Increasingly, museums are seeking to move beyond the one-way communication common for most of their existence. The tool being used for this purpose are app or mobile-optimized websites that allow visitors to create their own experiences while gaining deeper knowledge of collections-based subject matter. Museums increasingly seek to evolve their interpretation into multimedia experiences that engage visitors more deeply, and provide them with a “keepsake” of the experience which they may continue to explore after their visit. Additionally, these apps provide the organization with useful information about the visitor experience. But will these experience provide a deeper level of understanding sufficient to offset the additional complications of technology support and content production required? What the options for service providers, and what is the cost involved? This post details the features, costs and considerations regarding some of the major content delivery systems.
- Content management
- Beacon support
- Indoor wayfinding
- Social sharing
- Multimedia support
- Data analytics
- Recommendation Engine
- MIT List Visual Arts Center
- Boston Atheneum
- MASS MoCA
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
- Lyman Allyn Art Museum
- Art Gallery New South Wales
- Asian Art Museum
- Bellarmine Museum of Art
- Milwaukee Art Museum
- Finnish National Gallery
- Davis Museum
- Empire State Plaza Art Collection
- National Museum of Wildlife Art
- Dallas Contemporary
- Denver Art Museum
- Contemporary Art Museum Houston
Cuseum is a platform that works using a CMS from which a mobile-optimized website and downloadable native app can be created. Its visitor-facing experience is cleaner and more sophisticated than many of its peers in this field. Typically, it features a unique interaction bar at the bottom of the screen that allows users to like, comment on and share content. Additionally, it allows users to view a map that shows them where points of interest are near them, and can recommend options for exploration based on their actions.
- Content Management System
- Data analytics
- Social sharing (on personal devices)
- Multilingual support (manual input; does not translate languages)
- Ability to create downloadable app for iOS, Android
- Test flight capability
- MOMA: Murder at the Met*
- Texas Historical Commission
- National Park Service: Saratoga National Historic Park
- Henry Morrison Flagler Museum
- Denver Botanic Gardens
Oncell recently acquired Toursphere to create one of the largest providers of guided tour experiences in this format. The basic subscription includes a dedicated template website with a limited number of color schemes. It is functional and well supported. Tours are built using a collection of widgets (i.e. buttons, text, audio and video) that can be dragged and dropped into the desired location on a page. Custom apps can be created from the tour content, though the price goes up considerably to build such an experience and the result looks very close to the web-based templates offered by Oncell/Toursphere.
- 3D map of institutional space as a tour interface
- Content Management System
- Wayfinding with beacons and indoor positioning technologies
- Analytics (with heatmapping)
- Social media sharing
- Hearst Castle*
- de Young Museum
Guidekick provides a custom-built option that includes three-dimensional models of the museum and gardens. Of the platforms examined, Guidekick functioned most smoothly and exhibited the most “wow” factor with its 3D aerial interface. Other than the 3D map, Guidekick’s unique selling point is that it offers a custom-built experience around its CMS, which allows the institution to achieve a product that reflects its needs for connecting to audiences. The costs are higher than those of other apps mentioned here, but they are drastically reduced from the typical costs of custom-built apps.
- CMS “G1-Curator” designed “specifically around the needs of Museums”
- Wayfinding with beacon technology
- Multilanguage support
- Accessibility features
- Ability to integrate 2-D maps (e.g. in Longwood Gardens)
- Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach
- National Park Service Kids App – Independence
- Longwood Gardens
- The Barnes Foundation
GuideOne is an established mobile app developer based in Brooklyn. It develops custom applications much like Guidekick. The Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach organization launched an app with GuideOne in September 2015. Key points about the experience were related by the organization’s executive director, Sharon Horowitz:
The purpose of an app is to provide more depth about the memorial, and the history it represents, to visitors. Visitors often left with many of their questions unanswered because there are no interpretive staff on site. Representatives of the Jewish Federation went to the Museums and the Web conference in Boston and interviewed several tour app vendors. GuideOne stood out because they had produced several successful products with historical organizations.
Memorial staff contracted GuideOne for approximately $200,000 to work on development of an app and an accompanying micro website. They dedicated another $200,000 to content development, working with subject matter experts in Los Angeles. Three people from the Jewish Federation also assisted. GuideOne helped locate experts to translate the tour into multiple languages. The process took about one year of dedicated effort to launch. The site was prepared with increased Wi-Fi capability and beacon technology to trigger points of interest on devices. The Memorial’s visitor center has information about the tour, and has iOS devices available for users to borrow. They are currently finding that people prefer to use their own devices. Staff strongly encourage visitors to download the app, and will help them do so. Visitors are often reluctant to wait for a download of the app as they are anxious to get to the Memorial site, but they report that the app greatly enhances their experiences afterward.
A primary market for the Memorial is school groups. The app and microsite are offered to classes that are planning visits and sometimes staff will make presentations on the content and its online availability beforehand. The site even includes lesson plans to prepare these groups to make the most of their visits.
Since launching in September 2015, the app has been downloaded about 2,000 times. The microsite has experience a great deal of traffic from school groups and others who are researching Holocaust subject matter.
- Custom app development
- Social sharing
- Interactive maps
- Multimedia capability
- Beacon wayfinding
Variable. They work with the highest profile clients of the firms documented here, indicating a higher price point.
- 9/11 Memorial
- The Art Gallery of Ontario
- National Gallery of Art
- Musée du Louvre
- Kimbell Art Museum
- The Barnes Foundation
- Smithsonian Institution
Analysis: Acoustiguide is a Canadian company that traditionally has produced audio guides for museums. It is a prolific developer, with dozens of tour apps available on the iOS app store. Most of these are moderately sized cultural institutions whose tours are based on the same template. Higher-profile clients like the Guggenheim and the 9/11 Memorial have custom swipeable interfaces. The 9/11 memorial has an element in which users can post a tribute. They can also pinch and zoom a field of circles to view tributes by others. There is also an interactive 3D map (simplified) where points of interest can be selected and then maximized and scrolled through gestures like pinch, zoom and swipe. The costs for using Acoustiguide are highly variable depending on whether the organization opts for the templated approach or the more customized experience.
- Multi-Guide Starter (User chooses from multiple guides to download within the app)
- Social Sharing
- AppBuilder CMS
- Geolocation triggers (audio automatically plays at predetermined GPS points
- Multiple language tours
- Embed capability for video and web links
- The Ringling Museum, Sarasota, FL
- City of Savannah, GA
This platform seems to be used more for walking city tours than museums. The Ringling Museum is the most prominent museum-specific app by TourBuddy that is currently active. Its interface is primarily text and images, with embedded maps for points of interest. One interesting feature of this app in particular is its robust settings menu, which allows the visitor to configure GPS trigger settings and media play settings. Otherwise it is an unremarkable platform based on available app experiences.
Features (authoring tools):
- TAP CMS (for managing content)
- TAP iOS (iPhone/iPod Touch)
- TAP iPad app
- TAP Web app
Free to reuse code via GitHub. Would require development assistance for custom configuration.
- Indianapolis Museum of Art: 100 acres
- Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
- National Air and Space Museum: Co-Pilot
- National Museum of the American Indian
TAP is a collection of free and open-source tools (developed through an IMLS grant) that support the creation and delivery of mobile tours. The tools also serve as examples of producing and consuming tour content using the TourML specification. Currently TAP consists of authoring tools built on top of the content management system Drupal, a native iOS mobile application, and a web-based mobile application built upon the jQuery Mobile library.
A number of museums adopted TAP at one time or another, though considerably fewer still have active applications that can be reviewed. The interface for those that can accessed tends to be less refined than other tour experiences. The institution retains full freedom to customize and retain control of all aspects of content development and delivery.
Publishing the resulting product requires an iOS developer account to publish on the app store. The code is sporadically updated, which means it may not be fully compatible with the latest operating system versions.
- Ability to integrate maps
- Wide variety of mobile products on which to feature tours
- Bata Shoe Museum
- Spadina Museum Historic House and Gardens
- John Hopkins Medicine, Baltimore
- The Biltmore Estate
- The Alamo
Analysis: The TourMate platform offers similar capabilities to other systems reviewed here, but has a higher price point. Its customer service is extremely responsive and its costs for development are high, but realistic. However, based on currently available applications, its user-facing interface is dated and mostly skewed to the Android platform. It does offer numerous products on which to play tours without requiring a web connection, though its focus seems to be heavily on audio tours.
Platform: Google Cultural Institute
- Ability to easily curate app tours from Google Cultural Institute account.
- Integrates user-friendly Google tools like YouTube and Streetview
- Content sharing capabilities
There is no cost to use the platform or develop an app based on content you own
- MAO Museo d’Arte Orientale
- Emergence Festival
- Rijksmuseum van Oudheden
- Palazzo Madama Torino
Analysis: This platform has the option to publish an app free for organizations who are members of the Google Cultural Institute and have content there. It has a clean and easy-to-navigate interface, with options for multimedia integration, and easy sharing of content. However, it is for the Android platform, using only Google tools such as YouTube and Google Street View. It is not available for download on iOS devices, which is the platform many organizations have invested in to this point.
Considerations for adoption
Location Positioning Technology
The most challenging aspect of any mobile tour will be making the application aware of a visitor’s position in relation to points of interest (POIs). Wi-Fi signals can help triangulate position, but this depends on Wi-Fi signals that are strong and varied. Even in defined galleries, it is very difficult to maintain a consistent Wi-Fi signal across a large area. All museums struggle with this issue–even those housed in newer, compact facilities with fewer thick walls. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons are more accurate and have a high industry uptake. Of the museum app developers offering location-aware products, BLE is the default technology due to its relatively low cost and more refined positioning capability.
The vendor chosen to facilitate a mobile app will have to work closely with the institution regarding beacon placement. While beacons respond to proximity, they can’t necessarily extrapolate which direction they are coming from, which could cause some confusion in wayfinding. An interactive map can mitigate this confusion.
3-Dimensional scans and artwork
The Guidekick 3-D animation of the museum and ground is a desirable model interface for a tour system. It also factors greatly into the additional cost of that platform. The Guidekick-produced 3D map would draw upon references such as CAD data, floor plans, GIS data, and a detailed maps of the grounds / gardens. From here, software tools process the references and 3D-artists work on details such as props, embellishments, texturing, and lighting.
The applications considered in this document are very focused in the amount and type of information they provide. This is primarily to prevent “app bloat” in which the app becomes too large to accommodate a reasonable download time. Apps downloaded in reasonable time initially. Upon launch, however, most required a content update of 100MB-plus before the app could be accessed at all. These updates took between 1-5 minutes to download on standard Wi-Fi. It is often desirable for a mobile-optimized website be developed concurrently with the app so that visitors can point their phones to a web link if they wish to begin the tour immediately using their cell connection without downloading content. For devices that an institution would loan out, the pre-loaded native app will provide a better quality experience, but options for sharing the content on social are limited since users cannot log into their accounts on those devices.
Content Development License
For the purposes of search, and for content ownership, the institution should procure its own developer accounts for the iOS and Android app stores. This will cost $25 (one time) for the Android license and $99/year for the Apple license. Both the iOS App Store and the Google Play Store take 30 percent of revenues from any paid app.
Cisco Whitepaper on Artlens: http://internetofeverything.cisco.com/sites/default/files/pdfs/Cleveland_Museum_Art_Jurisdiction_Profile_final.pdf
Google Cultural Institute Free Apps
The Manual of Museum Learning: “Wayfinding the in the Digital Age”
APPS v WEB and other digital grudge matches
Tour a Museum from Anywhere (New York Times)
Best Apps for Visiting Museums (WSJ)
Museum tour apps for <$25k at Museums & Mobile conference
Mobile experiences in museums