AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORECasino Insider: Here’s a look at San Manuel’s new high limit rooms, Asian restaurant “I generally don’t buy the audio tours when I go to a museum unless it’s a Monet or somebody really impressive,” said Chris Mengarelli, 53, who used her phone to tour the exhibit “Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement” at the San Jose Museum of Art. “It was much more convenient than having to rent a headset and worrying about what kind of germs are being transmitted,” said Mengarelli, of San Jose. Museums have been making audio tours available over cell phones since at least 2002, when Southern Utah University opened an exhibit of historical photos documenting 100 years of local theater. Matt Nickerson, a professor of library science, wrote the script and taped old actors recalling their performances in Shakespearean plays. He recruited an actor and engineer to record and mix the audio tour at a radio station. “It turned out to be much simpler than I thought,” he said. Using the services is as easy as dialing a number and selecting the code that corresponds to the piece a visitor is viewing. At least one tour, offered at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, responded to voice commands, but museum officials there discontinued the feature because it encouraged too much chatter. SAN FRANCISCO – Art lovers, history buffs and science devotees, take note: to get the most of your next museum visit, you may want to bring your cell phone. Not to gab on, of course, but to listen to audio tours that weave music, narration and recordings from historical archives designed to bring more context to the exhibitions. For many visitors, it comes as a welcome alternative to the decades-old system of museums renting out expensive handheld devices. Museums across the country, once averse to noisy cell phones, are suddenly encouraging their use. In the past year, about a dozen – including museums in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Tacoma, Wash., Minneapolis and Greenwich, Conn. – have begun offering cell phone tours, mostly for free. Dozens more are in the process of implementing the service. One reason for the surge is the emergence of companies such as Guide by Cell of San Francisco and Ashburn, Va.-based Spatial Adventures Inc., which run servers and phone systems so museums don’t have to. For now, most museums offer cell phone audio for free, although users must pay roaming charges or other costs that apply to their cell phone plan. Museums are able to give away the service because Guide by Cell and other companies, living off investor financing, aren’t charging as they try to jump-start the trend. “When we have to pay, or someone has to pay, we may have to change things,” said Suzanne Isken, director of education at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which started using Guide by Cell audio for one of its exhibits in January. The chief benefit of cell phones is their ubiquity. With almost 204 million Americans carrying a cell phone, according to industry group CTIA – The Wireless Association, museums no longer have to maintain fleets of handheld devices. Isken estimated her museum will spend $20,000 just to pay the staff that checks out, cleans and recharges the dedicated devices it will use for an upcoming exhibit on the work of artist Robert Rauschenberg. The staffing costs are in addition to rental fees for the units and other costs, she said. Cell phones also make it easy for visitors who have decided to skip the audio tour to spontaneously change their minds. “You don’t have to go back to the desk and rent something,” said Robin Dowden, director of new media initiatives at the Walker Art Center. Not all museums are embracing the trend. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is studying cell phone audio tours but has decided to hold off for now. Instead, it offers audio files that visitors can download from the museum Web site and play on their iPod or other portable music player while viewing exhibits. “Just because you have a phone in your hand and can call up a message about every piece in a gallery doesn’t mean those messages are going to be engaging,” said Peter Samis, associate curator of education at the museum. “Museums themselves are relative novices at this and don’t have any experience producing this type of content in-house,” he said. “There’s a steeper learning curve than many proselytizers of the technology are willing to acknowledge.” Mengarelli, the San Jose resident, confessed to finding some portions of the audio tour “distracting.” She also complained that her arm got tired holding a cell phone to her ear for 30 minutes. Still, the San Jose Museum of Art’s experiment with cell phone audio has already changed the way some visitors take in art. Ben Patel, a 29-year-old hotel worker who arrived just before closing time one day last week, quickly snapped pictures of the images on his digital camera, so he could view them later on his computer while listening to the narration on his phone. “It’s a good idea,” he said. “I’m short on time and the museum will be shut before I can view all of them.” On the Net: San Jose Museum of Art: http//sjmusart.org/ Guide By Cell: www.guidebycell.com/ 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!