You “app-ed” for it

That’s right, you “app-ed” for it, a post about the intentional use of apps and mobile technology in museums.  I admit that I come to this post with a rather skewed perspective, for when my phone vibrates, it’s not a shiny wide-screened smart phone that I pick up, but my good ole’ 2008 vintage RAZR.  And though personally I’m a little terrified of the potential for a smart phone to replace my library-book reading time on the Metro and become the center of my world, professionally I’ve come to see how intentionally implemented mobile technology can be a “smart” option for enhancing the museum experience.

So you might ask, what’s going on with apps and museums?  Let’s start with a perspective most recently championed in Matthew Petrie’s controversial piece (see Nancy Proctor’s comments) in The Guardian.  He argues that there is a boom of museum visitors using smart phones, so why don’t museums do more to reach out to this built-in audience?  AAM’s Mobile in Museums Study makes a similar point, alluding to the many smart phone users visiting museums, who on average sport 29 apps on their phone!  In fact, AAM makes the case that apps are one of the top-three fastest-growing mobile interpretation methods in the museum world.  With stats like that, and the exciting selection of museum apps available, it’s hard not to get swept up in museum-app madness!

Museum Apps

But, if apps are the current wave of the future, how can we—museum practitioners and evaluators—think more intentionally about how apps might support visitors’ museum experiences?  While it may sound like common sense, museums may need to ensure visitors become more aware of their apps and mobile-support offerings.  In a recent RK&A study of app use in an art museum, about one-half of interviewees who were not using the app said they chose not to because they wanted a self-guided experience.  However, one-third of these interviewees  said they were unaware that the option to use an app existed.  Interviewees also were unaware of or had misconceptions about the availability of free wifi in the museum, their ability to borrow mobile devices, or that they could download the app for free.  A recent V&A study on visitors’ app use shows similar findings; most of their visitors were unaware of the museum’s free wifi connection.  So, in order for visitors to have meaningful app experiences, we need to improve the communication level and make app awareness a priority.

We may also want to think further about how apps are developed, particularly in terms of content and use.  To justify using apps as a new interpretive tool, museums can take advantage of the qualities that distinguish apps from other interpretive options (the ability for visitors to take pictures, share content, participate in a mobile community, etc.).  We also may need to consider whether an app is the best vehicle for the content a museum might want to feature.  These questions came up in the above RK&A study where we found that one-third of interviewees using the app only used it as an audio guide, ignoring or unaware of the app’s other distinct features.  This finding may have a familiar ring, as Koven Smith, a former professor of mine, notes in his article, “The Future of Mobile Interpretation,” a change in museum mentality may need to take place in order to elevate apps from glorified audio guides to interpretive tools that fully utilize their unique features.

The app currently under development for The British Postal Museum and Archive is really exciting in terms of how it utilizes app technology and fits with the mission of the museum.  A team of undergraduates from the Worchester Polytechnic Institute did the research on how to design the app and their paper is phenomenal.  Their app would introduce visitors to the museum’s collection through a stamp collecting activity.  Visitors can walk through the galleries snapping pictures of stamps and, thanks to the powers of image recognition, pull up more information about them.  The app design makes sense to me because it is activity-based (taking a picture), focused on the museum’s collection, and related to stamp collecting behavioral skills like observing details and curating a collection.  Another great aspect of the app is that, theoretically, it works outside the museum, too.  You can snap pictures of the stamps on your own mail, pull up information about them, and add them to your growing collection.

So, where do we, as museum practitioners and evaluators, go from here?  There is clearly great potential for what apps can do to enhance a museum experience, especially as museums lay the logistical groundwork to support visitors’ app use.  And though app designs still tend toward the didactic audio guide, museums are starting to experiment with new ways of thinking about and presenting their content as well as alternative ways visitors can interact with it.  As I think more about the evolution of museum apps, I return to the cycle of learning and the value that researching, reflecting, planning, and aligning has already had on museum-based apps and will continue to have on determining best practices.

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