Art meets phone app

Museum Week Northwest events feature smartphone application that lets users access in-depth content beyond static displays

Staff writerMay 2, 2014 

If you’ve ever searched for information on the Web using your smartphone, you know one thing is true: There’s too much stuff out there. Googling exactly what you want to know can take a long time, especially on mobile, and if you’re on the ground exploring a physical place, it slows you down.

That’s one of the reasons why regional museums, including several from Tacoma, are signing on to a new Seattle-based mobile app that not only tells the stories behind individual exhibits, it puts information about all the organizations in one place. And for Museum Week Northwest, coming up May 16-23, that’s exactly what both museums and visitors need.

The app’s called STQRY (pronounced “story”), and Tacoma museums are just starting to explore what it can — and can’t — do for their visitor experience.

“There are two ways to use STQRY, either to draw in new visitors or to enrich the experience,” says Kimberly Ketcham, the marketing and communications director for the Washington State History Museum, one of the institutions participating in both Museum Week Northwest and the app. “It allows us to provide content beyond what the visitor will normally stand there and read in the actual exhibit.”

STQRY launched in 2012 in New Zealand after founder Chris Smith (a Seattlite studying there) tried to Google some fun facts about pelicans in the local zoo. “It took ages,” says Jennifer Smith, the Seattle general manager of the start-up. “And Chris wondered why the zoo wouldn’t have that on its own app.”

The answer is simple: money. A custom mobile application can cost an organization $30,000 or more, with no guarantee there’ll be a return, or even a shelf-life, thanks to rapidly changing technology. Apps need someone to handle content upload, and users often don’t want to download yet another app on their mobile devices. And a native app doesn’t connect visitors to similar experiences elsewhere — the same artist showing in another museum, for instance.

That’s where STQRY and Museum Week Northwest seem to be the perfect match. The week brings together dozens of regional art and culture institutions for the national conference of the American Alliance of Museums, held this year in Seattle. To showcase what they’re doing, local museums will hold special programs and 2-for-1 offers during the week, visible on a new site museumweeknw.com. The STQRY app — which is free to download and runs on iPhone, Android and Windows — puts that information in your pocket. You can use the Explore feature to find museums near you, get hours and directions and see their exhibit stories in text, photo or video form. The app lets you collect these into a Favorites page, and share on social media. Then, if you actually go to the museum, you can scan QR code labels near exhibits for more stories.

BACKGROUND INFO

At the Museum of Glass, for example, 18 stories include the full text of a poem that’s part of the sculpture “Cannon Beach,” the backstory of how the curatorial department changes up an gallery in just two days, and a video of Dale Chihuly making cylinders in the Hot Shop. The text is short, and there’s no endless searching.

And at a cost of $1,000 a year for organizations, the app’s a steal, compared with building their own.

“The benefit of STQRY is that you can share behind-the-scenes moments of things that aren’t visible when you walk in,” says Alex Carr, MOG’s digital media coordinator, who’s responsible for uploading the content to the app.

Carr likes that the app lets museums upload as many stories as they like, with photo, video or links. Also, STQRY sends a QR code for each story so institutions can print them and attach them to exhibits. That way, visitors can more easily access information through their smartphones.

It’s not just a replica of the museum’s website or exhibit text panels, either.

“I don’t want to just duplicate information,” Carr says. “I want to make it original, interesting, not overloaded with the mundane.”

Not all museums are taking that opportunity, though, despite STQRY offering free app services for this event. By early this week, 22 museums had uploaded content, though that will increase by the actual opening of Museum Week. Of those 22, some, such as the Job Carr Cabin, just have basic information about the site itself. Others, such as the Washington State History Museum, have content that’s not currently on display, such as the stories uploaded for the D.B. Cooper exhibit, when the museum was piloting the app. Of those stories, many link you back to the museum’s website, which isn’t mobile-friendly. (The museum hopes to have stories for its new exhibit up May 17.)

GROWING

Not many organizations are using the QR codes yet, says Jennifer Smith, though they are most useful in an outdoor setting (such as public art) to alert passers-by to interesting stories.

But apart from offering museums a cheaper, easier way to have an in-house app, STQRY does something bigger for users: It connects them to cultural experiences across cities, regions and the world. Museum Week Northwest is a good example: From the home “story” of that event, the app leads you to a list of all participating institutions, letting you make comparisons and choices about where you’ll visit. There’s even an electronic “passport” to collect “stamps” at each institution for possible real-time rewards.

The app is ideal for organizations where the art is spread out physically, such as public art in cities. (The cities of Auburn, Kent, Renton, Issaquah and Seattle are on there, though not Tacoma or any in Thurston County as of midweek.) You also can easily search one artist whose work is on view in multiple places.

‘TOURS’

STQRY’s also offers in-app “tours” of locations, such as the Pike Place Market area, allowing organizations to collaborate to help visitors explore. Most importantly for international visitors, the app automatically translates to the language of each phone — more than 60 languages so far.

“Smartphones are becoming more common, like TVs,” Smith says. “Pretty soon everyone will have one. They’re not just for talking and texting; they’re a tool for exploring and learning about the world around you.”

But the big question for museums is, will people actually use STQRY?

For the History Museum, the answer is yes: The Cooper exhibit had 370 scans of QR codes and 1,759 views of stories within the app. The technology also helped win the museum a recent Washington Museum Association award for exhibit excellence.

“People who scanned in read more than one story, they looked around the app,” Ketcham said. “This is … a growth technology we’ll be incorporating more into our visitor experience as our exhibit schedule progresses.”

Whether the Museum of Glass continues to use it depends on their budget and how much use it gets, Carr says.

“It’s nice to try something new, and hopefully people will respond,” she added.

Museum Week Northwest

Who: 56 regional cultural institutions — including Children’s Museum of Tacoma, Foss Waterway Seaport, LeMay-America’s Car Museum, Museum of Glass, Tacoma Art Museum and Washington State History Museum — come together to offer a festival of special discounts, programs and outreach, made portable for visitors via a smartphone app.

When: May 16-23, varying admission hours and program times

Information: museumweeknw.com; for free STQRY app, go to stqry.com/mwnw

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com

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