I’ll Build a World of My Own: The Hearst Castle App

Before this week, I had never used any museum’s app, and the Hearst Castle app, was, I feel, a kind of weird introduction.  However, that works for me.  I feel like if Hearst Castle was the first house you saw, it would be kind of a weird introduction to other houses.  But it would almost have to be – how disappointed would you be if you learned that the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst lived in a split level colonial and that Citizen Kane was lying to you?  For anyone who thought that maybe Orson Welles was a bit over the top in his portrayal of the Hearst-inspired Charles Foster Kane’s obsession with building a giant, kind of nonsensical palace that he was unable to finish in his lifetime, let me introduce you to the castle itself, before we move on to the app.  This is Hearst Castle:

This is its outside pool:

outside pool at hearst castle

And this is its inside pool:

inside pool at Hearst Castle

This gilt-columned pool is the cover photograph for the Hearst Castle app, except that the app adds a blue tint that makes it look like the room is from a CD-rom game of Clue.  Helpfully, the app then asks the user whether or not they are actually on site – which determines if the ensuing experience will include a realtime representation of the user’s position on the grounds.  The fact that this is even an option shows that the app’s developers were interested in users being able to access information about the castle without being there.

The main interface of the app is a 3D map that shows the Hearst Castle estate.  It is an appealing graphic (if a bit Sims-esque), with a lot of useful information.  Users who are actually at the castle can see where they are in relation not just to the sites on the estate, but also all of the bathrooms and drinking fountains (these locations are available offsite as well, just without a GPS beacon for the visitor – useful for anyone who wants to plan breaks in their visit in advance).  The app groups the different sites on the grounds of the estate into geographic clusters, represented by a + sign.  Click on the + and the app will display the full cluster of points of interest for each given area.  It is not entirely clear to me why this is necessary – the app could just display all of the locators to begin with, but I guess it adds an interactive element to the map.

statue of woman riding a bull from the gardens at Hearst Castle
Hearst had a ton of garden statues

Navigation within the app is not exactly unclear, but it isn’t intuitive either.  It is pretty easy to find sites and toggle between them.  Once the user wants to know more, it becomes a little more complicated.  There is an audio guide function on the app, but it is programmed to activate only when the user is holding the phone up to his or her ear.  Attempt to move the phone away and turn up the volume (say, to share the audio), and said audio switches off.  Personally, I don’t really like holding the phone up to my ear all the time, so I ended up clicking away to a text caption option for every site.  Some of the sites have two audio tracks, but this wasn’t clear until I stumbled on one by accident, so, the bright side would be that at least I found it?

While there are some hiccups in actually using the app, overall, it functions well.  I was able to get a feel for the landscape, see some photos, and learn a few facts about a museum that I have never seen.  The biggest drawback to this app is not its technological elements, it is its content.  In terms of Hearst trivia, I would say I know as much, or maybe a little more than the average man on the street (i.e. I have seen Citizen Kane, but I have also read enough about his relationship with Hollywood gossip columns to yell at the screen while watching Hail, Caesar).

statue of naked woman feeding an ear of corn to a lamb in Hearst Castle Gardens
Just a totally normal statue of a naked woman with Princess Leia hair feeding an ear of corn to a lamb.

I say this as a frame of reference – not only is this app not made for the man on the street, it isn’t even made for someone who has a few facts and a passing interest in the subject.  There is no introductory text, no explanation of who any of the people mentioned are (do you know who the architect of Hearst Castle was?  The app assumes that you do), unless it was thrown into one of the captions that I didn’t get to – I clicked on a lot, but I did not click on everything.  There are a few problems with this – first, this situation probably exists because most of the visitors are onsite, and can simply ask questions, but having so little introductory information limits who can get full use out of the app.  Second, it makes the tone of the app a bit exclusive – as if the user is wrong for not already having a background in the subject.  Third, the lack of big picture information means that the app never answers the most basic question about Hearst Castle: WHY?  Why would anyone feel compelled to build this big, crazy, magnificent mansion when there are literally millions of other things to do with your time on earth?  The app will tell you the origin stories of the cannon in Hearst’s yard, but if you want to know what kind of mind would think “I want to fill my yard with cannon like its a Revolutionary-era fort” you will come up with either a poorly fleshed out explanation, or absolutely nothing.

I will close this post by talking about the elephant in the room: the Hearst Castle app does not include any material about Hearst Castle itself.  This sort of makes sense.  Visitors are free to roam the gardens, but are on guided tours in the house, so the app is less useful there.  Also, from my read of the app and the website, the castle itself is the bait to pull in tourists, and they don’t want to give away any more than they have to.  None of the tours even go through all of the rooms – if a tourist wants to go both upstairs and downstairs, they have to buy two tickets.  Again, when your rooms look like this, it is a bit understandable:

study at hearst castle

Ultimately, I like this app, not necessarily because I had a good time using it, but because I feel like it is a good representation of the site that created it: some parts are a bit excessive, others a bit confusing, and overall, it feels unfinished.