The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
The Frank Lloyd Wright designed Guggenheim has been an enduring gift to the city from its namesake since 1952. Nestled overlooking Central Park on Fifth Avenue in the leafy and affluent Upper East Side, it is a draw card for New York as tourists and art lovers flock here daily to see its revolving collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern Art. The weather has finally turned for the better in New York City and I make my way across Central Park through the throngs of sun loving New Yorkers to my destination. This isn’t the first time I’ve been to the Guggenheim but seeing it emerge between the buildings as you make your way up Fifth Avenue gives you a sense of warmth and appreciation. The building itself is part of the reason any visitor comes here and is still a striking but perfectly a balance anomaly amongst the 19th century apartment buildings in this neck of the woods. I line up just before opening time at 10am with a noticeably older gallery-going crowd. A very cursory look through my backpack by security and I push through the revolving doors and into the Guggenheim’s iconic atrium. It still feels great to be here and I recall all the times I’ve seen this place in photos and film including Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3 (The Order) and imagine the artist himself scaling the walls. All of this being said, the building itself is feeling a little tired. Large portions of the once gleaming terrazzo floor our now cracked and weathered and paint builds up in uneven drops on the walls and bulkheads. A plastic tub betrays a gap in devil’s ivy in one of the many planter boxes. It’s not hard to look past this stuff though and experience the building for what it is.
Erroneous plastic tub.
Today I opt to go completely out to what the audio tour has to offer. I jettison any sense of shame, exchange my license for an audio device, hang it from my neck, don the headphones and go where the thing tells me to. The device itself is an iPod Touch with a security case around it which is attached to a lanyard. Something malfunctions with my first device which is quickly replaced with a second by a staff member. The app running on the device is prepared in “Near Me” mode which appears to triangulate my position to display nearby artworks. Works with associated audio display a sound icon. As I wander around the gallery these move and change based on what should be within my view. Sometimes this works well however sometimes I can’t see works I am standing nearby and sometimes the device shows me works I can’t immediately see. The result of this has me spending a lot of time staring down at my device. I constantly snap out of it and remind myself to enjoy the building I am in.
The audio files themselves are a strange mix of curators who sound like they’re standing in front of the works, more produced audio files with music and sound effects and interviews with directors. They are clearly a collection of reused sound from previous exhibitions. Likewise there doesn’t seem to be any immediate strategy for which works have associated sound files and which don’t. Sometimes I encounter three or four works in quick succession that supply audio and sometimes I pass ten without a peep. All that being said, the audio is surprisingly engaging and informative – it’s worth forcing myself to listen to every single one. The curator’s notes on the Kandinskys (which form a large part of the collection’s backbone) truly shine a new light on these purely abstract works for me. Hearing stories of the formidable Peggy Guggenheim and her tireless efforts in establishing the early collection is also truly fascinating.
I make my way back down the iconic spiral ramp and its terrifyingly low hand rail and say goodbye to this compact building and collection that, despite its foibles puts a very big smile on my dial.
Digital engagement: Said audio tour is also available to download as an app to use your own device. This is a pretty hefty download though and onsite wifi was fairly flaky so not brilliant for someone on international roaming. Tickets can be bought online in advance however the benefit of this was not immediately clear to me.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met is a monster. On the scale of the Louvre in Paris or the British Museum in London it’s one of the world’s monumental and highly prized cultural institutions. I arrive slightly early for a meeting with Program Manager for Content Partnerships in the Digital Department, Neal Stimler who has suggested we meet at the “large Egyptian statue in the foyer”. This, in itself is a wonderful thing to do on a Wednesday afternoon. Neal has been at the Met for some time and has lead the execution of large parts of the institution’s digital strategy including digitisation of the large parts of the collection. This is the first time on this trip I have really heard any cogent strategy behind the digitisation process. In this case, most fascinatingly the collection has been made accessible to all on Creative Commons. And this is something Neal feels extremely passionate about – that the collection itself may be made accessible to view and be repurposed by a much broader audience that those who can visit the bricks and mortar. This way, the collection can be owned by all in its truest sense, even if the repurposing is for commercial means. It’s actually incredibly inspiring hearing Neal talk about this and is a message I hope to carry home. We had a sprawling conversation in the wonderfully ugly staff cafeteria that strayed through a million different topics until it was time for him to head back to work. I’m struck once again how helpful New Yorkers are and willing to go out of their way to help. He asks me which part of the collection he’d like to drop me off at and I say “Mesopotamian!” without skipping a beat. I’m a stickler for the Fertile Crescent.
Suddenly finding myself up on the second floor of the building I continue my audio tour mission for the day, download the app and stick in my earphones. This goofy look is exacerbated by the fact that I have to wear my backpack on my front less I endure the wrath of security guards (I tried to jettison my bag earlier in the cloak room however it was rejected due to its contents of my laptop). Interestingly, although equally as informative as the Guggenheim’s audio content it is the same ramshackle collection of different voices and styles describing the artefacts I wander past. Some audio bites are clearly from an older device as it refers to buttons that are clearly not there on my own device. There is also no pattern as to whether the audio refers to specific objects, the room as a whole, the historical backdrop or a combination of these things. The effect is a slightly befuddling pastiche of information but is regardless really damn interesting.
I head downstairs to the Egyptian wing and spend some time wandering around the Temple of Dendur – a nearly complete Egyptian temple dating back to 10BC that has been shipped and miraculously reconstructed here in the middle of New York City. Here you can play back a portion of the Director’s Tour – a kind of best-of featuring the voice of the Met’s director Thomas P. Campbell whose clipped British accent lends a certain degree of implied museum-y expertise.
The Temple of Dendur.
Just like all massive, juggernaut museums I love the Met and the treasures it houses. If only I had another seventeen hours to see everything it has.
Admission: Amount is up to you. Suggested price – $25
Digital engagement: The app is really comprehensive and offers much more than the audio content. The wifi is particularly good so no stress for travellers. You must enter a unique ID printed next to objects if you’d like to hear about them which works really well given the scale of the collection amount and of content provided.