Mobile Experiences in Art Museums

Museums today seek a balance between the one-way transmission of curatorial expertise and the pluralistic modes of interpretation by visitors. New multimedia tours with their diverse voices and interactive functions are one way that museums are literally passing control into the visitors’ hands, providing a greater array of potential connections that require the visitor to select, categorize, and create. A result of emerging technologies in the mobile industry, mobile experiences in museums today encompass the traditional handheld audio guide, the cell phone tour, iPhone/MP3 players, and the newer multimedia handheld tour as well as a variety of mobile applications that go behind the tour model. This posting will first briefly discuss the current state of mobile tours and review noteworthy studies on the subject conducted by major US art museums and presented at conferences and in publications. It will then explore future possibilities for mobile tours as well as other uses of mobile devices in museums, including GPS for geotagging, QR codes, and downloadable content specifically suited to handheld wireless devices.

Some of the questions we can ask as we review these mobile tools are, do they provide visitors with more information, and if so, what kind of information? Is there any knowledge or skill required to use them, and do they teach specific learning tools and goals? Do they reinforce a curatorial narrative and order? Do they empower the visitor with more choices to create personal meaning, and if so, in what ways do they affect the traditional museum experience? Peter Samis from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) talks about an Interpretive Goals questionnaire that their institution adapted from the Getty that helped them to integrate multimedia into programs and exhibitions across all departments (Samis, Museums and the Web, 2009). The form included the following questions:

• Please list one to three main ideas visitors will take away from viewing the exhibition. What objects or didactic components of the exhibition will help them learn this?

• Describe the rationale and originality of the project. Is the exhibition bringing new scholarship to the field, exposing an under-recognized subject, etc.? Why is this exhibition important now at SFMOMA?

• Please note other interpretive, multi-media components that should be considered (audio-tour, in-gallery videos, interactive features, blogs, etc.). Are you aware of existing media created by other organizations on this topic? All these questions reflect the high priority that museums now place on visitor reception and interpretation of information, rather than on the process of curatorial transmission or on the object-centered content itself. Increasingly, museums are seeking to augment the visitor experience through the use of mobile media.

Current State of Mobile Tours

Museum audio guides today can be placed into four different categories: 1) museum devices with number pads with manual or automatic activation, 2) personal digital assistants (PDAs) such as the iPhone, BlackBerry and other smartphones with operating systems and Internet connectivity, visual imagery, and manual or automatic activation, 3) mobile phones that are manually activated, and 4) audio files/podcasts that are downloaded onto MP3 players and other devices such as the iPod/ Touch. While most museums rely on manual activation by the user (pushing device buttons), some of the newer tours utilize automatic activation by infrared hotspots that are triggered when visitors enter the area of the object with the device; however, the play button still needs to be activated manually. Both the PDAs and the mobile phones are generally brought into the museum by the visitor; however, museums often have some for short-term loan.


SJMA (Chris Alexander)

One of the newest developments in handheld devices is the iPhone by Apple, featuring a telephone, iPod and iTunes, text messaging, a hybrid map, and Internet connectivity. Two museums in the US are currently experimenting with specific iPhone audio tours, the San Jose Museum of Art (SJMA) in California and the Denver Art Museum in Colorado. The SJMA has been working on this new tour (they call it a “gallery experience/tour”) since September 2007, which can be accessed at The iPhone and/or iPod Touch make it easy for the museum to update content and allow the museum more options for features, interactivity, and accessibility, according to producer Chris Alexander. The museum introduced the tour in conjunction with its exhibition, Robots: Evolution of a Cultural Icon (April 12 – October 19, 2008). The Denver Art Museum converted their existing audio tours to “an iPhone-based experience,” says project director Bruce Wyman. “This will let us push the idea of developing web-based audio content to gallery devices, see how our wireless coverage is working, and also see what sort of traffic we experience over the existing infrastructure so we can think about scalability” (message posted by Wyman at Muse Tech Central: Museum Computer Network Project Registry. One advantage to the iPhone (and other devices with Internet connectivity) is it’s ability to provide a mobile access point to the museum’s collection management system that controls the entire permanent collection, rather than just a few highlights or a temporary exhibition. A disadvantage, however, is that downloading podcasts and other information on these devices (including MP3 players) requires visitors to plan ahead before visiting the museum, which can be unreliable with the younger visitors that favor these devices.

There are both advantages and disadvantages in using mobile phones for museum audio tours in the US. The advantages include visitors’ familiarity with their own personal device as opposed to learning a new device that they would need to borrow from the museum while leaving a form of identification. The use of mobile phones saves money for museums as they don’t have to purchase and maintain the audio devices or staff their distribution points, and it is easier for museums to update content. Various mobile phone features today support pictures, text, and video, and provide an opportunity for visitors to leave comments on a centralized message center. Mobile phones also offer greater flexibility of movement with exhibitions that continue outside the gallery spaces onto the exterior spaces of the museum and beyond, and they can be used anytime (Proctor & Tellis, 2003; Tellis, 2004; Proctor, 2007).

Disadvantages, however, are just as notable. The first obstacle to visitors using their mobile phones is a general discomfort and uncertainty at using these devices in museums, as Lee (2008) found in a recent study. Though these finding pertain to use in a science center, it is safe to assume that the same holds true for art museums as well, as many museums still prohibit mobile phone use within gallery spaces. There is a danger to museums that encouraging visitors to use their mobile phones for tours inside the gallery may encourage them to use the phones for other functions as well, such as making telephone calls or taking photos of works in violation of museum photography policies, both of which could be undetected by security guards. It is also tiring for visitors to physically hold the phone to their ear unless they have an earpiece, and reception may not be adequate in all spaces, particularly in basement galleries that would not offer a high quality audio experience. If visitors don’t have mobile phones, the museum would have to accommodate by providing them for loan, and for objects outside the galleries, visitors would need to carry around a paper guide listing the phone numbers to call. As large exhibitions travel around the country, the phone numbers to call may be long-distance, requiring extra charges that visitors might not want to pay, particularly with foreign visitors who pay higher charges.


Tate Modern (Nancy Proctor, 2007)

One example of a successful mobile phone audio tour is at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Art on Call. Upon dialing a central number (612-374-8200), multiple voices can be heard interpreting artwork in the museum’s collection and temporary exhibitions, including the curator, artist, visitors that leave comments, and even the voice of history from interviews in museum archives. As the Walker manages not only indoor gallery spaces but also an outdoor sculpture garden and public cultural programming within the city, the audio tour offers updated information related to all of these diverse activities with interviews from film directors and performing artists, as well as dining tips in the city and jobs and volunteer opportunities at the museum. Two important features of the program are TalkBack, which allows visitors to record comments or “audio notes” on their mobile phone, and Breadcrumbing, which keeps track of artwork that visitors access on their mobile phone tour inside the museum, and then makes this personalized playlist available on the museum’s website that offers further information on the works. The museum has a few iPods on loan for free at the Visitors Services desk. Some museums also offer interactive games as part of their mobile phone tours, both inside the galleries and online, such as Ear for Art: Chihuly Glass CellPhone Walking Tour at the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington (888-411-4220).

With the handheld multimedia tours using device owned by the museum, visitors can bookmark objects of interest during their physical visit, similar to breadcrumbing. After giving their emails to a museum staff, content in the devices is transferred electronically to visitors via an email with a link to the museum website, where they can then create what is now commonly referred to as “my collection” or “my gallery.” The attractive feature for museums is that not only do they acquire visitors’ emails, but they are also able to track if visitors go to their website, how often, and what are the more popular objects being bookmarked.


Walker Art Center (Robin Dowden, 2007)

SFMOMA commissioned a study (conducted by Randi Korn & Associates, Inc.) during its 2006 exhibition of Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint. The study determined that visitors under 40 rated the podcast and cell phone tour higher than the traditional audio tour with the same content because of “the ability to access information on demand, familiarity and comfort with the device and low or free cost” (Samis, 2007, p. 23). Using a 7-point scale to chart visitor satisfaction from “Did not help me appreciate Barney’s art” to “Helped me appreciate Barney’s art,” the highest mean ratings for visitors was the podcast tour (6.2) and the cell phone tour (6.0), followed by the headset audio tour with a mean rating of 5.6.

In 2008 (Samis & Pau, 2009), SFMOMA conducted a study by Corporate Intelligence Group at Discovery Communications, Inc. (the parent company of AntennaAudio that created the audio guide), contradicting these previous results. The study covered three distinct exhibitions at the museum, showing a diminishing interest on the part of viewers to use their mobile phones as museum tours in favor of MP3 devices and handheld museum devices, for many of the disadvantageous reasons cited above. Surveying visitors about their preferred sources of information when visiting a museum, visitors were divided into two categories; audio guide user and non-audio guide user. The choices of sources were both analog and digital: audio guide, wall text, exhibition brochure, multimedia tour, tour guide (docent), catalogue, in-gallery video, tour downloaded to personal iPod/MP3 player, mobile phone tour. The results showed that the last option for both sets of viewers was the mobile phone tour. Audio guide users preferred the audio guide first, followed by the wall text and the exhibition brochure. Non-audio guide users preferred the wall text first, followed by the exhibition brochure. The study also determined that 62% of guide users (41% of non-guide users) strongly prefer to use a museum device rather than their personal mobile phone, and there was a strong preference to use personal iPod/MP3 player devices over personal mobile phones (49% guide users, 36% non-guide users).

The Future of Mobile Devices in Art Museums

The future of museum mobile tours is based on the promise of increased multimedia features, greater bandwidth capabilities, and a global network, all offering more choices and flexibility for visitors and greater opportunities for interactivity and user-generated content. For example, one trend that Peter Samis has discussed is the “Universal Access Policy” for museums. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Guggenheim Museum have all started offering audio tours free of charge to every visitor, resulting in increased usage from 3-4% to 20-61%. However, it must be noted that this change corresponds with an increase in admission fees of up to $20 a person (Museums and the Web, 2009).

In discussing “The Future of Mobile Interpretation,” Kovin J. Smith, Senior Analyst for Enterprise Content at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, proposes the importance for museums to know their audience to best create interpretive platforms. Smith also suggests that inside the museum, visitors expect many of the same experiences and tools as on the website, particularly with the ability to access the museum’s entire collection at the touch of a button. Smith states, “With the ability to search, group, and filter every object, the device becomes a digital surrogate, an assistant, rather than a tour guide” (Museums and the Web, 2009).

In addition to tours, the mobile future also promises museums more opportunities to track visitors and their actions and to offer visitors a more participatory experience. For example, geospatial technology already exists but has not been widely applied to museums. It incorporates GPS (global positioning systems) or cell tower triangulation and is based on geotagging, which places coordinates onto works of art or locations on the earth. The coordinates can then be accessed from Flickr, which offers free links to geotagged “things” on a world map. New mobile phone technology allows users to put location tabs on video or still images, or to declare a specific location on a map and pull up images related to where one is physically located. Museums could geotag objects for visitors to access at locations external to the physical space of the museum, especially useful at archaeological sites, parks, and public art installations. These technologies represent a development of the current infrared technology applied to handheld devices that uses visitor location to trigger data from the tours.

QR codes (discussed in the in the previous post “Digital Media in Community Libraries, Part 1”) are also being explored for use in museums to encourage a more participatory visitor experience. While QR codes could have a variety of uses, in one pilot application called artsonomy, museum visitors use their camera phones to take a picture of a QR code accompanying a piece of art. They then type words that express their attitude toward the artwork and send these tags to a database that forms a visible tag cloud around the piece, which they can also view (Perrone, 2009). Thus far, artsonomy has been installed at the Norsk Telemuseum in Oslo, Norway, at the Museo dei Mercati di Traiano in Rome, and will soon be installed at Ara Pacis Museum, also in Rome (Perrone, personal correspondence). In the US, the use of QR codes in museums has not taken off (yet). As of May 2009, the Mattress Factory in Pittsburg was the first American museum to incorporate QR codes in the exhibition experience. In order to reduce the amount of printed material and engage visitors, the gallery has put QR codes on exhibition title cards, with each code containing different data, such as video, still images, and background information. QR codes obviously take a lot of planning and technical support. They are also not without their challenges, including inconsistent size (depending on how much data is encoded) and the necessity of designing content that is mobile friendly (Chan, 2009). It is interesting that the Museum of Modern Art in New York included the newer Microsoft Tags using HCCB (high capacity color barcodes) in their 2008 exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind, but as an aesthetic physical object in the physical museum, not yet as a participatory tool. Microsoft released its new tag in January 2009, offering higher density storage for easier mobile phone camera use. Many believe both of these technologies hold much promise for user interactivity and engagement in museums.

Gavin Jancke, director of engineering for Microsoft Research Redmond

Other mobile applications in museums include content tailored for mobile devices, text alerts, RSS feeds, and Twitter feeds. The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston has designed a program that (for a cost) lets users wirelessly download objects from the museum’s collection to be used as mobile wallpaper. Such personalization of mobile phones is more commonly achieved through photos of family or celebrities, but the MFA clearly hopes that such a service will not only enhance its own revenue stream but also expand the visitor experience beyond the doors of the museum. Museum on the Go started in April 2007 as the first mobile phone museum portal, currently hosting downloadable images, Realtunes, and videos from 10 international museums, including the Victoria and Albert in London. They charge a comparable fee. The MFA, as well as other museums, also sends text alerts (for free) so subscribers can receive current information on events and discounts. Most museums today have RSS feeds with updated information on calendar events, staff blogs, podcasts, and news. Visitors can subscribe by going to the museum’s website or social media sites (such as Facebook) and can receive these on a mobile phone with Internet connectivity. Several museums are also sending Twitter “tweets” via subscribers’ mobile phones, but with mixed reactions as to their purpose. Museum consultant and blogger Nina Simon has suggested a range of Twitter uses for museums that go beyond one-way spam-like communication, such as providing “behind-the-scenes insight” and sharing visitor photos and comments. See the Brooklyn Museum of Art for an example of using Twitter and other RSS feeds.


Boston Museum of Fine Arts

When contemplating all of these possibilities, it is important to recall Peter Samis’ words of advice, “If the institution is going to delegate significant aspects of the interpretative load to new technology devices, then it becomes imperative that those devices be made as effortlessly available to users as the wall texts and artworks” (Museums and the Web, 2009). A recent study on mobile phone tours and audio guides at the Centre Pompidou (Traces du sacré, May 7 – August 11, 2008) in Paris by Vincent Puig et al. (Museums and the Web, 2009) also reveals lessons learned not only about audio tours but also the use of mobile media in general. Aside from suggesting the introduction of GPS to alleviate visitor difficulty with entering stop numbers, the article proposed the need for “innovative multimedia search and navigation tools” to cross-reference objects, information, and keywords.


There are two very important conferences regarding handheld devices in museums that need to be mentioned. The first is the Tate Handheld Conference (September 4 and 5, 2008), co-organized by Jane Burton from the Tate Museum in London, and Nancy Proctor from the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC. The full audio from the conference is available to download from the Tate Events podcast. The Conference wiki is a wealth of information on the subject, listing conference topics, case studies, resources, an online course, people, and general conference information. The MuseumMobile wiki mentioned in Anne’s last blog grew out of the Tate Handheld Conference wiki, and is an important resource as well. The second conference is the Handheld Online Conference “from audio tours to iPhones” organized by Learning Times, held online on June 3, 2009. The website presents recordings and discussion forums from conference sessions and biographical information on the speakers. A description of the conference from the website aptly describes the current and future state of mobile tours in museums, and is a fitting end to this post:

So are the new technologies doomed simply to replace the traditional audio tour with an even more sophisticated and bewildering, but no less marginal, array of solutions for providing museum interpretation? There is no specific technology or platform that will revolutionize our visitors’ museum experiences, but rather our visitors are transforming the museum visit themselves through new informational practices that they are importing to the museum from their Web 2.0 lives. WWW has come to mean ‘whatever, whenever, wherever’ and the question of the future of museum interpretation has become not one of what technology our visitors will prefer, but rather of where, when, and how they want to engage with the museum, both on-site and beyond

Mobile tour creators:

Antenna Audio –

Learning Times –

NousGuide –

Heritage 365 –

Guide By Cell –

Spatial Adventures, Inc. –

Museum 411 –


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