SFMOMA’s Intuitive Tour

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has created a tour app that its chief content officer, Chad Coerver, is describing as “a cross between ‘This American Life’ and the movie ‘Her.’” Whew. There’s a millennial siren song if ever I heard one.

While such descriptions can feel a little silly for how unabashedly they cater to a very specific demographic, they’ve got the formula down, and it’s undeniable. I’d download this app and head straight to SFMOMA after reading Wired’s recent writeup of the intuitive tour:

“SFMOMA’s app was designed to keep your phone in your pocket and your eyes on the art. Codeveloped with a company called Detour, it uses your phone’s location-sensing tech to precisely triangulate your position in the museum based on a hi-res virtual map created for the museum by Apple. That way it knows exactly where you are and where you’re going—and adjusts its audio accordingly.

The tours themselves, says Keir Winesmith, head of SFMOMA’s digital platforms, can range from ‘philosophical and emotional’ to ‘hilarious and strange.’ If you prefer the latter, select the ‘This Is Not an Artwork’ tour. Actors Martin Starr and Kumail Nanjiani of HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’ debate whether Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, a Dada classic, is a stunning masterpiece or merely junk. ‘Museum Hack’ is a Red Bull–paced tour designed for visitors who’d rather be playing GTA V. Or listen to French high-wire walker Philippe Petit muse on Mark Rothko’s troubled relationship with his art: ‘The more people celebrated his work, the more he became skeptical … Can painting really be transcendent?’ If you have more practical needs, a Find the Nearest Bathroom button provides point-to-point audio cues, nudging you in the right direction.”

Yes to all of it. And that’s the exact response they were expecting from a 26-year-old like me. Watch the video, and it becomes increasingly clear that SFMOMA and Detour did their homework on the museum’s millennial audience.

For a generation that is inundated by information 24/7, it becomes painfully easy to become detached, disengaged, or even apathetic to the constant stimulus. So how to draw a young museum-goer in when they have the whole world seemingly at their fingertips, every different piece vying for their attention? Well, first, make sure you have some excellent art. Easy. Second—personalize the experience. Infuse it with meaningfulness that is only accessible within the physical walls of your museum. Speak directly to them, with personalized tours from their favorite witty or brooding commentators, who are suddenly, excitingly, in sync with their every step. Create an exciting new experience that is shaped by, and pivots with, every step they take. SFMOMA has it covered.

If it sounds crazy to talk about needing to infuse the already revelatory experience of standing next to a piece of awe-inspiring art with “meaningfulness,” don’t get me wrong—I think it’s crazy too. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not thrilling to hear someone you admire and respect lead you through those pieces of awe-inspiring art, on exactly your schedule, in step with exactly what you’d like to see that day. Or maybe you just want to hear someone very funny laughing along with you, asking what the heck makes something “art”, anyway, as you pass an old urinal on a pedestal—made even more surreal by its framing, plunked down in all of its gapingly mundane, toilet-y glory, right in the foreground of the looming crimson Rothko 14.

In any case, it’s an incredible supplement to the traditional solo museum-going experience. And, imagining that moment when you pop off your headphones, after having just been walked through some of your favorite pieces by your favorite thinkers, to be greeted by that classic museum sound—the perfect, hushed, shuffling-shoes echo chamber of a space filled with insane art work—as far as I’m concerned, it’s the best of both worlds.