On Saturday my girlfriend Patrice (who is an art consultant) and I visited the UC Berkeley Museum. I told her we could use the neat new PDAs and then observed how she used the guide and how we interacted during the tour. I will first review some of the PDAs features and then focus on the tourguide's "navigability". Overall, the PDA enhanced the quality of our visit, and we noticed that with some improvements these new tools have the potential to greatly improve a museum experience for both the casual visitor and the scholar.
The PDA is an Apple Newton with a shoulder strap and plug-in earphones. There are only two "buttons" on it, one takes you to the main menu, the other takes you to the artwork # dial up page. The main menu is self explanatory and the choices are: Object Directory (OD), Upcoming Events, PFA Film Calendar, Greeting from the director, and Tutorial. The Tutorial is easy to follow. The Upcoming Events and PFA Film Calendar were bitter disappointments. Both began to list events and films from January 1996. There is no scroll or "go to" feature so this process is tedious. To add insult to injury, after tabbing down through February, the Film Calendar ended! No information is given on films being shown currently, presumably of interest to the user.
The most important selection on the main menu is the Object Directory. The directory lists, in alphabetical order by artist, the pieces which are covered by the multimedia tutorial. Again there is no scroll function and reaching an artist at the end of the list takes time. At one point during our visit Patrice asked: "I wonder if they have Lee Krasner? ..(2minutes).. Nope." The ability to search by name would be extremely useful. Patrice immediately noted: "It doesn't list the date of the pieces! I always want to know the date." I asked " What if I'm searching for a piece by an artist whose name I forgot or don't know? Wouldn't it be good to also have a list by period such as Italian Renaissance, impressionism, etc.?" Patrice agreed, "especially for those of us who cannot imagine what a Romare Bearden looks like, or what his subject matter usually is."
When we got up from our seats in the lobby where we had taken a couple of minutes to familiarize ourselves with the PDAs, we had to decide where to go. The PDA has neither a map nor a guide to the 6 galleries. We thus had to return to the front desk and get a map. "You shouldn't have to have a guide of the museum as well as this!" Patrice grumbled.
Finally, on our walk through the gallery we noticed that quite a few pieces which had PDA commentary were not marked as such. Thus it is only because we had scanned the entire OD beforehand and were able to recognize a Rothko when we saw it that we checked to see if the piece we were looking at had a commentary. The museum should clearly mark each piece included in the guide. Each piece's "page" has the following choices: Overview, Critique, Biography, and occasionally a topic which is brought up in the overview or critique. I found these "add-on" topics to be very interesting as they would stimulate curiosity about how the particular piece I was looking at fit into the grander scheme of things. This leads to the issue of navigability.
The current navigational set-up of the tutor is piece-by-piece. The scholar can look in the OD to find a piece he's interested in, physically go to it and listen to the commentary. The layperson has to wander around the museum until he finds a marked piece, then he will listen to the critique. In each case when the commentary on the specific piece is over, that's it. Back to square one. There are no links among pieces, artists, rooms, or periods.
As I mentioned above, for some pieces the tutorials permit you to begin exploring new directions. This is the case for Theodore Rousseau's "Forest of Fontainbleau". The overview states "the painting mixes the realism of the time of day with the Romantic School's idealism of nature"; it then goes on to say that Rousseau was part of the Barbizon School. The piece's menu page does include a listing for "The Barbizon School", but there is not one for "The Romantics". If one goes down the Barbizon "path" it is a dead end. There are no links to other works by the Barbizon school, or to works influenced by the school. Presumably if one is interested in the painting, one will listen to both the overview and the "digression" on the Barbizon school. One would then be interested in understanding more about what the Barbizons and Romantics thought and painted. I was. It would have been wonderful if the guide had said: for an example of typically Romantic paintings see the following works in the following rooms. Such a navigational architecture would make the museum visit more meaningful and interesting. Different people will follow different paths based on what they want to hear and see. When I was told of the Romantic influences I wanted to be guided to Romantic pieces so that I could confirm the influence with my own eyes. A picture is worth a thousand words!
Such an architecture would be especially useful at larger museums. At a large museum one could spend hours viewing, exploring and learning about specific artists, periods, or schools. Such an experience makes it easier to see the historical and influential relationships that are so important to art, and thus makes the learning experience more impregnating.