Going To The Museum? There’s An App For That!

museum
British Museum

Museums have a lot to compete with these days. With so much information available for free online, many people who are less than enthusiastic about going to museums may think there’s nothing new to be learned by peering into glass cases full of ancient artifacts.

But museums are fighting back. Museum apps are available for most major and many lesser-known museums. Generally they give a walk-through of the galleries and what’s on display, such as MoMA’s app, while others offer closeup views of famous artworks you can’t get in real life, like the Louvre’s app that helps you push through the crowds around the Mona Lisa.

Often museums create special apps for major shows, such as the British Museum’s app for their exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum. This app has interactive maps and timelines, detailed studies of more than 250 objects and heaps of information about the excavations.

As an incurable museum junkie raising a Mini Me museum junkie, I’m of two minds about museum apps. On the one hand, they’re great for enhancing a visit with all those flashy gadgets that kids love so much. It’s yet another way of beating museum fatigue while actually learning something.

On the other hand, it’s a grand distraction. A good museum can spark the imagination without needing extra technology. Take the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, my vote for the coolest museum in the world. The display cases are jam-packed with everything from Melanesian war clubs to witches trapped inside bottles. The lights are turned low and the guards hand out flashlights so you can peer inside the cases and spot hidden treasures amid the jumble. Beneath the cases are drawers that pull out to reveal Indonesian cut-out puppets and scarab beetles from Ancient Egypt. My son and I love creeping around this place, pretending to be explorers and always discovering something we never noticed before even though we’ve been there countless times.

This is the kind of museum that kids pester their parents to visit. Does the Pitt-Rivers have an app? Maybe it does. I didn’t check because it doesn’t need one. Take note, museum directors: be cool and they will come.

Geoguessr: The Internet’s Newest Educational Time Waster

Geoguessr
Where does this look like to you? I guessed central Mexico based on the Spanish signs and the mixture of dry soil and lush plants. Actually it’s Brazil. The next view I looked at showed the characteristic onion domes of a Russian Orthodox Church. I guessed Russia and was correct.

This is an addictive new online game called Geoguessr. It gives you random Google Street View images and you have to click on a world map to guess where they are. You’re awarded points based on how close you are.

It’s surprisingly addictive. My young son, already a fan of Google Maps and MarineTraffic.com, is becoming obsessed with it. So am I. The best way to wrack up points is to explore a little. Start heading down a foreign street, studying traffic signs, plants, and passersby. They’ll all give you clues as to where you are.

It’s also really difficult. I’ve mistaken Korean writing for Chinese, the Australian Outback for Nevada and New Zealand for Hawaii. No matter how well traveled you are, this game will trip you up and make you want to play again. So if your boss has stepped out of the office for a drink, click on Geoguessr and spend some time learning a bit about how the world looks.

Sailing The High Seas With Marinetraffic.com

sailing
It’s a beautiful weekend here in Santander, Spain, and my son and I can see the Hanoi and the Barbet Arrow, two giant container ships, moored in the harbor. The Finland-registered Misana, which I saw sail in from my office window, is moored out of sight in the dock beyond. The Cape Cee, a 118-meter-long Spanish vessel, left Santander a few days ago and is sailing towards the Strait of Gibraltar at 10.1 knots.

We know all this because of my kid’s latest online obsession. Marinetraffic.com combines Google Maps with an online database of ships from around the world, updating their position in real time. Zooming in on spots like the Strait of Gibraltar or the Bay of Biscay, you realize just how many ships are out there, linking far-flung economies. There are profiles of the ships with details of their registry and dimensions, and ports have their own profiles too.

Marinetraffic.com relies on voluntary registration, so some spots like the Red Sea are almost blank. With pirates hiding out in Puntland ready to swoop down on container ships, you can understand why captains on that route would be hesitant to join the website.

While incomplete, it’s a fun site that show kids an aspect of our world that we mostly take for granted. You can also use Google Maps as an educational tool. Used correctly, they can siphon some of your child’s obsession with your computer into something educational. Just don’t expect them to replace that persistent question, “Can I play video games?”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

US Government Denies Existence Of Mermaids


The U.S. National Ocean Service has released a statement confirming there is no scientific evidence for mermaids.

Interesting – I didn’t realize this was a subject of debate.

Apparently it wasn’t until Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet network ran a spoof documentary titled “Mermaids: The Body Found.” The channel’s own press release labels the show “science fiction.” This wasn’t enough for some viewers and according to the BBC, the National Ocean Service received a couple of inquiries about the fishy folk. To keep the public from reviving the superstitions of illiterate 19th century sailors, they made a public denial of something they never thought they’d have to deny.

When I read this I went through the predictable range of reactions. First I laughed, then I felt smugly superior, then I said, “Hey, I need to write this up for Gadling!” Then I did something I didn’t expect.

I got very, very afraid.

The public dialogue is awash with ridiculous assertions: Obama is a Muslim, the Moon landings were faked, all foreigners hate America, aliens regularly visit Earth to anally probe drunk farmers, etc., etc. Last week we even learned that some radical ultra-Orthodox Jews believe Hitler and top Zionists plotted to create the Holocaust so the Jews could create Israel. I’m still shaking my head over that one.

This level of ignorance is the result of many factors, but one cause rules over them all: a complete lack of context. Our schools teach us so little about the world that it’s easy to believe anything. Even the most basic knowledge of history, biology, evolution, oceanography, or folklore would guarantee that someone wouldn’t believe in mermaids, yet some people who went through the educational system of the most powerful country in the world lack this knowledge.It’s easy to laugh this off when it’s about mermaids. It’s not so funny when educated people seriously ask me if I had to pack a two-month supply of food to live in Ethiopia, or if Spain still has roving gangs of bandidos.

And if you think nobody is encouraging and profiting off this rampant ignorance, think again. The Republican Party of Texas included as part of its 2012 platform that it opposes the teaching of critical thinking in schools. And no, I’m not picking on the GOP. All politicians manipulate public ignorance to further their own ends. With elections coming up, it’s time to get educated.

This is why I love travel. It gets rid of my ignorance and teaches me that I’m ignorant about things I didn’t even know I was clueless about. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, it changes unknown unknowns into known knowns. Example: five years ago I thought all of Somalia was in chaos – then I learned about Somaliland. OK, I thought, it’s safe for Somalis. I still assumed that it was too dangerous for foreigners. Then I actually went there and checked. Guess what? I’m still alive!

Knowledge is the great weapon of national freedom and personal liberation. If more people got out of their comfort zones and investigated their assumptions, maybe the American public would never have been convinced that one group of people were ignorant savages and needed to be pushed off their land, or another group of people were too stupid to take care of themselves and needed to be enslaved, or that another group of people had more loyalty to the old country than America and needed to be forced into internment camps for the duration of World War II.

This ignorance of “the other” is still rampant today and can turn ugly at any time. It’s in our own best interest to get out of our comfort zones. We don’t have to leave the country to travel. Our comfort zone ends at the other side of the tracks.

Always question, always be suspicious of an authority’s motives, and keep exploring.

Photo of the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge in Great Falls, Montana, courtesy Flickr user vsmoothe. That woman is a human actress in a mermaid suit, in case you’re wondering. And yes, I totally want to go swimming with her.