The client required not just an app, but a work of art.
"Everybody has this sense that they want an app, but it's particularly challenging in an art museum because you really want people not to look at the screen but at what's on the walls, or the middle of a sculpture," said Jonathan Gaugler, media relations manager at Carnegie Museum of Art.
The last Carnegie International exhibition was four years ago, but in terms of digital connection, it might as well have been 40. Visitors can access a wealth of information and enhancement through the official app, which launched in October, and there is a presence on the website (ci13.cmoa.org), as well as on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and Vimeo.
It has been downloaded to smartphones 1,117 times as of early last week, and users are spending upward of 10 minutes per session, as compared with three minutes on the CMoA website. More than two-thirds of these users are located outside the Pittsburgh region.
Featuring the International was a logical first step.
"It is the largest exhibition that we do every so many years," said Jeffrey Inscho, the museum's director of Web and digital media initiatives. "The number of artists and artworks, well, just thinking about the numbers alone is intimidating."
Working with Dimitry Bentsionov of TwoTap Labs, museum staffers created an app that is both portable and a general visitors guide to the International. The home page provides the basics, including a live-time notice indicating if the museum is open or closed.
"We approached this more as a framework than a one-off. He had some great ideas on how to build this sustainably to grow and change with us," Mr. Inscho said.
David D'Agostino, the museum's multimedia producer, has created videos that range from artist interviews to nuts-and-bolts process pieces that show how an installation is set up.
"David is a filmmaker. He's an artist himself, so he has a certain sensitivity for what artists are interested in showing and expressing through multimedia," Mr. Gaugler said.
One feature in the app breaks down the International by concept, such as "Sense of Place" (including Phyllia Barlow's massive sculpture "Tip") or "Play" (Tezuka Architects' "run run run"). Choosing the latter brings up a slide show of the immersive installation, which re-presents an actual Japanese kindergarten/playground. A video hosted by Raymund Ryan, curator of the museum's Heinz Architectural Center, explores the work and its relation to the schoolhouse abroad.
One of the museum's goals beyond the Oct. 5-March 16 International is to digitally catalog the museum's other collections: "We are looking for ways to get our collections database to play nice with the Web. ... It will sync, but it's not where we want it to be yet," Mr. Gaugler said.
The tech staff is also working on establishing provenance. Ultimately, Mr. Gaugler added, the Carnegie hopes to be able to track its works, both coming and going.
"All arrows, in this case, are converging on Pittsburgh. But we have art bouncing out and back again, because we have a lot of important works being loaned out all over the world.
"Eventually, we hope [the app will] be able to search for places by location -- where they were produced, follow the virtual path they've taken to get here ... who has touched it, who produced it. Many of the artists aren't living anymore but we could [shoot] interviews with those who are."
Such apps are quickly becoming a mainstay in the arts. Mr. Inscho, who worked for five years at the Mattress Factory, said he had colleagues at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., help beta-test the Carnegie's app.
"I'm fortunate to have a pretty good network of technologists in the museum community that I can use as resources. It's a very collaborative community, and I've helped them out with their projects."
One of the best things about having a downloadable app for smartphones -- for now, iOS products, with Android versions arriving early next year -- is that it turns your handheld device into a portable guide.
For those who don't have Apple products, there are 20 iPod Touch players available to borrow at a kiosk in the museum. Unlike those bulky devices that end up tossed into a bin at the end of the tour, the touch-screen iPods are expected to be a sleeker, more attractive choice. The Carnegie has taken steps to ensure these handheld guides don't speed out the front door with patrons.
"We have some pretty advanced security measures on them," Mr. Inscho said, laughing. "I can actually see where they all are. So if they walk off, I can tell they're in an apartment in Lawrenceville somewhere and we can go get them."