A Tale of Two Exhibits: “It was the best of times…” Part One

Have you ever had one of those days when amazing things unexpectedly happen and make you remember why you go to work every day?  Tuesday was one of those days for me.  I had two very different, very magical experiences in two very different museums.

#1) Halsey Burgund, Scapes
De Cordova Sculpture Park and Museum
July 13, 2010 – November 14, 2010

Nancy Proctor from the Smithsonian (follow her on Twitter, @NancyProctor) was in town and she and Sandy Goldberg were going to the de Cordova Sculpture Park and Museum to see their latest mobile app, an audio art installation called Scapes, so I volunteered to accompany them. I came in completely cold, knowing nothing about the app or the exhibit series it was part.  In all honesty, it was an excuse to go back to visit a museum I hadn’t been to in years with friends.  Which is to say I was coming at it much more like a visitor than a museum professional. I was hoping I’d have a good time with my friends looking at art, but other than that I had no agenda or expectation.

I’ve gotten a bit discouraged by the state of mobile museum experiences of late. For all the promise the medium offers, most of the things I’ve tried in the past couple of years haven’t broken much new ground, or have had real usability issues (See my post on Walking Cinema’s Murder on Beacon Hill app at MuseumMobile) that ruined the experience for me. I was toting up my mental list of potential issues as we met the artist and checked out devices. “Only available for iPhone 3G and later? Tsk, tsk…” “The Museum recommends I wear a headset for the best experience? Hrm…” I decided I’d use my venerable iPhone 3G as a test, since it usually performs poorly in these situations since I updated to iOS4.  We got our headphones, borrowed a couple of machines from the desk for people who didn’t want to drain their batteries, and off we went.

Scapes is a two-way visitor created audio experience which uses the phone’s location-sensing ability to tag visitor comments to a particular spot in the sculpture garden.  When you launch the app, it locates you, and offers you two choices; Listen or Speak. That’s it. If you pick Listen, you can put the phone back in your pocket because you don’t need it for anything. The app handles the rest. What you get in Listen is an ambient soundtrack of musical themes composed by Burgund and mixed by the computer, based on where you are. If you’re near the pond, you get soothing strings. Closer to the parking lot where the school groups are, you get more percussive beats.  The music is never intrusive but it is a noticeable subtext to the whole visit. It’s like being in your own personal film. You get a soundtrack that is seamless, that changes as the scene changes, and provides an auditory bridge between the separate acts of looking at individual sculptures.  So I love it on the first count that it works as a musical experience. But there’s more.

Main screen of the Scapes app
The main screen of the Scapes app, showing the two menu choices

Layered on top of the music is a random, changing collection of visitor comments that were made in that space, which cycle in and out like spirit voices.  There are no obvious authorities, all the comments are visitor-derived, and the quality of them was really high.  I found myself reacting to other visitors’ reactions to the art as if they were talking to me.  Things they noticed, I looked for. Connections they made, I made too. I was successfully slowed down. I spent longer looking at these sculptures than I typically would, and nobody had given me any traditional content. I didn’t learn anything more about the pieces themselves from the comments, but I made a much stronger connection to them. The tone of the music seemed to inspire reflective, hushed comments. Maybe it was the subject matter that made people sound a bit tentative. I don’t know, but the quality of the commentary was very high and felt very private. I was eavesdropping.

Before we’d gotten past the first sculpture, I’d decided I needed to leave a comment and see how that worked.  When you press the Speak button, you get a list of questions you can choose from, the first of which basically gives you permission to say whatever comes into your head. I chose “Look up and tell us what you see.” And said something about the beautiful blue sky, Fall foliage and birds darting around. We continued to mill around the same area and within a few minutes, I heard myself in the mix. The sound quality was so good I was unclear if I was hearing myself.  Apple puts good mikes in their phones, it seems. It also made it clear that the comments weren’t being vetted for approval by some shadowy curator. A very gutsy thing to try. As someone who’s cleaned out my share of comment card boxes, feedback albums and digital video directories, I know how appallingly low the signal to noise ratio can be.  Somehow Scapes managed to pull it off.

We wandered around the grounds for a long time, listening and laughing and sharing things we’d heard. Sometimes, we’d clump up and talk and at other times, we each drifted off. The headsets were light Sennheiser on the ear type headphones, so they didn’t get in the way of talking.  I heard adults and children. Some of the comments were profound, some random, but it didn’t matter. It felt like overhearing conversations in a physical museum, only more private, more personal.  At one point a woman said “I’m looking at a giant tree root, it’s all gnarled. I’m not sure if it’s art but I’m not sure that matters.” I went over to share my latest discovery and Nancy said, “That was me! I said that!” I don’t think we’d’ve shared that observation if we’d just been talking.

We explored until it was time to head to our next location. On a lark, we plugged a phone into the car stereo to see if we’d pick up anything, and as we drove out of the museum grounds we could hear the spirit voices still talking until we got too far away. We were left with the music, which kept playing as we drove down the road. It was magical.

So what made this experience work?

I think a lot of factors combined to make this an experience that spoke to me when so many others haven’t.

1) It’s an artwork. Halsey Burgund, the artist who created Scapes, was interested in making music that incorporated visitor voices. His definition of success was primarily aesthetic – it had to be good music, not just noise. There is an attention to detail that I love. Tracks fade up and down smoothly and mesh with the music organically. The sound quality of the recordings is stunning, given the fact that they’re all done outdoors with a phone mic. The user interface is simple and pleasing.  Even the brand of earphones was selected to provide good sound while not obstructing your ability to hear real-world sounds.  Quality, quality, quality where it counts.

2) It’s a small place. The de Cordova is small museum in a wealthy suburb that doesn’t see the same kind of numbers as a Metropolitan Museum or Louvre.  They could deploy ten iPhones and sets of headphones and be OK, where a larger museum might need 100 or 700.

3) It’s outdoors covering a wide area. We all know that wayfinding with mobiles is still a stretch goal, but being outdoors amongst widely scattered, large-scale sculpture works with the current generation of phones capabilities. The accuracy of the positioning wasn’t great, but it didn’t need to be. Several times I heard someone talking about things I couldn’t see and it spurred me to go look for them.

4) It’s not a tour. If I were starting out to “make an app for the sculpture garden” I don’t think I’d ever have come up with something like Scapes. I’d be so busy working on my content strategy and educational goals for the project that I would have produced something much more educational and probably less affective.

In short, a lot of things were working in favor of this app and I can think of a million reasons why this couldn’t translate to other places easily. But, in the end, they don’t matter. Scapes is a truly great mobile experience that only works because it’s mobile, and location-aware. Instead of having a hypothetical example of “What would a great mobile app be like?” I now have a real one.  Go experience Scapes if you can.

Description of the project, cribbed from the deCordova Museum site.

Halsey Burgund, Scapes
Halsey Burgund is a musician and sound artist who lives and works in Bedford, MA. Burgund’s projects are collaborative and provide participants with an active role in content creation. Burgund uses open source platforms, GPS technology, and interactivity to create musical scores from participants’ spoken words that continuously evolve in real-time. Scapes, Burgund’s project for PLATFORM 3, creates a two-way audio experience for museum visitors influenced significantly by their physical location on deCordova grounds. Participants will use iPhones and headphones to listen to audio and also to make their own recordings, which will be immediately assimilated into the piece for everyone to hear.

Here’s a video intro to the piece, courtesy of the artist. http://vimeo.com/15058020

Or, download it from the iTunes Store.


  1. This sounds fabulous. I wish I could try it. I wonder why it’s just a temporary installation–sounds like it’s time for a rich donor to make it permanent!


  2. It’s the third installment in the de Cordova’s “Platform” series of installations, so it was temporary from the get-go. But there’s no reason it couldn’t last longer.


  3. What a great way to involve visitors. The artist has found a way to make the user contributions add real value to his piece. Maybe the questions help people, but like you, I bet they’re simply inspired by the wonder of what they’re seeing and hearing and participating in. I downloaded the app just to get a taste of the experience. Even sitting in the West Village at my desk it was lovely.


  4. Yikes! The conversation is proliferating!

    Over at MuseumMobile, Nancy Proctor weighs in with her review and some astute observations by Sandy Goldberg on the nature of augmented reality. Check it out.

    On ExhibitFiles, Carey Tisdal suggests alternative evaluation approaches that don’t force developers into rigid, didactic approaches. Go see. w00t!


  5. Halsey (@hburgund) informs me “deCordova has decided to officially extend the Scapes exhibit until Dec 31st, so tell all your friends they have more time to make it now!” Hie thee to Lincoln, MA, pronto!


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