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Museums, Archaeology & Mobile Apps

August 22, 2011

Got myself an iPad a couple of weeks ago so I am now learning about the mobile app business.  I have to confess that the biggest draw for me in taking the iPad plunge was to use a music/sound making app called Reactable.  At the same, I sufficiently rationalized the iPad’s portability and work applications as factors to justify the cost.  To dutifully follow-up on the rationalizations, I went to the App Store and searched on Anthropology, Archaeology, Museums to see what all was out there.  There is a good bit of cool stuff.  You can tour Roman-era London via the Londinium app produced by the Museum of London, explore the Please Touch the Exhibit app from the Melbourne Museum, view fine art in the Philips Collection multimedia app based in Washington D.C., and on and on . . .

There is a good bit of museum and archaeology app stuff out there.  But are these apps the latest fad, toys, or what?  As is often the case the American Association of Museum provides a good summary overview text on the subject.  Mobile Apps for Museums: The AAM Guide to Planning and Strategy edited by Nancy Proctor is a good place to start investigating the applicability of these new mobile applications.  Proctor is the Smithsonian’s Head of New Media Initiatives.

In 100 pages, the volume contains 12 brief overview essays on almost all phases of mobile apps from the technical to practical considerations.  An additional 12-page glossary interprets the jargon inherent in any such discussion.  Although a careful read of the entire volume is worthwhile, several essays stood out to me:

  •  Robert Stein’s essay “Mobile Content Strategies for Content Sharing and Long-Term Sustainability” deals with the compatibility of museum apps across time and space.  He reports on a paper he and Proctor co-authored at the 2011 Museums and the Web Conference that addresses this issue and references the TourML wiki as a source for ongoing dialogue.  The upshot of the article is recognizing the importance in the early stages of app development that there are industry standards to assure the production of quality and interactive products.
  • Kate Haley Goldman’s essay “Understanding Adoption of Mobile Technology with Museums” is an important first read for anyone considering mobile apps in museum settings.   Goldman astutely observes that “for institutions already using mobile interpretation, encouraging visitors to use the mobile interpretation was the largest challenge.  Yet for others – vendors and researchers, as well as those considering projects – attracting new visitors via mobile was a primary goal.  This disconnect represents a great opportunity for future research” (p. 67).  Goldman speculates that part of the disconnect comes from the validity and reliability of the visitor survey measures.  She argues for visitor based longitudinal studies to help clarify the issue.  This understanding echoes Clay Shirkey’s concern that internet technology must be relevant to existing behavior.
  • Jane Burton’s essay “Playful Apps” provides another layer of insights as the relationship of the museum user to museum apps. She notes that you can explore physics by playing Launchball from the Science Museum of London or learn about human origins by visiting Meanderthal from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  She cites Flurry, a San Francisco based smartphone analytics firm report, in noting that “studying the U.S. mobile gamer, we note that she earns over 50% more than the average American, is more than twice as likely to have earned a college bachelor’s degree, and is more like to be white or Asian” (p. 74).  Like Goldman, she finds that conventional wisdom on app adoption and use in museums might be suspect and counter the conventional wisdom of the typical app user.
The collection of essays provides an excellent starting point and balanced overview for anyone wishing to get beyond the immediate must have hype or the flip side of too quickly dismissing the use of mobile apps in museum or archaeology public engagement efforts.  However, except for an essay on mobile apps at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, no author in the volume considered in a substantive way whether the apps actually fit in with the mission of the museum or organization.  Proposals for adopting such new technology that are thoroughly enmeshed in the mission of the institution will allow justification of the high cost of app development and equipment often needed to operate the systems.  Otherwise, nay sayers (and funders) may argue that we are just jumping on to the latest interpretive fad.

What is your experience with mobile apps?

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 23, 2011 3:50 am

    Thanks for the review! A nice way to discover your blog. I just want to correct one point: I’m Head of Mobile Strategy and Initiatives at the Smithsonian. (I used to head up new media at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, hence the confusion.)

    Best regards,
    Nancy

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