April 11-14, 2007
San Francisco, California

Cell Phones and Exhibitions 2.O: Moving beyond the Pilot Stage

Kate Haley Goldman, Institute for Learning Innovation, USA


For the creative museum professional, innovative technologies can be an irresistible Pandora's Box. Enormous possibilities await – possibilities to connect with disaffected audiences, to make dynamic, engaging programs, to suffer software incompatibles, costly contractor support, and potential obsolescence. Personal technology devices (PDAs, iPods, cell phones/smart phones) solve several problems by shifting the burden of maintenance to the user and eliminating distribution and collection of museum-loaned devices.

Still not a true convergence device, cell phones have rapidly moved towards the vision of being the "third screen". Despite some technical liabilities, they are poised to be the most pertinent technology device, primarily because visitors generally have their phones with them during their visit. However, despite the pervasiveness of such phones, early studies have revealed that when presented with phone-based exhibition enhancements, visitors are quite hesitant to use them. Yet visitors who do make use of cell phone capabilities appear to have more in-depth experiences and longer stay time.

Is hesitancy to use the phone capabilities in exhibitions a true trend? And if so, what is the nature of that hesitancy? We have been thinking hard about these questions in the course of working on the NSF-funded SNSE (Science Now, Science Everywhere) project.

In SNSE, the Liberty Science Center is pushing the possibilities of the visitor/phone interaction beyond tours. This paper will explore visitor use of cell phones as exhibition resources from the viewpoint of potential challenges to visitor adoption and the emerging benefits of such technology. The author will examine the preliminary data and the implications from both theoretical and practical interpretations.

Keywords: cell phones, technology adoption, diffusion of innovations, third screen, visitor owned cell phones, phone-based enhancements


The use of the mobile phone as an interpretative device within museums has dramatically increased within the last few years; dozens of institutions now offer such capabilities- from the Southern Utah University Library to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. [Within this paper, I will use the term 'cell phone' and 'mobile phone' interchangeably, with the understanding that this terminology also covers smart phones such as the Blackberry and the Treo.]

Very preliminary evaluation data, primarily formative, is now becoming available from these projects. The results from some of these early studies, almost anecdotal in nature due to the small sample size, have been quite intriguing to me, especially as I begin work on a major mobile phone project. I have been particularly focused on those visitors who do not use the mobile phone capabilities while within an exhibition. While some of the non-users have logistical reasons for not making use of the technology (such as a very short visit duration), another portion simply say they are not interested. As very preliminary data has shown that those who do make use of the technology find that it enhances their museum experience (Luke and Stein, 2006; Nickerson, 2005), I wish to further examine the context of use of mobile phones within an exhibition space with a long-term goal of understanding and possibly increasing visitor usage. While summative data on the outcomes of using cell phones as interpretive devices is greatly needed, we also need to better understand barriers to their use before we can document impact. The amount of data available at this point is small; nonetheless, the exploration of issues surrounding the use of phones can help move these projects to the next stage of development.

The first section of this paper gives an overview of the project we are currently embarking on, SNSE, and the use of mobile phones in that context. Then it demonstrates the issue at hand, early formative data on the non-use of cell phones in exhibitions that offer such programs. The following sections discuss some of the ideas from other fields relevant to the use of cell phones in exhibitions, including diffusion of innovation theory and studies done on the use of cell phone and cell phone norms in public spaces. Finally, I speculate on the linkages between these components and the data thus far as it relates to the future of cell phones in exhibitions.

Background Project Information: Science Now, Science Everywhere

In July 2007, Liberty Science Center (LSC) will reopen after a major renovation, after being closed for 22 months. Within the new Liberty Science Center, three newly-designed exhibitions will take advantage of current developments in technology to redefine a museum visit by enabling visitors to download customized content and applications from the exhibits on to their cell phones. This NSF-funded project (ISE #0610352) is called SNSE, for Science Now, Science Everywhere.

SNSE is a collaborative project led by LSC, and the team includes the Institute for Learning Innovation (Institute), Caterpillar Mobile, Onomy, Lucent Technologies, Rutgers University’s Center for Mobile Communication Studies, and Verizon Communications. The project aims to explore the unique learning opportunities that are possible when visitors use their mobile phones as tools for learning in a science center environment. Specifically, LSC believes that by using their phones, visitors will have more ownership over their learning experiences as well as access to the content after their visit. SNSE is a mobile learning initiative that enables the public to interact with exhibits, retrieve content, and extend their learning by using their mobile phones; visitors will be encouraged to utilize SNSE both on-site and off-site. The bare details of the application being developed for SNSE are as follows:




The Institute for Learning Innovation (the Institute) will conduct the formative and summative evaluation for SNSE. (We have already completed the Front-End study.) Our role is to gauge to what degree SNSE is able to:

  1. Broaden visitors' engagement at exhibits by taking advantage of the unique capabilities of mobile phones,
  2. Encourage subsequent learning experiences that sustain informal science education beyond the wall of the science center, and
  3. Engage teenagers, including those from underserved communities, in informal science education through mobile learning.

A fundamental tenet of the SNSE project is to make use of the visitors' own personal technology devices, specifically their cell phones. By asking the visitors to use their own devices, rather than lending them devices to use during their visits, LSC hopes to increase visitor interaction with the content material after the visitors have left the institution. Through using their own devices, their sense of ownership over the content material might increase. In addition, they will be able to share this content with others, encouraging post-visit review and reflection on the content material. These objectives are fundamentally important to learning, as research has demonstrated the impact of conversations about content and subsequent reinforcing experiences on increasing learning (Falk and Dierking, 2000).

Why Cell Phones in SNSE?

Initially, I was dubious that cell phones could be of any added value within a museum exhibition. Cell phones seemed limited in the scope of what added value they could provide and the logistics, both for the museum and for users, seemed too complex to be worthwhile. LSC was open to a number of possible content delivery devices as long as they were personally owned, as LSC was specifically interested in having individuals use their own devices. The Instituteconducted early front-end evaluation for SNSE, looking at a variety of devices, including phones, PDAs, iPods, and others. The results were clear. The choice was mobile phones, not because they were optimum from a technology standpoint, not because learning is best supported on phones (we don’t have the evidence yet to make that claim), but simply because phones are overwhelmingly the most common device. The evolution of phone capabilities was examined at the time of the last front-end study (Haley Goldman and Foutz, 2005); no other personal technology device is regularly enough brought to the museum to be considered for the project.

Data about the Use of Cell Phones in Exhibitions

The SNSE project has since completed some prototyping of SNSE applications. During prototyping, the LSC marketing department completed some interviews with exhibit visitors. Out of 24 interviews, 5 people (21%) tried the prototype. Another 21% didn’t realize the prototype was available (didn't see the signs), 17% (n=4) did not have a phone with them, and one individual did not want to use up the minutes. Of the non-users, the greatest number of them (7 individuals or 29% of the overall sample) said they were simply not interested (LSC Marketing Study, 2006).

In 2006, my colleagues at the Institute, Jessica Luke and Jill Stein, conducted an evaluation of a variety of interpretive experiences at the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis, MN). They had some similar findings, despite the very different environments (art museum vs. science center). Among the 5 components the Institute evaluated was Art on Call, the Walker’s interactive information system where visitors can access audio resources from their cell phones, both on and off site. During the evaluation, Institute researchers tracked and interviewed a total of 78 participants. While usage of the Art on Call capabilities was too low within this sample (17%, n=13) to make generalizable comments about overall impact, those individuals that used the system found it highly enjoyable and rated themselves as highly likely to use it again.

Luke and Stein did interview non-users to find out why they did not use Art on Call more extensively. Non-user responses were described as the following:

While not diminishing the positive impact of Art on Call or SNSE for the users in any way, the low usage rates invite an exploration of this particular technology in museum settings. All but the last two responses represent issues that might be influenced by varying visitor orientation, changing signage, or other such packaging changes. The second to last category perhaps represents individuals who wish to interact with the art directly, as an aesthetic experience, and wish little interpretation. The last category is the one that intrigued me the most and served as the basis for some of the research review in this paper.

Mobile Phones: The Third Screen

Cell phones, already a part of daily life for the majority of American adults, are now more popular than ever with teens and even younger children. Occasionally called the 'third screen' (third after television and the computer), cell phones are owned by more than two-thirds (68%) of adults in the US, making cell phones the most common personal handheld device. While teens are less likely to own cell phones than adults, nearly half (45%) of all teens own a cell phone. Of those, teens living in urban areas are the most likely to own cell phones (51%), followed by their suburban counterparts (46%) (Lenhart, Madden, and Hitlin, 2005).

Though it may seem trivial to document exactly what mobile phones are used for, I think it is necessary here. The psychological uses extend far beyond the actual making of calls, and as we understand current use in a deeper fashion, we can better explore the barriers to use in certain environments, such as museums and science centers. Wei and Lo (2006) have divided uses of cell phones into 6 categories, which they call gratifications, based on several previous studies of fixed and mobile phone uses in their own pilot study. Those categories of use are:

  1. Information seeking (getting updated information on traffic, stocks, news, and entertainment);
  2. Social Utility (to chat, gossip, pass time, relieve boredom and relax);
  3. Affection (checking in with others, showing caring, improving relations, feeling closer);
  4. Fashion & Status (looking fashionable, cool, stylish, avoiding looking old-fashioned);
  5. Mobility (avoiding looking for, getting change for or lining up for a public phone); and
  6. Accessibility (being accessible and available regardless of location).

The study was based in Taiwan, and while Taiwan has been the world leader in cell phone adoption (by 2001, 96.6% of the population had cell phones), this study was completed in 2001 and does not include current mobile phone applications such as Internet access, television viewing, or even cameras and text-messaging. Thus we might expect to see other categories such as entertainment included in these categories were the data collected more recently (Wei & Lo, 2006).

Do Teens Differ?

The special case of teen use of mobile phones is interesting for two reasons. First, teen usage of a device or application is seen by some as a predictor of large-scale adoption, as teens are perceived as adopting new technology earlier than the population at large. Secondly, and more practically, the SNSE project has a specific focus on mobile phone usage by teens.

As might be expected, there is a difference by age in the percentage of teen cell phone ownership. Younger teens, those aged 12-14, are less likely to own a cell phone than older teens, those aged 15-17. The trend seems to be linked to the changes in school grade; there is a marked jump in cell phone ownership as teens enter middle school and again as they enter high school. For example, 48% of ninth grade students in the U.S. own a cell phone, compared to 29% of eighth grade students (Lenhart, Madden, and Hitlin, 2005).

Text messaging, while not the most popular form of written communication among teens, is quite common. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of teens with cells phones use text messaging. When given a choice among forms of written communication, however, instant messaging (IM) is the most popular among teens, with 46% of teens who go on-line preferring to IM with friends, compared to 33% who prefer e-mail, and just 15% who prefer text messaging (Lenhart, Madden, and Hitlin, 2005). And while teens more overtly discuss the issues of fashion and status (Ling, 2004), the gratification of a mobile phone as an indicator of status is not solely limited to teens (Wei & Lo, 2006).

Diffusion of Innovation Theory and Technology Adoption

Over the past 15 years a number of frameworks for understanding developments in and user reactions to technology have been proposed in both popular and academic literature, from a range of disciplines. The academic fields investigating communication include information systems, management systems, and communications.

One classic text in the study of the adoption of new ideas and technologies is Everrett Roger’s book The Diffusion of Innovation (2003), originally published in 1962 and most recently updated in 2003. Roger formulated distinct population segments including the Innovators, the Early Adopters, the Early Majority, the Late Majority, and the Laggards. Each segment has different characteristics and reacts to innovations in a different fashion. According to Rogers, innovators make up 2.5% of the population, early adopters another 13.5%, followed by equal segments of the early majority (34%), late majority (34%) and then finally the last 16% of the population, the laggards. These percentages form a bell curve. In this theory, innovation is believed to spread throughout society on an S-shaped curve, with one plateau early on as the innovation is changing, followed by a rapid escalation in users (the “tipping” point), followed by another plateau as the laggards eventually adopt the innovation. As the tipping point on mobile phone ownership has passed (in 1998, according to Gladwell [2000]), we are now in a period of the evolution and adoption of the applications of the mobile phone, rather than of the phone itself.

In Rogers' Diffusion of Innovation, he explains that innovations vary greatly in their perceived attributes. These perceived attributes help explain why some innovations, such as cell phones, are adopted fairly quickly, while others, such as seat belts in cars, require decades to reach widespread adoption. The adopter categories have different values and characteristics. The Innovators are active seekers of innovation and are willing to deal with difficult interfaces and other uncertainties in order to use a particular innovation. Early adopters are the opinion leaders for most innovations. They are frequently considered to be the "person to check with" or the "individual in the know". Both Innovators and Early Adopters are driven by the hedonic outcomes – the fun factor – and the social outcomes within close-knit, though possibly geographically diverse, communities. Those in the early majority tend to deliberate for some time before adopting an innovation. They are motivated by more utilitarian outcomes and want new ideas to be proven in terms of usability and reliability. For the late majority to adopt an innovation, their skepticism must be addressed. Peer influence and, at times, economic necessity are key factors for individuals in the late majority adopting new innovations. Laggards are seen as distrustful of new innovations; they value predictability, are economically disadvantaged, and possibly socially isolated. (These categories were recently discussed and re-conceptualized in the popular literature in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.)

This work in the diffusion of innovations has been extended by Geoffrey Moore, both in academic articles and in his book Crossing the Chasm (2002). The central proposition in Crossing the Chasm is that there are significant differences between those who adopt innovations early on – the innovators and the early adopters – and the rest of the continuum. Not only are the behaviors different, but the motivations and values of the groups are different as well. One of the key challenges for companies that are growing is to cross the chasm from what is appealing to the innovators and the early adopters to what is necessary to attract and retain the rest of the consumer public. Rogers, in the latest edition of his book, disputes the existence of the chasm between adopter categories, claiming "innovativeness" is a continuous variable (Rogers, 2003).

The diffusion of innovation theory does make another debatable assumption, that everyone does eventually adopt the innovation. In information technology, this is not necessarily so. Personal computers were predicted to have a 70% market penetration rate by the year 2000; instead only 50% of U.S. households had a computer by the year 2000 (Brown and Venkatesh 2003). Some research suggests spending more time examining the non-adopter and their characteristics (Mathieson, Peacock, and Chin, 2001).

There are a number of other theories on the adoption of information technology besides the diffusion research. Most notable is the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) (Ma and Liu, 2004; Mathieson, Peacock & Chin, 2001) described first by Venkatesh and Davis (2000); it is one of the more widely applied models of the acceptance of informational technology. The model is generally believed to be more predictive and robust than other models. In the TAM, perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use, in combination with a variety of external variables, are seen as the key factors in influencing attitudes towards the adoption of a technology. Those attitudes then contribute to the intention to use the technology and the actual use of the technology. Due to the several hundred studies that make use of TAM, there is a wide variety of variations on the survey instruments. Other theories with implications for technology adoption include Mathieson’s Theory of Planned Behavior and Social Cognitive Theory.

Division between Public and Private Spaces

In the current media-rich environment, the delineation between public and private spaces itself is being redefined. There are certain rules or norms of acceptable behavior within public spaces – both physical and virtual – and these norms are being negotiated and renegotiated as the applications and implication of the technology change. This becomes particularly notable as the boundaries between public and private break down. A story in the New York Times last year included the remarks of a college senior who, surprised at his lack of job interviews, was advised to Google himself. He turned up a satirical essay he had written titled, "Lying Your Way to the Top". ''I never really considered that employers would do something like that,'' he said. ''I thought they would just look at your resume and grades.'' Despite being posted on-line, in a public forum – the student in question felt that it was semi-private information. (Finder, 2006). A follow-up editorial in the New York Times went on to say,

The Internet feels private in certain ways that it isn't. Sharing posts with friends, fellow hobbyists or potential dates, a user could be forgiven for overlooking the possibility that a human resources executive might be zeroing in as well.…We are only just beginning to wake up to the wider ramifications of the Internet on the personal and the confidential (New York Times, 2006).

In a cell phone specific incident of porous public/private space, Edward Schegloff recounts an anecdote from the Long Island railroad where a young woman was having a crisis with her significant other, with whom she was speaking on her cell phone. There were multiple other passengers in the train car, all of whom were "busy doing and not overhearing this conversation" (Schegloff, 2002) except for one individual who was directly watching the young woman. This caused her to exclaim in an outrage, "Do you mind? This is a private conversation!" (Schegloff, 2002) As Schegloff points out, there are mixed cues whether this is in fact a private conversation, as she is speaking into the phone in a loud voice in a public train car. Yet the actions of the others in the car support the idea that the young woman should be afforded some sort of privacy. Communication research has been investigating this ongoing negotiation of public and private space. This research stands mainly in opposition to the other more technologically deterministic theories previously mentioned, where technology is the driving force of social change (Surry, 1997).

Behavior of Bystanders: Civil Inattention

Places such as museums, restaurants, and train stations are both public and private places, where we have "become quite accomplished at ignoring others who are in quite close proximity, through the use of fictive curtains" (Ling, 2004, 125-6). These places tend to have heavy normative expectations, with very specific ideas of prescribed behavior. The bystanders on the train were engaged in "civil inattention," defined by Humphreys as "a social norm which allows individuals to tacitly interact without actively paying attention to strangers" (2005, 369). This negotiation is not unique to mobile phones. Humphreys quotes Ruback’s 1989 study of the territorial defense of callers using public telephones. Callers actively negotiated and defended their privacy to a similar extent when their space was intruded upon; in fact, they tended to lengthen their conversations when other individuals came too close. Some places, like train stations, were seen as places where phone use is more accepted. Train stations offer open areas where the noise from talking on the phone is more easily absorbed. In addition, most individuals in train stations are in transit, thus making it logical that one would use the phone for coordination purposes. In other places, such as restaurants, individuals felt it was rude to use one’s phone without stepping outside.

Behavior of Users: Disengagement

Disengaging with others through physical cues is a common behavior during mobile conversations (Humphreys, 2005, Ling 2004), and includes actions such as looking away, using body language to signify that you are currently not available for conversation, moving away from others, and at times physically blocking out your space, using bags or other items. In one research study, the researcher attempted to make eye contact with various individuals on the street who were using their phones; phones users would only look at him in order to make navigation decisions, i.e. to not physically run into him (Ling, 2004).

In order to create that private space within a virtual space, cell phone users have a variety of strategies, including:

These behaviors are almost exclusively ones of disconnect. Even when among individuals apparently within social groups, the cell phone user would disengage from the immediate surroundings by physical distancing or changing body posture or both. Other members of the social group would engage in another task such as looking away or out a window, reading, or fiddling with their own phone.

Interestingly, while these strategies were all noted during observational studies, interviewees could not generally describe how they mediated between public and private spaces. Still, phone users do understand using their phone as an activity that precludes the involvement of other people, or what Humphreys describes as an "involvement shield". These interviewees admitted they would pretend to use their cell phone in a public space to avoid interacting with others.

Humphreys based part of her work on Goffman's concept of social groupings and power within public spaces. Goffman divides individuals in public spaces into "singles" and "withs" - those who are alone and those who are with others. Singles are seen as more "vulnerable" to contact from others and may be seen as having something wrong with them for not being able to be in a with – potentially seen as not having friends, not being "sociable" (Humphreys, 2005) When one is a single, then, the mobile phone allows some negation of the "single" status – as if saying, "See, I have friends, I’m not truly alone."

When in a group, however, this dynamic changes. A member of a dyad becomes suddenly exposed when the other individual disengages to make or receive a call. Bound by the norms of civil inattention, this individual must also disengage and occupy himself or herself with another task, such as looking at a museum or fiddling with a personal phone. This sense of "exposure", of suddenly becoming a single, is rooted in the power dimensions of the disengagement. Being on the phone signals to others, in a public space, that the call is more important than being with your companion, a tacit acknowledgement of the power relationship. Humphrey states upon ending a call, the phone user almost always apologizes (2005).

Relationship of Theories to Barriers of Using Phones in Exhibitions

Having now spent considerable time (yet only touching the surface) on the ideas of the adoption of technology and the use of phones in public spaces, I now turn back to how these ideas might be relevant towards the practicalities of museum projects using cell phones. There are clearly several barriers towards greater adoption of these offerings among the public. Some of those barriers may be removed through tweaking the exhibition signage, providing better explanations of how the project works, and more strongly communicating a sense of added value.

Other barriers may be more complex to address, though solutions are worth pursuing. The discussion of these theories on a macro level is important; however I am interested in how they apply on a micro level. I’m not interested in these theories as a method for understanding systemic change in the domain of technology. I’m interested in product utilization from the adopters (visitors) point of view. Is the use of mobile phones within the museum representative of a new technology application, and thus we are seeing the early stages of the diffusion of the more innovative method of using technology? If that is true, do teenagers function as early adoptors? Will studying their usage give us clues to the overall adoption? Or should we be using a TAM model, which would prescribe looking at factors such as perceived ease of use and perceived usefulness to see if this can be used? Research needs to be done to probe visitors both regarding perceived ease of use of the phone in this context and perceived usefulness.

A third possibility is to look more closely at communication theory. Perhaps this early resistance to the use of phones in museums is more reflective of the museum as a context with significant expectations of appropriate behavior (heavily normative context), and the use of phones within that context is considered to violate these norms. To a visitor, even subconsciously, using a cell phone within an exhibition may indicate disengagement from the group. As museum-going is often a social experience, this disengagement seems inappropriate – even offensive – if one is in effect making another group member or members feel "exposed" or vulnerable. This barrier will be difficult to overcome, and possibly only with the newer features of mobile phones. While we can perhaps partially mitigate the problem with signage and other advance organizers, an added approach is to bundle the audio portions of the resource with content that makes use of the other, more social capacities of the phone. Making use of the phone as a camera or text-messaging device and highlighting those features may allow individuals fearful of cutting themselves off from their group a way to use their phone as a shared resource, as in when viewing a picture or video-clip.

As with any newly developed visitor resource, we must spend some energy investigating how the resource actually functions on the floor with visitors. Additionally, we must investigate how this technology appeals or does not appeal to visitors and what we can do to make it easier and more comfortable to use. Once mobile phone functionalities are as easy to use as possible, we need to clearly communicate to visitors how these features are to be used and what the added value to the experience will be. As mobile phone technology and functionalities continue to develop, we should expect the continued evolution of the social norms surrounding their use and then proactively decide how to adapt our institutional approach.


I am grateful to Susan Foutz of the Institute, who co-wrote the literature review on which some of these ideas are based (Haley Goldman and Foutz, 2005) and to Jessica Luke and Jill Stein, also of the Institute, for their work on the Walker Art Center project (Luke and Stein, 2006). Additional thanks go to Denise Bressler at LSC and the entire SNSE team for their assistance and their innovative nature.


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Cite as:

Haley Goldman, K., Cell Phones and Exhibitions 2.O: Moving beyond the Pilot Stage, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2007 Consulted

Editorial Note