Introduction

By Nancy Proctor

Today apps and smartphones probably come to mind first as the iconic, ground-breaking mobile platforms poised to transform the museum experience for all of us. But in fact mobile technologies have been part of the museum landscape since at least 1952 when what may have been the first audio tour was introduced at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam using radio broadcast technology.[1]

Audio tours are still the most common form of “self-guided” mobile experience at cultural sites. Arguably, they are also the oldest source of “augmented reality”(AR), enabling us to “overlay” the observed environment with interpretation and other content we hear. In this light there is a pleasurable echo to finding the Stedelijk once again leading the field in AR apps, discussed here in a chapter by Margriet Schavemaker, the museum’s head of collections and research. The Stedelijk example and museums’ long history of working with mobile technologies suggests that the foundational experiences and expertise required to deploy even the most cutting-edge of 21st-century mobile technologies effectively lie at museums’ fingertips and well within their traditional purview. This introductory volume aims to help museums grasp some of the mobile skills and opportunities most immediately available to them.

Since the invention of the audio tour, the number and kind of mobile devices used by museums have proliferated. Other than audio tours loaned out on made-for-museum devices, podcasts are probably the most common mobile media being published by museums, alongside other kinds of downloadable content ranging from PDFs to eBooks and videos. In terms of personal mobile devices, the majority of the museum’s actual and potential audiences still use “dumbphones” that are limited to voice and text messaging. Hundreds if not thousands of museums have created audio tours for this low-cost platform in the past six years or so. What these forms of mobile media — the traditional audio tour, the cellphone tour, the podcast and similar downloadable content — have in common is that they are typically deployed in a broadcast delivery mode: primarily for one-way delivery of content from museum to consumer.

But with today’s new networked mobile devices — smartphones, tablet computers and Wi-Fi-enabled media players — two-way communication models are now easier and on the rise. Not just “narrowcast” audio tours but interactive mobile multimedia, including games, crowdsourcing activities, and social media, can be delivered via apps to the visitor’s own Internet-enabled phones and media players, instead of or to supplement devices provided on-site by the museum. The term “mobile” has come to encompass an ever-expanding field of platforms, players, and modes of audience engagement. Mobile today means both:

  • Pocketable (phones, personal media players, gaming devices) and portable devices (tablets and eReaders);
  • Smartphones that run apps and access the Internet, and older cellular phones that do nothing more than make voice calls and send text messages;
  • Podcasts of audio and video content, and other downloadable content, including PDFs and eBooks;
  • Mobile websites, optimized for the small screen and audiences on the go, and “desktop” websites, designed for large, fixed screens but which are increasingly visited by mobile devices; [2]
  • BYOD (bring your own device) mobile experiences, designed for visitors’ personal devices, and traditional on-site device distribution for visitors who do not have or do not care to use their own phone or media player.

Mobile’s disruptive power comes from its unique ability to offer the individual intimate, immediate and ubiquitous access combined with an unprecedented power to connect people with communities and conversations in global, social networks: mobile is both private and public, personal and political. Understanding that the new mobile devices today are also geo-spatially aware computers capable of supporting research, communication and collaboration challenges us to “think beyond the audio tour” and our silo-like approaches to digital initiatives. It also inspires us to reinvent the museum’s relationship with its many publics by conceiving content and experiences that operate across platforms and disciplines, both inside the museum and beyond.

At the same time that the rise of mobile reshapes the museum’s thinking about its digital interfaces, it broadens access to the museum exponentially. Not only are more people able to connect with the museum through their mobile devices, but there is also the potential for them to personalize their museum experience whenever and wherever they like, integrating collections, exhibitions and other offerings into a much broader range of use-case scenarios than we have ever imagined. The museum can not only enter people’s homes and classrooms, but can also be part of their daily commutes, their international travel, their work and leisure activities as never before. How will museums understand and cater to this huge range of contexts and demands for cultural content?

Mobile is Social Media

As Koven Smith has argued[3], delivering what is fundamentally the same, narrow-cast audio tour experience to shiny new gadgets is unlikely to improve the take-up or penetration rates of mobile technology used by museum visitors: in other words, to better help the museum deliver on its educational and interpretive mission. Although in conflict with visitors’ self-reported usage of mobile interpretation in museums[4], the traditional audio tour reaches a sobering minority of the museum’s on-site audiences, whether the tour is provided on made-for-museum audio devices on-site, or accessed through visitors’ personal phones or media players. In the pages that follow, Kate Haley-Goldman helps us understand this phenomenon in the context of recent major studies of mobile adoption by museums and their visitors, and frames important new questions for future research to guide ongoing developments in the field.

Thinking beyond the audio tour model, Ed Rodley provides tips on how to integrate mobile into the overall museum experience design to create more authentic, compelling and higher quality mobile programs. Jane Burton tackles the new field of “serious mobile gaming” for museums, and Margriet Schavemaker demonstrates how augmented reality can explode the museum experience into new dimensions and territories for artists, curators and exhibition designers, as well as for museum audiences. No less revolutionary is the impact of new platforms on the centuries-old docent or museum guide format: Scott Sayre, Kris Wetterlund, Sheila McGuire and Ann Isaacson describe how iPads and similar tablet computers can transform the live-guided group tour into a multi-platform, multimedia experience.

Museums are also asking how well content designed with the on-site visit in mind can fulfill the needs of those audiences who will never be able to come to the museum in person. Allegra Burnette provides an introduction to cross-platform thinking that optimizes museums’ mobile apps for both the on-site visit and beyond. Similarly, Koven Smith’s essay on the “roll-out” of mobile programs shows how new marketing approaches can be integrated into mobile project design to reach target audiences more effectively — even if the app is not built or even commissioned by the museum.

Concerns about the impact of mobile programs have always been intertwined with financial and budgetary considerations for museums. Speaking from more than a decade of experience working both in-house and with mobile vendors, Peter Samis lays out all the elements of mobile content production and their business model considerations to help museums make the best choices in the expanding field of mobile products and services. Ted Forbes guides museums through the decision-process of “native vs. web app,” and Rob Stein offers a solution for “future-proofing” mobile tours to make them more compatible across the proliferating platforms and devices now available. My own essay on mobile business models examines the new revenue streams that have entered the museum field with new mobile platforms and players in the market, and suggests metrics appropriate to measuring the success of museums’ mobile businesses.

Whether audio tour, “un-tour,” [5] “de-tour,” or “para-tour,” the approaches to museum apps described in this volume aim to go beyond the “narrow-cast” visitor services model. These essays position mobile as an integral part of a web of platforms that connect communities of interest and facilitate conversations among our audiences as well as with the museum itself: mobile is social media. As an indispensible part of the 2.0 museum, mobile supports the key indices of the museum’s success vis-à-vis its core mission and responsibility to the public good:

  • Relevance: the museum’s responsibility to make its collections, content and activities meaningful and accessible to the broadest possible audiences;
  • Quality: the museum’s mission to collect, preserve and interpret the invaluable artifacts and key stories, ideas and concepts that represent human culture and creativity;
  • Sustainability: the museum’s enduring obligation to deliver both quality and relevance to its audiences—forever.

The quality and relevance of the museum’s discourse are the preconditions for its sustainability, and enable “network effects” that grow audiences and foster self-perpetuating conversations about the museum’s collections, activities and messages. Mobile products and services do not yield these benefits on their own, but rather as an integral part of the eco-system of platforms that now make up the museum as “distributed network.” [6]

We hope these essays help strengthen the museum network and cultivate stronger connections among our colleagues as we collectively map the important new terrain of mobile in museums. Recognizing that the only constant in the mobile field is change, this publication is designed with expandability and updates in mind: the digital versions include interactive elements that the entire museum community can contribute to, including product design principles and FAQs. New essays will be added to reflect the changing body of knowledge in the mobile field, beginning with chapters on best practice in content development and collaborative production strategies from Sandy Goldberg and Alyson Webb, among others still being planned. Our strategy is to cast the net widely, tapping both veterans and new thinkers in the field, and to mine the museum community’s collective experience deeply, in order to yield the guidelines and examples that will enable us all to integrate mobile products and services most effectively and efficiently into the museum of the 21st century.



Notes

  1. Loïc Tallon
  2. A recent Pew Internet survey indicates that 40% of American adults already had access to the Internet from a mobile phone in 2010 (Smith, 2010). Gartner predicts that by 2013 mobile phones will overtake desktop computers as the most common method for accessing the Internet worldwide. (Gartner, 2010). A 2011 infographic from IBM suggests that the majority of Internet use will be from mobile devices by 2014. Sarah Kessler, IBM Infographic “Mobile by the Numbers” 23 March 2011
  3. Smith, K., “The Future of Mobile Interpretation.” In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2009. Consulted October 25, 2010.
  4. Petrie, M. and L. Tallon, “The Iphone Effect? Comparing Visitors’ and Museum Professionals’ Evolving Expectations of Mobile Interpretation Tools.” In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted October 25, 2010. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/petrie/petrie.html
  5. Notes from the “Un-tour Unconference” session, Museums and the Web 2010. Consulted 15 October 2010.
  6. Proctor, N. “Mobile Social Media in the Museum as Distributed Network,” forthcoming in Interactive Museums, ed. MuseumID, London, 2011.

References:

Gartner. (2010) “Gartner Highlights Key Predictions for IT Organizations and Users in 2010 and Beyond.” January 13, 2010. Consulted January 27, 2011.

Petrie, M. and L. Tallon, “The Iphone Effect? Comparing Visitors’ and Museum Professionals’ Evolving Expectations of Mobile Interpretation Tools.” In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted October 25, 2010.

Proctor, N. “Mobile Social Media in the Museum as Distributed Network,” forthcoming in Interactive Museums, ed. MuseumID, London, 2011.

Proctor, N. et al. Notes from the “Un-tour Unconference” session, Museums and the Web 2010. Consulted 15 October 2010.

Smith, A. (2010) “Pew Internet & American Life: Mobile Access 2010.” July 7, 2010. Consulted January 27, 2011.

Smith, K., “The Future of Mobile Interpretation.” In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2009. Consulted October 25, 2010.

Tallon, L. “Aboutthat 1952 SedelijkMuseumaudioguide, andacertainWillemSandburg,” Musematic, May 19, 2009. Consulted January 30, 2011.

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  1. Pingback: Embracing Mobile | Museum Minute

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