Hundreds of cultural institutions around the world—including the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums, galleries, gardens and National Zoo—have closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But thanks to a growing array of digital offerings, museum lovers have plenty of options for experiencing world-class institutions from home. (See Smithsonian magazine’s roundups of museums you can remotely visit, collections available for perusal online and ways to virtually explore the Smithsonian for additional inspiration.)
Now through the end of 2020, reports Mark Brown for the Guardian, the app—home to a database of some two million artworks from more than 120 venues—has made all of its audio tours available free of charge. Selected exhibits that were unable to open due to museum and gallery closures (including the Watts Gallery Artists’ Village’s John Ruskin retrospective) will launch on the app instead.
Launched in 2017 with a database of 30 museums, according to Smithsonian’s Ben Panko, Smartify models itself on Shazam, a mobile app that identifies songs based on snippets of audio. To use the art world version of Shazam, users simply scan an artwork, bringing up a blurb detailing the piece’s name, artist and history.
Smartify also hosts visual and audio tours of such institutions as the British Library, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Hermitage. Previously, some were paid, while others were free; now, all are available at no cost.
“Obviously we have seen a change in the way the app is used,” Anna Lowe, one of the company’s co-founders, tells the Guardian. “We started the app from a love of visiting museums and galleries and seeing and connecting with art.”
Smartify allows museum lovers to browse art from institutions in Europe, the United States, Iran, Egypt and Singapore, among other locales. Users can take hour-long audio tours of such venues as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the London National Portrait Gallery, or simply tune in for short snippets on specific works. Tours are led by curators, historians and artists themselves.
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery Smartify collection features a digital gallery of more than 1,000 artworks, as well as a one-hour “visual description tour” of select presidential portraits. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, meanwhile, boasts an in-app digital collection of more than 650 works.
Other Smartify offerings include a guided tour of the National Gallery of Art; a descriptive walk through the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s sculpture park, as narrated by artist Juliana Capes; and an American Sign Language tour of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.
The app’s new role as a virtual tour guide represents a shift from its original purpose of supplementing in-person museum visits. But the change still adheres to Smartify’s original mission.
“At times like this, really strange times, people look to art and music and culture for inspiration, solace … a sense of normal,” Lowe tells the Guardian, “Anything we can do to help that and help people access art and culture is important at a time like this.”