using a phone as an exhibition guide

So, as a previous post mentioned, I visited a photography exhibition a couple of weeks ago; and it had a downloadable pdf file as its catalogue.  As the relatively new owner of a very smart phone, I decided to make use of it.  Which was an interesting experience…


So, the idea is that you download the pdf onto your mobile device and consult it as you walk around the exhibition.  As a visitor, you thus get more information – for free – about the show than you get from the texts in the exhibition itself.  And the curators of the exhibition were also updating the pdf during the exhibition’s run, as people sent them comments about the various pictures and places on display.  Both great ideas, I thought.

However, on reflection, the whole process was actually rather fraught with all the complexities of digital culture now.  So, the online and editable pdf/catalogue allows the visitors to the exhibition a voice in its interpretation – which is great, and much more easily done with an online pdf rather than a printed catalogue.  However, that particular choice of format also keeps the power to share that voice in the hands of the curators.  An exhibition wiki or blog would have been more interactive and participatory, of course.  But all of these possibilities raise some difficult questions for archivists and researchers about what is/was ‘the’ catalogue of the exhibition: the one the curators wrote? that, plus all the submissions they received from visitors? or only their final version?  Origins and end points get rather blurred in this sort of interactive process.

And then of course there were all the technological complexities (‘smart’ is just one definition of my phone at least, one that only makes sense as an average of ‘too clever by half’ and ‘really confusing’).  First I discovered I had to download the Adobe app in order to be able to read the pdf.  Then the pdf was obviously designed to be read as a document, and wasn’t very easy to use on the phone’s tiny screen; and I kept on losing the trick of swapping between the main catalogue pages and the sub-pages where more extensive commentary on individual photos was placed.  (I’ve also just been struggling to read an ebook on Adobe’s ebook reader Digital Editions, which is also very reader-unfriendly I think.)

Most problematic, though, for me, was the unavoidable sense that, in a gallery, you should be looking at what’s on display, and not at your phone.  As I kept on trying to find more about a particular photograph or photographer on my phone, I felt more and more that I also needed somehow to convey to the other visitors that I was actually studying the catalogue, and not texting my mates about what time to meet at the pub.  In the end, that was what made me give up on the phone and just concentrate on the pictures; which is, of course, what gallery spaces are intended for.  The white cube triumphed again.

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