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Handheld and Expansive: Mobile platforms help museums foster better visitor experiences.

Category: Museum Magazine
Image of a handheld device being held up in front of the fresco showing a description of the piece and applied color over portions to help explain what is happening.
In the augmented reality view of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry at Detroit Institute of the Arts, a handheld screen shows preliminary outlines of the mural before fresco color was applied.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.

The opportunities to expand museum experiences through mobile devices have never been so plentiful and, at the same time, so confusing. The answers to “How much does a mobile solution cost?” or “Which system works best?” vary wildly depending on museum size and, especially, the desired experience.

Fight the usual temptation to design your mobile strategy by counting your objects, dollars, or square feet. Instead, start by asking your visitors which museum experiences need improvement.

Don’t answer this question on behalf of your visitors, unless you are quoting your institution’s bona fide visitor research. But while you collect this data, consider the 2017 Culture Track report by LaPlaca Cohen. More than 4,000 demographically diverse people from across the US were asked why they seek cultural experiences. Here’s what they said:

81% Having fun
78% Interest in content
76% Experiencing new things
75% Feeling less stressed
71% Learning something new
69% Feeling inspired
68% Interacting with others
67% Feeling transported

Great news: people still want content! More good news: for more than 50 years, museums have been transmitting “just in time” recorded messages—a.k.a. mobile content—to convey information that would not fit on a wall panel or object label.

Listening as your eyes wander gallery installations remains a compelling storytelling experience, but the Culture Track report shows that today’s visitors seek personal meaning as well as expert knowledge. Let’s take a look at some museums that are using mobile technology to allow visitors to get all that they want from a cultural experience.

Deepening Connections to Content

Visiting the new contemporary wing at The Corning Museum of Glass in New York with your mobile device is a seamless experience. At the outset, the museum’s GlassApp automatically loads on your smartphone when it connects to the museum’s free WiFi network.

In designing GlassApp, Chief Digital Officer Scott Sayre sought a unified solution that would work on all mobile devices regardless of country, display size, or manufacturer. “GlassApp does not require our visitors to install or update anything, and the museum can easily expand the experience by linking to other responsive resources on our website,” he says.

Equally important, the clean user interface harmonizes with the gallery experience and provides many perspectives—from those of exhibition designers, educators, and glass artists to those of curators—via images, text, and videos. Best of all, GlassApp can also be used before or after a visit, allowing visitors to construct personal meaning beyond the first glance.

Innovation in mobile can also be lower tech, as the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has demonstrated through its exhibition of photographs by Charles “Teenie” Harris, who photographed Pittsburgh’s African American community from about 1935 to 1975. His archive of nearly 80,000 images is one of the most detailed visual records of the black urban experience, yet it lacks important descriptive information.

To tackle this cataloging challenge, the Carnegie Museum requests help from the community. Exhibition visitors can dial a prominently posted phone number and leave a message describing what they know about the people, places, and things in the images—genius! These crowdsourced stories become important archival records as well as interpretive materials for future exhibitions.

Making Navigation Easier

Seventy-five percent of the respondents to the Culture Track 2017 study said they came to our institutions to de-stress. That’s wonderful, but could stress be a reason why others avoid museums? Do first-time visitors want to avoid looking ignorant in front of companions? Do people with physical needs fear we can’t accommodate them?

The path to reconciliation with these reluctant visitors starts with wayfinding. Getting lost is stressful, especially when looking for a bathroom, a lost child, that favorite object, or a place to rest and get some food. As our public increasingly relies on smartphones to answer navigational queries outside the museum, it makes sense to adapt these wayfinding functions inside the museum.

The Explorer app, created by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, achieves “blue dot” accuracy on its interior map thanks to sensors distributed throughout the 25 interconnected buildings and support from Bloomberg Philanthropies. The app also helps the museum improve its services. “The Explorer app increases our internal understanding of how location, along with other aspects of visitor context, contributes to useful, meaningful, and even elegant museum experiences,” explains Matthew Tarr, AMNH’s director of digital architecture.

Welcoming visitors with low vision is one of the most difficult challenges to museum wayfinding. The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh partnered with nearby Carnegie Mellon University’s Cognitive Assistance Lab to pilot NavCog, an app that operates via Bluetooth beacons in the galleries. Visitors using NavCog hear navigation instructions as well as interpretive content, including descriptions of the artwork.

Desi Gonzalez, former manager of digital engagement at the Warhol, worked with visitors who are visually impaired to test NavCog. Testers said the mobile tool helped them comfortably navigate the museum, which made their experience more independent and enjoyable.

Boosting the Fun Factor

Wasn’t it gratifying to read that 81 percent of the Culture Track respondents go to museums to have fun? The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) knows that having fun is a great way to learn something new. Its 2018 René Magritte retrospective ended with a Surrealist playground in which visitors saw their images sliced, transported, and rearranged in Magritte-like settings in real time. Visitors gleefully captured these visual puzzles on their phones and decoded them with friends and others in the galleries.

“Trying to design experiences to induce selfies is really hard and usually feels unfulfilling to the visitor,” says Chad Coerver, SFMOMA’s chief content officer. “But designing experiences that are so fun and captivating that visitors want to take selfies is a much better place to be.” Surely Magritte, the trickster, would have agreed.

The Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) recently released “Riddle Mia This,” a free mobile app that turns the museum into a mystery. With smartphone in hand, visitors move through the galleries looking for clues—such as matching patterns or missing story elements—hidden in the artworks, often solving these puzzles with the help of augmented reality (AR). “Visitors love discovering new objects and learning while they play,” says Mia Chief Digital Officer Douglas Hegley.

Transporting Visitors

Sixty-seven percent of Culture Track respondents say they want to “feel transported.” The Detroit Institute of Arts is helping visitors do that with museum-provided tablets. Visitors to the institution’s Detroit Industry fresco cycle by Mexican artist Diego Rivera can borrow two types of free mobile interpretive solutions: an iPad-based, bilingual multimedia tour describing how this famous mural was commissioned and created, or the Lumin AR tour that analyzes visitor location and delivers customized AR content on screens controlled by Google’s Tango system.

Visitors lift the AR device like a hand glass to inspect the under-drawing Rivera applied to the wall before he added the colored fresco medium. Then, moving the device in any direction, they can see the entirety of the mural’s mid-process composition, just as Rivera would have seen it in 1933.

Similarly, the Vizcaya Museum & Gardens in Miami, Florida, wanted visitors to experience what the historic estate looked like before 2017’s Hurricane Irma and other recent severe storms took their toll. With support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Virtual Vizcaya tour offers high-resolution images, documentary videos, and 3-D renderings of the campus in a mobile-friendly website to build public awareness about climate change. Whether at the museum or not, you can explore a highly responsive and exploratory visual environment—including spaces that are no longer accessible due to conservation concerns—and easily imagine an immediate future in crisis.

Immersive experiences improve as more senses are engaged. The David Bowie retrospective, which was organized by the UK’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013 and concluded at the Brooklyn Museum in 2018, prioritized sound (surprise!) as the major driver of this immersive experience. Upon entering, visitors donned oversized, retro-styled headphones and small digital audio players that coordinated the music and commentary with their location. Looking at Bowie’s costumes for the Ziggy Stardust tour triggered corresponding songs from the album and relevant words of wisdom. Magically, simply moving and looking induced synesthesia: talk about feeling transported!

Thinking Big

Many museums make good use of clever tweets and viral video posts. That’s great, but these posts flare and die. Consider using social media to drive visitor attention to online content, including educational offerings with longer shelf lives.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, recently launched a set of Pinterest boards that link users to an extensive online American history teacher resource, Uncovering America. The Exploratorium, Museum of Modern Art, and Smithsonian Institution use social media platforms to drive enrollment and engagement in their free online courses hosted by the Coursera and edX massive open online courses (MOOC) platforms.

Harnessing the power of popular mobile platforms—where people already congregate—as well as collaborating with like-minded institutions to create content of mutual interest can further help museums achieve their educational goals. Museums that see themselves as omnipresent, lifelong sources of educational experiences—regardless of where visitors” are located—are well on their way to success.

Where the Compass Points

Indoor location-based apps can support navigation inside the museum, enrich the visitor experience, and allow visitors to research where to spend their time. While many museums have launched beta test projects, they rarely report their findings. Similarly, the development processes for successful mobile apps are not widely shared.

“After countless conversations over more than five years with colleagues about what does or doesn’t work for indoor location mobile apps, it became clear that we should get together to learn from each other, consolidate information, and identify future potential uses,” says Claire Pillsbury, program director at San Francisco’s Exploratorium.

In September 2018, the Exploratorium hosted the Conference on Mobile Position Awareness Systems and Solutions (COMPASS) to help museum professionals learn from and support each other’s work and candidly exchange results and methods. The cross-disciplinary, two-day event drew representatives from museums, universities, visitor research consultancies, and app agencies to share practices, articulate goals, and critically examine the role of mobile apps.

Conference topics and perspectives will be further disseminated via an Association for Science and Technology Centers webinar in March 2019 and a free e-publication in late spring 2019. For more information, visit


LaPlaca Cohen, Culture Track,

The Corning Museum of Glass, GlassApp,

Carnegie Museum of Art, Teenie Harris Archive,

American Museum of Natural History, Explorer app,

Detroit Institute of Arts, Lumin AR program,

National Gallery of Art, Uncovering America,

Museum-made massive open online courses (MOOCs): American Museum of Natural History,; Exploratorium,; Museum of Modern Art,; SmithsonianX,

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