How Tech Is Changing the Museum Experience
1 day ago by Aliza Sherman
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Museums are exploring digital and mobile technologies to enhance visitor experience. Initiatives go beyond technology within exhibits and installations, but also include more pervasive uses of tech to create interactive experiences for visitors throughout a museum, as well as remote experiences for those who cannot get there. Here, we highlight what three museums are doing to make the experience interactive, educational and engaging.
The Smithsonian — Washington, DC
One of the leaders in the space of digital and mobile tech in museums is the Smithsonian. Its initiatives run the gamut from more “traditional” cellphone tours to mobile apps to crowdsourcing to interactive gaming and even augmented reality. Nancy Proctor, head of mobile strategy and intiatives at the Smithsonian, publishes widely on the topic of mobile in museums and is often cited by other museums as a main source of learning and inspiration on the topic. The Smithsonian has an array of mobile apps and websites that allow museum visitors to interact as they go through an exhibit or to experience the exhibit remotely. Apps include Infinity of Nations for the National Museum of the American Indian, which provides an English and Spanish mobile tour, and includes slideshows and video in versions for both children and adults. Another is called Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers (produced using the Toura apps platform) that provides an overview and insights into select art pieces with hi-res images, video, audio and quotes directly from the artist. This app traveled with the exhibition to the Walker Art Center, and they were able to add more content to the app specific to their own installation of the show. The Set in Style iPad application showcases 65 of the 350 objects on view in an exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, including jewels, timepieces, and fashion accessories by Van Cleef & Arpels. The app Artists in Dialogue 2 for the National Museum of African Art provides a mobile tour in English and Brazilian Portuguese, led by curator Karen Milbourne and the artists — Sandile Zulu and Henrique Oliveira. They discuss the the art, their fellow artists and and their collaborative process. A user can also join the related conversation via Twitter, test their knowledge of South Africa and Brazil, and even experiment virtually with the artists‟ technique in a built-in game.
The Smithsonian released a crowdsourcing app called LeafSnap that encourages users on the Eastern Seaboard to take photographs of leaves with their smartphones, identify trees from a vast database and then upload these to a central location, automatically tagged with GPS coordinates. The data helps give researchers a better picture of the distribution of species across the region while also honing people‟s skills and knowledge in identifying trees in a fun way. With an augmented reality app in review at the Apple store, The Smithsonian has a proof-of-concept for working with a 3D AR model with several additional AR projects in the works. Regarding geo-location in museums, Proctor points to the limitations of GPS within buildings. Most of the Smithsonian apps that can be used in conjunction with exhibits require a manual trigger by the visitor, such as typing in a number from a label on an exhibit sign. However, Proctor sees a lot of potential in combining various indoor positioning systems to help visitors find their way and to access additional content. The Smithsonian is working with Wi-Fi-based solutions and visual recognition systems like Google Goggles. Visual recognition works well on 2D images, says Proctor, but is still challenging for 3D objects. Still, visual recognition systems (VRS) can be more cost-effective indoor positioning solutions for museums that have Wi-Fi. Many can leverage their existing and often comprehensive photographs of galleries and collection objects to do location matching. “VR and AR are the two most interesting and most likely to be fruitful new technologies for museums simply because you‟re able to enhance what someone is seeing through their phone,” explains Proctor. “For visitors, holding up their camera to scan an object of interest is a natural gesture — the same action as taking a photo. If that gesture triggers delivery of content to better understand something, it is a better, more organic experience,” Proctor explains. For any in-museum digital or mobile initiative, the challenge becomes bandwidth, says Proctor. “There needs to be a Wi-FI high speed connection to enable the transfer of the image from the visitor‟s camera phone to the image databases and then to return content to go with that location. This requires installation of access points, wiring — and in some museums, that is not possible or doesn‟t work very well.” Proctor cites historic buildings like the Louvre, where the gold leaf interior makes Wi-Fi radio signals bounce in certain areas as well as “concrete bunker”style museums where Wi-Fi is a challenge. Proctor is excited about the two-way and multi-way nature of using social media and mobile in the museum experience versus typical one-way narrowcasting, and of the exchange of commentary, opinions, ideas and responses to collections, themes and concepts. She says that the networked nature of mobile today makes it a social media platform, in contrast to the traditional audio tour, and those mobile conversations help make the museum and its messages more sustainable. The Smithsonian‟s mobile strategy is available on a wiki, and additional resources about mobile and museums are available online and managed by Proctor. She
welcomes feedback and collaboration on the development of next generation mobile for museums.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage — New York City
On September 19th, The Museum of Jewish Heritage will launch a free mobile walking tour app that gives users a glimpse into Gilded Age New York as seen through the eyes of Jewish-American poet Emma Lazarus, the subject of the museum‟s fall exhibition. The app, Emma Lazarus: Poet of Exiles, A Companion Walking Tour, includes 19 historic sites in lower Manhattan, Greenwich Village, Union Square, Chinatown, Chelsea, Midtown and the East River. The tour was produced using Tristan Interactive‟s platform, Autour, and includes GPS recognition and a map. Each stop will consist of annotated historic tour sites, a slideshow, and audio commentary. Actress Julianna Margulies narrates the tour, and the app also includes a reading by Meryl Streep of Emma‟s most famous poem, “The New Colossus,” which appears on the bronze base of the Statue of Liberty (which is pictured below, as shown in the app).
“We were going to conduct an actual walking tour of Emma Lazarus‟ New York, and I was at a presentation about mobile apps in museums and a light went off in my head. It seemed the perfect marriage,” says Alice Rubin, senior project manager at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Rubin says she read up on mobile apps for museums and attended several conferences and online webinars about the growing use of apps in museums and heritage sites. Once the app is launched, the user can see what tour sites are in close proximity or travel to the sites in any order. Some are within walking distance, but many are located in different parts of the city. At a location, users can listen to the audio narration and view photographs from 19th century New York City, including illustrations and images of the buildings and structures that once stood at that location. The tour also features audio commentary from experts, including curator Melissa Martens, a biographer and historian. Locations include Delmonico‟s Restaurant and The Century Building, home of the literary journal The Century, where many of Emma‟s articles about immigrant causes were published and which is now a Barnes & Noble store.
Powerhouse Museum — Sydney, Australia
When it comes to experimenting with new technology, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney Australia has been doing it for several years now, documenting their explorations and learning on a blog. They‟ve hosted developer hack days where experimental applications have been built using their collection API and when Layar first launched, a Sydney-based AR company called Mob Labs developed an AR layer of historical photography for the museum. Inside the museum, they are starting to use iPads to replace LCD and plasmas for audio/visual displays, and they‟ve found the smaller screens result in a closer engagement between museum visitor and content. They‟ve also deployed touchscreen games on iPads versus traditional touchscreens, and are getting a higher usage rate among visitors. The Powerhouse has been experimenting with the mobile web for a few years now, and recently incorporated QR codes in the Love Lace exhibit. There is also the Love Lace App that can be used in the gallery to add an information layer for visitors without overwhelming the exhibition design with text. The Love Lace website serves as a hub for before and after visiting the museum. Additional apps in their repertoire include one for their annual Sydney Design Festival, and another for cross-agency school holiday planning.
“I like to think that at the Powerhouse, we‟ve been looking a little further than most by thinking about and prototyping the use of mobile and social technologies as a way of rethinking the entire notion of a „museum visit,‟” says Sebastian Chan, head of digital, social and emerging technologies at the Powerhouse Museum. “Obviously, once a visitor can access almost any „facts‟ on the device they carry in their pocket, the idea that a museum should be about „facts‟ is almost made redundant. This opens up a whole lot of possibilities for making museum exhibitions far more immersive and experiential, leaving the „fact‟ layer for mobile and online delivery either during or before and after the gallery visit.” The museum‟s strategic plan is available online, and it mentions “cross platform content delivery,” embracing “open access” and being an “open museum,” ensuring the content they create is available both in-gallery and online, and where possible, with open license to re-use. As more museums look to engage visitors in new, more pervasive ways, implementing technologies to leverage smartphones and other mobile devices will not only become more prevalent but more effective over time. Image courtesy of iStockphoto, franckreporter, t-lorien