Walk into any museum in the world today and, no matter what’s on display, you’ll probably be greeted with the same sight: a sea of phones, the odd iPad and maybe even a selfie stick or two, all pointed at the exhibits.
Looked at in one way, this behaviour seems slightly incongruous, given the setting. But, in another, it presents a great opportunity for reaching people on their most personal device. So how are museums and heritage sites – which are generally associated with tradition and the past – making the most of this thoroughly modern behaviour?
“One of the discussions that does go on all the time at the upper levels in any institution is the degree to which a museum should use or depend on technology,” says Georgia Krantz, art history professor at NYU, who has also worked on education at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum.
“There is this idea – which is partly old-fashioned but partly important and correct – that these are incredible works of art, and if people aren’t looking at them, then what is a museum for? If people are taking selfies in front of Van Gogh, is it taking away from the attention to the actual work of art?”
It’s understandable that museums would be concerned about competing for visitors’ attention in their own spaces. In a field where, as Krantz admits, “a lot of the upper level people are a little bit older” – and the traditional visitor demographic skews in a similar direction – this can lead to some resistance to adopting mobile technology.
“There’s often a mentality of ‘let the objects speak for themselves’,” says Elizabeth Ward, operations manager at London’s Benjamin Franklin House. “There’s been a real turning point, though, and it’s easy to see why, when you’re competing with all of the different forms of entertainment available to people today. As a result, museums all over the world are embracing technology and exploring new ways to deliver an interactive experience and access to digital content through apps, social media and digital learning.”
Ultimately, like any brand, every museum today understands that adopting mobile isn’t only important but necessary to attract customers.
“There was not a single person at the Guggenheim, no matter how old they were, that felt like we should not be engaged with technology,” says Krantz. “It’s just a part of how museums are developing, because if they don’t, they’re going to lose a lot of business.”
Breaking down barriers
SAMA founder Anna Stolyarova (right), in front of one of the museum's graffiti exhibits, by artist Uriginal
“Museums that do not adopt technology and become more agile, will not only miss out on a whole new audience, but on making content more accessible, entertaining and desirable,” agrees Anna Stolyarova, founder of SAMA (Street Art Museum Amsterdam).
Not only does mobile offer a way for museums to extend their audience, it has the potential to help them move beyond that older visitor demographic, and break down some of the barriers that make them seem inaccessible to other audiences.
“One of the major issues that museums and heritage sites have faced over the years is a lack of visitor diversity,” says Ward. “Museums exist in order to safeguard history for the entire community, which is why there has been a big push for institutions to connect with diverse audiences and inspire all communities to get engaged.”
“The whole concept of the museum for many people can be stuffy or boring, or just something for other people but not for them,” says Martijn Pronk, head of publications at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
“In theory, the museum has always been for everybody, but now in the digital age we can realise that ambition. We really are there for everybody. Everybody in the whole world can visit the museum online, can connect with the collection, can find out what it is that they are particularly interested in.”
Mobile can also help museums address issues of accessibility, in the sense of making their spaces more user-friendly for visitors with disabilities, specifically those who are blind or deaf. When the Guggenheim launched its multimedia app in 2013, it put accessibility front and centre – literally, including it as an option on the main menu. The app included a verbal description tour – “describing works of art in a way that allows blind people to ‘see’ the work in their mind’s eye,” as Krantz explains – and American Sign Language videos that communicate the history of works with deaf visitors “to speak to people who are deaf about the works in their own language”.
Accessible to All
Georgia Krantz was closely involved in the development of the accessibility features for the Guggenheim’s app. “I got involved at a time when a lot of museums were – and still are – working on making sure that their digital stuff is accessible,” she says.
The focus is currently on visitors who are blind or deaf, though Krantz says museums are likely to build on their current on-site programming with technological solutions in order to address other disabilities and conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder.
Even with these more wellestablished accessibility features, though, it’s still important for museums to make sure they are approaching them correctly. While many apps might rely on iOS’s builtin text-to-voice functionality to make them accessible to blind users, Krantz says customising the entire app for voice-over – though costly – leads to much better results.
And it’s not just the technology that needs to be addressed: “Staff training is vital,” says Krantz. “We made sure that our staff on the floor were able to explain to visitors that these features were there, and talk them through a few steps in order to turn it on. You can have all the technology you want, but if you don’t have the staff talking about it properly then it’s pretty useless.”
From apps to AR
Apps are the most obvious, and probably the most common, way of incorporating mobile into the museum experience. These vary from basic interactive maps to replacements for the traditional audiovisual tour, and single apps for specific exhibitions and galleries.
Digitising collections, to make them available through apps or online, is a current priority for many museums. Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, for example, currently has 250,000 items available digitally in high-definition, and is planning to make its full 1.2m-strong collection available by 2018. The images have been placed in the public domain, meaning they can be used for personal or commercial use, and Rijksmuseum works with retail site Etsy to let people create their own souvenirs from the artworks.
The museum has also launched Rijksstudio, where users can curate their own private collection. It’s intended to give the public a chance to create “a personal view of the museum”, according to Pronk. Of these collections, 600,000 have been created by users, and the museum runs an annual design contest to encourage creative use of the platform.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of ambitious digital museum projects out there, rivalling any brand vertical you care to name for innovation and willingness to experiment.
Street Art Museum Amsterdam (SAMA), an outdoor gallery of graffiti artworks, founded in 2010, has teamed up with the city’s Reinwardt Academie in Amsterdam for a VR (virtual reality) experience launching at the start of next year.
“VR gives us an opportunity to enhance static content and create a true 3D experience. Not only does VR allow us to ‘enter the artwork’, but it allows the user to see what may not necessarily exist in the physical space any more,” says SAMA’s Stolyarova. “Graffiti and street art are temporary, so we need to look outside of tradition and into the new realm of visualisation and conservation offered by contemporary technology to preserve the art.”
It’s not just new museums experimenting with mobile technology, either. In July this year, the Museum of London promoted its Great Fire 1666 exhibition with a recreation of the capital before, during and after the fire, in the popular mobile game Minecraft. On a similarly gaming-focused note, the National Museum of the Royal Navy made an unlikely alliance with Wargaming, the developer of World of Tanks and World of Warships. The two created an augmented reality (AR) model of the HMS Caroline – permanently anchored in Belfast – which could be viewed by visitors to the Portsmouth museum.
London in 1666, recreated within the video game Minecraft
“We had used Minecraft in a few of our learning sessions before we started the Great Fire 1666 project, and witnessed first-hand the platform’s ability to inspire creativity, engagement and learning through play,” says Museum of London digital learning coordinator Josh Blair. “As the Great Fire of London is one of the most popular topics within our learning programme, when the museum started planning for the 350th anniversary of the event, we naturally looked into the possibility of creating a Minecraft game that would help us tell the story in a new way.
“Given Minecraft’s worldwide popularity with people of all ages, we knew it would have incredible potential for sharing our knowledge and collections with a bigger audience than we had previously been able to reach. While we are physically restricted by how many people we can welcome into the museum each year, the capacity of our digital learning resources is essentially limitless.”
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Making the most of it
However, these kinds of big ideas come with equally big challenges for museums. A technology like virtual reality presents a major expense for museums, leads to queues, and can create an experience that isolates visitors from the group they’re with, and the location they’re visiting.
Other on-site projects can struggle with the nature of the locations themselves. Consistent wi-fi and GPS connectivity can be a challenge in a castle, or within a ship constructed out of metal, and drilling through walls to install wires is not an option in a protected site.
The single biggest issue that museums face with large-scale projects, though, is simply money. These institutions rely on government funding and public donations, which means they aren’t able to compete with major brands or tech giants in terms of the amount they have to spend. This can mean that smaller, cheaper – or even free – methods can be the most appealing for museums and heritage sites. However, funding for mobile projects is growing.
“The pot is expanding every year and digital access is even a precondition for some funding applications,” says Ward. “Recently, there have been huge incentives for digitising collections and providing additional content, in an effort to reach and engage with new audiences.” Most simply, though, there is one channel all museums have equal access to: social media.
“Social media helps museums to expand their outreach and break down some of the barriers which may make an institution feel inaccessible,” says Ward. The benefits of social media are huge and, as a free resource, even small museums get the chance to engage with new and more diverse audiences.”
Museums can also partner with pre-existing initiatives, like Google’s Art Project. The Project offers digitised collections and virtual tours, via Street View, for several international museums, including the Rijksmuseum.
“It would be useless to do something like that ourselves,” Pronk says. “We could never compete with Google.”
Even these partnerships aren’t without drawbacks, however. There’s the issue of having to hand over the rights to artworks or exhibits, and, at the most fundamental level, the question of whether a museum can make so much of its content available digitally, that people no longer feel the need to visit.
“For us, the idea is to whet a potential visitor’s appetite, rather than replace the need to visit in person,” says Ward.
This is a tricky balancing act. On one hand, it’s important for museums to be as inclusive as possible. On the other, by making everything available to visitors at home, they risk making their own spaces redundant.
For the Rijksmuseum, which has made all of its artworks available on a creative commons license, this isn’t too much of a concern.
“It’s very important that we reach people everywhere, including millions of people who are not able to visit the museum, so we offer our treasures for them online,” says Pronk. “There is no hesitation at all. Visitor numbers have been increasing all the time, so I think it’s very clear that there is no substitute for the real thing.
“There is a Walter Benjamin essay from the 1930s that’s often quoted, which said that when we start to reproduce paintings photographically, it would diminish the aura of the artwork. Of course, this turned out to be untrue, and it’s still untrue in the digital age. You might have been working with Rembrandt’s Night Watch in Rijksstudio, or printed the image onto a mug, but it’s not like standing in front of the real work. Those are two totally different things.”
Pronk does acknowledge, however, one lingering concern about mobile’s role in museums: “In the museum we want people to enjoy the art, so we don’t want to have too many screens between it and the eyes of the visitor.”
This is the downside of all those people holding up their smartphones and tablets to the exhibits, an issue that’s acknowledged by everyone, old and young, in the fields of ancient history and modern art, alike. An app like Pokémon Go might bring more young visitors through the door – many museums feature a cluster of the game’s Pokéstop and Gym locations – but if they’re ignoring the statues and dinosaur bones in order to hunt a Charmander, does it really count?
“I see a lot of people who are stuck on their technology,” says Krantz. “They’re not really looking at the work, and that’s a problem.
“It’s a problem that can be fixed, though, if you just think about how to use the technology correctly. You have to gear it, and the programming and the marketing around it, to say to the general public: we’re going to teach you how to look for longer, how to pay attention to details in the artworks. It’s a case of using technology not to take their attention away from the works, but to actually help people pay closer attention.”
This article first appeared in the June 2016 print edition of Mobile Marketing. You can read the whole issue here.