Author Archives: AAM

Is Augmented Reality the Ultimate Museum App? Some Strategic Considerations

By Margriet Schavemaker

In the past year, the innovative forms of augmented reality (AR) appearing on smartphones have proven to be exciting playgrounds for curators and museum educators. These AR tools offer users the possibility to deploy their phones as pocket-sized screens through which surrounding spaces become the stage for endless extra layers of information. This visual collision of the real and the virtual — made possible by using GPS and a compass — could culminate in what we have seen in movies like Minority Report (2002), where Tom Cruise physically navigates through 3D data: a seamless interface between the body, the virtual and the real.

Currently, however, AR technology (Layar or Junaio, for instance) is still a kind of experimental medium, as yet lacking the total immersion that science fiction promises. Moreover, its mediation through a tiny handheld screen poses several challenges to augmented storytelling. What, then, does this contemporary form of AR have to offer the museum today? Why would a museum want to develop augmented reality tours? What kind of user experience does it entail? Is it, in this day and age, the ultimate app? These questions will be addressed here by taking a closer look at the experiences of the Stedelijk Museum’s AR project, ARtours, which explores a number of augmented reality applications in order to experiment with these new platforms in different contexts and with different kinds of art.

Lieux de mémoire, space hacking & artistic platform
Taking a closer look at the deployment of AR by museums, it seems that the attraction of this new medium is often found in the act of returning cultural heritage to the streets where it was originally produced and/or that it depicts. As the apps of the Powerhouse Museum and the London Museum effectively illustrate, AR allows users to see photographs on their smartphones of old city views overlaid on the places that they were shot. Comparing a “real” contemporary with an “augmented” older view offers a moment of reflection on history, modernization and change.

The Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) included even more time dimensions in its unequaled application (UAR) , as visitors are not only treated to former architectural drawings of the locations where one is positioned, but also to unrealized designs and future projects. The strategy, however, remains the same: using AR as a medium to layer the urban realm with a museological collection in order to compare its current outlook with that of other times and ages. In a sense, it is using AR as a form of what Pierre Nora would describe as lieux de mémoire.

For a modern and contemporary art museum like the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, this strategy for AR deployment is relevant in that the word “Stedelijk” means “municipal,” and parts of the collection are produced by or related to the Amsterdam cityscape. However, layering the streets and canals with these local artworks has certainly not been the main reason for investing so much energy in the development of ARtours. First and foremost, the museum is known for its extensive international collection of art, photography and design, which itself asks for a different curatorial approach and visitor experience. Secondly, the Stedelijk Museum has been closed since 2004 due to a renovation of its original building and construction of a new wing. AR was therefore primarily embraced because of the possibilities it offers for exhibiting the collection, as the museum has lacked an analog venue in which to do so. In other words, in addition to lieux de mémoire, the Stedelijk opted for space hacking, a strategy in which augmented reality is used to present the collection in spaces with which the art has no relation whatsoever, but are used simply as a new stage.

We experimented with this strategy in the ARtours project entitled “ARtotheque.” The idea is simple: the Stedelijk Museum holds thousands of artworks in its collection, so why not lend copies to the general public via the medium of augmented reality so that people can place the artworks wherever they choose? The project location can be anywhere; we experimented at Lowlands (a Dutch music and arts festival with 50,000 visitors) and at the innovators’ festival, PICNIC. Participation was relatively simple: the visitor could choose an artwork from a selection of 160 masterpieces, all printed on A4 cards, scan the QR code on the card and thus activate the “ARtotheque” (art loan) layer on the Layar platform. The visitor could then choose a position for the artwork, hang it and share it with all other works in the public “ARtotheque” layer.

As the Stedelijk Museum is also known for its contemporary art projects, another utilization of AR appeared relevant: augmented reality as an artistic platform. In the ARtours project entitled “Me at the Museum Square,” ARtours experimented with this strategy by asking students from various Dutch art schools to design an augmented reality artwork to be virtually manifested on the large square adjacent to the museum. Stedelijk curators made a selection of the most promising ideas, and together with students from the University of Amsterdam and the School for Interactive Media (project Medialab), the 3D “Artworks” were realized. Besides helping the project to get a better grip on the possibilities of Layar and the practical problems AR applications pose to users (too much sunlight, battery consumption, etc.), another result of this project was the fact that several of the created artworks reflected upon the new medium. For instance, in one work audience members could virtually augment themselves with auras in various colors, which derives from the artist’s idea that AR is, similar to auras, visible for some and not for others. Another artist placed a springboard next to the small pond on the museum square. The title of the work, “The most fun you will never have,” addressed the fact that, in augmented reality, the virtual is colliding with the real but not transforming into the real (in a material sense). It is this kind of self-reflexivity that helps us in coming to terms with AR’s cultural significance.

Let’s go inside
In the summer of 2010 the Stedelijk Museum got the old part of its building back. The renovation was almost finished and, although the additional wing was not yet ready, the museum could make a start with temporary exhibitions and public programs. For the ARtours project, this signified an interesting strategy shift to bring AR out of the streets and into the white cube.

As early as 2002 media theorist Lev Manovich claimed that, with augmented space,
…museums and galleries as a whole could use their own unique asset – a physical space – to encourage the development of distinct new spatial forms of art and new spatial forms of the moving image. In this way, they can take a lead in testing out one part of the augmented space future…
Having stepped outside the picture frame into the white cube walls, floor, and the whole space, artists and curators should feel at home taking yet another step: treating this space as layers of data. This does not mean that the physical space becomes irrelevant; on the contrary, as the practice of [Janet] Cardiff …shows, it is through the interaction of the physical space and the data that some of the most amazing art of our time is being created.

The ARtours project selected for its first indoor AR(t) project artist Jan Rothuizen, known for his hand-drawn maps on paper. In the AR application Rothuizen’s drawings are virtually appended to the spaces of the building to which they refer. Using a smartphone you can open the tour and follow Rothuizen’s childhood memories of the museum throughout the gallery spaces. Also included are his references to the Stedelijk’s renowned history and close observations of the institution made while spending a night in the building.
The result is a layering of the real with virtual information, bringing the objective outer world of material spaces into collision with the subjective inner world of conceptual memories and storytelling: a mapping of the museum inside the museum that echoes the psychogeographical maps produced in the 1960s by the French Situationists.

Of course the move from outside AR to inside was not that easy, as current technology (Layar) relies on GPS to attach the virtual to the real. GPS has difficulty in distinguishing vertical levels inside a building; thus additional interfaces are needed to delineate one’s location inside the building. Since these methods of interface have not been perfected yet, we are pleased that AR providers are exploring new solutions to the problems of bringing the technology indoors. The ARtours project will experiment with these in the near future in collaboration with Fluxus artist Willem de Ridder, who is working with us on one of his “Secret Exhibitions” in AR. Moreover, we are exploring possibilities of bringing a selection of the Stedelijk Museum’s famous exhibitions back into the building by means of AR, re-using the museum archives and documentary material.

Innovation & collaboration
Besides all these more practical and media-related strategies that readily illustrate how and why a museum might use smartphone-based augmented reality, there are more overarching reasons as well, of which “innovation of audience participation” seems the most pivotal one. For the Stedelijk Museum, this seems to fit a long-established tradition: the museum is said to be the first in the world to have created “audio tours,” in 1952. Of course the radio broadcast technology used in that time was far from perfect and the experience was almost identical to a conventional guided tour (for instance, people were bound by the tour’s time constraints and were not free to move around, being required to follow a linear story). However, as specialist in the field Loïc Tallon rightly makes known, this was not the point. What mattered most was that the audio tours of 1952 were launched by the Stedelijk at the same time that the ICOM conference was held in Amsterdam that year. Consequently, the entire museum world took notice of this new development and many immediately started to develop similar systems. Therefore Tallon concludes that

Above all, I believe that it was the innovation and potential embodied within the audio guide that best explains why the Stedelijk Museum ‘invented’ it. Whilst one could claim that what was achieved by the system could have been achieved through trained docents, this is too narrow a perspective. After all, this innovation went on to spawn what was arguably the most successful museum technology of the 20th century, and one of the most exciting of the early 21st century.

In 2011, “innovation and potential” also seems to be the driving force for augmented reality applications. It is not about offering the most perfect technological solution and radical new user experiences. Moreover, it is often hard to define differences with respect to existing multimedia tours. However, the potential for bridging the gap between the virtual and the real world in a single visual interface is a dream shared by many and thus a great stimulus for future innovation.

Innovation can only exist through collaboration. In 1952 the Stedelijk Museum created its audio tours with the renowned Dutch enterprise Philips. At present the Stedelijk works with several technological and design partners, such as Fabrique, 7scenes/De Waag, Tabworldmedia and Layar. Collaborations with educational partners (University of Amsterdam, Hogeschool van Amsterdam, art schools) and cultural organizations (Tate, Virtual Platform, ISEA, kennisland) also exist. These partners should not only receive full credit for the ARtours project, but should also be thanked for the innumerable innovations inside the Stedelijk organization they have triggered thus far and will continue to do so in the future: from fundamental changes in museum technology (ubiquitous Wi-Fi access) to new takes on copyright issues; from changes in media awareness and the programming of our educational and curatorial departments to new policies on the future of audio tours in the museum; and so on. For a museum reinventing itself in the 21st century, this is invaluable, and leads to the idea that a museum should always incorporate at least one innovative project like ARtours every other year.

Can we already draw some conclusions about the outcome of the first 1.5 years of the ARtours project? Findings that may help other museums to decide whether augmented reality can be their ultimate app? Insights that may fuel debate on the future of mobile technology in the museum?

Inspired by the “un-conference” concept, museum professionals at the industry conference “Museums and the Web” and elsewhere have discussed for the past couple of years the “untour,” referring to the manifold possibilities in our current 2.0/3.0 phase where mobile tours can go beyond the traditional audio tour format.

The ARtours project defines another interesting development in the usage of mobile media inside the museum: the “paratour.” The term “para” refers to the extra information that normally accompanies the core text of a publication: the introduction, conclusion, notes and additional literature, often provided by the editor, which are collectively referred to as “paratext.” They are the discursive elements that frame the text, positioning it through an extra layer of information.

Of course the traditional audio tour can itself be considered a “paratext,” as it frames art with an auxiliary text. However, the ARtours project indicates that innovative museum tours, like augmented reality applications, become especially significant by way of extra communication tools and additional layers of information. Significantly, the tours elicit communication among the users. In order to use an AR tour, generally one has to join forces, as not everyone possesses the appropriate smartphone, the user interface is still challenging for some, data traffic is not equivalent for all telecom providers, using the app tends to drain batteries quickly, etc. This turns the AR tour into a social event, something the Stedelijk Museum facilitates by organizing a public program and opening event every time a new project is launched. This form of “paratouring” among users exists not only in the analog world, but extends into the virtual one as well via social networking services like Facebook and Twitter. In addition, the ARtours project has opened the eyes of the museum to a ceaseless flow of professional “paratouring” by museum and other mobile technology experts. The innovative mobile museum tour has an amazing, extended lifespan mediated through videos, PowerPoint presentations, lectures, Twitter feeds, blogs, conferences, roundtable discussions, expert meetings, wikis and remarkable press coverage. It may even be the case that the ARtours project has more followers on Twitter and via our blog than people who have actually experienced the AR tours themselves.

Of course one can denounce “paratouring” — or, in terms of AR, “pARatouring” — as a distraction from what the tour is really about, namely, mediating knowledge and enhancing visitor experience both inside and outside the museum. This is a risk, and we should take care that it does not obstruct the actual encounter with the museum, collection or exhibition. Still, we cherish the fact that a museum that has been in hiatus for over seven years is suddenly back in the spotlight! If this can happen in the world of mobile media, why not in other fields as well?

Concluding remarks
If we now return to the central question of this discussion — “Is augmented reality the ultimate museum app?” — we must conclude that, at first sight, it certainly is not: the technology is experimental, the user interface problematic, and we are as yet very far from the ideal future of total immersion and seamless interfaces (as visualized in movies like Minority Report).

On the other hand, we have seen that AR can be significant for museums in many ways, both outside and inside the museum, as it:

  • offers interesting collisions between virtual (digitized) heritage and real (analog) space;
  • provides a new platform for artistic experimentation;
  • is a perfect medium for museum innovation and collaboration; and,
  • generates enormous amounts of communication, interpretation and contextualization (the so-called “paratouring”).

For the Stedelijk Museum, in its current “temporary” phase within and without its building and in the process of reinventing its institutional identity, AR has proven to be the ultimate app! For other museums, the best recommendation may be to consider all relevant strategies… and then engage in it anyway.

Margriet Schavemaker, head of collections and research, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Models and Misnomers for Mobile Production

By Peter Samis

Once upon a time there was Audio Tour Company A, and Audio Tour Company AA, and they pretty much ruled the roost. Their business model was sound: Help museums communicate with their visitors by telling stories that connect people with specific objects and broader themes. This was at a time when professional audio expertise—writing for the ear rather than the page; directing and recording voice talent; cutting in expert voices; and adding a pinch of sound design panache—was especially hard to come by, long before any museums thought of themselves as media producers. Why this was way back… five years ago!

These companies thrived on the interpretation of two types of exhibitions: blockbuster, popular crowd-pleasers on which they made their nut; and permanent collection shows, which were loss-leaders and cost their museum clients real money to make. (How many stops did you say you wanted? And would you like a family tour with that?)

Companies such as our two ur-entities also duplicated the tapes (remember the Walkman?) or .mp3s to whole fleets of portable players in a progression of shapes and sizes, usually with excellent quality control. They translated and re-recorded scripts in multiple languages. They tried their hand at inventing new, ever more compact, convenient, and rugged players, which they leased to museums and which the museums rented out in turn to their visitors—often with the help of trained staff supplied by the companies. By and large, it was a harmonious model, and all seemed right with the world.

Then the world changed. Thanks to software and hardware advances, it became far easier to produce audio and video, and a new generation came of age and they were called “Digital Natives.” There where their parents feared to tread, they knew no fear.

Museums, for their part, began to pay more than lip-service to the public’s “right to know.” In some cases—though by no means all—an ethos of universal access to interpretation emerged: Interpretation as a right, not a privilege with a price tag on it. A perfect storm emerged:

  1. The profit motive for audio interpretation dwindled;
  2. The desire to offer audio interpretation for more exhibitions grew, including the so-called “difficult,” unpopular ones that for-profit audio tour companies had typically neglected (not a fit for their profit model);
  3. The Digital Native generation came of age and began to work in museums.

The old model shaken, empires buckled, and we find ourselves today in a dramatically altered landscape set against the debris of old devices now rendered obsolete: diasporas of audio engineers, creative producers, and script writers; new DIY software vendors; new consumer platforms ranging from iPods to smart phones; and lots of possible permutations for museums eager to move forward with mobile interpretation for their visitors.

Some museums opt to have their curators and content experts “phone in” their commentaries and publish them to visitors’ cell phones. Others conduct and edit interviews, script narratives, and produce their own tours, with or without outside help, and then publish them using any of a variety of mobile content management software systems now on the market. They make them available on devices they lend to visitors and/or visitors’ own devices via the Web or an app store. Others still prefer to delegate the whole kit and caboodle—content production, publishing, hardware provisioning, staffing and distribution—to a single outside company for a turnkey solution, as in the old days.

All solutions are possible, and different situations may call for different responses, even in the same museum. Consider the grid below:

 Script Development Media Production Publishing to Devices Hardware Provisioning Mktg, Sales & Distribution Analysis & Evaluation
Museum Alone
 Museum with Vendor
 Completely Outsourced
There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer for how to approach your own project. Any given square in the grid can be a “right” answer, and your museum can move from one row to another—from working alone to outsourcing—as it proceeds through the phases of your project. For a given task, museums can:
  • choose to do the work themselves
  • collaborate with an outside vendor in such a way as to build their in-house expertise
  • completely outsource the task

To determine which model is best suited to your museum, do an assessment of your in-house talents, skills, and capacities—and your potential outside partners. Think outside current job descriptions. Talents are things at which someone on your staff excels (storytelling, for example, or digital media production). Skills are things you can do well. And capacities are something you or someone on your team could do—or learn to do—if required. Partners are your network of outside resources: people, companies, or collaborating institutions you could call upon to help. Look at your untapped talent pool—or consider hiring or training people to do things that were never previously part of the museum staff skill-set.

You may decide it is more important to devote staff time to building expertise and interpretive resources around the permanent collection, and outsource the temporary exhibitions. Or you may decide that you want to publish to visitors’ own devices, thereby sparing your museum the expense of purchasing and maintaining hardware and staffing distribution desks. But be forewarned that by doing so you risk perpetuating the Digital Divide, making a situation where only those who can afford it (or have the chosen device) have access to interpretation. Many museums keep a fleet of devices on-site—from as few as 20 to 200 or more—which they offer to visitors to check out with the deposit of some form of security.

You may also decide that the solution you develop for “business as usual” falls short in the event of a blockbuster, for which you will need many hundreds of devices and one or more dedicated distribution desks with their own trained complement of staff. In today’s transitional environment, the old rules no longer apply. You can put out an RFP to several mobile tour companies for the servicing of that specific show and retain your in-house solution for less encumbered times.

We’re entering a mix-and-match media world. Keep copyright to any content you develop and make sure it is available to you in file formats compatible with future re-purposing to other platforms. Assess (and grow) your capacities, skills and talents, choose your partners to complement your in-house strengths, and be prepared to adapt to new opportunities as they unfold. In these times of technological change, it’s the mission, not the means, that will be your fixed target.

Peter Samis is associate curator, interpretive media, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Looking Around vs. Looking Down: Incorporating Mobility into Your Experience Design

By Ed Rodley

Getting Beyond the Tour: The First Questions
Historically, the first mobile museum experiences were tours. From the Stedelijk Museum’s radio tours in the 1950s, through the eras of the audiocassette tour, CD tour, PDA tour, and now mobile phone-based tour, the form has remained relatively unchanged. The content has gone from analog to digital, and pictures and video have been added to the narration, but they follow the same model: the visitor goes from location to location and receives content at “stops.” Sixty years later, tours are still the dominant type of mobile experience created by museums, according to Pocket-Proof and Learning Times’ 2011 Museums and Mobiles Survey. Tours will be offered in some form by 36% of the museums responding to AAM’s 2011 Mobile Technology Survey.

However, in the age of the smartphone and the tablet, a mobile museum app doesn’t need to be a tour. It can be an interactive book, map, or catalogue. It can be a game, or something entirely different—some new format that takes advantage of the combination of inputs, connectivity and computing power that mobile devices contain. There are some terrific examples of non-tour apps out there: the user-generated soundscapes of Scapes, the augmented reality views of historic London in Streetmuseum, and the art collecting card games in Tate Trumps, among others. All of these apps rise to the challenge of using the capabilities of a mobile device, and don’t just treat it like a portable computer for tiny websites or a multimedia playback device. These kinds of experiences hold great potential to deliver compelling content in a manner that connects with audiences, both within and beyond the museum’s walls. And reaching a broader audience using these devices is one of the most important reasons to seriously consider developing mobile experiences. Mobile experiences hold the promise of giving museum visitors a new way to deepen their engagement with the institution, while bringing in and (hopefully) retaining new audiences by making the museum more immediate, accessible and relevant.

Why Mobility?
AAM’s mobile technology survey projects that a third of all museums in the United States will introduce new mobile technology platforms in 2011, and that smartphone apps will experience the fastest growth. That’s a pretty big bandwagon, and the urge to do something because “everybody’s doing it!” can be hard to resist. But before you jump on board, you need to be able to answer the fundamental question of “Why make a mobile experience?” In an era of austerity, investing in an emerging platform at the expense of any of the other platforms and projects that might serve your visitors’ needs is a big deal and should warrant a carefully considered response.

Heads Up or Down?
In the museum context, most mobile apps offer two kinds of experiences: immersive, introspective ones that draws the user’s attention to the device—“looking down” experiences; and contextualizing ones that direct visitors’ attention out into the world—“looking around” experiences. Many combine elements of both.

Mobile games are a great example of looking down experiences. Good ones grab a user’s attention and hold it for the duration of the game. Trying playing Angry Birds and doing anything else and you’ll understand. Traditional audio tours are classic “looking around” experiences. Ideally, their content is designed to direct your attention outwards, towards the exhibits or sometime towards interaction with your visiting companions. SCVNGR is a great example of an app that combines elements of both: you focus on the device to navigate from location to location, but at the challenge locations you are directed to perform actions that require interaction in the physical space.

In contexts where close observation of an exhibit is the aim of the experience, screens and other “heads-down” experiences have sometimes been considered anathema. But good content and design choices, e.g., showing the detail on the screen and using audio to help visitors find it in the object in front of them, can make the interpretation a scaffold for deeper engagement rather than a distraction from the object. Social and gaming experiences have similarly been held suspect for drawing attention away from the exhibit, but often an exchange or interaction with other visitors can have a more profound learning impact than hours of silent, solitary looking.

The aim should be for the technology to become as invisible a support for the experience as possible. The mobile tours I have tried actually fare worse than their audiocassette and CD ancestors in terms of getting out of the way of the users. They require much more fiddling and time spent looking at the screen to get the next “stop” or interpretive message to play. This rest of this essay seeks to give you ways to avoid these new technology pitfalls and answer these questions for yourself, so you can create compelling, platform-appropriate mobile experiences that go beyond the tour.

Some Hallmarks of Good Mobile Experiences
The “right” answer to the looking down-looking around question will depend on the design constraints of your project. The most successful mobile apps I’ve seen to date share many of the following hallmarks.

They’re appropriate for the medium
Whether you’re designing a mobile app as part of a larger project, adding a layer of mobile content to an existing experience, or doing something completely mobile, you need to acknowledge and build on how people already use smartphones. People do all kinds of interesting things with these devices. They use them to:

  • communicate with other people (voice, text, email)
  • listen to audio and watch videos
  • access digital information (onboard and streamed)
  • play games
  • navigate the real world (GPS, AR)
  • take and share pictures and video

Chances are, they’re doing all these things right now in your museum. When I look at the mobile experiences I’ve enjoyed the most and gotten the most out of, they are uniformly ones that take advantage of the capabilities of the platform and make it self-evident why someone should use it. They are not just porting an existing experience from one platform onto the new mobile one—like Web 1.0 brochureware websites: they are doing something that can only be done (or can best be done) with this technology. The American Museum of Natural History’s Natural History Explorer app has a mapping feature, but it’s not just a map. It shows you where you are in real time, something you can’t do with a paper map.

They are relevant first to visitors, not the institution
Be relevant to visitors, and go from there to connect to your own institutional priorities, not the other way around. This means you need to collect data about visitors and not rely just on anecdotal evidence. One of my favorite features of the Scapes app was that it relied exclusively on visitors’ recorded comments on the artworks and the environment to create the audio interpretation of the DeCordova Museum’s sculpture park. This is a radical approach to guaranteeing the relevance of the mobile app to the visitors by completely eschewing the traditional curatorial interpretive view and voice. Perhaps it was only possible because it was installed as an artwork, not as an audio tour. But perhaps not.

When the American Museum of Natural History launched their Natural History Explorer app, the fanfare was not over the world-class content AMNH provided, but the real-time navigation feature that allowed visitors to navigate the Museum’s 46 exhibition halls with some confidence that they would get where they wanted to go. Solving the navigational problem may be less glamorous than an exclusively content-driven app, but in terms of making visitors feel comfortable, I can’t think of a better app for AMNH to have launched.

They encourage authentic visitor feedback.
Mobiles are primarily communication platforms, and ignoring that is a terrible oversight. Dialogue is a term that gets used quite a bit in discussions on how museums have to change in order to survive in the modern world. Encouraging participation, designing explicitly participatory experiences, and providing opportunities for visitors to “connect” with museums are popular museum conference session topics. An important step that often seems to get overlooked or taken for granted is “Why do you want visitors to talk to your institution’s staff?” It is very hard to have a meaningful conversation of any kind without a shared desire to exchange information, opinions and insights. Museum comment-card boxes the world over are full of feedback that isn’t very useful: from “Cool! Loved it!” to “This museum is dumb,” many visitor comments are not really actionable items. “Like” buttons can be the same. They’re flattering, but don’t necessarily lead anywhere. Just as you wouldn’t start up a conversation with a stranger without some kind of topic or reason in mind, you shouldn’t expect visitors to respond meaningfully unless you provide them a context.

You want a killer app? Invite visitors to take pictures of broken things and send them to your facilities maintenance staff, or tag labels that have typos or out-of-date information. Recruiting visitors to be collaborators, and not just passive consumers of the museum’s knowledge and content, will transform your relationship with your visitors faster than any tour.

They possess a narrative
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of narrative. We are a species of storytellers. It seems to be how we make sense of the world. One of the chief mantras at Pixar is “Story is King!” For all of their technological sophistication, they are ruthless about protecting the narrative from being overwhelmed by whatever new technical effect they can create. Everything they do serves the story, because the story is what the audience remembers. Creating a story to tell with your artifacts and experiences is worthwhile because a good narrative can carry so-so content. Good content has a much harder time carrying a so-so narrative. Walking Cinema’s Murder on Beacon Hill is a good example. The app focuses on a gruesome high-society murder in 1840s Boston. Even though virtually none of the sites associated with the crime still exist, the story is engrossing enough to motivate users to explore the sites picked by the developers. Museums are already repositories of great content, and great narratives. It is a matter of uniting one with the other.

It is important to remember that “story” doesn’t necessarily mean a linear narrative of the “Once upon a time … And they lived happily ever after” variety. There are many different kinds of narrative structures a museum developer could incorporate in a mobile experience. Non-linear and hypermedia storytelling has become part and parcel of computer game development. Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) like World Without Oil, or in the museum sector, Smithsonian’s Ghosts of a Chance and Pheon, have used narrative structures to connect people with each other. Check them out.

They don’t skimp on quality
“Quality” is important in both media format and content design. Good pictures, stereo sound and quality production can make a huge difference in how people react to your app. Part of that is being mindful about how you produce what you put on that tiny screen. Repurposing video meant to be seen on a computer screen or TV can often be problematic, since mobile screens are so much smaller. If you’re looking at an iPhone or Android phone, even the latest, greatest models, you’re not going to be able to resolve details that you’d be able to see on a larger screen. Watch Lawrence of Arabia on a mobile and you’ll see what I mean. Picking a content design approach that works on a small screen, like a close-up of an interview subject’s head as opposed to a full body shot of the same person, will make your app that much more useable.

They’re free, in some form
One of my favorite things about the current media landscape is that much content has become cheap, or free. I’ve always hated the “separate fee” model that many audio tours in the past have followed. Doing all that work to build a mobile program, knowing that at best 30% of the potential audience is going pay for it, is a real frustration. That said, development—and especially quality content—costs money. Particularly in an emerging market, where the value of the experience is still unknown, being able at least to recoup some costs may mean the difference between starting a project or not. The more you can lower the price bar to initial entry to the experience, the more likely that people will try it.

Giving the mobile program away in some form is the best way, particularly in the smartphone arena where free apps are so prevalent. The madness of people balking at paying 99¢ for an app on a phone they spent $300 to buy and $50+ per month to use is a topic for another day, but it’s the reality of the present smartphone landscape and needs to be acknowledged. Getting people to take the time to download and launch your app is the biggest hurdle you’re likely to face. If you get that far and face the problem of how to get them to use it twice, you’re already ahead of the game.

Getting Started
Probably the best thing you can do before you start planning your own mobile app is to find and use as many compelling mobile apps as you can. Think about why you like the ones you like, as a user, not as a developer. Be shameless in building on the work that others have done. The web is full of great repositories of museum mobile experience. Do some real research on your intended audience. And most importantly, don’t wait for “the market to stabilize” and resolve the uncertainties that swarm around the mobile sector. iOS or Android? Native app or web app? HTML5? One of the most reassuring projections I took away from the 2010 Tate Handheld Conference was the consensus that the idea that we were heading to a promised land where the technology would no longer be in flux was unrealistic. It will always be changing; there will always be some new paradigm-upsetting product or service in the wings. Ted Forbes, multimedia producer at the Dallas Museum of Art, summed up his mobile strategy at DMA better than any I’ve heard, so I’ll steal it: “Do it now. Do what you can. Do it better tomorrow.”

Good luck!

Ed Rodley, senior exhibit developer ,  Museum of Science, Boston.

Native or Not? Why a Mobile Web App Might Be Right for Your Museum

By Ted Forbes

Since 2008, we have seen an explosion of smartphone applications (apps) available from and about museums. A search using the word “museum” in the iTunes store returns literally hundreds of apps for both the iPhone and iPad. Having an app for your institution provides a service on many levels—it’s “cool and modern,” it provides information to visitors in a transparent manner without being intrusive to the physical gallery space, and it offers institutions a powerful marketing tool. Many museums, boards of directors and web teams have expressed that they feel compelled to “have an app” in order to be up-to-date with the latest technology revolution. But is that a good enough reason to pour time and resources into a mobile app? And do other alternatives provide a better return on the museum’s investment?

There are two types of apps that can be developed: “device-native” and “web-based.”

Device-native apps are designed to be installed directly on to the mobile device, and are found in Apple’s iTunes Store or the Android Market, for example. All of the leading smartphone operating systems provide a market where users can find apps and install them on their phones or tablets.

“Web-based” applications work inside the web browser. Rather than going to an online store to browse, download and install the application, the browser is used to navigate to a website that is optimized for use on the mobile device and offers app functionality.

While device-native apps have the market awareness and have been recognized as being more powerful in terms of technical features and options, web-based mobile applications offer many advantages as well. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City has built their mobile strategy around their web-based app, which is a mobile website that allows visitors to use any smartphone to access their mobile tour content. The tour makes nearly 300 audio and visual assets accessible for visitors, either during their visit or away from the museum. In order to use staff time and resources most efficiently, the museum’s mobile guide links directly to its collections management system, allowing real-time updates to content and data in the tour. Now that visitors can use their own smartphones in the museum, the requirement of maintaining and distributing mobile devices to those who don’t have them in the museum has been reduced. The museum has also included the mobile guide in their marketing materials, not only to increase visitor awareness, but also to simplify its use when visiting the museum. There is nothing to download in the iTunes store before you can use the tour: you just open the web browser and navigate to the mobile site’s URL.

Mobile Web vs. Apps: Pros and Cons
Web-based apps offer several advantages when compared to their device-native counterparts. The primary attraction is that a web-based app will work on a greater range of devices, since it is accessed through the mobile web browser, whereas device-native apps only work on the specific device and operating system for which it is designed. If you want your app accessible on the iPhone, Android and Windows mobile platforms, you’ll have to develop three different applications. Android is an open-source system and comes in many “flavors.” This makes it very labor-intensive to ensure its compatibility across all Android variations. In contrast, browsers are being designed to support standards-based technologies, so a web-based app will work on just about any device.

Web apps also allow institutions to leverage web-based technologies, which generally they already support. These applications are written on the front-end using HTML, CSS and Javascript, all technologies used in website development. On the backend, you’ll find a content management system that interacts with a database—again, no different from what museums are already doing with their own websites.

Because the app is accessed through the browser, there is nothing to download, purchase or install. The user simply connects to the website. This is also extremely useful in terms of accessibility outside the museum, as it provides the ability to revisit content from the visitor’s own device at a later date. This type of “post-visit enrichment” adds a potentially huge value to an institution and its interaction with visitors.

Another great advantage of the web-based app is that updates and changes to content or design take effect immediately; there is nothing to download. Changes on device-native apps have to be distributed, via iTunes, for instance, and users are responsible for installing the updates on their devices. This can be a time-consuming process, assuming that your users update their apps at all. Likewise, apps and content stored “natively” on devices owned or leased by the museum require staff resources and attention to maintain and update.
Web-based apps can be much cheaper than native apps. Initial development costs for a first generation device-native app can range from $10,000 to $60,000 [1][2]. This is for version 1.0. But then the institution will have ongoing issues of ensuring that the software is current and operates properly as new devices are introduced. For example, when the iPhone 4 was released last year, it included a major software update and a new screen resolution, requiring apps and their images and video to be updated to new, higher resolution versions to support these changes. There will indeed be improvements to processors and operating systems in the future, and basic updates to keep your software relevant are part of the ongoing commitment in time and resources that mobile programs require.

Since web-based apps use existing technologies already installed in your museum, you can likely incorporate a mobile site into your current activities and budgeting processes. In some cases, a web app can be developed by an in-house web team at minimal cost.

Despite the many advantages of web-based apps, there are some downsides to consider as well. Web-based apps live online, so they require Internet connectivity to transmit the content to the device. This could be a serious issue if your institution doesn’t have Wi-Fi access with good coverage and bandwidth in the galleries and other areas where you want the web app to be used. Cellular connections may not provide enough bandwidth or stability to support a media-rich web app experience, and visitors on roaming or “pay-as-you-go” data plans will not want to use their own devices unless Wi-Fi is available.
There is a marketing challenge in offering web apps, as well. Apple has an ongoing marketing campaign for iTunes that includes television commercials. People who don’t even own an iPhone still understand you can get “an app for that.” Web-based apps have to be accessed directly through a URL like a website, so it’s up to the institution to do its own marking and search engine optimization to ensure that people find the web app and know that it is available. Web apps can be “bookmarked” to the device’s home screen to create the look and feel of a device-native app, but not all users will understand how to do this. That requires more education and marketing from the institution.

Dallas Museum of Art
Drawing from our own experiences with the changing trends of technology and emergence of new devices, the Dallas Museum of Art opted to go with a web-based application to deliver our tour content.

Several years ago, we considered implementing cellphone-based tours in the galleries and throughout the museum. Many museums had adopted this technology as a way of allowing visitors to utilize personal cell phones to access audio tour content. However, the Dallas Museum of Art resides in a building that unfortunately blocks out most phone reception. As we investigated the option of purchasing repeaters to solve this issue, it became apparent that we were looking at a multi-million dollar investment.

Therefore, we decided the smarter solution was to invest in an in-house Wi-Fi network. In 2007 Apple introduced the first iPhone, which profoundly changed the definition of a “smartphone” across the entire industry. Seeing the ensuing frenzy of competition to produce the next “iPhone killer,” it became clear that mobile devices were not only going to get cheaper but also more powerful. More importantly, the technology would be changing rapidly. We are an art museum, not a phone provider, so a major concern was that we didn’t want to design our entire program around one particular device. Developing an iPhone app, for instance, leaves out Blackberry and Android users. So considering our Wi-Fi commitment and the evolving technology in both the mobile space and the implementation of web standards, we decided the web-based app would give us the most flexibility. The user could use his or her own device. Even for the devices the museum owns and makes available to visitors, the brand is irrelevant and uncommitted. We can change these without affecting the way the content is produced and delivered.

Examining the Needs of Your Own Institution
As you can see, web-based applications come with a few challenges of their own. It is important to ask what kind of app is right for your institution.

In the commercial world, with substantial budget and options, Pizza Hut developed both web-based and device-native apps. After analyzing app use across both platforms, they found that native apps were popular with loyalists, and the mobile web worked well for customer acquisition [3]. So in choosing the right app approach for your institution, the first question is, who is the important target audience?

Is your audience particularly tech-savvy? Most institutions are a mix of tech- and non-tech-oriented people, but does your constituency lean towards one over the other? If your visitors lean in the non-tech-savvy direction and won’t bring their own smartphones to the museum, this can mean you have to stock a higher number of devices to hand out, with all the additional costs that entails. And how many visitors do you have in the door, particularly at high-traffic events or openings? Both of these questions will impact the number of devices you’ll have to offer on-site in order to provide comprehensive access to your mobile program.

If you are providing your own devices, even in small numbers, you will have to consider staff training issues (or even dedicated staff) for distributing and maintaining the devices. If you have high door traffic, your institution may be required to keep and maintain several hundred devices. What if your visitors have never used an iPod touch and are unfamiliar with the technology? Your visitor services staff might not be equipped to handle long ticket lines while having to stop and provide basic training on how to use the device. You will also have to consider training security guards. When visitors have technical problems, they will not walk all the way back to visitor services; they will more than likely go to the closest museum employee. These are logistical issues to consider that have nothing to do with the web team developing a great app.

Since a web-based application is dependent on an Internet connection, you must also consider your Wi-Fi and bandwidth capabilities. We haven’t had any major issues at the DMA, but we have also invested heavily in our wireless connectivity over the last few years. It is important to note that in-gallery Wi-Fi is not possible for all museums, for reasons ranging from cost to having a historically designated building that prevents the staff from making the alterations needed to install Wi-Fi. Smartphones often come with 3G or 4G wireless Internet capabilities, but use of these services can result in expensive roaming fees for international visitors.

So what do you give up in terms of features when choosing a web-based app over a device-native app? Considering both have been developed to run on modern smartphones, really very little. When their app was banned from iTunes for “competing with the phone’s native functionality,” Google used HTML5 to create a web-based version of their popular Google Voice phone service, successfully circumventing Apple’s restrictions.

HTML5 is an emerging web standard that offers many of the features and functions that until now have been possible only in native apps. Device-native apps can take full advantage of access to the core layers of technology the device provides. These include things like a built-in ability to play audio and video, storing data, use of built-in device buttons controls, animations, etc. Web-based applications have more restricted and limited access to these core functions, but HTML5 now includes many of these features (media playback, geo-location, etc.) in its own frameworks and systems; indeed most of these are already supported on modern phone browsers. HTML5 also allows you to create a fall-back if the browser doesn’t support a particular feature that you want to build into your web app. Javascript is commonly used to work around certain features that aren’t fully supported at this point. It is estimated that HTML5 will be supported across all major browsers by 2014, and it is designed to be backwards compatible, so you can certainly start using it now in the knowledge that it provides fallbacks, meaning if a browser doesn’t yet support a feature, you can assign a “backup plan” of either reduced functionality or an alternative feature. [4]

In Conclusion…
In developing their mobile strategies, it is extremely important that museums consider the full range of mobile platforms available to them, and not limit themselves either first or foremost to device-native apps just because they are “cool and sexy.”

Ultimately your primary concerns are user experience and the quality of the content that you offer. It is extremely important not to let your mobile strategy get in the way of this. Technology changes, and visitors don’t come to your museum to use iPods. They come for a much deeper experience. It is our job to deliver that.

An iOS app (developed for use on the Apple operating systems) is a tempting solution on many levels: iPhones, iPod Touches and iPads are very popular and give the impression that your institution is using the most current available technology. It is a marketing tool that rides right on the back of the millions of dollars being spent to promote the iTunes store. But pull back and look at this from a 20,000-foot view. What are the costs associated? Do the development costs create a program that is sustainable and able to evolve? What about future devices that haven’t been conceived yet? What other devices will be relevant in the coming years? What is necessary to have Wi-Fi in-gallery at your museum? How does this affect the user’s experience? Will visitors be frustrated and distracted, or will they find the content useful? These are all important things to consider. A mobile strategy is a serious and ongoing commitment, not a one-off project.

The mobile web can offer museums cost-effective and sustainable solutions for many of their needs, without the two-week-plus wait for Apple to vet the app and possibly even reject it. Nor are web applications limited to creating traditional tour guide experiences. Tours are obviously a priority for most institutions, but there are worlds of possibilities of projects that would encourage participation and interaction with visitors, and the interactivity of the web supports these. I honestly believe we are only limited by our imaginations and the risks we are willing to take.

Ted Forbes, multimedia producer, Dallas Museum of Art

1. “What does it cost to make an iPhone app?” Toy Lounge, 2010,  (17 September 2010).

2. “How much does it cost to make an app?” London Smartphone, 2009, (8 April 2009).

3. Giselle Tsirulnik, “Pizza Hut exec reveals how branded app achieved 2 million downloads,” The Mobile Xperience, 2010,  (2 November 2010).

4. If you are interested in reading more of the technical specifications, I highly recommend Mark Pilgram’s wonderful web manual, “Dive into HTML5,” as well as Erik Wilde’s dretblog featuring his wonderful HTML5 Landscape Overview.

Mobile Business Models in a 2.0 Economy [1]

by Nancy Proctor

Mobile is changing the way museums do business—whether they are aware of it or not. As “the people formerly known as the audience” [2] increasingly expect information and experiences on demand, wherever and whenever they are, the market is growing for mobile products and services for and about museums. At the same time, museums are beginning to think of audiences in a more granular way, recognizing more variation in needs and interests among their visitors, partners and collaborators, both online and on-site. As a result, museums aspire to create mobile products and service that better suit specific audience groups and contexts. In response, a wide range of new players has entered the mobile scene, loosening the grip of the handful of audio tour companies who dominated the field for over 50 years. Start-up app companies and smartphone manufacturers, mobile network providers and social media gurus, students, freelance content developers, open data protagonists, “citizen curators,” new alliances among cultural organizations to co-create content—it seems that nearly every day new forces are emerging to radically reconfigure both the museum mobile landscape and its business models. [3]

A review of the business strategies developed over the 60-year history of the audio tour [4] shows that some persist in this Mobile 2.0 economy; others are the result of new functions possible on handheld computing platforms and the new business interests that are bringing them to market. What hasn’t changed is that whether “free” or “paid for” by the end-user, there is always a cost to the museum to develop a mobile program. Following is a brief discussion of some of the main models museums are adopting to pay for their new mobile products and services, while also achieving their educational, outreach, and interpretive goals.

Omnibus: One way museums have struck a balance between their missions and the need for revenue has been to tie less popular mobile programs—usually the permanent collection audio tours—to the more profitable blockbuster exhibition audio or multimedia tours in “omnibus” contracts with (generally larger) tour companies. In this kind of deal, mobile interpretation of the permanent collection is effectively subsidized by the higher revenues from temporary exhibition tours, which “sell” better. The blockbuster tours are rented to visitors at a relatively high take-up rate (usually over 15% of visitors take the tour, up to 85% or more in the most successful tours), and some percentage of the profit from the temporary exhibition tour sales is plowed back in to creating permanent exhibition tours: in effect, the audio tour vendor is incentivized to produce the less profitable permanent collection audio tour in exchange for the opportunity to manage the more lucrative and PR-worthy blockbuster exhibition contracts. Some economies of scale can be achieved by using the same hardware and distribution infrastructure for both, but profit margins are reduced by piggybacking the permanent collection program on the more mass-market blockbuster tours. For the app incarnation of this business model, see “Freemium.”

Freemium: The new “freemium” model of the Web 2.0 economy has been greeted with enthusiasm by many cultural professionals (see, for example, DaPonte 2010), but so far there are very few examples in the museum market. The National Constitution Center’s app has basic visiting information, the Constitution, and links to current political news; it is free to download, but then charges $0.99 for each themed tour within the app, offering free sample stops for each one. MoMA has just introduced its “MoMA Books” app for the iPad, which is free to download but then requires an in-app purchase to download a complete book from the MoMA library. A variant on the omnibus model, freemium combines the concepts of the “free” and “premium” content in one digital product: educational, outreach and revenue imperatives are balanced by providing the app with some amount of free “loss-leader” content (e.g., from the permanent collection, or, as in the case of the MoMA Books app, sample chapter content), with the possibility to make an “in-app purchase” to add more content at a fee (e.g., for the special exhibition; the full book).

Subscription: In February 2011, iTunes introduced a subscription model for its app-based content. Launched with The Daily news iPad app from News Corporation, this model enables publishers to sell an app that will be updated periodically with new content at a recurring fee to the end-user. This suggests interesting new possibilities for museums to offer not just digital magazines through iTunes, but also subscriptions to apps and digital catalogues or other “ePubs” that are regularly updated. There are two catches: Apple takes 30% of subscription revenue (the same amount they garner from every app sale through iTunes), and perhaps more significantly for museums, these new products may require a new workflow to support the process of updating content. In the typical print production model, once a product has been published, only new editions and print runs permit content changes. Will museum book and catalogue teams be willing and able to adopt a magazine-style process in order to attract additional revenues beyond the initial product sale? Only time will tell, but it is certain that periodical publishers everywhere will be looking for alternatives to iTunes for distributing their digital products so they can cash in on the recurring revenues of the subscription model without having to pay such a hefty commission to Apple. As a result, museums can expect the number of online distribution channels for their downloadable digital products to increase in future.

Open Data: In response to an earlier essay on which this one is based and which was published as part of the proceedings for Museums and the Web 2011, Glen Barnes from app company MyTours suggested an additional new business model: making the museum’s data and content available to third parties to develop mobile apps and other products “for” the museum and its audiences. [5] While museums might justifiably keep their physical collections under lock and key for their own and the longer-term public good, they are being asked with increasing frequency to open their data and digital collections for use by others. The White House’s Open.Gov initiative calls for greater openness and transparency by the Federal Government in the United States, and includes a directive to federal agencies, which includes federally-funded museums, to publish data online, [6] as well as a strategy for making data more accessible, and more data available. [7]

Barnes argues that the benefits outweigh the loss of control for museums, and offers these examples of possible outcomes of museums opening their data:

  • A company with an existing tour app could aggregate tours from various museums into one app that allows users to find all of the nearby museum tours. This could open the possibility of your content being found by people who might not otherwise know about your museum.
  • Nokia fans/hackers are annoyed that none of the apps for museums are coming out for the Symbian platform… They develop an app that makes the content available on their device.
  • Of course it can’t all be roses… A content farm scrapes the content, republishes it and wraps a bunch of [ads] around the content.

In his essay in this volume, Koven Smith argues that museums have more control than they may think in the “Open Data” model: by controlling what data they release and in what format—and through a judicious use of creative commons copyrights—museums can influence to a large extent the kind of mobile products that are created with their content. [8] The Brooklyn Museum conducted an early experiment with this model, enabling Iconoclash Media to develop an app for the collection with the Museum’s Open Collection API. [9] By inspiring new kinds of partnership and revenue streams, this model offers perhaps the most potential for business innovation in the mobile sector.

Sponsorship: Another traditional model is sponsorship, which covers part or all of the cost of the mobile program’s creation and distribution, allowing the museum to offer the product or service to visitors without charge or at a reduced fee. This model may also free up the mobile content for broader distribution without being in conflict with a revenue source for the museum. In the case of museum tours, the usage rate for the sponsored tour is significantly higher than those without subsidy. For example, when MoMA’s audio program was offered for free after the museum reopened in 2004, courtesy of a grant from Bloomberg, the tour usage rate went from 5–8% of visitors to 31%, and now reaches more than 45% with the broader distribution through MoMA Wi Fi and other channels. Similarly, for several years, AT&T sponsored SFMOMA Artcasts, the museum’s podcast series (though that sponsorship was eventually transferred to a higher ticket funding opportunity). (Burnette, 2011)

Advertising-Supported: Until now, sponsorship has been the limit of the introduction of commercial brands into museum settings, unlike symphonies, theater, and ballet, which distribute programs where advertising is plentiful. One example of an early experiment with in-app advertising is the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s 100 Acres tour. The museum agreed to a “media-swap” with the local Sunday paper: in exchange for publicity for the mobile website in the newspaper, a “disappearing” banner ad is seen briefly at the bottom of the map each time the map is accessed in the app.

Outside the museum world, some app and mobile website publishing platforms that are free to the publishers and/or users include the platform owner’s logo, advertising, or the possibility of selling advertising as an indirect way of paying the platform authors/owners for the use of their service (e.g., WireNode, Mobify; many Twitter apps are free to end-users but include advertising banners). But so far this funding source has not been fully explored by the museum community.

Membership Benefit: Some museums use audio tours, provided at a fee to most visitors, as a membership benefit. The Royal Academy in London, for example, provides free audio tours along with free entry to their exhibitions for members, enabling them to skip the line to get into blockbuster shows, as well. This is a good example of leveraging a mobile product for its “network effects”: in addition to its direct revenue potential, the audio tour adds an incentive to join the museum and thereby drives an additional revenue stream above and beyond tour rental fees.

Donations: Mobile giving got its biggest boost in public awareness from the Red Cross’s text donations to Haiti campaign: in less than 10 days, over $30 million had been donated in $10 increments from 3 million unique donors, with additional donor development benefits for the non-profit: 95% of the text-message donors were “first-time donors to the American Red Cross,” and “20,000 opted in to receive ongoing email communications from the nonprofit organization.” (Mobilemarketer, 2010) These spectacular results attracted many museums to try mobile giving, but, as Megan Weintraub, new media manager for Oxfam, said to the NonProfit Times, “Not everybody is the Red Cross. You don’t have Michelle Obama telling you to text with other organizations.” The decidedly more modest results from mobile giving at cultural organizations have yielded the most with event-driven campaigns that make extensive use of traditional marketing and advertising outlets to publicize the cause and its donation short code. The Philips Collection solicited text message donations of $5 and $10 to help restore the museum after the September 2010 fire. (ArtInfo, 2010) Anyone contemplating mobile giving campaigns must also take into account the marketing overheads required to make them successful: signage, traditional media publicity for the campaign, and staff time are all costs to be weighed against new donation revenues. Nonetheless, mobile giving offers benefits beyond just money: increases in new donors, members and opt-ins to the museum’s mailing list should also be factored in as potential additional “network effects” that can result from a well-designed campaign.

The Value Is in the Network

In the summer of 2010, Fast Company blogger Aaron Shapiro wrote:

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has said, the App Store has generated more than $1 billion in revenue for developers. That sounds like a big number. But… [o]ne billion dollars in revenue for the approximately 225,000 apps is $4,444 per app—significantly less than an app costs to develop… A typical iPhone app costs $35,000 to develop. The median paid app earns $682 per year after Apple takes its cut. With these calculations for the typical paid app, it takes 51 years to break even. It’s not any better for free apps. A free app also costs about $35,000 to develop. But there are so many free iPhone apps that at a rate of 2 seconds per app, it would take approximately 34 hours for someone to check out each one. That’s not great odds for a revenue model based on advertising. (Fast Company, 2010)

It is becoming clear that museums are as unlikely as any other developer to “get rich quick” on mobile apps. But scant financial returns on mobile products are really nothing new to the museum field: with a few exceptions among the most visited cultural attractions, revenues have not been the most significant benefits to the museum from its audio tours and their progeny. Nonetheless, museums have been early adopters and innovators on the mobile space for some 60 years. The investment required for mobile programs has commonly been justified because of mobile’s unique ability to meet other needs of the museum’s mission: offering greater possibilities for extending outreach, improving the quality and accessibility of interpretation and education, and supporting other revenue initiatives and connecting platforms to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The metrics of success for mobile, like its goals, are therefore not just the number of downloads and dollars received, but also the extent to which the mobile program is able to engage audiences and support other museum programs, activities and revenue streams. These outcomes are clearly much more difficult to quantify, but devising metrics, measuring tools, and a management culture that evaluates and values them should be a focus of effort by the museum community as we experiment with new mobile business models. As Max Anderson has indicated, the “network effects” possible when mission-driven initiatives are connected in a healthy eco-system show that there is more than just “red ink” to the business of mobiles in museums. (Anderson, 2007)


  1. This chapter is an updated and expanded version of a portion of the essay, “Getting On (not under) the Mobile 2.0 Bus: Emerging issues in the mobile business model” co-written with Allegra Burnette, Peter Samis and Rich Cherry and published in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, March 31, 2011. The author would like to thank her collaborators for their contribution to this current version.
  2. Comment by Bill Thompson of the BBC during his interview by David Rowan of Wired Magazine as part of the conference, “Mobile for the Cultural Sector,” London, 8 March 2011, consulted 28 March, 2011.
  3. In this volume, Peter Samis (“Models and Misnomers for Mobile Production”) discusses how these new entrants to the field have exploded the traditional mobile content production model for museums.
  4. Loic Tallon found what may be the earliest audio tour in a museum, the 1952 multilingual audio tour of an exhibition “Vermeer: Real or Fake” at the Stedelijke Museum in Amsterdam: Gescheidenis (History), “Draadloze rondleiding in het Amsterdamse Stedelijke Museum,” film clip from Polygoon Hollands Nieuws, July 28, 1952. Consulted January 30, 2011. Tallon blogged about this discovery . (Tallon 2009).
  5. Glen Barnes, comment on the online paper, “Getting On (not Under) the Mobile 2.0 Bus: Emerging Issues in the Mobile Business Model |”,
  6. White House, “Open Government Policy”, Open Government Initiative,  consulted 28 March 2011.
  7. Office of E-Government and IT, Office of Management and Budget, “Data.Gov Concept of Operations”, consulted 28 March 2011.
  8. Koven Smith, “Mobile Experience Design: What’s Your Roll-Out Strategy?” in this volume.
  9. The trajectory of this partnership, including the branding issues that arose when the museum released its own app and the subsequent decision to temporarily remove the Iconoclash app (pending re-release under a different developer name and branding) has been charted through the Brooklyn Museum’s blog; see especially: “Brooklyn Museum API: the iPhone app” 17 April 2009 and “App Store Confusion Necessitates API Changes” 1 December 2010 Consulted 28 March 2011.


  • Anderson, Maxwell L. “Prescriptions for Art Museums in the Decade Ahead,” CURATOR: The Museum Journal, Volume 50, Number 1, January 2007.
  • DaPonte, Jason. Keynote presentation at Tate’s 2010 Handheld Conference. Consulted January 31, 2011.
  • Shapiro, Aaron, “The Great App Bubble,” Fast Company, August 20, 2010. Consulted January 27, 2011.
  • Samis, Peter, “Models and Misnomers for Mobile Production” in Proctor, Nancy, ed., Mobile Apps for Museums: The AAM Guide to Planning and Strategy, Washington, DC: 2011, The AAM Press, American Association of Museums.
  • Smith, Koven, “Mobile Experience Design: What’s Your Roll-Out Strategy?” in Proctor, Nancy, ed., Mobile Apps for Museums: The AAM Guide to Planning and Strategy, Washington, DC: 2011, The AAM Press, American Association of Museums.


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.


  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.
  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.


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.