Art center visitors use texting for context

Andrew Bickford's days as a Haverford College student and docent at the Philadelphia Museum of Art date back well before the advent of text messaging. You either took a standard tour - audio or guided - or just walked through on your own.

But on a recent afternoon, Bickford could be seen walking through the sculpture garden at the Abington Art Center, alternately looking up at the artworks in the 27-acre park and down at his cell phone.

"I did have a little learning curve on the texting," said Bickford, a high school English and philosophy teacher at Abington Friends School. "But I saw some things, some influences I wouldn't have seen myself."

A generation away, the reaction was the same.

"It really makes you listen to what [the artists] have to say," said Jennifer Deck, a freshman art major at Penn State/Abington.

Bickford and Deck were using a technology called SCVNGR, the brainchild of a Princeton dropout who originally developed it for a campus orientation. Since then, the Boston-based company has branched out to offer the system to museums, private companies, or anyone wanting to offer an interactive tour.

At Abington Art Center, the tour asks questions designed to make the viewer look more closely at the sculpture.

Sometimes, the questions are oblique:

"Bright orange against the green grasses, it sounds twice as the hour passes. Larry Curly Moe building high. Find the site . . . come on, try! Send the artist's name."

Sometimes, they are straightforward:

"How many horizontal beams make up this crazy steel frame?"

Get the answer and you get your reward:

"That's correct, well done. Your next question will arrive soon. Meanwhile, head down the grassy hill past the pavilion."

Heather Rutledge, assistant director of the art center, calls the tour "another way for people to interact with the sculpture. It forces you to look at everything carefully. . . . You have to spend an extra minute with the sculpture."

The center has even developed a second tour, called the "commuter leg," taking visitors on the 20- to 25-minute walk from the Jenkintown station of SEPTA Regional Rail to the museum grounds. In this case, the subject matter is Jenkintown history and landmarks such as the Hiway theater.

The art center supplied the content of both tours, and Rutledge likes the fact that the sponsoring group can change the tour once it's installed and customize it for different audiences. "You can add clues geared to a particular group," Rutledge says, and take them down once that tour is finished.

The tour can also be structured as a game for several individuals or teams, with the system awarding points and ranking the teams or players. If you're stumped, you can text "hint" and get one, but it will cost points. Participants use their own text messaging services and pay the standard rates.

Michael Hagan, a Ridley Township native and Drexel University graduate who is chief operating officer of the company, said, "We're creating a platform so anyone, really, can build one of these experiences to be played in the real world."

The technology can incorporate audio, streaming video, images, and interactive maps in addition to standard text.

Hagan says it is now in about 300 universities and two dozen museums in 42 states.

Deck said that she found the tour challenging and that she spent an hour taking it, probably more than she would have spent looking at the 20 sculptures.

Or, as the text of the tour says:

"When work is left to speak for itself, a lot of people don't listen."