad on tour or using it as an educator, the device has wide-ranging applications for museum education, learning, and audience engagement (that I’m not going to discuss in detail here). I would even go as far as to say that each day a museum somewhere probably launches a new iPad app or is offering a program that utilizes the iPad and other tablet devices. It has truly become the new bandwagon (for good reason, I think). If you’re interested in some of the uses of iPads through museum apps, Hyperallergic reviewed “3 iPad apps that recreate the museum experience … almost” back in December, and Scott Billings wrote a great piece for MuseumNext a couple years ago about “what can the iPad do for museums?”
Bringing the iPad into the Galleries: A Sample Tour
So why all this thinking about iPads and touring? Well, I decided it might be good to have a conversation with our docents about the benefits of bringing a iPad with you into the galleries. Therefore, last week I offered an open workshop for any interested docents — about 15 attended, and about 10 were interested but unable to attend. My workshop demonstrated a handful of ways that the iPad can enrich the museum experience, focusing mainly on ways in which additional content and context can be introduced to gain a deeper understanding of the objects themselves (again, the focus should always be on the art and objects, not on the technology).
On our workshop tour, we discussed using the iPad in three galleries of the Saint Louis Art Museum’s collection: African art, Impressionism (mainly Degas’s sculpture), and contemporary art. I am going to quickly review the use of the iPad in these three areas, and link to some of the multimedia content we viewed in the galleries.
African Art: For our time in the African galleries, I demonstrated two uses of the iPad. First, I showed how a tour guide could use a map application like National Geographic’s World Atlas to show students the location of Africa on the globe, and then zoom into the regions and countries that might relate to the objects on the tour. I have had a lot of success with this map app on my tours, and I find it more effective than paper maps or color print-outs. In addition to the map, I showed the video I mentioned above of the Buffalo Mask dance, which we all agreed would enrich and deepen visitors experience with the mask on view (not just school children, but adults too). After exploring the map and video, I discussed how important it is to keep your multimedia content to a minimum — in other words, do not have 3 videos to show along with a map for one stop on your tour. I recommend that docents choose approximately 3-4 multimedia items (photos, maps, videos, etc.) for their entire tour, and spread them out across the tour. Remember, you don’t want the iPad to become the focus of the tour.
Impressionism/Degas: We moved up to the Impressionism and Post-Impressionism galleries, and I spent some time with the sculptures by Edgar Degas that our museum has on view. First, I quickly showed a video of Eadweard Muybridge’s ‘Horse in Motion’ images from 1878 along with our Degas Galloping Horse of a slightly later date. The museum label even refers to this experiment in capturing motion, and it was powerful to see these images and the Degas side-by-side. Then we moved to Degas’s Little Dancer of Fourteen Years to compare our bronze version (cast after the artist’s death) with hi-res detail images of the original wax and mixed media sculpture that Degas created himself (now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington). This sparked an interesting discussion of the appearance of our bronze, the surface textures, and the fabric, and I think we all left wanting to explore our Degas further.
Contemporary Art: Finally, we discussed the various types of content one could bring into the contemporary art galleries. I focused primarily on artistic process, or artists in their studios. This is something I know visitors enjoy seeing, and I feel it deepens our understanding of the artworks and the artists themselves. I brought in two examples. First, I showed a video of Toots Zynsky, a contemporary glass artist, working in her studio to create, heat, and mold one of her well-known glass forms. We’ve had curators discuss her process before, but the video really helped the piece come alive in a new way. And finally, I ended the workshop with a video clip of Gerhard Richter painting with one of his squeegees — a process that visitors are always confused by. Seeing Richter carefully pull paint across his huge canvases certainly helped me gain a better understanding of these massive paintings.
For me, this was a good place to start with our docents, and it was my goal to keep it simple. I know that iPads and mobile devices allow for many more types of experiences, including augmented reality (see excellent paper from Cherry Thian from 2012 Museums & the Web) or using real-time video applications (FaceTime, Skype, etc.) to bring artists, curators, or community members into the galleries for Q&A and dialogue. But for the human-centered experience that is the guided tour, these simple uses of the iPad can truly add a powerful dimension to the learning experience.