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Museum Apps, Mobile Technologies and Audiences on the Go

Charlotte Sexton and Elena Lagoudi on how the use of mobile technologies and their ability to engage audiences, whether within the gallery walls or beyond, are hot topics for cultural organisations at the moment. Early adopters like The National Gallery, London, have been exploring the potential benefits and pitfalls of creating custom applications for smart-phone devices, and in doing so have begun to tussle with some of the emerging issues for museums and galleries.

In this paper we aim to tease out some of these issues and to reflect on the lessons learnt from the development of the National Gallery’s first iPhone/iTouch application Love Art, balancing this with some alternative approaches. The aim will be to identify some of the key questions to consider when developing mobile interpretation –whether for apps or the mobile web – and to offer some thoughts on where it may go in the future.

The starting point for developing effective mobile interpretation has to be a clear understanding of the target audience and their needs. The challenge is then to craft content suitable for delivery for those on the move and using an ever-evolving array of mobile devices.

Love Art – the National Gallery in your pocket
Launched in 2009, Love Art was conceived primarily as an experiment, offering an opportunity for the Gallery to both test the market and gain valuable experience of creating and disseminating mobile interpretation. Designed as an offline and off-site experience, it was intended to engage both general arts enthusiasts and fans of the Gallery‘s Old Master collection.

For this first iteration of the app, we limited ourselves to Apple’s iPhone and iTouch devices. In part this was due to the quality of their screens – an important consideration for a visual arts organisation – which enabled us to showcase iconic art works from the collection using high-resolution zoomable images.

Our approach to interpretation
The interpretation strategy we followed in designing the content (predominantly text, audio and video) was in part influenced by a harsh financial climate and the need to keep content development costs to a minimum. This was greatly facilitated by the cohesiveness of our established editorial approach, ensuring that 90–95% of the content required for the app could be drawn from pre-existing sources and archives.

‘Up-cycling’ material in this way proved to be highly cost-effective, providing a sustainable model which allowed us to concentrate our limited production budget where it would have the greatest impact. This sustainable model was the only viable way the Gallery could approach this type of speculative development. In order to ensure that we didn’t end up with a ‘Frankenstein’ assemblage of random material, a brief was agreed for content selection. The main aims were to ensure material would:

● Foster a sense of ‘playfulness’ and exploration
● Inspire creativity
● Avoid offering a rigid didactic experience
● Offer multipal voices from informal to authoritative
● Exploit the tactile nature of the device

Love Art was always conceived as a content rich experience rather than a ‘lite’ functional application – one that would engage audiences with both the collection and the organisation and offer a range of ‘ways-in’. Part of our strategy was to capitalise on the popularity of the National Gallery podcast. Producing our monthly, subscription-based, ‘audio-zine’ style podcast since September 2006 had taught us a great deal about telling compelling stories through audio narrative. During that time, we had striven to ensure that content continued to be relevant and interesting to the audience. We achieved this by responding to audience feedback, analysing download stats of the most popular content, and doing some small-scale research (conducted in 2008). Overall, the podcast had provided us with a way to offer ‘snippets’ of content for free and to cross-promote the broader family of products we had to offer.

We started to use this approach for other content, including Gallery audio tours such as The Grand Tour and Be Inspired (as well as some other children’s tours that were not included in the final iPhone application) have all adopted a similar tone and feel to the podcast. It has proven to be an effective model. We carefully considered how interlinked this audio family was and how much the Gallery’s brand manifested itself throughout. We were guided creatively by wanting to stay as close as possible to the brand concept of the ‘Gallery of the Mind’. The goal was that Love Art, the National Gallery Podcast, other downloadable tours, and the various tours one can take in front of the paintings would all reflect a similar tone, style and interpretative direction.

The current digital landscape
In the time since Love Art launched we have seen a number of other cultural organisations enter the mobile application arena, each approaching the challenges of mobile interpretation in slightly different ways. Although the landscape is still evolving, we are starting to see some recurring methodologies. This provides a framework against which we can better reflect on Love Art’s areas of success and its inherent limitations.

Love Art was the first of a growing number of arts-focused applications and has established itself as a blue print for subsequent ‘coffee-table’ and ‘collectable’ productions. The app was made in partnership with Antenna International (a long-standing provider of mobile interpretation). Other applications, such as The Van Gogh museum’s Van Gogh’s Letters(1) (also produced by Antenna), fall into this category. While these apps offer access to extremely high quality and unique content, they are inherently self-contained and wholly off line experiences.

Their ‘art-book’ quality and execution enabled them to stand apart from other ‘thin’ apps, giving them a sense of additional value and depth, thereby encouraging repeat exploration. However the downside to this approach was the missed opportunity to provide dialogue between the user and the museum. These apps aimed to provide users with high learning value. However, it remains debatable how much of an immersive experience they offer in their current form. To be a truly immersive experience they needed to offer opportunities for participatory learning or for the user to add their own social meaning.

Mobile Web and hybrid Wi-Fi apps
An alternative model to the wholly offline experience is provided by the mobile web and hybrid Wi-Fi apps, which require connectivity to access some or all of their content. As only a nominal amount of material is required when downloading the app for the first time, they succeed in overcoming one of the main drawbacks of the ‘collectable’ apps: the huge time and bandwidth consuming initial download.

Web and hybrid Wi-Fi apps are predominantly designed to use content published within an existing website, which is held in a central content management system and follows an ‘author once, publish many times’ production model. However for institutions which hold contemporary collections, such as MoMA or Tate Modern, there is a potential secondary benefit in that one could argue that web content is merely being re-presented via a mobile device, thereby potentially avoiding the need for costly secondary copyright clearances. This argument is yet to be fully tested, but if it proves persuasive to copyright holders then it would remove a significant financial barrier to dual publication.

As well as having the capacity to draw content directly from a website, there are other additional benefits to this ‘always connected’ model which we are exploring for Love Art version 2. These include the added capacity to ‘push’ new and timely content to the application, ensuring it feels more up-to-date and dynamic. In addition there are opportunities to engage audiences in real-time conversation and sharing.

In regions where mobile internet use is high, such as in North America and Scandinavia, these aspects alone could make apps an essential tool to sustain communities of interest on-the-go. This would be especially true for museums that have fully embraced web 2.0 interactivity with their users. One could argue that dynamic apps have a significant advantage: they are perceived as up-to-date and functional as well as entertaining – one of the key factors in being successful among the myriad of apps currently available on iTunes.

Tour-based apps
In the land rush towards this new breed of mobile applications, we shouldn’t forget the significant legacy that ‘old school’ guided tours have left us with. Tours are long established as a primary way of providing interpretation within the museum’s physical space. These new location savvy apps are modern successors to the traditional tour, giving us the ability to orientate visitors both intellectually and physically. They can provide a rich mix of geo-location features, annotations and tagging, QR codes (scannable barcodes that provide access to further information), museum floorplans, navigational and information features, all of which are designed to gently guide visitors through large complex spaces and diverse collections.

Although in theory a mobile app could offer an alternative to a traditional in-gallery audio guide tour, there were some significant issues which dissuaded us from adopting this model for Love Art. We actively avoided the inclusion of way-finding functionality or location information for each art work, specifically to discourage use within the Gallery spaces. We did this for two significant reasons: first to avoid cannibalising sales of our current audio guides, which are keenly priced and form an important part of the Gallery’s revenue generation mechanisms, and secondly as it is the current policy of the museum to discourage the use of personal mobile devices in order to preserve the tranquil atmosphere of the gallery spaces.

Augmented reality
One of the most interesting and innovative aspects of recent mobile interpretation is the increasing use of augmented reality applications which combine both geo-location functionality and sophisticated overlay technologies to literally layer content across the users world view. Two compelling examples of this in action are provided by the Museum of London and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Each museum has found highly engaging ways of presenting their collections beyond the walls of the gallery, literally overlaying them on the cityscape – mapping the past on to the present. Streetmuseum by the Museum of London was a stand-alone application, where the Stedelijk “lent” its collection to Layar users, and involved some interaction with museum staff in the experience.(2)

While it is unlikely that this functionality would be applied to Love Art, we are excited by the potential that it could offer when in front of an art work hanging on the wall of the museum, for instance by offering alternative views of the painting.

Museum applications and m-learning
Despite the obvious potential for mobile learning that apps and the mobile web provide, few museums have taken up this opportunity. Among those who have been willing to throw their hats into the digital ring so far, the majority have been more heavily focusing on potential marketing and outreach opportunities – rather than in crafting fully formed mobile learning tools.

In contrast, educationalists have been enthusing for several years about the value of mobile learning – whether in classrooms or beyond – for lifelong learning and digital education in general. It is fascinating that no museum seems to have developed an application directly for these purposes (at the time of writing). It is particularly interesting, considering the potential for communicating and interacting with traditionally hard-to-reach groups. In turn some of these groups, such as teenagers, are seemingly more likely to take advantage of all the connectivity features that new mobile devices offer, particularly as usage tariffs become more competitive and therefore affordable.

According to Mulholland, Collins, and Zdrahal(3) “…mobile learning can work, reaching places that other learning cannot, …through creativity, collaboration and communication”. The three C’s of success for mobile learning seem to be already integral to the ‘Millennials’ smart-phone use patterns. The question is how can museums capitalise on this new wave of mobile interactivity and develop meaningful m-learning experiences designed for this hard-to-reach audience and beyond?

A museum friendly business model
Max Anderson, Academic and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, argued that museums were “red ink” businesses and that revenue generation wasn’t their primary driver: “We must be able to say truthfully and with a consistent voice that we are first and foremost serving the public interest, rather than emulating commercial attractions.”(4) Although this premise is compelling, the landscape in which we now operate has changed radically. Within the intervening years, the line between public interest and financial sustainability has become more sharply defined, particularly when we find ourselves operating in overtly commercial spaces such as Apple’s app store.

We believe that it is possible for cultural organisations to participate in these new mobile spaces, whether on a strategic or speculative basis; we just need the right business model to work with. Both Proctor and Daponte’s description of the ‘freemium’ model at Tate’s 2010 handheld conference could be the perfect proposition for public service institutions, thereby enabling us to meet our public access obligations by provide rich and generous experiences free of charge, but also to ensure these endeavours are self sustaining with the addition of relevant links to premium and paid for content and services. With a more entrepreneurial outlook, museums and galleries can continue in their efforts to ‘publish everywhere’ but do so in a sustainable way.

Mobile technologies are undoubtedly providing museums and galleries across the globe with unparalleled opportunities to structure new relationships with their audiences and diverse constituencies – moving away from institutional hierarchies and a didactic ethos towards more collaborative and discursive interactions. (see “Clay Shirky on institutions vs. collaboration”(5)).

As the world becomes a more connected place, it will be the mobile apps and the platforms that drive them which will provide museums and galleries with the easiest route to benefiting from this connectivity. In turn, they will give us opportunities to disseminate well-crafted and compelling interactions and mobile learning opportunities that can tap into the re-emerging trend toward fun and playfulness. Apps and the mobile web enable us to take our collections and knowledge about them beyond the walls of our institutions and to position them within new social contexts, fostering conversations with new and diverse audiences. We can do all of this while meeting organisational measures of quality, relevance and sustainability.

Charlotte Sexton, Head of Digital Media, The National Gallery, London, and Elena Lagoudi, Museums and Digital Culture, Aristotle University, Greece

Notes | References | Bibliography

1. Peereboom, M. et al., Van Gogh’s Letters: Or How to Make the Results of 15 Years of Research Widely Accessible for Various Audiences and How to Involve Them. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31,
2010. Consulted September 19, 2010.


3. Mulholland, P., Collins, T., and Zdrahal, Z. (2005) Bletchley Park Text: Using mobile and semantic web technologies to support the post-visit use of online museum resources, Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2005, 24

4. Prescriptions for Art Museums in the Decade Ahead” in CURATOR, The Museum Journal, Volume 50, Number 1, January 2007.

5. Clay Shirky, talk in, 2005,

More information about the Love Art application: Archives & Museum Informatics: Museums and the Web 2010: Papers: Lagoudi, E. and C. Sexton, Old Masters at Your Fingertips: the Journey of Creating a Museum App for the iPhone and iTouch

Tate handheld conference wiki:

The applications mentioned in this paper:
• Yours, Vincent, the Van Gogh Museum and Antenna Audio
• Streetmuseum, Museum of London
• Layar Reality Browser – The Stedelijk Museum collection with Layar AR app

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