Mobile Apps in the Modern Museum

Today I will talk about Mobile Apps in museums. First I will address the issues that hamper their implementation and then approach the posibilites finalizing with my “ideal” museum app for a world art museum.

The problems of the mobile app

When we talk about Mobile Apps we generally think of the end product: a piece of software we download on our phones from the app store. However a mobile app is not just a piece of software, its a piece of software that has to be custom programmed for at least 4 different platforms.

The reason I will address this issue first is that it is often overlooked by the decision makers in museums, who are mostly aware of iOS through the Iphone and Blackberry and who probably don’t even think about the mobile phone biosphere at all. If anything the first thought when someone thinks of mobile apps is the iPhone, yet its user base is nowhere as big as Android’s. The only reason we think of apps and relate them to Apple has to do more with marketing power than actual mobile phones out there.

In the smartphone arena we currently have 5 players: iOS (Apple), Android (Google), WP7 (Microsoft), Blackberry (RIM) and Symbian(Nokia) and coming soon Bada (Samsung). What this means is that for one app to reach the maximum number of potential users it has to be developed at least for the 3 dominant platforms Android, Blackberry and iOS, this in turn means triple the development budget.

Thus we have museums releasing iPhone apps and then wondering why there are so few users using them and thus they become abandoned or they are forced to provide users with a “rental” iPod touch and a less versatile mobile app. Hardly the ideal situation when we deal with mobile apps.

Another issue we face is what to actually show in the app itself. Is it a digital flyer that updates itself? Is it an audio tour? a video tour? a virtual catalogue? or a mixture of the previous ideas? While arguably serving too many masters means we end up disappointing at least one, the idea of an app is to provide functionality and enhance the museum visit, not replace it or mediate it through the app. What this means is that while we should attempt to provide as much information as we can with the app, we should temper our efforts and avoid creating apps that try to do everything and that might in the end getting between the visitor and the museum. Apps should follow the same principles as an exhibition, they should answer questions, invite visitors to create new knowledge and maintain interest on the museum. And this can only be done by creating an app that respects the museum’s vision of itself. Thus each app must be different and unique but only if it provides something of value to the visitor. Information for information’s sake is never a good answer.

Not everything is bleak

While all of the above mentioned things might cast a shadow on the idea of creating a museum app, the benefits far outweigh the complications. For one museums can utilize apps as ways to enhance exhibitions, things like Augmented Reality (AR) and Qr Codes can create exhibitions that respond to whatever the user is standing in front of. However it should be remembered that the idea of these apps is to ENHANCE the visit not mediate it. There is nothing more disheartening than designing an exhibition only to have the visitors staring at a screen, and so we must find ways to keep this from happening. This can be done through calls to action, suggestions to look at the objects, to compare them with other things nearby, simple invitations like these can help turn the app into a truly interactive system where the user interacts not only with the device but with the actual world, with both systems feeding off of each other.

For example using AR the app can determine the visitors location and then display relevant information on the exhibition while at the same time encouraging further real world exploration of the area, and just emitting a simple beep when it demands attention.

QR codes can be used to gift the visitor with videos, sounds. ring tones, wall papers, magazines or any other thing the team can distribute digitally, all of them related to whatever the QR code is related to.

Simpler options such as requesting the user to input a number printed on the labels or clicking on a map of the exhibition are also valid options, even thought these are by far the least involving kinds of interactions available.

It is important to keep in mind that these are but a few suggestions, and that far more interactions are possible, they just have to be thought of. However these examples should be enough to get a feel of what is possible in the realm of museum apps.

Is it worth it?

A museum app can benefit the museum in ways that a simple local audioguide can not. First and foremost is the fact that the museum does not have to worry about equipment and its upkeep and replacement. The amount of money saved in the long run even when developing the app for multiple platforms is immense. As an added bonus this means that the app is with the user even when he is not in the museum, giving us an extra opportunity to retain contact with the visitor. Notifications can be used to market exhibitions, talks, and new acquisitions. At the same time the app could download podcasts and stream talks given by curators or guest speakers.

As for the benefits inside the museum, they are innumerable. Visitors can be offered a plan of the museum rendering them more independent, able to find their way without depending on finding a staff member. This same map can direct the user to objects in the collection, restrooms, canteen, or any other place we might want to direct them to.

Once the visitor is face to face with an object the true magic begins. Complementary information can be displayed on screen linking to other objects within the collection, and collections across other museums, papers on the subject, physical characteristics, trivia and best of all the user can decide how much of this information to be displayed. Guided tours of the most important pieces are possible explaining its symbology, technique, how they were created, 3D views, closeups, even pentimentos or paintings hidden behind the current painting. In truth the possibilities are endless as to what information can be displayed and how.

Finally we have the extras, these can be anything from: opening times, ticket costs and remote purchase, directions to the museum, special offers, acces to the museum shop, wallpapers, ring tones, etc.

My ideal App

When creating an app first we have to take in consideration the external factors such as:

  • What kind of museum is this?
  • What are its goals?
  • What is the tone the museum employs?
  • What do we want the app to do? Marketing? Enhance the exhibition? Guided Tour?
  • For how many platforms will it be developed? what are the limitations?
  • What is the budget?
  • Will content be constantly added to it?
  • Who will be in charge of supervising the development?

There are many many more questions that should be asked but these should serve as good guidelines. In the case of our app the answers to this small brief are as follow:

  • An English World Art Museum specializing in the Pacific Islands.
  • Teach the English public about the Pacific Islands and the relationships between england and the people in these islands.
  • The museum attempts to maintain a level of discourse apt for Key stages 2-3 (ages  7 – 13), its neither formal nor entirely casual, friendly yet not childish nor patronizing.
  • The app will try to teach students about the collection through animations, 3D views that the museum already had and trivias that can be answered by exploring the collection.
  • The app’s purpose is to enhance the permanent collection by encouraging exploration within the museum. As extras it will offer opening times, and extra multimedia downloads. No attempt wil be made to turn it into a marketing tool so as to not alienate the young users.
  • It will be developed for Android and iOS platform.
  • The budget cannot be calculated considering this is a mental exercise.
  • The app should allow museum staff to add content without having to rebuild the whole app every time the staff wants to change the trivias or modify the information provided.
  • The app will be outsourced to an app development content but will be supervised by the curators and the education department in all stages of content development, the graphic aspects will be supervised by the design team.

Using this information we can come up with a pretty good idea of what the app will be like. First of all the content is already delineated by the brief (its always good to have that already solved before even thinking of the app). In the case of this app the curatorial and education team should first have all its research, images and trivias ready and even created a storyline on the information order.

Since the target audience is young people the use of QR codes should not be problem thus the labels in the objects would use them as a way to determine what the visitor is looking at, afterwards the system would load a 3D model and then connect to a database online where it would fetch trivias, and the most current animations and texts. Then the user would be invited to spin the objects in the 3D view to find the important facts around it, and play the trivia. At the end of the visit the trivia is graded and the user awarded a small price such as an exclusive ringtone, a wallpaper, etc. The user is also capable of keeping a list of favorite objects whereupon those objects information is stored in the system memory so as to be available offline.

By keeping things in a museum server information can be easily updated without having to issue an app update, while at the same time allowing the museum to save money in the long run.

Finally since the whole thing has been developed with such a moderate scope, the development should not be so expensive, making it a project that can be easily financed by grants or donation drives.

As we can see the world of mobile apps is a tricky one the pitfalls are many but the benefit to visitors can if properly developed far outweigh the pratfalls. However that is only possible if the people in charge of the development are clear on what they want, avoid tacking in unnecessary features specially late in the development phase, and also offer something that really captivates the visitor and not only repeats information already found in the museum in some manner or another. In the end the App is a tool for the museum to express itself, the app should never become the highlight or the focus, that spot still belongs to the collection.


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