Increasing numbers of museums and galleries are digitising their collections. Doing so is no mean feat, and so the question of how to encourage the public to engage with these resources once they are available is an important one. An obvious answer is the use of smartphone apps that allow individuals to access collection images and records on their personal devices. This year, the most high-profile and wide-ranging example of such technology has been Smartify, which celebrated its official launch on 21 September at the Royal Academy of Arts (one of more than 30 major art institutions to partner with the company so far).
Dubbed ‘Shazam for the art world’, the free app allows users to scan artworks (or reproductions of them) on their phone. The software matches the image against a database of works in partner museums, and provides the user with further information from the relevant institution’s records. This includes more than simple catalogue details: extended descriptions, audio interviews, and research documents are among the other resources. Audio versions of the texts are available for the visually impaired, and Smartify is working with the Wikimedia Foundation to provide translations.
Support for the Smartify app among institutions is strong, and growing. Those already signed up include the National Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. This global scope distinguishes the app (and its service will only improve as more collections are added), but so does its potential for personalisation. Users are encouraged to save their favourite artworks and build a virtual collection which they can share with others. Smartify can also recommend artworks to individuals, based on their past interactions.
‘We hope to reframe the use of mobile phones in the gallery space as engagement rather than distraction,’ co-founder Anna Lowe explains. This may meet with consternation from some in the art world, but as digital reach becomes essential to museums and galleries, so does the technology that enables it. And in fact, one of the most significant features of Smartify is its ability to link people to museums from anywhere. A reproduced painting on a T-shirt or a Christmas card is enough for the software to do its job, and to bring the objects and resources that museum professionals work so hard to preserve and produce in front of someone who might never otherwise find them.
This article was corrected on 22 January 2018. A previous version stated that the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, had ‘signed up’ with Smartify. The museum and Smartify do not have a partnership; Smartify uses Getty Museum images that are freely available through Open Content.