April 11-14, 2007
San Francisco, California

When In Roam: Visitor Response To Phone Tour Pilots In The US And Europe

Nancy Proctor, Head of New Product Development, Antenna Audio, France


This paper looks at the use of cell phones for tours of cultural sites in Europe. Although several projects have experimented with IVR, SMS and even multimedia tours on standard and next-generation networks, take-up of this platform by museums has remained low in comparison to US activity, despite cell phone usage being more wide-spread and longer-developed than in North America. Through case studies of recent phone tour projects at Tate Modern and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, we examine what the key differences and similarities are between phone-based tours on the two continents, and what each can learn from the other.

Keywords:  cell phone, mobile phone, audio tour, IVR, wireless, podcast, downloadable MP3 tours, exhibition

A Tale of Two Tours

Since the turn of this century, mobile phone use in Europe per capita has outstripped use in the US, with many western European countries having more cellular subscribers than citizens because people own more than one mobile phone ( As a result, Europe has seen wide-spread experimentation with phone-based tours of cities and outdoor monuments, and today many mobile operators provide cultural information to tourists at a four-digit phone number. Meanwhile, in the United States, over 100 museums have found that the cell phone reduces infrastructure and staffing costs for the audio tour, making it possible to provide tours for exhibitions that previously would not have been able to afford them. The cell phone tour in the US is usually provided ‘free’ to end users: the museum pays for the infrastructure costs so that visitors need only spend the ‘minutes’ that also come free with their phone contracts. Yet given the prevalence of the cell phone in Europe for nearly a decade, and positive responses from museums and visitors alike to the platform in the US, why have there been almost no mobile phone tours in European museums to date?

There are several factors that have contributed to this slow take-up among European museums that have otherwise proven themselves leaders in the development of new tools for interpretation:

  1. Many museums in Europe are housed in thick-walled, historic buildings where cell phone reception is poor, and the cost of adding internal repeaters to improve reception is prohibitive;
  2. With higher percentages of foreign visitors, European museums know that greater numbers of visitors could incur high roaming fees to take a mobile phone tour;
  3. More Europeans have ‘pay-as-you-go’ plans instead of contracts for their mobile phones, leading to higher per-minute call costs, even for local and ‘free’ phone numbers (which nonetheless cost mobile phone users in the UK 10 pence per minute, for example);
  4. And finally, some museums simply stick by the traditional ban on mobile phone use in museums; others, in particular museums of modern and contemporary art, face concerns over copyright violations that can arise from people using the cameras on their phones to snap art in the galleries.

The mobile phone tour is not necessarily, then, the great democratic tool for reaching new audiences in Europe that it is heralded to be in the US. Jane Burton, Curator of Interpretation at Tate Modern, explained these reservations about the phone tour, despite its promise:

I was particularly interested in finding out whether it could reach new audiences who wouldn’t have considered taking a traditional audiotour. I suspected it might. The reason we’ve held off trialing a phone tour until now is the difficulty in telling people how much their call is going to cost – and with pay as you go and roaming charges, that could be a significant amount of money.

In 2006 and 2007, Antenna Audio had the opportunity to test the reception of phone tours by US and European audiences through pilot projects with Tate Modern and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art during the Matthew Barney: DRAWING RESTRAINT exhibition at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), 23 June – 17 September 2006, and the David Smith: Sculptures exhibition at Tate Modern, 11 November 2006 – 21 January 2007. Both these exhibitions and institutions attract audiences with similar interests in modern and contemporary art, so it was an unparalleled chance to measure how visitors use the phone tour in the two countries.

Fig 1: Phone tour at Tate Modern’s David Smith: Sculptures exhibition

Fig 1: Phone tour at Tate Modern’s David Smith: Sculptures exhibition

Both tours were available through a local phone number on IVR-based platforms, meaning that from a technical point of view at least they were accessible to any generation of mobile phone the visitor might bring to the galleries. The Barney pilot at SFMoMA was produced in collaboration with US-based IVR provider, Guide By Cell, while Plum Networks provided the phone platform for Tate’s pilot. Both tours offered ten audio stops on the tour, produced by Antenna Audio in partnership with the museums. The aim of the Barney pilot, however, was to test visitor response to a range of interpretation tools, including brochures, wall graphics, kiosks and a multimedia ‘learning lounge’, as well as to the audio tour on a variety of platforms: cell phone (free except for roaming costs and ‘minutes’); Antenna Audio’s purpose-built X-plorer™ mp3 players (free with rental of the $3 permanent collection tour); and downloadable podcasts that the visitor could bring to the museum on their own MP3 player to get a $2 discount on admission. At Tate Modern, the audio tour of the exhibition was only available on visitors’ own mobile phones.

The Barney pilot aimed at a pure technology comparison of the three audio tour platforms, so used the same content on all three platforms (the music was removed from the cell phone tour, however, because of the lower audio quality provided by phone handsets). Tate Modern, on the other hand, chose to experiment with content design for the mobile phone platform, anticipating that visitors would prefer shorter messages and a more casual approach to accessing information à la carte rather than the in-depth informational experience that is more typically designed for museum-specific stereo MP3 players. Jane Burton commented:

Knowing that people would be aware they were paying for each stop, I felt it important to take quite a different approach to content from the usual tour. We made no attempt to offer a comprehensive survey of the show; instead, we anticipated people dipping in and out, and produced a series of short, off-the-cuff conversations, each one self-sufficient and anecdotal – more in keeping with the notion of a friendly phone conversation than a scripted tour.

In his paper on the project for Museums and the Web (2007), Peter Samis, Associate Curator, Interpretation, at SFMoMA and project leader for the Matthew Barney tour, confirmed that SFMoMA’s audiences used the cell phone tour in just this way:

Cell phone users who had not planned to take a tour prior to arriving on the gallery level seemed to adopt an à la carte, or “cafeteria” approach to audio tour use. The tour was free, so they reached for their phones on demand. There was no compunction to take the whole tour.

Exhibition Audiences

The David Smith exhibition at Tate Modern was chosen in part for the expected similarity between its audiences and those of the Matthew Barney show at SFMoMA, to keep at least this variable constant in the study. In many respects this expectation was confirmed:

Fig 2: Phone tour at Tate Modern’s David Smith: Sculptures exhibition

Fig 2: Phone tour at Tate Modern’s David Smith: Sculptures exhibition

Where there were differences between the cell phone user demographics at the two sites, they do not seem to have impacted the overall take-up rate of the cell phone tours:

At Tate Modern, half the visitors were 46 and older, while half SFMoMA’s audience were under 35 years of age. This slightly older audience did not result in the Tate tour’s having any lower take-up rate than SFMoMA’s overall; however, we cannot predict how many more people would have taken the cell phone tour at SFMoMA if it had been the only audio tour on offer.

The majority of visitors to the Smith exhibition had been to Tate Modern before (87.9%), compared to a more 50/50 split at SFMoMA between first-time and repeat visitors.We found that repeat visitors were more likely to take the cell phone tour than first-time visitors – nearly 93% of those who took the Smith cell phone tour had been to Tate Modern before. This resonates with Antenna Audio’s 2006 Global Visitor Survey, which indicates that the more visitors go to museums, the more likely they are to take audio tours in general.


To encourage visitors to view other non-commented works in the room before moving to the next audio stop, the Tate tour instructed visitors to hang up after each call and call back once in the next room. This led to Tate Modern’s visitors making on average 3.4 calls during their visit, compared to 2.4 for the Barney tour.

Certain other of the statistics gathered on these pilot projects are reflective of audio tours in general, and are not specific to the cell phone platform. For example, not finding objects on the tour was a problem cited by visitors to both exhibitions. Tate’s visitors listened to fewer stops on the tour (on average 3.7 compared to and average of 4.6 at SFMoMA), and therefore slightly fewer minutes of the tour overall (average 7.94 versus 8.51 in the Barney show) since the Smith stops were shorter. There was only one object on the tour in each room, so visitors had to look harder to find the next stop on the tour, whereas the layout of the Barney exhibition gave the impression of greater density of audio commentaries. A higher percentage of commented objects naturally increases the probability that visitors will listen to more stops as objects catch their eye.

Also because of its linearity, the Smith tour witnessed a steady drop-off in numbers of visitors listening to the tour as they progressed through the galleries. This variance in take-up rate per stop was less visible in the Barney show whose design was more free-flow; however confusion over the order of stops was another problem visitors reported in taking the Barney tour. Some visitors prefer a linear guided experience as it is easier to follow without fear of ‘missing anything’.

Tour Marketing

There were significant differences in how the two tours were marketed. Both were promoted by giving away brightly-colored ‘bookmarks’ that listed the tour phone number and stop numbers. While these were distributed at several points around SFMoMA’s 4th floor, and the phone number for each stop was printed on the object label, at Tate Modern, visitors were given a bookmark (usually inside the exhibition brochure) as they entered the gallery. Object labels on the Tate tour included a telephone symbol with the stop number, but not the phone number, for aesthetic reasons. Both studies found that many people didn’t take an audio tour simply because they didn’t know it existed: 24.5% at Tate Modern, and nearly half (49%) at SFMoMA. At Tate, the bookmark was what prompted half of visitors to try the phone tour. Word of mouth, including promotion by the personnel at the gallery entrance, also played an important role in introducing visitors to the tour (25.1%), as did the phone symbol on the object label (24.6%). As for any tour on any platform, good marketing and visibility through a wide range of outlets is key to raising take-up rates.

Fig 3: Promotional bookmark for phone tour at Tate Modern’s David Smith: Sculpturesexhibition (recto and verso)

Fig 3: Promotional bookmark for phone tour at Tate Modern’s
David Smith: Sculptures exhibition (recto and verso)

Take-up Rates

Because of these differences in approach and in aims for the interpretation at the two shows, it is not possible to compare the Barney show results with Tate’s in every respect. Furthermore a quota system for collecting data from SFMoMA visitors meant that while we can compare user preferences among the audio tour offerings, it is not possible to make statistically reliable comparisons between the audio offerings and the other kinds of interpretation used. And finally, it was not possible to track the exact number of visitors to the exhibition at SFMoMA, so the take-up rate for the various tours is an estimate.

Approximately 3.6% of visitors to the Barney exhibition took the cell phone tour, and 2.6% took the rented audio tour at a $3, which included the audio tour of the permanent collection. These are low take-up rates compared to most audio tour programs, but are typical of modern and contemporary art exhibitions. By its very nature, it is more difficult to measure exactly how many people who downloaded the podcast tour then used it to tour the exhibition, but we estimate that in total, approximately 8% of visitors to Barney took an audio tour on one of the three platforms. Almost uncannily, Tate Modern’s take-up rate for the cell phone tour was the same as SFMoMA’s – 3.6% – but this is a percentage of all audio tours taken in the exhibition. We can only speculate as to what the cell phone tour take-up rate would have been at SFMoMA if that had been the only audio tour option available. Nonetheless, SFMoMA’s experience indicates that the more ways the audio tour is available, the more people will take it. In today’s culture of highly flexible and personalized media consumption, there simply is no one size that fits all.

As expected, Tate Modern had nearly twice as many foreign visitors to its exhibition (6.1%) as SFMoMA (3.3%) had. While the vast majority of visitors to the exhibition owned a mobile phone (94.8%), a relatively high percentage of visitors had ‘pay as you go’ (PAYG) plans (38.7%). It is not surprising, then, that 23.2% of visitors to Tate Modern’s show said they did not take the cell phone tour because of fears of the hidden costs of taking a cell phone tour in minutes and roaming charges. Among those who did not take the Tate cell phone tour, over half (52.6%) were on PAYG plans. In general, then, we should probably expect lower take-up of cell phone tours in Europe compared to the US because of the lower proportion of users with contracts that include cheaper or free minutes.

The big question, of course, is whether the cell phone reaches audiences that would never normally take an audio tour. It is possible to ask this question of the Tate data, with the following conclusions.

This is a particularly good result given that 22.6% of these non-audio-tour-takers were also foreign, so presumably would be facing higher call charges than locals. Nonetheless, 80.6% of these visitors had contracts rather than the higher per-minute cost ‘pay-as-you-go’ plans.

There are therefore strong indications, backed up by other studies, including Antenna Audio’s 2006 visitor survey, that the cell phone platform could be a good way to attract new audiences to the museum’s interpretation program. A note of optimistic caution is in order, however: in previous studies gauging visitor receptiveness to new tour technologies in museums, audiences have consistently predicted a higher take-up rate than has in fact materialized. In other words, just because visitors say they will try a new tour, does not mean they will in the numbers that they self-report.

Tour Preference

The Smith exhibition tour had two distinct audiences: those whose primary aim in taking the tour was to learn more about Smith and his works (66.1%), and those who tried the tour out of curiosity (53.6%). Of those whose main motivation in taking the tour was learning, more said they preferred the traditional audio tour platform over cell phone delivery (46.8%; 18.1% of this group preferred the cell tour, while 35% had no preference). This feedback suggests that the dedicated MP3 technology is more suited to an in-depth, educational audio tour experience. Among those who took the tour out of curiosity about the new tour technology, there was no clear winner among the platforms: 32.4% preferred the audio guide handset, 31% preferred the mobile phone tour, and 36% had no preference.

Overall, only 22.8% of Tate Modern visitors reported that they would have preferred the cell phone tour if given a choice. At SFMoMA, 52% of audio tour-takers preferred the phone-based tour to the rented tour device. It would be useful to understand here how much the $3 rental fee impacted this perception, if at all. Unfortunately we don’t have enough data from both sites to ascertain if this difference is also down to the slightly older demographic at Tate, or the probably higher number of visitors with ‘pay-as-you-go’ plans at Tate that would make taking a longer audio tour a more expensive option. Nonetheless, as Peter Samis observed, “Across the board, familiarity and comfort with the device and being able to access information as needed are common themes. But different age groups are “familiar and comfortable” with different devices!” (Samis 2007).

The younger-skewing visitor demographic at SFMoMA gave the cell phone and podcast tours higher marks (6.2 out of 7) than the rented audio tour (5.6 out of 7); however, more visitors thought the ‘traditional’ audio guide would be easier to use in the museum:

SFMoMA, Matthew Barney Tour: Visitors’ reasons for preferring…
The ‘traditional audio tour’ The mobile phone tour
I am familiar and comfortable with the device (62%) I am familiar and comfortable with the device (40%)
It enables me to get info as I need it (34%) It enables me to get info as I need it (46%)
It is easier to use in a museum (50%) It is easier to use in a museum (17%)
It is cheaper/free (6%) It is cheaper/free (33%)

Table 1: Reasons for preferring each audio tour platform at SFMoMA.
Visitors could choose more than one reason.

Although there were no other audio tour platforms to compare it to, Tate’s visitors gave the cell phone a score of 5.08 out of 7 as an aid to understanding the exhibition, and the overall tour 5.15 marks out of 7. Content got slightly higher scores (5.38 out of 7) as did the technology for ease of use (5.86 out of 7). Familiarity and comfort with the device were the Tate visitors’ most-cited reasons for preferring the cell phone tour (93.5%), while the superior quality of the experience was the leading reason that other visitors would choose the museum MP3 player.

Tate Modern, David Smith Tour: Visitors’ reasons for preferring…
The ‘traditional audio tour’ The mobile phone tour
The quality of the experience is better (51.9%) I am familiar and comfortable with the device (93.5%)
Other reasons (38.5%), including: more detailed, better sound quality, better with headset and cheaper It enables me to get info as I need it (54.8%)
It is easier to use in a museum (34.6%) It is easier to use in a museum (48.4%)
It is cheaper/free (21.2%) It is cheaper/free (38.7%)

Table 2: Reasons for preferring each audio tour platform at Tate Modern.
Visitors could choose more than one reason.

The Smith exhibition tour had two distinct audiences: those whose primary aim was to learn more about Smith and his works (66.1%), and those who tried the tour out of curiosity (53.6%). This prompts the question of whether usage will taper off as the novelty of cell phone tours wanes, or whether on the contrary an increase in comfort with using the cell phone platform in the museum will see it rise. The one appetite that is likely to remain constant is the demand for variety: the enduring lesson of the evaluation of the many tools on offer for the Matthew Barney show is that the more options available, the more likely visitors are to avail themselves of interpretation, and therefore the more likely they are to leave with a greater appreciation for, understanding of, and sense of connection with the exhibition.

As at SFMoMA, few visitors to Tate Modern had trouble using the cell phone. Where there were complaints (26.1%), they were mainly about the technology platform itself: audio quality (31%), problems with connecting to the network (30.9%), and tiredness from holding the phone (16.7%). A significant percentage (31%) of visitors also had problems following instructions for using the tour. Nonetheless, the majority of the respondents were willing to use their cell phones for a tour of the entire museum (58.1%) and found the shorter length of the messages just right for the phone platform (73.1%).


Although there are some important differences in user demographics between the British and American audiences, the overall take-up rate for the two phone-based audio tours was comparable, and visitors reported similar levels of satisfaction with the phone tour. Most importantly, Tate Modern’s experience demonstrated that the new mobile phone platform can induce people who have never done so before to take audio tours, and that as a result of their experience, they are most likely to take another one.

However, these pilots indicate that there are more concerns among European museums’ audiences about cell phone tour costs than there are in the US, where they are perceived as cheap or free if there is no charge other than minute costs. Internationally, the business model for cell phone tours remains a challenge, as long as the value chain is mediated by mobile network providers. Will cell phone tours remain an overhead for museums, dependent on sponsorship and grants for funding, or can they be at once affordable for a significant population of visitors and revenue-generating for museums along the lines of traditional audio tour rentals?

In addition, the museum cannot assume that every visitor will own or want to use a cell phone or any other personal digital device, so we are unlikely to see an immediate end to older platforms that are already familiar and easy for the majority of museum visitors to use. The wider the variety of interpretation tools on offer, the more likely the museum is to reach a wide range of visitors. In today’s information economy, customization is king.

Fig 4: Phone tour at Tate Modern’s David Smith: Sculptures exhibition

Fig 4: Phone tour at Tate Modern’s David Smith: Sculptures exhibition


This paper was based almost entirely on the work of Silvia Filippini Fantoni and Randi Korn and Associates in evaluating visitor response to the phone tour pilots at Tate Modern and SFMoMA. I would like to thank and congratulate them for their efforts to bring this valuable data to the museum community, and also Jane Burton and Peter Samis for their vision and leadership for the projects.


Computer Industry Almanac (2006). “Europe #1 in Per Capita Cell Phone Usage”, February 28, 2006., consulted 28 September, 2006.

Discovery Communications Inc. (2006). Networks Research & Planning. Antenna Audio Global Visitor Survey, November 2006.

Filippini Fantoni, Silvia (2007). Unpublished results of visitor study on the David Smith mobile phone tour at Tate Modern, January 2007.

Korn, Randi and Associates (2006). Matthew Barney: DRAWING RESTRAINT; Interactive Educational Technologies & Interpretation Initiative Evaluation. Study for San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, October 2006.

Cite as:

Proctor, N., When In Roam: Visitor Response To Phone Tour Pilots In The US And Europe, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2007 Consulted

Editorial Note