An app that was once rejected by almost every major museum may now help them reopen safely in an era of social distancing—and transform how they engage audiences. Brunswick Arts’ Fanny Guesdon speaks with co-founder Anna Lowe.
Smartify is the world’s most downloaded museum app. From the National Gallery London and the Met, to the Louvre and the Pushkin, the free app makes art collections accessible for a global audience.
A viewer holds their phone up to a work of art as if taking a photo; the app identifies the work and displays information—whether that’s text, audio, or video—on screen. “Most museums can’t afford to build apps so we partner with them to bring their collections to life,” says Anna Lowe, Smartify’s co-founder.
The app launched in 2016, a time when some leading institutions enforced selfie-stick bans and prominent curators were saying that smartphones detracted from the museum experience. Yet Smartify believed the technology could be a tool for engagement rather than distraction. The team foresaw and pioneered the emergence of the “multiplatform museum” long before the pandemic shut galleries worldwide and clarified the need for a digital transformation. The app has proved a crucial source of engagement and revenue for many shuttered galleries, and a new feature in the app now helps museum visitors socially distance in their favorite spaces.
Ms. Lowe, who made Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in 2019 and is the youngest ever Tate Trustee, recently spoke to Brunswick’s Fanny Guesdon.
Was Smartify an idea that took shape over time, or was it the product of an “ah-ha” moment?
There was definitely an ah-ha moment. Back in 2015, people were using Shazam to recognize songs. Augmented reality and image recognition technology moved forward a lot. We felt that the technology would be fun and interesting for a museum audience. Not only the idea that you could use the phone’s camera to identify an artwork, but also the vision to create a single platform for discovering art and culture, both in museums and at home, similar to the Netflixes and the Spotifys of the world.
Netflix and Spotify have profoundly changed our cultural habits. Are you aiming for similar disruption?
We’re a social enterprise. Culture needs stewardship, not disruption, and our goal is to help museums embrace technologies that will support audience engagement and generate revenue. For audiences the app is free to download. They can buy museum shop items, book online museum classes and access premium content—which all goes back to the museums. We take a small processing fee on these transactions. But it’s not about a winner-takes-all approach. Everything we’ve developed has been in partnership with museums from the very beginning and we’ve built a really strong community that way.