New mobile apps guide visitors through Yale’s art museums

A woman using a mobile app at the Yale Center for British Art.

Visitors to the Yale Center for British Art and Yale University Art Gallery have a new tool to guide them through the museums’ galleries and to consult when a painting by Turner or Van Gogh, among others, sparks their curiosity.

The museums have launched mobile apps that provide audio commentary by curators, conservators, scholars, and students on selected works and architectural features.

We have great demand for our highlights tours, and our guests often approach our visitors’ services desk to ask for interpretive audio materials,” said Heather Nolin, the art gallery’s deputy director for exhibitions, programming, and education. “We knew our colleagues at the center were also developing a smartphone app and so we decided to work together.”

The project achieved a shared purpose and also strengthened ties between the two institutions, said Courtney Long, the center’s acting assistant curator of prints and drawings.

We hope it helps strengthen that connection for visitors as well,” said Long, who directed the project in collaboration with Anna Bozzuto, digital imaging technician at the center.

The iPhone apps can be downloaded for free in the Apple App Store, while web-based versions are available for Android users. The art gallery will have devices available to visitors who do not use smartphones.

The museums worked with Cuseum, a tech company that specializes in developing mobile apps for cultural institutions. The apps have the same general look and feel with content tailored to each museum. Users can select self-guided tours of various lengths composed of highlighted objects, or “stops.” They can access information about a specific work by entering its identification number located adjacent to the object’s wall label. They also can navigate floor maps that identify points of interest.

The audio commentaries, which were recorded in the museum’s galleries, consist of a broad range of voices.

It was important to use this new tool as an opportunity to integrate our collection with the community that it serves,” Long said. “The participation from center’s staff, and Yale faculty and graduate students was very important to us. We’re very grateful that members of the Yale community so generously lent their time and expertise to our specific paintings.”

The stop for Joseph Mallord William Turner’s “Staffa, Fingal’s Cave” on the center’s app includes insights from Tim Barringer, the Paul Mellon Professor in the History of Art, who describes the dilemma between the natural beauty of the basalt cliffs at the painting’s left against the corrupting influence of a steamship belching black smoke toward the scene’s right. He also points out details, such as the pinprick of red signifying the ship’s engine room, which a visitor might otherwise miss. In a second commentary on the painting, Mark D. Mitchell, the Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the art gallery, explains how it came to be the first of Turner’s works to arrive in the United States and its subsequent influence on American artists. 

A woman in front of a painting by Edward Hopper, using a mobile app at the Yale art gallery.

Having the curator and faculty member together creates a wonderful dynamism,” said Long. “It was a great moment to bring in a voice from the art gallery to discuss an object from our collection and foster the spirit of collaboration at the heart of this project.”

The art gallery returns the favor in its app’s stop for Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Night Café,” which features commentaries by Matthew Hargraves, the center’s chief curator of art collections, and John Walsh ’61 B.A., the former director of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Hargraves discusses the three years that Van Gogh lived in London as a young man and how the artist’s experiences there— including wrenching heartbreak — informed his later work. Walsh, who teaches part-time at Yale, shares Van Gogh’s thoughts on the painting as the artist himself expressed in letters to his brother, Theo. Walsh notes that Van Gogh explained to Theo that in painting the scene, he had “tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green.”

The apps support video content. For instance, a stop on the art gallery’s app about an elaborate automaton clock of the goddess Diana features a brief video of the object’s intricate mechanisms in action. Users can learn how Diana’s eyes move right and left and watch her shoot an arrow.

The museums’ distinctive architecture is highlighted along with their collections and both apps offer architecture tours. Louis Kahn, widely considered one of the 20th-century’s most influential architects, designed the art gallery’s entry building and the center.

The art gallery was Louis Kahn’s first major building and the center was among his last,” Long said. “Featuring the architect who helped to house these two fantastic collections is another component of the project tying the institutions together.”

Content will be updated and expanded to include additional highlights as well material related to special exhibitions, Nolin and Long said.

The art gallery’s app will provide visitors to “Matthew Barney: Redoubt,” a major exhibition of contemporary artist Matthey Barney ’89 B.A. opening on March 1, with audio commentary from the artist as they consider his work, Nolin said.

One of the really exciting things about the app is that it gives visitors the opportunity to not only read the printed labels, but also to hear from the artist or curators while viewing objects in the galleries,” Nolin said.

The center plans to adapt the app to its Long Gallery, a teaching and study gallery where paintings are arranged thematically and hung densely from floor to ceiling, Long said.

The long gallery presents dozens of objects in a dramatic environment,” she said. “We’re working with Cuseum on image recognition technology so that a visitor could point their device at an object and it will auto-populate with information about what they’re looking at.”

An important benefit is that people can enjoy using the apps without setting foot in the museums, Long said.

Not everyone can come to the center or the art gallery, but the apps give them the opportunity to learn about our collections and our buildings from the comfort of their homes,” she said.

To download the apps, visit the websites of the Yale Center for British Art and the Yale University Art Gallery.

Media Contact

Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548