Monday, May 2, 2011

Museums, mobiles and apps

I often find that the full impact of a conference, especially one so immersive as Museums and the Web 2011 , only really hits home a week or two after the event is over. So, in promising not to mention the conference again, here are my considered thoughts on where the world is in this corner of the museum sector.
  1. The museum in a mobile world was the primary focus of the conference, by which I mean that although tons of other issues were discussed, it is the potential for how mobile technology can significantly change the museum visit, whether through content delivery, visitor interaction or way finding that kept appearing as the most exciting current opportunity. And what became clear is that, just as there is no one single mobile platform (e.g. Android, iOS ( iPhone operating system) etc, there is no uniform way of using mobiles in museums. Indeed as David Bearman, the conference convenor, said the landscape reminds him of the late 1990s when museums were debating whether or not they should have a web site. Now they are debating whether or not they should have an app, and what it should look like. It is going to take some time until an element of uniformity arrives with a ‘standard’ app platform.
  2. Apps are not going to be the latest iteration of audio guides. Not only is the business model going to be different, with museums choosing to do part of the app development in-house, depending on internal capacity and strengths (typically audio guides have been put together by external companies (e.g. Acoustiguide or Antenna) who have then leased the equipment to the museum), but the use to which they will be put is quite different. Using audio guides is essentially a passive activity. Apps are active encouraging interaction both with other users, but also the museum and in some cases the exhibit itself.
  3. This new world of mobiles is going to need some significant organisational change within the museum profession. Mobile use is about a collaborative rather than authoritative approach to learning from exhibits. This is a challenge to the traditional view for museum staff. Social media programs are currently being run by the marketing/PR part of the museums, but it must draw in staff working in cross disciplinary groups from across the whole museum, with more face to face conversations for its opportunities to be maximised.
For a great example of what the world of the app in museums looks like, from internal cross disciplinary involvement to external marketing go no further than the Explorer system at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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