Mobile Applications in Museums

One of my key areas of interest during the visits I made to museums overseas was the use of mobile applications for interpretation and engagement.  This is an emerging field with many varying levels of involvement from museums and organisations (*I use the term ‘museum’ in this article to broadly cover a wide range of cultural experiences and sites).  As I work in an outdoor museum it is something I am particularly interested in exploring as an interpretation tool in the absence of traditional labels and panels.  Therefore, while I was travelling I looked at a number of different mobile applications and considered their strengths and weaknesses from a visitor’s perspective, perhaps with a slant towards learning experiences.

I also noticed that there were a number of museums I visited that had mobile-friendly website.  While this didn’t really allow for any interaction or engagement with the actual exhibition spaces, it was a very useful and welcome start.  Simply checking opening hours or looking at a map can make a visit easier and more relaxed.

Indianapolis Museum of Art Mobile Website
Californian Academy of Science mobile website

I should preface this commentary by saying that I used applications freely available from iTunes on my iPhone4 using Wi-Fi only.

Are mobile applications necessary?

I visited a wide range of museums, from traditional static historic/scientific exhibits, to small historic sites and large outdoor museums.  There were many places that did not have mobile applications (or even Wi-Fi) when I was really looking for them and could see ways I would have liked to use them.  This was generally in the larger museums when they would have been useful at the most basic level for navigation and engagement – particularly when there were so many visitors making reading the labels well nigh impossible, or when the primary language was different from my first language.

There were also many times I saw an opportunity for applications to engage the visitors in a way that would personalise their experience and make it more relevant.  Each person has their own reason for visiting a museum and yet most of the time there is only a limited number of ways we can engage: often we all have to read the same text and hear the same story.  There is an opportunity for museums to provide more choice, relevance and participation to their visitors through mobile applications.

On the other hand there were places I visited that I didn’t feel a mobile application was needed.  For example, Ty Mawr in Wales was a tiny historic site with such an enthusiastic host (who we had all to ourselves) that hearing the history directly and passionately from him was far more special than a digital version.  But most museums do not have the resources to offer each visitor a personalised and enthusiastic guide.  Mobile applications can engage visitors before, during and after their visit.

What I saw that really worked:

There were some really great applications I saw that worked well.  I don’t believe they show the limit of what we can achieve, but they provided great opportunities to visitors that would otherwise not have been available.

American Natural History Museum – ‘Explorer’.  There is no doubt that the ANHM is a huge museum that could be difficult to navigate for first time visitors.  The main benefit of their Explorer application is to assist in navigation, as it is centered around a digital map.  It is far superior to a paper map as it allows users to track their location in real time (aided by the free Wi-Fi).  It also has a selection of tours based on areas of interest, the ability to design your own tour and a treasure hunt.  I found it easy to use, although sometimes it was inaccurate at locating where I was.  It certainly helped me find my way around and reach the exhibits I was most interested more quickly that if I browsed.

AMNH Explorer app

Tower of London – ‘Escape from the Tower’.  Unfortunately I didn’t discover this application until after I’d visited the Tower, but despite not being there in person, I still enjoyed using it.  It is a fun app that allows players to assist prisoners from different eras escape.  It requires you to walk around the Tower and complete tasks that help the prisoners and earn gold for your efforts.  It is a fun introduction to different periods of history and the kind of people kept in the Tower.  The only aspect of this application that I didn’t really like was the linear direction it took, there was little opportunity for self-directed learning and users are locked in to a certain level of participation in order to achieve something.

Freeing the prisoners on the Tower of London App
Linking real locations with the virtual experience

National Trust UK – ‘National Trust’.  I found this application to incredibly useful and practical.  Being a member of the National Trust Australia I was eligible for free entry into UK National Trust sites and I wanted to make as much use of this as I could.  As I was driving around the UK I was able to locate a variety of sites and check simple (but helpful) information about opening hours and directions using Google maps.  It is simple yet effective and led me to discover more places than I would have without it.

National Trust sites on the application map
What's On part of the application

Smithsonian Institute – ‘MEanderthal’.  This application simply and effectively provides visitors an opportunity for interaction and participation.  In the human evolution section of the museum visitors could download this app from a tag reader (although it can be easily found in the app store too).  You take your photo and then it will morph you into a Neanderthal or another early human species.  You then receive a little background about yourself and your photo is saved to your photo roll.  I would love to see this application extended to a stage where you could interact with others as your new prehistoric self.  Perhaps you could meet other MEanderthals in the gallery and be prompted to interact based on knowledge of behavioural patterns of the time?

Tag to download app
My rather scary transformation

What I saw that didn’t work:

Museum of the Phantom City – ‘Phantom City’.  This application had a fantastic idea – show NYC as it could have been if failed proposals for buildings had actually been built.  Fantastic.  But this application persistently read my location as the middle of the ocean and therefore I was unable to see any of the buildings (it had to locate you in real time at the site of a proposed building).

Museum of London – ‘Streetmuseum’.  Again, I loved the idea of this application – to show historic photographs while you are standing in the location it was taken, and provide you with a little background information.  However I wasn’t able to experience onsite, as I was relying solely on Wi-Fi to save myself from an excessive overseas phone bill.  This highlighted to me the importance of catering for international visitors (or those on a low budget) by offering free Wi-Fi to aid the use of our applications, or downloadable features to use offline  Clearly this was beyond the immediate control of Streetmuseum, but it is something for enclosed museums to consider.


Where can we go from here?

High quality applications for mobile devices can be time-consuming and costly to develop.  However their potential for museums is huge.  I see it as one of the greatest opportunities we have to develop tailored, open-ended, visitor-driven participation and engagement.  Nothing will replace engaging with real people, but mobile applications offer an opportunity for us to reach further (with a much smaller ongoing cost) and connect with our audiences in new and positive ways.

I believe that there needs to be a focus on practicality, purpose and participation.  We want our applications to provide easy to use and practical information that helps with navigation and the enjoyment of a visit.  We want it to have a strong purpose that can be tailored to the interests and needs of our audiences.  Also, as is becoming the expectation of most of the digitally savvy population, we need to provide a wide range of opportunities for participation leading to sharing and the development of communities.

I think we can achieve all these things.  I envisage applications that are both navigation tools, audience-selected tours and activities, and participation tools.  How about a choose your own adventure application? Where visitors can navigate a museum, learn more about their area of interest through a storyline-driven tour based on a person, era, topic or trade, with pictures, videos, audio and artefacts all seamlessly integrated.  Then they can contribute photos, videos, comments and questions to a community of participators, develop their own tours for others to enjoy and develop links to outside sources.

Have you seen something like this?  I would love to see it in action!

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