Fine Art on your Phone: Boston Museum Goes Mobile

You don’t have to go to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to appreciate its amazing array of paintings, prints, sculptures, and artifacts: thanks to an aggressive digital-capture effort, the MFA has the largest image database of any art museum in the world, all freely browsable on the Web. And now, you can even carry a mini-masterpiece with you on your cell phone. This week MFA became the first U.S. art museum to allow users to download iconic paintings from its collection, such as Monet’s “Water Lilies,” for use as wallpaper on their mobile-phone screens.

Single-image downloads, available at the new mobile website, cost $1.99, the museum announced Wednesday. For $4.99, dedicated art aficionados can subscribe to a rotating selection of six new wallpapers each month. But the MFA isn’t really in it for the money. The wallpapers are part of a strategy to broaden the public’s access to museum’s collection and help people develop a more personal relationship to the art there, says Kim French, the MFA’s deputy director of communications.

“Our interest is in making art a part of people’s everyday lives, not just something they experience once a year when they walk into a museum,” French says. “And not just with their phones, but with the website. Once we built our database and put it on the Web, we began to look for ways to help personalize the experience.”

The “MFA Mobile” campaign is a collaboration with Boston advertising agency Hill Holliday, whose interactive marketing division also helped the museum launch “microsites” focusing on its recent smash-hit Edward Hopper exhibit and its upcoming Napoleon exhibit.

“MFA has been very forward thinking in seeing the mobile channel as a viable channel for promoting art,” says Thi Linh Wernau, a managing supervisor for Hill Holliday’s digital division. In addition to the wallpapers, the company helped MFA set up a mobile “short code,” MYMFA (69632), where cell-phone users can request art, sign up for alerts about events at the museum and, in the future, obtain tickets to special events. Text “fog” to 69632, for example, and the museum will send back a copy of “The Fog Warning,” the museum’s most famous Winslow Homer painting.

If the cell-phone screen is a bit small for your taste, there are plenty of other ways to experience the MFA’s digital reproductions. For example, the museum has licensed some of its paintings to GalleryPlayer, a Seattle company that publishes fine-art content for high-definition displays; one offering is a DVD collection of 20 Claude Monet paintings owned by MFA, including “Water Lilies.” GalleryPlayer also produced a DVD based on the Hopper exhibit (I can recommend it personally; it’s available through the MFA’s online gift shop).

“We are continuing to explore all the things we can do with the digital assets we have available,” says French, who also points to the museum’s podcasts and e-cards and the customized tour suggestions available at the MyMFA section of the museum website.

At the same time, the museum is improving facilities for actual visitors. Excavation is underway for the new Norman Foster-designed American Wing, and the museum has started work on revamped entrances on both the Huntington Avenue and Fenway sides of the complex. The projects, scheduled for completion in 2010, will increase the museum’s exhibition space by 28 percent.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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