Enhancing Group Tours with the iPad: A Case Study

By Ann Isaacson, Sheila McGuire, Scott Sayre and Kris Wetterlund

See also Enhancing Group Tours with the iPad: 2012 Updates and Discoveries

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is an encyclopedic art museum with a permanent collection of around 80,000 objects. Currently, 385 volunteer tour guides in the museum’s Department of Museum Guide Programs interpret these collections for over 140,000 visitors annually, helping fulfill the museum’s mission to make the collection accessible to the community.

Digital media has been a long-time friend of the early-adopting Minneapolis Institute of Arts and its visitors. It started with the installation of gallery-based kiosks in the early 90s, then an early handheld tour in 1997 (using Apple’s Newton), cell phone tours in 2001, and a tour app in 2010 (Sayre, 1993, 2005, 2007). While all of these technologies were designed with the visitor in mind, the museum’s innovative tour guides have found ways over the years of incorporating components of these programs into their tours. For example, tour guides frequently gather their groups around gallery kiosks to show videos.

Interest in media integration was rekindled during a 2008 Symposium session on integrating digital media into tours. Tour guides passed around an iPhone playing a video of artist Dale Chihuly creating a chandelier identical to one in the lobby at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The tour guides were “ignited,” remembers one participant, about the possibilities of presenting dynamic media literally in the palm of their hands. Contrary to popular trends, the tour guides’ excitement was not about handheld technology itself, but the potential of presenting portable media on tours to enhance visitors’ understanding of works of art.

Following up on the potential of this experience, Wetterlund and Sayre began to explore the possibility of mobile social computing, in particular the human-guide-mediated experience (Sayre, Wetterlund, 2008). After reading their article on social computing, the MIA contacted Sayre and Wetterlund about the integration of portable media in their tour guide program. The museum understood what visitor research has shown: the majority of visitors come to the museum in groups (Draper, 1984) (Sachatello-Sawyer et al., 2002). The announcement and release of Apple’s iPad was timely in the delivery of a user-friendly solution.

With the right computer in place, a research project was developed to explore the feasibility of enhancing group tours with a range of rich media delivered via a single iPad, used as a group presentation device. The project defined three primary areas to explore.


  • Visitor response
  • Tour Guide response
  • Museum educator response
  • Museum-wide response


  • Political and psychological obstacles
  • Physical obstacles
  • Technical obstacles


  •  Training needs
  •  Material preparation and organization
  •  Most effective materials
  •  Hardware management

The research team developed three instruments to assist in the collection of data:

  1. Observer checklist and comment document
  2. Pre-training survey
  3. Post-training survey

Project Phases
The project research was divided into five phases:

  1. Media and App Selection
  2. Trial Tours and Observation
  3. Resulting Strategies
  4. Tour Guide Training
  5. Survey Results

1. Media and App Selection
Early on in the process, the educators sent an e-mail inquiry to all of the museum’s volunteers. This yielded an abundance of creative ideas about enhancing tours with multimedia, and a healthy dose of concern that the technology might distract from the artworks. The most popular responses included a desire to have world maps, music, pictures and diagrams, and videos of art processes, dance, artists, etc. The team collected a range of media set up on a PC to serve as a hub device from which all of the iPads could be synchronized.

The team also investigated apps for organizing, navigating and presenting the various assets on the iPad itself. In the end there was no one app that could manage all forms of media. The team settled on managing audio and video as playlists within the iPod app, images in the Photos app, and the Safari and Google Maps apps for bookmarked locations. Important aspects of an iPad file management app for tour guides include:

  1. Integration and linear (swiping) presentation of all forms of media, in both landscape and portrait mode.
  2. Integration with iPads’ onboard media assets managed on the computer to which the iPads are synced.
  3. Ability to organize assets on the iPad based on tour type, subject or tour guide.
  4. Light table and search capabilities.
  5. Ability to create multiple shortcut “aliases” to the same onboard media asset in two more locations, so that the assets themselves do not need to be duplicated.
  6. Ability to add metadata to media so it can be easily queried.

2. Trial Tours and Observation
Several tour guides volunteered to try the iPad with tour groups, accompanied by a staff evaluator who used the observation checklist to record events on 20 tours. The tool was designed to gauge the effectiveness of the iPad based on the engagement of the visitors. The observation tool assessed:

  • the portability and presentation strategies for the iPad;
  • whether the tour guide was able to successfully navigate the different types of content on the iPad;
  • whether the content selected for presentation was integrated appropriately into the topic of the tour;
  • whether the quality of the content (audio, video, etc.) was adequate for the tour group;
  • whether all visitors on the tour were fully engaged with the iPad content when it was presented.

Portability of the iPad was not an issue. In some cases, the iPad was a relief, as it took the place of larger, bulkier props.

In all cases, the tour guides successfully navigated the content on the iPad, easily locating different types of pre-loaded content, easily adjusting the image brightness and volume. The screen size, brightness, audio level and quality, and video and image quality were rated excellent to good.

Most important, all of the museum visitors were engaged during the iPad portion of the tour. All visitors indicated understanding how the iPad content related to the tour content, and all thought it added to their understanding of the works of art. Visitors responded to short videos illustrating artistic processes or techniques with an audible “ah ha!”

3. Resulting Strategies
The initial rounds of in-gallery testing yielded a number of useful strategies. Like any gallery prop, digital media should be used judiciously to avoid making it the focal point of the tour. For example, while facilitating a discussion on a Lakota beaded dress, a video demonstration of beading technique could be introduced: “Now that you’ve had a chance to see the fine detail on this Lakota dress, let me show you a video demonstrating how those perfect rows of beads are sewn onto the hide.” Explaining any kind of prop, traditional or multimedia, by cluing visitors on what they are about to see and explaining what they are likely to get out of the prop is good educational practice.

Holding the iPad so that the screen faces away from the visitors while searching for information relieves them of the burden of having to watch while the tour guide taps around the screen. A thoughtful, open-ended question can momentarily turn the focus away from the mechanics of locating information on the iPad.

Displaying media on the iPad about shoulder to chest high seems most effective. When not in use, darkening the screen avoids diverting attention away from the tour presentation. Video or audio is best kept short, between 30 to 60 seconds. While the iPad’s speakers are remarkably good, hearing audio or video in a crowded gallery can be problematic, especially for larger groups. Tour groups at the MIA typically range from 10 to 15 people. MIA tour guides solved this problem with larger groups by turning the sound off and narrating the video themselves.

4. Tour Guide Training
To take advantage of Apple expertise and hardware, a training for MIA tour guides was offered at a local Apple store to introduce the iPad as a hardware device, and help the tour guides understand how to navigate the interface. The Apple business team was excited to learn about the MIA project, and over 50 tour guides attended these sessions.

The next training sessions were held at the MIA. Nearly 100 tour guides and Apple Store business team employees attended these sessions, where the goal was to make it clear how to access content organized on the iPad, and to model the strategies discovered in the trial tours for presenting multimedia on the iPad.

In addition, tour guides went over the procedure for scheduling and checking out the iPads from the office, as well as the docking procedure when the iPads are not being used.

5. Survey Results
An online pre-training survey was distributed to all tour guides interested in iPad tour training. The survey collected information about the tour guides’ experience with the museum, technology, and their preconceptions about using the iPad in public tours.

Key findings showed (N = 97)

  • The majority of the respondents had over 10 years experience as guides.
  • 47% had previously integrated gallery media content into their tours.
  • 74% considered themselves to be experienced computer users (69% PC).
  • 30% owned smartphones.
  • 62% had never used an iPad.
  • 20% had attended the previous iPad device training, and 80% felt it was helpful.
  • 90% who attended the iPad device training were interested in using the iPad in tours, with the remaining 10% unsure.
  • Preconceived advantages of using the iPad in tours
    • Images/Zooming: 47%, Looking up information: 18%, Video: 16%, Maps: 13%, Music/Sound: 8%
  • Preconceived concerns related to using the iPad in tours
    • Overuse/distracting: 37%, Nervous/Performance: 37%, Image too small for large groups: 16%, Gallery noise: 3%

An online survey was conducted approximately 30 days after the iPad tour training. Post training survey participants (N = 49) were correlated against pre-survey participants according to their email addresses, resulting in a total of 38 (10% of the total volunteer group) who participated in both surveys.

Key findings showed (N = 38)

  • 66% had used an iPad since training.
  • 8% had purchased an iPad since training.
  • 24% planned to buy an iPad.
  • 21% (8) had given one or more tours using the iPad.
  • 63% of those who attended the tour training were planning on using the iPad in their tours, with another 34% unsure.
  • 91% of the trainees who attended both the iPad device and iPad tour training were planning on using the iPad in their tours.
  • 26% felt they could benefit from more training, with 42% unsure.
    • Suggestions included mentoring, practice sessions, tour guide group presentations
  • 39% felt they could benefit from more support, with 34% unsure.
    • Suggestions included loading and locating content, work process and identifying gallery objects with additional content.
  • Preconceived concerns related to using the iPad in tours:
    • Overuse/distracting: 21%, Image too small for large groups: 21%, Nervous/performance:16%, Taking too much time: 8%, Gallery noise: 5%, Fragility/breaking: 5%

The key conclusion from the surveys was the effectiveness of combining the iPad device training with the iPad tour training. Tour guides who participated in both training sessions demonstrated a much greater degree of confidence in using the device and integrating it in their tours.

The iPad tour project has encouraged staff throughout to think of new content to integrate into the program. MIA photo services staff suggested additional “hidden” details to include, and MIA curators brainstormed an array of exciting possibilities. They also look forward to using the iPad to share whole print series, complete ledger books, and other resources that cannot be viewed in the galleries.

The PC hub computer has become a community repository for content as staff and tour guides are able to contribute music, videos, and photos. Everyone using the iPads has access to the materials contributed by their colleagues. Also, the volunteers who are excited about the media that can be integrated into tours with the iPad are the most powerful advocates for getting their peers engaged in the process. The media content on the iPads has inspired tour guides to include objects on their tours that that they would not have considered before.

Another welcome outgrowth of this initiative is that visitors become active participants in the creation of the digital stories being told during the tour. For example, on a recent tour a visitor made a connection between a terracotta portrait head from the Ife Kingdom and the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti, but was unable to relate the two chronologically. A search on the iPad put Nefertiti’s dates and images at the tour guide’s fingertips, contributing a whole other level of user-inspired content to the discussion and validating the visitor’s contribution.

In the early planning for this project, the team was most excited about the possibilities for video on the iPad. In practice, however, pictures on the iPad prove the most powerful. Visitors are delighted when a small object encased in Plexiglas in a dark gallery appears on the iPad, and the tour guide zooms in to show the details.

Photographs of things that are not possible to see in the galleries are also riveting for visitors. Detailed photos of the engine of a car when the hood is closed in the gallery, an embroidered chest with all of its drawers open, or the underside of a vessel all have visitors studying both the object on view and the iPad intently.

For a decade and a half, tour guides have expressed concerns that the museum might want to replace them with technology. But in the end, especially with the integration of technology into their tours, tour guides are assured that people want human interaction. Far more visitors interact with tour guides annually than take advantage of audio tours. Peter Samis has it right when he describes humans as the “ultimate interactive device,” context sensitive, and responsive to questions in real time. (2007)

Some of the challenges the project team encountered are more obvious: iPads are expensive, many volunteers are inexperienced with or fearful of the technology, and managing a lot of media files can be cumbersome and intimidating, especially in front of a group. The greatest technical challenge on tours has been the volume of the iPad when the galleries are full or the group is very large. A case with built-in speakers would be an ideal solution.

The Future
Challenges aside, the enthusiastic response from all of the stakeholders has set a course for continuation and expansion of the iPad program at the MIA. The MIA is currently using Apple products in its tour guide programming, but other tablet computers are coming to market that will likely offer similar potential and perhaps even more possibilities.

New hardware features like the iPad2’s cameras will make it possible to experiment with bringing voices outside of the museum into tours in real time. In the future, tour guides might engage visitors in conversations with artists in their studios, or with children in museums in other parts of the country. The cameras can also be used to capture QR codes from museum labels to help tour guides quickly access related content.

New technology like Apple’s Airplay allows tour guides to send media stored on an iPhone or iPad wirelessly to a larger dedicated or multipurpose monitor or projector connected to AppleTV for group presentation. New apps for better managing, organizing and presenting all forms of media content on the iPad continue to be released and assessed. Recent prospects include Best Album, which provides tools for organizing, cataloging, searching images, video and audio within personalized albums.

And finally, once existing media has been mined for its potential, the logical next step for museums is to undertake the production of new media assets specifically for use in iPad-enhanced tours.

Interpretive techniques are expanded when considering the potential of presenting multimedia on tours. Hopefully other museums will embrace these opportunities and help foster a new era in museum tour experiences.


Draper, L. (1984). Friendship and the museum experience: The interrelationship of social ties and learning. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.

Samis, P. (2007), “New Technologies as a Part of a Comprehensive Interpretive Plan” in The Digital Museum: A Think Guide, Din, Herminia and Phyllis Hecht, eds., Washington, DC: The AAM Press, American Association of Museums, 2007.

Sayre, S. & Wetterlund, K. (2008) ”The Social Life of Technology for Museum Visitors,” Visual Art Research Journal, Pennsylvania State University.

Sayre, S. & Dowden, R. (2007), “The Whole World in Their Hands: The Promise and Peril of Visitor Provided Mobile Devices” in The Digital Museum: A Think Guide, Din, Herminia and Phyllis Hecht, eds., Washington, DC: The AAM Press, American Association of Museums, 2007.

Sayre, S. (2005), “Multimedia that Matters: Gallery-based Technology and the Museum Visitor,” First Monday, Peer-Reviewed Journal on the Internet 10, #5

Sayre, S. (1993). “The Evolution of Interactive Interpretive Media: A Report on Discovery and Progress at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts” in Diane Lees, ed., Museums and Interactive Multimedia: Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference of the MDA and the Second International Conference on Hypermedia and Interactivity in Museums, Museum Documentation Association and Archives and Museum Informatics.

Sachatello-Sawyer, B., Fellenz, R., Burton, H., Gittings-Carlson, L., Lewis-Mahony, J., & Woolbaugh, W. Adult Museum Programs: Designing Meaningful Experiences. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002.

7 responses to “Enhancing Group Tours with the iPad: A Case Study

  1. Is it possible to get a blank copy of the Observer checklist and comment document.

    • Evaluation of Content on Tours Presented with iPads

      The Tour Guide:

      1. iPad seemed comfortably portable

      1=comfortable 2 3 4 5=not comfortable


      2. iPad was comfortably presented

      1=comfortable 2 3 4 5=not comfortable


      3. How was the iPad held by the tour guide? For example, at waist level, at head height and off the right or left, etc.

      4. Tour guide successfully used navigational controls:

      Yes No played audio
      Yes No played video
      Yes No adjusted volume
      Yes No adjusted brightness
      Yes No zoomed on image
      Yes No navigated from one type of content to another
      Yes No navigated between multiple images
      Yes No used the Wifi connection
      Yes No used Google to search
      Yes No used Google maps

      Comment on any issues or best practices in navigating content:

      5. The content presented on the iPad was appropriate for the tour topic?
      6. The content presented on the iPad was effectively integrated into the tour topic, with an appropriate introduction… Yes No


      …and appropriate conclusion Yes No


      7. Circle one:

      iPad was used by primary tour guide OR iPad was used by assisting tour guide.

      8. Audience members handled iPad Yes No

      The Technology (from the audiences’ perspective)

      1. Screen size
      Excellent Adequate Poor
      1 2 3 4 5

      2. Lighting/brightness
      Excellent Adequate Poor
      1 2 3 4 5

      3. Audio level
      Excellent Adequate Poor
      1 2 3 4 5

      4. Video quality
      Excellent Adequate Poor
      1 2 3 4 5

      5. Image quality
      Excellent Adequate Poor
      1 2 3 4 5

      6. Audio quality
      Excellent Adequate Poor
      1 2 3 4 5

      7. Did any technical issues occur such as battery life, Wifi connection, etc?

      Please comment:

      The Audience

      1. Describe the age range of the tour audience, any other special characteristics

      2. How many people were on the tour?

      3. Were all the audience members engaged during the iPad portion of the tour?

      Please comment:

      4. Could all members of the audience see the iPad screen? Yes No

      5. Did the audience seem to understand how the iPad content related to the tour content?

      Please comment:

      6. Did the audience ask questions or comment in relation to the content presented on the iPad?

      7. Did the audience ask questions or comment in relation to iPad itself?

      8. Did the audience ask for additional content accessed via the iPad?

      9. Were there any missed opportunities? For example, was there anything explained on the tour that could have been shown via multimedia on the iPad?

  2. Pingback: Teaching with the iPad: Adding a New Dimension to the Museum Experience « Art Museum Teaching

  3. Pingback: Enhancing Group Tours with the iPad: 2012 Updates and Discoveries |

  4. Pingback: iPads in museums: some links : MuseumMobile Wiki

  5. Hi I am an intern for the Art Gallery of Ontario helping with our own iPad Interactions. We want to adopt a similar model to the MIA. How did your institution deal with issues of copyright on videos and images resources? Did you contact individual youtube users? Did you only use material for which you could gain copyright. We are not publishing this material nor are we selling iPad tours, but we want to tell the public that we are using them and worried that this will be considered profiting off other people’s content.

  6. This is such a great resource. Thank you so much for posting this info!!

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