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Why is it so hard to create mobile tours of science museums and the like?

Posted by Nancy Proctor on | September 11, 2012 | 5 Comments

There was a discussion on the Museum-Ed listserv recently that resulted in a short list of science museums and centers that have audio tours. It is notoriously difficult to create successful (if by “successful” we mean popular) audio tours of highly interactive sites like science museums, zoos, parks etc. so I was interested to record this short list and see if others have more to add. It would be useful to analyze what works – and doesn’t – in tours of this kind of site, and applicable to all sorts of cultural tours.

Thanks to Kris Wetterlund of for this info to get the conversation started!

“Susan Gallo at the Cummer Museum wrote that the Cummer in Jacksonville, FL now has four garden cell phone tours. General adult, family, horticulture and touch.

Dana Atwood-Blaine, PhD Candidate, Science Education at the University of Kansas wrote that she is creating a mobile game for iOS that will focus kids’ interactions with the exhibits at Science City in Kansas City as part of her dissertation research.  The game is not created yet, but will be by the end of the year.

Jeff Liverman, Director of the Danville Science Museum in Danville VA, did a great audio tour for around Danville.”


5 Responses to “Why is it so hard to create mobile tours of science museums and the like?”

  1. Robin White Owen
    September 11th, 2012 @ 11:15 pm

    Remember the presentation at MW2012 from Kew Gardens? They did a very successful mobile app/audio tour:

  2. Rob Landry
    September 12th, 2012 @ 9:19 am

    I think it goes back to the user experience. Audiotours involve a rather passive activity (listening) which conflicts with what many try to achieve with an interactive exhibit (hands on).

    It’s difficult to be hands-on when you’re listening to something, holding an audio device up to your ears.

  3. Sarah Fellows
    September 12th, 2012 @ 10:14 am

    I think it might also have to do with the fact that audio tours of historical sites usually tell a story, not just give out facts. It’s much easier to find that story with a historical site, because chronologically everything has a story and with a historical venue that story of its history is probably the reason anyone wants to visit it in the first place. Finding the story you want to tell in a science museum or zoo is more difficult; certainly to not only find a story but then also have found the story that people want to hear.

    I think when you go to, say, a castle, you as a visitor expect to be told the story of when it was built, who lived there, what happened there, and so on. If you go to a zoo, what story are you expecting? The names of all the animals? What they eat? There’s no chronology of the place, no obvious ‘story’ that you expect, and so even if you do pick a story you’re going to tell (maybe it’s all about explaining which animals are endangered, and why) then there’s no guarantee that people will like it, because it may not be what they expected to hear.

  4. wsguerin
    September 19th, 2012 @ 11:56 am

    PETROSAINS Discovery Center in Kuala Lumpur (A 100,000SF Science Center)used 400 Apple Newtons as the primary exhibit interface between 1998 and +-2009. It was nicknamed the ARIF. See

    I believe it remains the only museum of any kind whose interpretive strategies, and mobile access to them, were conceive and designed in sync. That was possible largely due to the comprehensive design/build contract we held.

    The problem with the question is the word “Tour” which implies sequence.

    We focused on making the ARIF a random access interpretive interface with a gallery-level degree of location awareness.

    It delivered detailed information by keying in numbers found in the graphics and on things, it was the means by which audio was delivered in two languages in sync to all videos, it acted as the interactive computer controller by virtue of its IR port and dock, and it controlled electro-mechanical devices such as games, robots, models, and lighting.

    I believe the current generation of mobile interpretive apps has set the bar far below what is possible and truly engaging in ANY type of museum.

    The ARIF helped put visitors right into the shoes of scientists, engineers, and people rather than “just” delivering facts.

  5. Zahava D. Doering
    September 21st, 2012 @ 11:01 am

    I strongly suspect there is an inverse relationship between the esoteric and ‘coded’ contents of the interpretive material plus the passivity of the interaction (art museums) and accessible content and active physical psychological interaction with the contents (science centers) and audio tours. When art museums make content and interpretation less opaque, the use of tours will decrease…

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