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When the app critic calls, how will museums answer?

Posted by Nancy Proctor on | October 7, 2010 | 2 Comments

When I first read Edward Rothstein’s Oct 1, 2010 article, “From Picassos to Sarcophagi, Guided by Phone Apps”, I tweeted that it was a “good news review” because what had lept out to me was that the author wanted more from museums’ mobile services, and especially more interpretive content. This is what is called a “buy signal”: the journalist has voted to learn through mobile guides in the museum and now we’re just haggling over the content and feature set. This is way better than having to argue against the other tired objections to mobiles in museums: they are distracting; they impede the aesthetic experience; they are isolating; the screens are eye-traps; people will just talk on their phones all the time if we allow cellphones in the galleries; or, worst of all: they are boring! – and the entire range of mobile platforms is tarred with the same brush because someone once took an audio tour that offered little more than curatorial droning.

Since my first reading of the article the discussion of it among museum professionals has heated up, and I was grateful to Shelley Bernstein of the Brooklyn Museum for directing me to her blog post response and the many comments there. Robin White Owen from Mediacombo and Erin Rose from Ideum have also contributed their own useful commentaries on the value of social media functions in museum apps; earlier, Robin reviewed the AMNH app with Sherri Wasserman as well.

Perhaps I developed a thick skin towards criticism of mobile programs from my years of working in the audio tour business. Even now rereading the article more closely I am neither surprised nor particularly disturbed by the clear lack of understanding it demonstrates of both the technology and the constraints under which museums develop mobile programs. When museums introduced the first multimedia tours on PDAs a decade or so ago, they encountered even more unrealistic expectations from visitors who had never used a mobile wireless device, let alone location-based systems: they were impatient of latency in content delivery, didn’t understand why the device didn’t know their location with pinpoint accuracy, and often struggled to tap those early touch screens effectively. Some programs even included ‘tap tips’ to teach visitors how to use a stylus with the handheld screen!

By comparison, our audiences today are far more sophisticated and have experienced network latency, app crashes and GPS black-outs on their own smartphones. One of the benefits of using consumer devices rather than made-for-museum media players is that visitors’ expectations are set at a more realistic level. But even so, without research neither Rothstein nor our average visitor is going to know what went in to AMNH’s really quite remarkable achievement with indoor wifi-based positioning: not just four years of development with an (unconfirmed) 7-figure budget, the backing of major tech firms and financiers as well as the timely release of iOS4, but also more than a decade of costly and failed experiments at museums large and small around the world, which bankrupted more than one company. Nor do museums’ publics have a clue how much it costs to create, manage and maintain interpretive content for mobile programs, including intellectual property rights (and it should be in the content and the experience design, not in the technology, that we put the majority of our investment in mobile). Should they? Perhaps, and I’m all for transparency, but I’m not sure our energy is best spent defending and congratulating ourselves for what we all admit are our first efforts and works in progress. Rather, I’m interested in what we can get out of this article that is useful to our work:

  1. Insight into our audiences’ expectations and needs: Shelley is right that Rothstein is but one visitor telling us what he wants. We can put his experiences and demands alongside other audience research to help us better understand the full range of requirements and expectations our audiences have, both on-site and beyond. As Shelley notes, these are likely to be as diverse and unique as our visitors, so the challenge becomes how can we create flexible solutions that enable visitors to author their own experiences from a range of content and functionality that the museum makes available? This is neither easy nor cheap, and will likely need to be developed and tested in bite-sized chunks, which leads to a second challenge…
  2. Need for better marketing of mobile programs: While we are in the development phase (which Rob Stein rightly argues will probably go on forever as new technologies and cultural practices are endlessly introduced), how do we set the user expectations at an appropriate level for what we can deliver? I suspect this requires primarily a marketing solution – but museums are notoriously bad (with the exception of AMNH) at providing decent signage, let alone a robust and nuanced marketing campaign that helps manage visitor expectations, for their mobile programs. Responding to this challenge requires giving mobile greater visibility within the museum – and I think Rothstein’s article helps make this case to those who prioritize the museum’s marketing resources.
  3. Demand for greater investment in mobile content: Rothstein complains: “…apart from the audio itself, information is slight and availability inconsistent,” “The information is generally far less than what appears on the museum’s labels. There is no audio,” and he fantasizes about all that his mobile museum experience could include: “…historical background or direct you through links to other works that have some connection to the object. It might provide links to critical commentary. It might become, for each object, an exhibition in itself, ripe with alternate narratives and elaborate associations.” – These are wish statements that make my heart sing. Interpretive content is something museums are, can or should be great at, and mobile is a spectacular vehicle for delivering it in an incredibly direct and personal way. Again, rather than arguing against Rothstein’s article, I want to frame it, with these phrases highlighted, and include it in my next budget request for more mobile content development.
  4. Encouragement to think outside the audio tour box: I have been beating this drum for some years now, most recently at MCN and Museums and the Web, but I also understand why museums have taken it slowly in moving away from this experience model with their apps: firstly, mobile projects are often under- or even un-funded, so have to reuse existing content – which is quite often the museum’s audio tour. And quite rightly, museums want to avoid going the way of the earlier high-cost mobile projects that tanked under the weight of too many bells and whistles: let’s learn to walk, the reasoning goes, before we run. As the commenters on Shelley’s blog post have agreed, museums also have to take risks in order to innovate – as all of the projects in Rothstein’s review have so admirably. But we also have to be willing to fail – even if that means enduring some criticism from a journalist whose pen is sharper than his background research. What proves the value of our mobile programs from here is how we respond: will we be defensive or inspired by his dreams of building a better app?

Author’s note: in re-reading my post, I realized I had referred to the museum women cited here by their first names, and the male journalist by his last name. I then tried referring to Shelley as “Bernstein” and Robin as “Owen” but it just felt silly since I know them, and equally odd to call Rothstein “Edward” when I’ve never met the man. I hope no unfeminist slight will be read in to this nomenclature as none was intended!


2 Responses to “When the app critic calls, how will museums answer?”

  1. Ed Rodley
    October 8th, 2010 @ 9:47 am

    I want to second Nancy’s sentiment expressed. When I read Rothstein’s review, my first thoughts were A) This is gonna be painful, because his critiques are usually quite pointed, and B) Wow, mobile content for museums has finally left the nest and made it out into the big bad world.

    The thing I found most interesting after reading it was that he spent no time questioning the raison d’etre for mobile content, instead focusing on what he wanted/needed from a mobile experience. His frustrations are pretty representative of the public on many points. The main complaint I’ve heard on every mobile project I’ve worked on has been, “Why isn’t there more content?”

    Critics critique. Rothstein is good at his job and his critiques expose authentic issues. If he’s “uninformed” he’s no more so than the general public. He just is better at expressing it. While the folks behind the ndividual project featured in his review might feel a bit roughed up, I read the whole thing as a ringing endorsement. He winds up by calling them all “works in progress” and wants more. Let’s get busy!

  2. The Google Art Project: a new generation of museums on the web? | Curator
    February 2nd, 2011 @ 8:46 pm

    […] achievement, especially given the legal and staff time costs involved. But ­ as I argued in response to Ed Rothstein’s critique of New York museum apps – complaining about a digital product because it hasn’t got enough content is a “buy […]

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