Assessment of the Field

A recent report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project predicts that by 2020, mobile devices will be the primary connection tool to the internet for most people in the world. With more than 75 percent of American adults owning mobile phones, and more young adults using these devices, mobile development is advancing at rapid rates. Even so, the mobile web is often difficult to navigate as most websites do not provide mobile visitors with options designed for mobiles. [ ((1. Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie, Pew Internet: Future of the Internet (Pew Internet and American Life Project, December 14, 2008),; Ed Baig, “Study: Mobile Web a Throwback to the ’90s,” USAToday, July 17, 2009,] Many individuals already use these personal devices to do something beyond making a phone call. Also understanding the scope and potential of mobiles, the New Media Consortium’s 2009 Horizon Report recommends that museums and all institutions of learning implement strategies for offering content and access for mobile devices within one year. [ (( 2. New Media Consortium and EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, 2009 Horizon Report (New Media Consortium, 2009),] Some institutions already incorporate mobile applications and mobile-friendly websites into their daily operations. A New Media Consortium survey conducted in October 2008 found 43 mobile projects in development, many based at universities addressing students and faculty needs at those institutions. A handful of other mobile projects targeted general audiences, even museum-goers. [ ((3. Alan Levin, New Media Consortium, “What is Your Mobile Project?” blog post, October 12, 2008 ( This survey did not ask about institutional sponsorship, although many offer that in the project descriptions. Out of the 43 projects listed, 36 are university-based, 7 target general users (and may have been development by a university); and 5 target museumgoers (and may have university development).))]

Museums are well on their way to adopting mobile strategies as found by a recent survey of museum professionals conducted by the Center for History and New Media (CHNM). CHNM found 67 percent of respondents, predominantly representing the history and art fields, have implemented or are in the process of implementing a mobile content delivery project. For those who did not provide mobile content, most replied that cost and staff time were the biggest hurdles, followed closely by lack of technical expertise. All of these hurdles are common problems for adoption of new technologies. [ ((4. Museums and Mobile Adoption Survey, Center for History and New Media, open from January 31-April 1, 2009. See our questions from Survey Monkey:; Survey results are available from Survey Monkey: and in a Google Spreadsheet: We asked museums to tell us what type of institution they worked at, rather than providing limiting vocabulary. History museums, for the narrative, include museums, historic houses, and historic ships. Art museums include university art museums and art centers. We also had six museums that treat multiple genres of collections, which we counted separately but generally included art or history as one of their main fields.))] For museums that offer mobile content, approximately 70 percent of them rely on a visitor’s personal device or deliver content to a museum-owned device in addition to an individual’s, one strategy that reduces overhead and sustainability often encountered by institutions buying audio tour listening devices. Museums created their content in-house and often relied on outside consultants or companies like Acoustic Guide or Guide By Cell to handle the technical requirements. When beginning these mobile projects, some of the participants consulted conference papers and online resources. Finally, many of these museums were evaluating usage of such applications and devices to improve the quality of user experiences. [ ((5. Once content is created and delivery systems are in place, less than half of the respondents report that they evaluate user interaction and/or statistics. Museums and Mobile Adoption Survey, 2009.))]

The most common format of content delivered to mobile devices is the podcast, even as museums experiment with cell phone tours and platform-specific applications. Podcasting is popular across museums, large and small and genre, because offering a podcast requires a very low barrier for entry in terms of skills, staff time, and cost. MuseumPods offers a running list of hundreds of institutions offering podcasts, or one can find them in iTunes or a museum’s website. Cell phone tours provide the visitor with a self-selected in-gallery audio experience by calling a phone number to get more in-depth information about a painting, for instance. An average cell phone tour offers visitors twenty-five stops to listen to a curator, artist, or scientist talk about an exhibit element. [ ((6. “Museum Podcasts Podcast Directory,”; For detailed information on how museums are using cell phone tours in their exhibitions, see: Cell Phone Snapshot: Results of a 2009 Cell Phone Audio Tour Survey, Survey (, July 7, 2009),]

The San Jose Museum of Art was among the first American museums to build an iPhone/iPod Touch tour that featured browseable gallery guides to augment the exhibitions’ objects. These digital exhibitions offer short videos, including discussions with curators and artists. Selections from the museum’s permanent collection offer images and videos. The Brooklyn Museum of Art released their collections database API for public use which resulted in a company developing an iPhone application for the museum that gives users free access to their collections in and outside their galleries. Relying on a rich tagging schema, Brooklyn’s application gives visitors the opportunity to search for art by tag or artist name. And for those who do not know what to look for, they may choose to randomize the collection. This randomization brings one to a painting by Thomas Birch followed by a shot glass designed by Tiffany Studios. Antenna Audio recently launched Pentimento, a system for creating iPhone application templates, with its first application called Love Art. Love Art provides access to select art collections and curator-narrated videos on the lives and art of masters from the National Gallery, London, including Rembrandt, da Vinci, and Van Gogh. Visitors may also scroll through different “insights” or themed tags, such as betrayal, faith, or light, to find videos on specific pieces. [ ((7. San Jose Museum of Art’s iPhone/iPod Touch tours are available here: For more information about the development of this application see the following posts: Chris Alexander, “iPod Touch Tour Update,” blog,, October 17, 2009,; Chris Alexander, “iPod Touch Tour Full Screen Mode,” blog,, February 6, 2009,; Shelley Bernstein, “Brooklyn Museum API: the iPhone app,” blog, Brooklyn Museum: Community: bloggers@brooklynmuseum, April 17, 2009,; Antenna Audio, “Pentimento,” product site, Pentimento,] Opening collections and exhibitions for a mobile-friendly website or an iPhone or Touch application allows anyone to browse through art and related curated information in or outside of the gallery. While increasing access to museum collections, these applications limit the audience by platform, thus limiting the total audience able to enjoy such access.

In addition to offering deeper access to collections, mobile devices provide an excellent opportunity for exploring landscapes. When visiting Berlin, an individual may rent a MauerGuide that provides an extensive interpretative walking tour tracing the path of the former Berlin Wall and provides audiences with narration, film clips, and historic photographs throughout the tour. When walking through Houston’s downtown Museum District, one may listen to a free narrated tour of the city. Users must download this tour as a podcast before arriving on scene and do not have a choice of where to start or redirect their tour. In San Francisco, visitors interested in learning more about the Jewish experience of the Fillmore District may listen to a cell phone walking tour, similar to those offered in some art galleries. These walking tours draw upon the resources of multiple institutions and offer a curious visitor access to interpretative content currently unavailable to someone walking around on their own. [ ((8. MauerGuide:; “Museum District Walk and Roll”:; “Jews of the Fillmore”:]

To reach broader audiences, a few museums are developing experiences that do not depend on a single mobile device by using semacode and texting. The Powerhouse Museum in Australia is printing out QR or semacode barcodes and placing them on museum object labels in galleries. When a visitor encounters a code, she or he photographs the bar code with their mobile camera and then the visitor is redirected to additional content about that specific object. The challenge with using these types of barcodes, as detailed by developer Seb Chan, are lighting, size of the barcode, and other variables that affect the quality of the photo and can hinder an individual from accessing the extras. Additionally, visitors must install a program that reads these barcode labels, such as BeeTag or NeoReader. [ ((9.Seb Chan, “We are (partially) mobile – Powerhouse on your phone,” blog, Electronic Museum, February 28, 2009,; Seb Chan, “QR codes in the museum – problems and opportunities with extended object labels,” blog, Fresh + New(er),; Seb Chan, “A quick QR code update,” blog, Fresh + New(er), April 8, 2009,] These applications are small and easy to install, should the user decide to load them at home or in the gallery. To make the process easier, the Mattress Factory points visitors to a site to download a barcode reader while inside the museum. Once the reader is loaded, visitors snap a photograph of the barcode and may access short videos of artist interviews.

The Mattress Factory also uses mobiles to engage visitors in social networking with their ScreenTXT program. Visitors can ask questions, comment, or engage one another via Twitter or simple text messaging, and all of that information is aggregated through a free service called BriteKite that anyone may follow—inside or outside of the museum. At the National Air and Space Museum, visitor services experimented by offering visitors browsing in exhibit galleries the ability to text the information desk with questions about content and museum services. Through this experiment, the museum believed they were better serving the needs of their visitors and the museum is looking into offering this type of texting interactions more permanently. [ ((10. Jeffrey Inscho, “Two Tweets Passing In The Night – SCREENtxt Part 1,” blog, Mattress Factory, January 29, 2009,; Jeffrey Inscho, “Mattress Factory | Weblog: Making It Work – SCREENtxt Part 2,” blog, Mattress Factory, February 23, 2009,; Vicki Portway, “Mobile NASM,” wiki, SI Web and New Media Strategy, May 21, 2009,] Since most visitors arrive on-site with an SMS-enabled phone, this mobile strategy for engaging visitors within galleries is much more inclusive.

In fall 2008, the Smithsonian American Art Museum introduced museums to the world of Alternate Reality Games (ARG) to combine web, mobile, and in-person interaction to uncover a mystery involving museum collections and the surrounding environs. “Ghosts of a Chance,” took participants around Washington, DC and into the museum over two months. One large component relied on participants’ phones for receiving SMS clues and texting answers to questions related to the mystery developed in the ARG. [ ((11. Georgina Bath, Ghosts of a Chance Alternate Reality Game (ARG) (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian American Art Museum, November 6, 2008).Georgina Bath Goodlander, “Fictional Press Releases and Fake Artifacts: How the Smithsonian American Art Museum is Letting Game Players Redefine the Rules,” in Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings (presented at the Museums and the Web, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, 2009),] This type of public program requires a major investment in staff resources, but offers an example of how museums can use mobile technologies to meaningfully engage their visitors around museum objects and the communities where they live.

For those interested in exploring the possibilities of incorporating mobiles for museums, we find the museum mobile development community is welcoming and encourages collaboration. Leaders in this subfield, including Nancy Proctor at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, encourage all to share presentations on best practices and lessons learned through a variety of blogs and wikis, in addition to following the #mtogo tag on Twitter. One may begin hunting through the resources available at the Tate Handheld Conference wiki, the MuseumMobile blog and Museums-to-Go working group wiki, or from the Museums and the Web Conference. In an effort to gather these resources and websites into one accessible place, CHNM created the “Museum Mobile” Zotero group that is open for anyone to join and add or annotate resources. [ ((12. MuseTech Central, Museum Computer Network,; Tate Handheld Conference Wiki,; “Bibliography | Mobile,” the online community of museum informatics professionals,; Nancy Proctor, “MuseumMobile,” blog, MuseumMobile: Media and Technology on the Go,; collaborative authorship, “MuseumMobile Wiki » Museums to Go,” wiki,; Mobile Museums Zotero group:]