What if you could wander around a city learning about the buildings and sculptures you see around you without having to fumble to dig through a clunky guidebook? That day has arrived, at least for iPhone and iPod Touch users, thanks to the group Culture Now, a non-profit with a mission to map history, art, and architecture in the public realm. With their new Museum Without Walls application, culture is a click away for people on the go. Culture Now president Abby Suckle thinks of it as a “treasure hunt, almost like urban archeology to uncover really interesting artworks and the stories behind them.”
Recently the organization’s Museum Without Walls application won an Honorable Mention for Best Overall App in New York City’s 2011 BigApps 2.0 contest. The app allows a user to take all maps, podcasts, audio tours, and photos that Culture Now has to offer out onto the street, effectively turning a city into one big museum. It also allows users to “see” buildings that are no longer standing, giving a new and very modern meaning to the concept of heritage tourism. Users of the New York City version can listen to commentary on podcasts by architect Hugh Hardy, parks commissioner Adrian Benepe, as well as Pratt professor (and The Architect’s Newspaper editor-in-chief) Bill Menking.
The idea for the app began around ten years ago when professional design organizations formed Culture Now in response to the devastation of September 11th. Made up of over 400 volunteers, they embarked on an ambitious goal of offering recommendations for rebuilding Lower Manhattan. That effort evolved into the creation of a physical map of the area’s rich cultural and historic sites in an effort to draw people back to devastated Lower Manhattan. From there, it grew into a collection of maps, both print and interactive, which were designed to inform people about museums, historic buildings, sculptures, installations, and murals. This collection, in turn, spawned a series of podcasts and the award-winning iPhone app.
The idea of “a museum without walls” isn’t new, but Culture Now has taken that concept to the next level. The app calls up a range of art information, from details about public works by artists such as Louise Nevelson and Alexander Calder to the history of Union Square. Users can curate their own tours of over 20 cities in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, and British Columbia.
During July, Culture Now will be featured as part of an exhibition that starts at the Center for Architecture but may travel around other boroughs as a pop-up architectural exhibition that addresses the digitization of the built environment.