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Museums Go Mobile

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A young museum visitor consults a mobile app.

With the help of an iPad, a young visitor uses the American Museum of Natural History's mobile app to explore exhibits.

Credit: R. Mickens/American Museum of Natural History

Step into a typical museum and you are likely to encounter an array of digital technologies, including computers, video monitors and interactive multimedia exhibits. Yet, for all the breathtaking advances in the way information is presented and displayed, museums have actually changed very little over the years. Visitors wend their way through series of rooms, corridors, and spaces in the pursuit of viewing a collection of art, images, or objects.

The growing popularity of smartphones and tablets is altering the museum experience in ways that wouldn’t have been imaginable only a few years ago. A growing number of institutions—from specialty museums such as the Corning Museum of Glass to internationally renowned institutions like the Vatican, the Louvre and the Smithsonian—are introducing mobile apps that allow visitors to engage in a broader and deeper way.

Says Nancy Proctor, head of mobile strategy and initiatives at the Smithsonian, "Mobile technology is redefining the way museums display their collections and the way people experience them. The technology is allowing two-way and multi-point communication, while providing museums with information about the things that interest people the most and the way they behave in museums. The technology is creating a richer and more interactive experience."

Beyond Four Walls

The idea of using mobile technology in museums actually extends back more than half a century. In the 1950s, museums began introducing mobile devices—at first relying on audiotape and special headsets. In many cases, the goal was to address general accessibility issues and to allow individuals with visual and hearing impairments to enjoy a museum visit. However, "The devices actually proved to have an impact on a universal design level," Proctor points out.

Over time, as visitors looked for ways to enhance their experiences and bridge language differences, these devices evolved into the ubiquitous "wands" that visitors often carry with them throughout a museum. A user typically punches in a number that corresponds to an exhibit or, in newer models, he or she simply points the unit toward an infrared (IR) transponder, and listens to a brief monologue at the push of a button. A few museums also have experimented with robot-led tours, though the concept hasn’t caught on in any significant way.

Not surprisingly, things began to change dramatically with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. "It offered the same type of capabilities as wands, but on a far more robust digital platform," Proctor explains. "It was the first truly stable consumer device that could accommodate text, audio, video, quizzes, games, and social media functions. It immediately transformed the experience from a linear and static approach to a more dynamic digital environment. It’s no longer a broadcast from a museum to a visitor; it’s a much larger conversation and exchange."

The Smithsonian—which consists of 19 separate museums, including the American History Museum, the American Art Museum, and the National Air and Space Museum—now offers 27 different apps, as well as mobile optimized websites ranging from a detailed examination of American presidents on the iPad to Stories from Main Street for the iPhone. The latter relies on individuals to submit their recorded stories about small-town life, so others can listen to those contributed stories. "These are crowdsourced oral histories that allow the museum to add to its collection," Proctor says.

In addition, the Smithsonian is attempting to break new ground by introducing other capabilities. For example, visitors to the National Air and Space Museum snap an endless barrage of photographs; Proctor notes that the museum is now exploring the possibility of tagging items in photos and using GPS features to allow individuals to point at an item in the photo and obtain information about it. It is also seeking to enable GPS navigation features indoors, and to implement augmented reality that would overlay audio with images based on where one is standing within the museum. "We are looking for ways to overlay real-world scenes with other content," she explains.

The Smithsonian is in good company. For example, the Vatican Museums Interactive Guide iPhone app offers more than 170 photos, along with interactive maps and two hours of audio content. The Louvre delivers a detailed look at its extensive collection in an app for iPhone and Android devices. The Hermitage Museum app provides detailed floor plans and information about its extensive collections, including the Leonardo da Vinci room.

Smaller museums are getting into the mix too. At the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, a mobile app designed for Android and iOS devices features hundreds of objects from the museum’s collection of more than 45,000 items. It includes high-resolution images, in-depth descriptions, audio descriptions by curators, and videos demonstrating the art of glassblowing.

"Today, people expect mobile websites or apps to learn more about the museum and the objects displayed in it. Institutions are using the technology to offer a more holistic experience, including curator led audio tours that otherwise wouldn’t be available," says Mandy Kritzeck, content and media specialist for the museum.

A New Era Emerges

As museums venture into a new frontier of digital tools and technologies, they’re also finding ways to glean more information about what appeals to visitors and how to better organize exhibits. Proctor says digital technology presents enormous opportunities for the use of data analytics.

One museum that has dipped its toes in the data-mining stream is the Dallas Museum of Art. It examines where in the museum visitors check in via smartphones and iPads. Executives can make decisions based on the data. "By understanding how people behave inside the museum, we can determine which activities and programs are more popular," notes deputy director Robert Stein.

Naturally, as technology advances, so, too, will museums. Within a few years, the intersection of immersive video, social media, geotagging, and crowdsourcing are likely to create a museum experience far different than today’s, and mobile apps on smartphones and tablets will play a key role in unlocking the possibilities. "There is an enormous opportunity to reinvent museums and provide an experience that is immersive, but one that also extends to the world outside the institution," Proctor concludes. "Mobile technology is transformational. We have only begun to explore what’s possible."

Samuel Greengard is an author and journalist based in West Linn, OR.


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