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.


Mobile Experience Design: What’s Your Roll-Out Strategy?

By Koven Smith

Rapid advancements in smartphone technology of the last few years have changed the nature of mobile experiences in museums utterly. Where tour-based audio guides were once the only type of mobile experience available to museum visitors, we are currently witnessing an explosion in the types of experiences from which visitors might choose. Augmented reality games, crowd-sourced content creation, or even experiences not designed to occur inside the museum at all are just a few of the new ways that museums are beginning to explore to enhance either a physical or virtual visit.

These new opportunities mean that museums must now take a more nuanced approach to how their mobile experiences are introduced to the public. In the past, the expense of providing mobile experiences to visitors (typically via audio) meant that those experiences needed to appeal to the broadest possible audience in order to make them cost-effective. This broad appeal was reflected in the brute-force marketing strategies employed by museums to encourage uptake: handing out mobile guides to visitors, advertising the guides with large signs at the entrance, and often providing mobile guides as a premium benefit of membership.

However, development of mobile applications and mobile web sites as replacement for dedicated devices as the primary means of delivering mobile experiences — and the concomitant reduction in production costs — means that mobile experiences in museums no longer need to be designed for a museum’s entire audience in order to be cost-effective. Many of these new types of mobile experiences are often aimed at a particular niche audience, whether scholars, gamers, children, or social butterflies. Each of these niche audiences requires its own type of solicitation, both via the design of the mobile application itself as well as the marketing campaign used to introduce it. Museums must therefore design the strategy by which a mobile experience is “rolled out” to the public as carefully as it designs the mobile experience itself. The goal of a successful mobile roll-out strategy should not be to reach more users, but rather to reach more of the right users.

Reaching the right users involves reflecting the needs of a given target group in the design of the application, but also in the ways the target group is approached to participate. Mobile applications designed for a small subset of a museum’s public shouldn’t be marketed to every single person who walks in the door, any more than an application designed for use by the “average” visitor should be marketed exclusively to the gaming community. A museum’s roll-out and marketing strategy should act as a signal to visitors indicating what type of experience they should expect; visitors should then be able to better self-select the kinds of experiences that are right for them. What follows is a discussion of three typical roll-out strategies for mobile experiences in museums, with a discussion of how the target audience, application design, and marketing strategy affect one another. These strategies should serve as solid starting points for any museum contemplating how to introduce its visitors to a new mobile experience.

Scenario 1: Broad Appeal

Target Audience: In a “broad appeal” scenario, the museum is marketing its mobile experience to every single visitor who enters the building. A mass-market roll-out scenario is designed to reach the largest number of potential users, typically from a wide array of demographic backgrounds. In this scenario, the visit to the museum drives use of the mobile application; the average user has probably not arrived at the museum already aware that a mobile experience is available to him or her, necessitating a wider-reaching information/marketing campaign. The typical result of this kind of campaign is a relatively passive type of engagement from a large number of users.

Design: If a mobile application is to be marketed to the masses in this way, it must be truly usable by those masses. The application should be highly fault-tolerant and forgiving of mistakes on the part of the visitor, not dependent on the user’s familiarity with other technologies or services in order to participate in the experience (“sign in with your Twitter account” would be a poor way to kick off the experience, for example), and not contingent on the user’s familiarity with specialized language or jargon. Because the user engagement in this type of scenario is likely to be low, the threshold to content consumption should also be low.

Strategy: Because this type of experience is designed for most (if not all) visitors to the museum, the roll-out of the experience should reflect this more “populist” nature. It should be impossible for any visitor to exit the building without knowing that there is a mobile experience available to him or her. The most straightforward way to encourage adoption is simply to rent or loan the visitor a device with the application pre-loaded on it. Prominent signage and other kinds of promotional materials (e.g., bookmarks reminding visitors to rent a tour, or offering a discount) at the entrances and in dwell spaces will also help to saturate the physical space with the awareness that the mobile experience is available.

In instances where giving a device to the visitor may not be possible, the museum must make the application available for download to users’ own devices. Making an application available in this way is not as straightforward as it might seem. First, signage must be available — at every location that the visitor might use the application — directing the visitor how to download the application to his or her personal device. Many users may not download the application at the front door, so it is important to have additional signs prompting download throughout the building, in locations where content is available. The nature of this signage should also reflect the nature of the application design. If the application is primarily aimed at researchers, scholars, or students, for instance, a broad appeal campaign may not be appropriate: the museum cannot create a broadly targeted information campaign for an application that will be difficult for all but a small minority of its visitors to use. A large sign saying “Download our mobile app!” is a not-so-subtle message to the user that the app will be easy to use, and will not require much from the visitor.

Scenario 2: Stealth

Target Audience: A “stealth” roll-out means that the museum has decided to market its mobile experience to a niche group without an overt information campaign. The expectation is that this group will be a subset of the museum’s total visitor profile, but that this smaller group will be far more actively engaged with the mobile experience than the “average” visitor. With a stealth campaign, users of the mobile application should already be aware of the application before a visit is made, if the application itself did not in fact prompt a visit.

Design: A “stealth” campaign is an appropriate means of marketing when discovery, exploration, and mystery are primary components of the application design. While the application shouldn’t necessarily be difficult to use, the act of figuring out how the application works should be a key part of its appeal. Because a stealth campaign is targeted at a smaller audience, the application should have an appeal tailored to the audience being targeted. An application designed to be a broad introduction to the museum’s collection, for instance, wouldn’t necessarily benefit from being rolled out in this manner.

Strategy: In a stealth campaign, the marketing of the mobile application is itself part of the total experience. The primary goal is a highly engaged user community, so the roll-out campaign should be designed to promote a high level of curiosity at the outset. There are a number of strategies a museum might employ in pursuit of this goal. A straightforward strategy might be to identify potential “influencers” in the museum’s community, and give those influencers a personal introduction to the application, with the expectation that these users will provoke others to use the application as well.

Another possibility would be to take a cue from alternate reality campaigns, and attempt to promote a sense of mystery around the application. In this scenario, the museum might use signage, but in a more oblique way than in a broad appeal campaign. The museum might embed “clues” that would prompt a visitor to download the application to his or her phone or to take additional actions. Clues could even be embedded in materials designed to be consumed outside of the museum, such as print materials or the museum’s web site. An effective stealth campaign should guarantee user interest and engagement long before the application itself is actually downloaded.

Scenario 3: Third-Party

The recent explosion in the number of museums making collections content available via APIs (“application programming interface”) has created a third viable scenario for museums: an application designed by a third party, completely outside the museum’s purview and control. Strategizing for both design and marketing of a mobile experience developed in this way is challenging, but not impossible. A museum in fact has the ability to influence both the design and introduction of a mobile experience, even when developed largely without that museum’s input. The target audience of this type of experience is variable, depending on the museum’s goals.

Design: Again, in this scenario the museum is looking for means by which it can influence the development of a mobile experience more than overtly control that development. Here, a museum might look at multiple types of content to make publicly available. A museum making its information available via an API might create a separate “mobile-ready” API that prioritizes the types of information the museum would like to see in a mobile device. Delivering data in this way helps to ensure that the mobile application developed by an outside developer will still focus on the kind of information that is important to the museum. A museum might also publish a list of locations within the building, with particular content attached to each, or a database of artists within the collection, or a geotagged list of artist birth/work locations. Museums might make any number of content types available that would encourage developers to create applications that travel outside of the normal “tour” format.

Strategy: A third-party mobile experience represents a unique challenge for museums from a roll-out and marketing standpoint. Because the museum may not know that an application is being developed until it is already publicly available, it is difficult to schedule its roll-out into a broader marketing strategy or schedule. In this scenario, what the museum should be looking to do is to provide incentives to potential mobile developers to work within the museum’s ideal framework. There are a number of ways a museum might do this. It might simply indicate a willingness to promote an application in its galleries or on its website if the application is developed according to certain standards. It might also be willing to provide physical infrastructure for certain types of applications (AR or gaming applications, for example). While doing this, it is critical that the museum keep in mind how to create brand differentiation between its own “official” applications and those developed by the community, inserting appropriate language into “terms of service” agreements and the like.


A diversity of mobile experience types demands a parallel diversity of marketing approaches. It is clear that museums need to begin making far more deliberate choices about how their mobile experiences are rolled out to the public. Making the right choice will help to ensure that the right visitors are paired with the right types of experiences. Whether the museum wishes to reach its visitors outside the building, via a game-style approach, or inside with a mobile tour, the roll-out strategy should be carefully considered at each and every stage of development.

So Many Devices, So Many Options: An Introduction to Cross-Platform Thinking

By Allegra Burnette

Traditionally we are trained to think that form follows function: first you decide the content and purpose of what you are designing, building or creating, and then you shape the form around that. But in many ways, mobile projects are the reverse — the function of your app is often led by the form factor of the device itself. A tablet, for example, offers a different kind of experience than a smartphone, and that difference can shape the app you develop.

Smartphones are inherently portable, enabling us to slip a vast array of content, activities, and resources into our pockets or bags and take them wherever we go, pulling them out when we need to look up something or find out where we are. They are therefore ideally suited for things like audio tours in the museum, finding out the location of a museum and the next event or film showing, and looking up an art term while standing in front of a work of art. Going beyond the one-way communication of a traditional audio tour, mobile phones enable two-way communication between the museum and its visitors, as well as visitors with other visitors.

Tablets, while also portable, are (at least currently) typically much less about a literal on-the-move experience — even Apple’s ads when the iPad came out last year showed someone with the device propped against his knees, leisurely perusing an app or browsing the Web. People use tablets while traveling on planes, trains, and in automobiles. They use them to read magazines, play games, and watch a movie. A tablet can be viewed by several people at once more easily than a phone can. But at the same time, the tablet format creates a more intimate personal space between user and device than a laptop or desktop computer does: we are interacting directly with the screen rather than through a separate keyboard or mouse, and we are often holding it rather than facing it.

At The Museum of Modern Art we prioritized the iPhone as our first platform for mobile development because iPhone users were the largest mobile audience of our website. (While Android was second largest at the time we set our priorities, the iPad overtook the Android audience shortly after it first came out in the spring of 2010, and remains the second largest at the time of writing.) In order to make the best use of our resources and to streamline development and ongoing maintenance, we developed an app that was a hybrid of a native app and a mobile site. Creating this hybrid app rather than just a mobile site gave us access to broader distribution through the Apple App Store. This also gave us the opportunity to create features like MoMA Snaps, a branded postcard activity, which would not have been possible through a browser version alone. But at the same time, it allowed us to develop a structural base that could be adapted for an Android app and the mobile version of our website, MoMA.org.

The MoMA iPhone app that we developed was meant as both an in-museum and an offsite experience. Like many museums currently developing mobile apps, we wanted to include our audio tour content. But we were not intending to replace or supplement the current in-museum audio devices with iPods loaded with the app (due to the quantity needed, as well as distribution, security, and maintenance issues). Instead, our intention was to offer the app for people who wanted to access the content through their own devices when in the museum. We included the entire calendar of events and exhibitions and access to all of the online collection with the intention that people would also use the app to plan a visit or learn about works of art beyond the walls of the museum.

While the iPhone app (and the later Android and mobile versions) was a more general view of MoMA and its collection, the iPad app we developed for the Abstract Expressionist New York (AB EX NY) exhibition was an exploration in creating an experience specifically for a tablet device around a single exhibition. We chose not to do a tablet version of the mobile phone app immediately because we felt the form factor necessitated a different approach to the content. This initial tablet project gave us a chance to explore focused ideas on how we could present works in our collection, which in turn might later inform broader, tablet-based projects that we may develop in the future.

Several ideas we explored in the tablet format would have been less effective or not possible in a phone-based app including. For example, a split screen layout, which allows textual information to appear adjacent to a work of art. It is very difficult to combine text and art onscreen in a meaningful way on a phone — your focus is either on one or the other (which is in part why video and audio are particularly effective on a smartphone).

The home screen of the iPad app was a scrollable view of the works that were featured in the program, with the images shown loosely in scale with each other. This selection, combined with the “gallery” browse views, creates a different experience than the typical, more list-based phone app.

While these are certainly not all of the different layout considerations between a tablet and a phone app, they do hint at the larger issue at hand: How do we create compelling experiences for the different device form factors with the limited resources available to museums and in the rapidly changing face of technology? The sand is shifting so much right now that there is not currently a clear answer, but being strategic and thoughtful about how you approach the various platforms (tablet versus phone) and formats (app versus Web), while staying true to the content and your own capabilities (or those of a trusted consultant), is at least a start.

While the AB EX NY iPad app was intended to promote the exhibition, its related publication, and MoMA’s collection, we very specifically intended it to be an experience that took place outside of the exhibition, whether that meant people used it before or after a visit, or even if they never came to the museum at all. We even used images inspired by the Apple campaign of someone using the app in a non-museum space to reinforce that idea. Even though the app includes the content from the audio tour, it really didn’t occur to us that people might try to use it within the museum as a mobile app, until we read this in a review:

You may find the experience of lugging an iPad around the exhibit distracting; I certainly did at times, for no other reason than all the attention it attracted. But if you think about this as a piece of software, free to be downloaded onto any iPad anywhere with an Internet connection, then it dawns on you: a kid in Idaho, two time zones and two thousand from the MoMA, can experience this content as easily as a youngster from the Bronx.

This was a valuable lesson: no matter how we design these apps and no matter how carefully we tailor them to a particular platform, the known unknown is how and where people are going to use their mobile devices. Anecdotally, we have noticed that in the museum, people are using both phones and tablets, with phones making more of an appearance in the galleries and tablets used more in the interstitial spaces. But if we offer the same program on both phones and tablets, would visitors switch between devices based on where they are, or are they more device-consistent within the space of the museum? At this point, only more observation and testing will reveal the answer to that.

If we look at the number of mobile phone apps versus tablet apps in the Apple App Store and Android Market, we see far more of the former than the latter. While this is in part due to the fact that tablets are newer to the market and comprise a smaller share of the mobile device landscape in general, it may also be due to the different experience of using a tablet and the different requirements, including interface design, needed to develop those experiences. And while “function follows form” may be in large part the way we’ve started developing mobile museum apps, as tablets start to come out in varying sizes and phones screens get larger, the differences between a phone versus a tablet experience is likely to become blurred. Add to that the various ways that people use mobile devices, and there are more overlaps between smartphones and tablets. Careful planning and evolving development solutions should help clear a path through the morass as we move past our mobile beginnings to a multiplatform future.

Playful Apps

By Jane Burton

There are hundreds of thousands of apps for smartphone consumers to choose from, and most of them are games. Games make up 70 to 80 percent of all apps downloaded. The latest reports say that 26 million people spend at least 25 minutes every day playing games on their phones [Flurry Analytics, Feb 2011]. The incredible amount of innovation in smartphone mobile gaming is showing us how to create content that people really want to spend time with. The question museums and galleries need to answer is whether there is room in this marketplace for “serious games,” games that offer more than just pure entertainment.

The potential to bring significant ideas to life within the framework of game-play is something that has been brilliantly expressed in the work of Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken, and by UK television’s Channel 4 Education team, who have put gaming at the heart of their content offering to young audiences. But little of the research and innovation around “serious games” has focused on the rapidly growing area of apps.

One of the most successful games produced by a museum is Launchball, from The Science Museum, London, which was first developed in 2007 to be played on kiosks in gallery and online. Designed for children ages of 8 to 14, the game requires you to guide a ball through a series of fiendish challenges, using fans, magnets and Tesla Coils to help you as you learn basic scientific principles along the way. The online version proved so popular, gaining 5.3 million players, that in 2009 the Science Museum re-launched it as a paid-for app. So far the app has been downloaded 7,842 times, enough to pay for its development and return a modest profit, says the museum. This is an achievement, given that the same game can still be played for free online. Nonetheless, the disparity in the figures is a striking reminder of the reach of the web compared to any given app store, and of the power of free content.

Another great “playful” offering, though not strictly a game, is the MEanderthal app from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, which transforms your photo into the face of an early human. You upload a photo of your face, then choose which human species you’d like to become as you morph back in time. There is a serious point behind the fun: “We think it’s really important for people to make emotional connections to our ancestors,” commented Briana Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist at the Smithsonian. “It’s an important way to break down that barrier between things we think are so different or so ‘other.'”

At Tate, we’re interested in finding out if app gaming mechanisms can be applied to an art context. We have produced one game so far, and have two more in development. Launched in 2010, Tate Trumps is a digital card game you play with the art on display at Tate Modern. Visitors can download the game for free to an iPod Touch or iPhone, roam the galleries, choose seven high-scoring artworks, and then play a fast-paced and strategic game of Trumps. There are three different modes (Battle, Mood, or Collector) and you can play on your own or with your friends or family. In Battle mode, you need to ask yourself the question, “If this artwork came to life, how good would it be in a fight?” In Mood mode, you’re looking for artworks you think are menacing, exhilarating or absurd. Or, if you wish you had a gallery of your own, try Collector mode, and find pictures that are famous, recently produced or practical to house.

Tate Trumps is unashamedly light-hearted, but at its core promotes the acts of discovery and looking — key to any art experience — whilst encouraging people to form their own opinions. Being a multi-player game, it also acknowledges the fact that gallery-going, for many, is a social activity, shared amongst friends.
Tate Trumps was deliberately designed to be played only at Tate Modern in order to encourage a direct encounter with artworks. But of course app stores are global marketplaces, and we hadn’t reckoned on the frustration that not being able to play would engender in the majority of people who wouldn’t be coming to the gallery in the near future.

For our next game, currently in development, the brief was to come up with something that could be played anywhere, without visiting the museum, but with bonus content for those who can make it to Tate Modern. Shake your phone and the “Magic Tate Ball” will curate a piece of artwork that relates specifically to that unique moment in time. Pass it round the pub or check it on the train to find out which artworks fit the DNA of your daily life. In auto-mode, the application will use the iPhone’s sensors (microphone and GPS), along with other feeds like weather and time, to deduce the most appropriate artwork for the given criteria. In manual mode, the user can ask the Magic Tate Ball to generate ideas on themes: Inspire me; Shock me; Give me a Talking Point.

The third game we are developing pushes further into pure gaming territory. The challenge we’ve set ourselves is to take a simple, addictive form of gameplay along the lines of Doodle Jump and bring art into the mix, imparting meaningful information without getting in the way of the action.

The jury is still out on how successful games like these will be in terms of introducing new audiences to Tate’s Collection, and we will be evaluating them later this year. But in the meantime, here are a few things we’ve learnt along the way:

Know Your Audience.
It’s easy to assume that mobile gamers are teenage kids. Wrong. Forget the acne generation, unless you’re talking about console platforms like Xbox or the PS3. The typical gamer downloading games through app stores (and really, we’re still talking about iTunes, though Android is beginning to build a market share) is female, between 18 and 49, and well educated. A recent report published by Flurry, a San Francisco-based smartphone analytics firm, said: “Studying the U.S. mobile social gamer, we note that she earns over 50 percent more than the average American, is more than twice as likely to have earned a college bachelor’s degree, and is more likely to be white or Asian.” The number of men playing isn’t far behind, though: 47 percent of app-based gamers are male, compared to 53 percent female. In fact, the profile for these gamers is strikingly similar to the profile of many museum visitors, which suggests that app gamers may very well be open to cultural content delivered in this form.

However, this demographic will widen as Smartphones become more affordable and therefore more common over the next two years. If you want to use mobile games to reach a teen audience, start planning, but maybe not developing just yet, and look beyond the iPhone platform.

Make it Free.
With hundreds of thousands of apps available for mobile consumers to choose from, it’s a tough market, and most publishers are moving towards free apps. Some are supported by sponsorship, or possibly, if you’ve got a really hot property, by “freemium,” whereby you get the basic app free, but people pay for the fancier version. Anyone who has played “Angry Birds” will recognize this model. But only the most optimistic developer from the cultural sector would imagine they are going to make much money from a game.

Think about Discoverability.
Submitting your game into an app store is a bit like dropping thousands of dollars down a well. There’s an initial splash, which dwindles to a ripple, then silence. The iTunes app store is a busy place, and it’s hard to get noticed amongst the crowd. Getting noticed is known in the digital world as “discovery,” and there are myriad social networks and recommendation sites springing up that aim to make app discovery easier for consumers. Some of the sites are listed here. But the sands are ever shifting, and there are no sure-fire solutions. Being early to market in one of the less crowded app stores looking to rival iTunes is beginning to look like a smart move.

Jane Burton, head of content and creative director, Tate, London.

Understanding Adoption of Mobile Technology within Museums

By Kate Haley Goldman

Each week brings across my desk a fresh set of mobile market studies indicating how the proliferation of smartphones continues at a dramatic pace, web access is more and more mobile, phones have changed teen culture, phones have changed the culture for the rest of us, and smartphone domination is in our near future. Having established near ubiquity of phones in general, most studies foresee a continued acceleration of the adoption of the smart phone. The adoption acceleration has extended to museums, and in recent years is starting to become less talk and more actual products on the floor. Multiple recent studies have tackled the institutional perspective of mobile adoption and barriers to implementation. Among the most relevant for the museum field are the 2011 studies sponsored by AAM and Pocket Proof/Learning Times. This chapter will interpret the findings of these studies and frame questions for future studies.

The study by Fusion Analytics for AAM (supported by Guide by Cell) focused on the state of current and future institutional incorporation of mobile capabilities. The sample was somewhat larger than the study by Pocket Proof, focused primarily on the United States, and had a geographically wide and institutionally broad distribution. One key finding was that under half of American institutions within the study currently offer mobile interpretation. For those institutions that did not yet have mobile, the primary reasons were lack of budget, staff time and other resources. Most non-mobile institutions did not express a concern that they did not want their visitors using mobile devices, but they were concerned about visitor interest. Over one-third of museums without mobile products listed lack of visitor demand as why they did not offer such products. By comparison, the study from Pocket-Proof and Learning Times asked museum professionals about their attitudes towards the creation, implementation, and maintenance of mobile applications, segmenting the results by the differing challenges for those institutions who already have a mobile interpretation product compared to those who are planning to, but do not yet have such as product.

Both studies are admirable in their effort to provide baseline data and context for the proliferation of museum mobile projects. Looking at their data, it would seem that the vast majority of museums are currently working on such projects. And while that generalization may in fact be true, unfortunately we can’t be sure from the data presented within these studies.

Generalizability is a tricky proposition with research and evaluation studies. Fundamentally, research is judged on its reliability and validity. Reliability is defined as the consistency or stability of a measure from one test to the next. An accurate oven thermometer is reliable, measuring 350 degrees in the same fashion each time. Validity is the overall term used to describe whether a measure accurately measures what it is supposed to measure. An accurate oven thermometer might be consistent in temperature measurement but does not measure whether the food is hot enough. Oven temperature is not a valid measure of food temperature. It is possible to have reliable but not valid results: results that are repeatable in multiple testings but still do not measure the appropriate underlying construct. The oven might be consistent in the temperature measurement, but it still does not represent a valid measure for the temperature of the food.

Reliability is influenced by the design of the questionnaire, but most profoundly by the sampling within a project. The Pocket Proof study uses a nonprobability sampling: respondents were recruited via list-serves, social media and other outreach. While the sample sizes are large; there is no certainty that the population sampled is representative of the overall population of museums in the United States; indeed they are likely to be museums with strong connections to social media, and by extension, use of technology within the museum. This may bias the results in terms of the numbers who have mobile projects or are considering them, or bias in other ways, such as size of institution, type of mobile project attempted, etc.

The AAM study had a well-defined sampling frame: AAM member institutions and individual members. While there is likelihood of some amount of nonrandom measurement error, the issue of most concern is the response rate. Response rates are notoriously difficult on web-based surveys, even for surveys such as this one with incentives offered and a dedicated (but busy) membership. At what point can a response rate be deemed reliable? In classic survey response methodology, a response rate of 60%, though preferably 80%, is seen as acceptable for analysis and generalization purposes (Dillman, 2000). This is an extremely high bar to reach for a web survey of a general membership. Yet, with the 14% response rate of the AAM study, one could repeat the exact same study next year and have an entirely different 14% of the population respond with entirely different answers. Whether the implementation of mobile projects had gone up, down or remained constant, it would be impossible to say reliably. For the Pocket Proof study, we cannot calculate a response rate, as we don’t know how many individuals saw the survey request. We can not say with certainty what percentage of museums are currently conducting a mobile project, planning a mobile project, whether mobile projects are more common in certain types or sizes of institutions. While the concept that mobile interpretation is more prevalent in large art museums has significant face validity, due to the combination sampling strategy and response rate we have no consistent, reliable numbers.

While the results within these studies may not be generalizable, they still provide some valuable insights. One of the most useful aspects of both studies is the documentation of barriers faced by museums in implementing mobile projects. The percentages aren’t necessarily relevant here, but the rank order is. These lists provide institutions a list of most prevalent obstacles.

Setting aside the idea that some set of museums underrepresented within the surveys might face significantly different obstacles towards implementing their mobile project, the barriers faced by those that are already engaged in such projects, and by those contemplating such projects, is illuminating. As the Pocket Proof/Learning Times study notes, for institutions already using mobile interpretation, encouraging visitors to use the mobile interpretation was the largest challenge. Yet for others — vendors and researchers, as well as those considering projects — attracting new visitors via mobile was a primary goal. This disconnect represents a great opportunity for future research. Despite the numbers of institutions exploring mobile and the availability of phones, usage rates remain below 10% for permanent galleries (Proctor, 2010) For those contemplating employing a mobile interpretation strategy in the Pocket Proof study, the lack of visitor interest was at the bottom of the list of obstacles, whereas for those currently offering mobile interpretation, this issue was more of a concern. That many visitors simply find the concept of using their phone unappealing in this context (Haley Goldman, 2007) is a finding that must be further explored.

Mobile Research Opportunities
The groundwork laid by these studies promotes reflection on what sort of studies are still needed. Both of the studies here had the foresight to ask their participants what type of research is still needed within the industry. Building on those concepts from a researcher’s perspective, I propose three avenues of future potential research.

1. Visitor-based research: I know from personal experience that evaluation and research on visitor use of mobiles in museums is extraordinarily difficult. The small sample size makes it difficult to get a full picture of usage, the interpretation strategy creates difficulty in finding those who are using their mobiles; the list of challenges goes on and on. The research on mobiles in museums is overwhelming institutionally-oriented, as is the motivation for many of the museum implementation projects. Some institutions wish to avoid the overheads of providing audio tour devices to visitors, others wish to try to engage their public in more technologically current ways. The research described here focuses on the museum, their project readiness, their motivations and their obstacles. The visitors have a significantly different perspective, including their own motivations and barriers to use. The gap in visitor use can be examined through a number of lenses: how individuals adopt uses of technology, how visitors perceive their phones, and visitor motivations and desired outcomes for their museum visit.

Information-seeking is one of only many potential uses of an individual’s phone (compared to social utility, accessibility, status, etc.), and is not by any means the most common use (Wei and Lo, 2006). Thus visitors’ perception of their phones does not immediately indicate the phone’s usefulness as an interpretative device. Whether visitors are likely to use their phones for interpretation depends on their goals for their museum visit.

Similarly, while learning is a key element in many visitors’ articulations of why they choose to visit a particular museum on a particular day (Kelly, 2007), it is not the only motivation for a visit. Visitors come for destination visits (been there, done that), to spend meaningful time with family or guests, and for many other reasons. (Falk, Moussouri & Coulson, 1998). If the use of their phone for interpretation does not immediately further their goals for the visit, visitors will not make use of the opportunity. In-depth qualitative research exploring the relationship between visitor motivations, expectations of the mobile product, and resultant museum experience would help developers create better visitor personas. These personas, based on how visitors have adopted the technology, as well as their motivations and social groupings, would create better products.

2. Case Studies
As tempting (and useful) as it is to cast a wide net to look at mobile adoption across the field, analysis at a micro-level, both institutionally and from a visitor perspective, would be extremely illuminating. The AAM study notes case studies (and visitor research) at the top of the list for future studies. The generation of case studies would be an excellent complement to the analysis of barriers that each project might face. The AAM study notes that there are widely divergent goals for these projects, from increasing visitor engagement to marketing to bringing collections to a broader audience. Separate case studies by project goal would allow institutions to focus on the strategies most appropriate for their goals. The call for case studies is not new, and yet the number of viable case studies compared to the estimated number of projects occurring is very small. Pulling together a case study is quite difficult when deeply embedded within a project, and even more difficult to do in a way that is comparable with case studies from other institutions. A single collaborative project or effort to research and generate case studies from multiple institutions would provide the most comparison points for other institutions.

3. Stratified and/or Longitudinal Field-Wide Studies
For future studies designed to look at the landscape of mobiles in museums from an institutional perspective, perhaps rather than casting a field-wide net, it would be more profitable to cast a series of smaller, more fine-grained nets over time. Given that the museum field is so vast (the AAM study had thousands of responses, and yet that only results in a 14% response rate), future field-wide approaches should invest in stratified or longitudinal studies. A study of a stratified sample of museums would allow closer examination of factors that may influence development of mobile products, such as number of visitors or content focus of the institution. Longitudinal studies would also allow a more reasonable sample size, but could chart the change in mobile developments over time. Do institutions face the same barriers they did a year ago? For those just contemplating a mobile product, were they able to create one or are they still in contemplation?

In conclusion, there is much to be done, both on the product development portion of the mobiles in the museum field, and in the research components. These studies provide any important first step. The next steps should perhaps be narrower, but deeper and much more deeply tied to the visitor.

Kate Haley Goldman, director of learning research and evaluation, National Center for Interactive Learning, Boulder, Colo.


  • Dillman, D. A. 2000. Mail and Internet surveys: The tailored design method. 2nd ed. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Falk, J., Moussouri, T. and Coulson, D., 1998. `The Effect of Visitors’ Agendas on Museum Learning’, Curator, vol. 41, no 2, 106-120.
  • Wei, R. & V.H. Lo. (2006). “Staying connected while on the move: Cell phone use and social connectedness”. New Media and Society. Vol. 8(1):53-72.


Mobile Content Strategies for Content Sharing and Long-Term Sustainability

By Robert Stein

Sustainable Mobile Content
The 2010 Horizon Report for Museums highlights “mobiles” as one of two technology trends on the near-term horizon, noting that “Mobile technology has developed at a staggering pace over the last few years, and today affords many more opportunities for museums…” (Johnson, 2010) The recent explosion of mobile technology as an important way for museums to distribute content is undeniable. Dozens of new tools and companies have emerged in the past 24 months to address the needs of museums that are planning, producing and launching new mobile experiences. A recent Pew Internet survey indicates that 40% of American adults had access to the Internet from a mobile phone in 2010 (Smith, 2010), and studies from Gartner suggest that by 2013 mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common method for accessing the Internet worldwide. (Gartner, 2010)

With four billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide, it’s clear that mobile devices and content will be an important means of access for museum visitors today and in the future. More recent anecdotal evidence suggests that these trends have continued to accelerate, and that an increasing number of museums are contemplating how they might deliver content via mobile devices. The Museums and Mobile Survey 2011 indicates that over half of large museums (annual attendance of more than 50,000) already have mobile experiences, and almost 70% of all museums say that their institution will “definitely” have in-house mobile content development within the next five years. (Tallon, 2011)

For museums, however, the relationship between museum content and technical change has always been challenging, given the dramatically different time-scales of the two disciplines. A museum’s primary “natural resource” is the content it produces in support of the concepts, collections, and programs that are the source of its mission. Museum collections evolve slowly over many decades, and the concepts and programming created to support the mission of museums are adapted continually, being more an evolutionary optimization of a consistent set of principled goals. This means that most museum content will remain relevant for many years after its creation.

Technology, on the other hand is defined by change. The well-known Moore’s Law states that the density of transistors on integrated circuits will double every 18 months. Applied to the rate of change in technology hardware, Moore’s law has proven to be an accurate predictor of technical innovation since the 1960s. In the last few years however, it seems that software innovation is out-pacing even this dramatic prediction. A recent New York Times article highlights the fact that innovations in software architectures and algorithms have recently trumped even the staggering pace of Moore’s Law for hardware innovation. (Lohr, 2011)

This defines a critical issue that is integral to understanding the relationship between museums and technology. How can museums flexibly adapt to the rapid changes of technical innovation while leveraging a body of content and collections that change at a comparatively glacial pace? Can museums create and maintain building blocks of content infrastructure that will last longer than any particular iteration of technology platforms?

The creation of open-software tools and standards for mobile tours and experiences that can be shared and referenced by museums and vendors would offer an effective way to answer many of these questions, and would provide a mechanism to ensure that content created today could be easily re-purposed and adapted to future generations of mobile platforms. Building consensus among museums and vendors for a description of mobile content, and building tools to aid in the adoption of this platform, are necessary steps to achieve the goals of content sustainability and cross-collection sharing that museums desire. A successful solution of this kind would provide a way to integrate and interoperate between a number of content-creation systems and mobile interfaces, allowing both vendor-provided and custom-developed application software to use the same set of content.

The key element in achieving such compatibility among mobile platforms is the existence of a specification—a common language—describing mobile content and the experiences they provide. In the summer of 2009, the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) proposed a simple draft specification called TourML (pronounced tûrmoil) (Stein, 2009), which offers a working, but preliminary, example of what such a common language might look like.

In order to solicit a high level of input from the community, Robert Stein (IMA) and Nancy Proctor (Smithsonian Institution) organized several free community workshops, inviting museum staff members, academics and mobile vendors to join a preliminary effort to formulate just such a standard. In all, nearly 100 members of the museum community have played a significant role in these workshops, resulting in multiple subsequent revisions to the TourML specification. Notes from all meetings are available from the Museum Mobile Wiki, (Stein and Proctor, 2010) and the resulting TourML specification is available under an open-source license from the project’s Google Code Website. (Moad and Stein, 2009) A more complete discussion of the TourML specification was documented in a recent paper. (Stein and Proctor, 2011)

Figure 1. TourML used as an interchange format

Putting TourML to Work
Well-defined content specifications like TourML are particularly well suited to function as an interchange format or middleware between authoring tools and presentation tools. Figure 1 shows a proposed use for TourML as an intermediate layer in the publishing workflow for mobile tours. In this scheme, tour authors create content in museum-specific content management systems with support for TourML (i.e., the open-source content management system, Drupal). The content management system can then re-write that content as a TourML document. Both the document and all media assets needed for the tour can be bundled together in a single, platform-neutral package. Web applications or device native apps can be easily created to read the TourML document and access these media assets. Since the TourML document is platform agnostic, the same document can be used for apps on several different kinds of devices.

As a practical example of how TourML might be used, the Indianapolis Museum of Art released an open-source mobile tool called TAP in 2009. (Moad and Stein, 2009) TAP provides mobile tour authoring tools based on a Drupal CMS and publishes the tours as mobile apps for the web and iPod Touch/iPhone (Figure 1). As it builds mobile tours, TAP automatically encodes content elements using the TourML standard, so that whole tours can be easily exported from TAP to other platforms or future authoring systems. The goal is for at least 80% of a tour to be able to move directly across platforms, thanks to the TourML schema, minimizing the amount of human intervention required to customize the tour for its new environment.

Figure 2. Sample interfaces for TAP including mobile web and iPod versions

Since its release, TAP has been used by the IMA to provide five exhibition-related mobile tours and one outdoor mobile tour highlighting the museum’s Art and Nature Park. Figure 2 shows a few example screens from selected mobile tours. Since its release, TAP has been successfully downloaded and used by several other museums including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Fleming and Kochis, 2011), and the Balboa Park Online Collaborative. (Sully, 2011)
The Role of Museums and Commercial Partners
The prevalence of software vendors offering mobile products, and the lack of technical expertise on the part of many museums, leads to an important and nuanced relationship between the museum and vendor communities concerning the preservation of museum mobile content. The nature of commercial competition often makes it impractical for vendors to lead the charge for portability and preservation. In addition, without a consensus in the museum community regarding content definitions, tools that ensure content portability and preservation are all but impossible. Previous successes in defining content specifications and standards, such as those supporting collection metadata (LIDO, CDWA Lite, and Dublin Core), have been led by the content producers. In short, the onus of consensus and collaboration around content standards falls squarely on the shoulders of the museum community. But the importance of a healthy collaboration with a community of reliable vendors cannot be overstated. It is prudent to recognize the fact that museums cannot hope to keep pace with technical change without the assistance of commercial vendors who specialize in particular areas. Doing so allows museums to take advantage of the targeted capacities of the most advanced mobile products, while maintaining control of the creation and preservation of its content—a core priority of the museum. Partnership with commercial vendors to encourage adoption of standards, and ensuring that these standards help to enhance the vendor’s business, is the only sure way to secure the viability of such an effort.

Through a ratification of the TourML specification or another similar effort, museums can spearhead the adoption of this specification by the vendor community. In explorations of the feasibility of this effort, many commercial vendors have been very receptive to TourML as a potential specification for mobile content, and have been actively engaged in the mobile workshops that have been held. Some vendors have already integrated early support for the draft TourML specification into their products. Ideally, a healthy relationship and collaboration between museums and the vendor community in this process will result in a viable and sustainable specification that can truly produce the benefits we seek.


  • Fleming, Jenna, Kochis, Jesse, Getchell, Phil. (2011) “Launching the MFA Multimedia Guide: Lessons Learned.” Museums and the Web 2011, Philadelphia, Pa. April 2011.
  • Johnson, Laurence F., Levine, Alan, Smith, Rachel S. and Witchy, Holly. (2010) “Horizon Report: Museum Edition.” Austin, TX: The New Media Consortium, 2010.
  • Lohr, Steve. “Software Progress Beats Moore’s Law” – NYTimes.com. Technology – Bits Blog – NYTimes.com. 7 May 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2011.
  • Stein, Robert J., Proctor, Nancy. (2011) “TourML: An Emerging Specification for Museum Mobile Experiences.” Museums and the Web 2011, Philadelphia, Pa., April 2011.
  • Sully, Perian. “IPod/iPhone Mobile Tours for Everyone | Balboa Park Online Collaborative.” Balboa Park Online Collaborative | Museum Innovation Through Collaboration. 9 Mar., 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2011. .

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