April 15-18, 2009
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

After the Heroism, Collaboration: Organizational Learning and the Mobile Space

Peter Samis and Stephanie Pau, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, USA


At SFMOMA, an interpretive goals process has been instituted to bring together curators, educators, educational technologists and other concerned parties to design the interpretive “menu” for exhibitions once they are put on the schedule. The result is a transition from the old model of “technology as remediation” – in which kiosks were placed at the end of an exhibition (or on another floor altogether) while visitors were often left clueless before the art itself – to a mix of analog and digital resources, designed and dosed to meet visitor needs as they arise. The result may be a net decrease in technological interventions, but arguably a more effective use of technology when it is deployed. Three case studies illustrate the range of responses to this process, and the development of technology solutions at a variety of scales and budgets, with varying degrees of success. Results of recent evaluations of mobile tours, both cell phone and multimedia-based, are included, as well as indications for future directions stemming from this action research.

Keywords: interpretation, exhibition planning, curators, education, cell phone tour, mobile multimedia, handhelds, evaluation, universal access

I. Interpretation in the Service Of…

Contemporary art is the cult of the expert.

Such is the refrain of museum-goers who enter the galleries of our ‘must-see buildings’ only to be confronted by truncated torsos half-covered with hair, small square paintings on which dates have been impeccably lettered against a black field, and blond paper cutouts that hover at the threshold of perception, blending almost invisibly with the wall to which they’ve been adhered. It is a lament so often heard it has become cliché. But could it be that it’s true?

The case can be argued both ways, but let’s assume that – as with die-hard sports fans who have a better time at the stadium than newbies unfamiliar with the players and the game – knowing what’s at stake in an artwork or exhibition, and who the actors are, tends to lead to a more engrossing experience.

That said, our halls are public secular temples, visited by crowds far more numerous than the cognoscenti, so the question perennially arises: what are we doing for the uninitiated? How are we ensuring their experience will be as satisfying, as stimulating, and arguably, as intuitive as a sports fan’s? This paper focuses on recent experiences at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where the team formerly known as Interactive Educational Technologies (hereafter IET) – which began life as a largely autonomous (some would say “rogue”) unit within the museum’s structure – became part of the newly-established Interpretation arm of Education. Shortly thereafter, a cross-department Interpretive Goals process was introduced and brought curators, editors, educators and a deputy director together to examine potential problems of understanding and to brainstorm potential interpretive solutions for each new exhibition as it was put on the schedule. In the process, all staff members concerned were obliged to think and program outside their traditional training and role-set. The paper treats both changing organizational dynamics and museum-wide adoption of new technologies in the service of visitor experience.


In January 2005, Dominic Willsdon was appointed The Leanne & George Roberts Curator of Education & Public Programs at SFMOMA. Willsdon, who had previously run public programs at Tate Modern in London, arrived with a background in aesthetics, philosophy, and museum practice. He looked at the SFMOMA Education Department’s internal structure and correctly identified the Interactive Educational Technologies (IET) team as a high-functioning albeit somewhat guerilla force inside the museum. What would happen if he harnessed that independence and talent and merged it with a model he was more familiar with from the U.K. in general, and Tate in particular, where Interpretation was “at the heart of the Gallery’s mission”? (Wilson, 2004) From this thinking, the Interpretation team was formed. Peter Samis, an associate curator and  Program Manager, Interactive Educational Technologies, became the Associate Curator of Interpretation, overseeing not only the IET group but also the newly created role of Manager of Gallery Interpretation (now Manager of Interpretation). While the IET team continues to focus on developing digital publication projects treating the permanent collection and selected special exhibitions, the Manager of Interpretation engages with  the deployment of both analog and digital interpretive tools, and touches upon every single exhibition the Museum organizes – upwards of 20-30 per year – to represent visitor needs in the formative design process.

Thankfully, the Interpretation team was not left solely to its own resources to chart this new terrain. There were high-level advocates in-house, including Deputy Director Ruth Berson, who returned from an international meeting in Rome with an Interpretive Goals questionnaire developed by a peer institution in southern California – the Getty – and permission to adapt it for our use (SFMOMA Education Department, 2007). The form offered a structure for organizing our thinking and practice as a group. In cross-departmental meetings initially convened by Berson, and later by Education, curators presented and discussed prospective exhibitions with colleagues from Education and Publications, sometimes augmented by staff from Public Relations and Visitor Services. The eight questions on the form included:

  • Please list one to three main ideas visitors will take away from viewing the exhibition. What objects or didactic components of the exhibition will help them learn this?
  • Describe the rationale and originality of the project. Is the exhibition bringing new scholarship to the field, exposing an under-recognized subject, etc.? Why is this exhibition important now at SFMOMA?
  • Please note other interpretive, multi-media components that should be considered (audio tour, in-gallery videos, interactive feature, blogs, etc.). Are you aware of existing media created by other organizations on this topic? (SFMOMA Education Department 2007)

The inclusion of multimedia at the heart of official discussions about every exhibition the museum presents could itself be seen as a great step forward. But the first question, reductive as it was, proved the most powerful: “List one to three main ideas you want visitors to take away….” Astounding as that simple query was, the idea of putting an exhibition’s meanings out on the table not as a fait accompli but as a topic of cross-department conversation and assessment, in consort with the second question – “Why here why now?” – easily trumped any priority IET members may have placed on using new technologies as interpretive tools.  For it implied an open-ended approach that respects the visitor as an equal partner in the meaning-making experience of the exhibition, rather than the traditional top-down interpretation by fiat that has so often characterized art museum exhibitions. Now interpretation could clearly be seen as a collaboration: on the one hand, between participating departments, of course, but on the other hand, between the museum and its visitors.

And so a member of the Interpretation team was pressed into service revising – or co-writing – analog gallery texts and extended object labels, along with our colleagues the editors in Publications, who in all fairness had been representing visitor interests within the limits of the texts offered to them for quite some time. You could say that in this new model, the commando spirit of IET  has been subsumed by institutional priorities – but in order to say that, you would have to commit to the (ironically, now old fashioned) notion that made technology itself a god, ignoring all evidence that would argue otherwise. As recently as 2008, a survey of SFMOMA visitors shows that between 78-90% of visitors read wall texts, while a far smaller number consult computer kiosks or use audio tours in their multiple and ever-evolving formats (Samis, 2007; Discovery Communications, 2008).

This does not mean that in the process we abandoned hope for the special power educational technologies can bring to bear on the museum experience. It does mean, however, that we have taken seriously our talk of meeting our visitors where they are – a process that, as we’ll demonstrate in this paper, includes honoring, rather than discounting, the magnetic pull of time-honored museum-visiting habits – even if it means a net decrease in the presence of interactive educational technologies on the gallery floor.  In parallel, and with varying degrees of success, we are experimenting with smarter and more intuitive ways of dosing technological mediation, and analyzing factors that might reshape visitor expectations and lead to greater adoption of such solutions. We address our research and development on that front later in this paper.

II. Case Studies: Three Exhibitions

For the purposes of this conference, we outline the challenges and solutions proposed in the interpretive goals process for each of three exhibitions, but only analyze the success and/or shortcomings of the technology-based strategies. The exhibitions discussed are “Frida Kahlo” (June–September 2008), presented by the Painting & Sculpture department, “246 and Counting” (July 2008–January 2009), organized by the Architecture & Design department, and “The Art of Participation” (November 2008–February 2009), organized by the Media Arts department.

Frida Kahlo

A retrospective of Frida Kahlo’s paintings organized by the Walker Art Center in association with SFMOMA presented both the greatest opportunity and, perhaps, the most minimal need: opportunity because there was ample funding and the Museum was expecting an abundance of visitors; minimal need because Kahlo’s work and persona have become so iconic – have so much Visual Velcro (Samis, 2008) – that people would most likely leave satisfied even in the absence of  an overarching interpretive campaign. Kahlo has been the subject of a Hollywood film starring Salma Hayek, and countless biographies, and is adored by fans across the social spectrum, so many visitors were likely to be armed with cues or hooks with which to approach her work. That said, the museum was surcharging for entry to the exhibition, and it was important to meet the expectation of added value. Furthermore, “Frida Kahlo” offered a unique opportunity to reach out to new audiences – particularly the Bay Area’s Latino community – and a local foundation offered its support toward these efforts.

As a result of Interpretive Goals meetings, a menu of multi-lingual resources was developed:

  • Exhibition and gallery-level wall texts in English and Spanish
  • Bi-lingual full-color brochure with extended label information for a selection of works.
  • Two educational galleries: one to emphasize Kahlo’s local connections (covering Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera’s visits to San Francisco from 1930–1941); another to surface the story of Kahlo’s rediscovery in the 1970s and ‘80s – a phenomenon in which local Latino artists and gay rights activities played a major role – and her creative legacy, as expressed by contemporary artists locally, nationally, and internationally  ( Fig.  1, Fig. 2).
  • Bi-lingual Web site ( and interactive feature available on kiosks in the final gallery’s “Learning Lounge”
  • Daily film screenings in the Koret Visitor Education Center
  • Docent-led public tours
  • Public lectures, performances, and film programs.
  • Family Activity Guide focused on Kahlo’s painting “Frieda and Diego Rivera” (1931)
  • Podcast incorporating a variety of commentaries and visitor reactions
  • A heavily promoted handheld multimedia tour developed in collaboration with Antenna Audio and the Walker (in English, Spanish, and French as well, to cater to the summertime tourist influx)

figure 1

Fig 1: In the first of two educational galleries, SFMOMA visitors peruse historical images and ephemera of Frida and Diego Rivera’s ties to the Bay Area.

figure 2

Fig 2: SFMOMA visitors use a variety of analog and digital interpretive resources in the last gallery of the Frida Kahlo exhibition. Not pictured is the row of computer kiosks loaded with an IET feature on Frida Kahlo.

246 and Counting

“246 and Counting” was an effort by curator Henry Urbach to re-invent the permanent collection exhibition. Rather than the more standard curatorial approach in which a small set of objects is selected and correspondences are evoked between them, Urbach (aided by Assistant Curator Joseph Becker) focused on the process by which a collection is built. The design of the gallery space paid homage to the model of ‘open storage’: all the objects acquired since Urbach’s arrival were arrayed on gray carpeted platforms according to the order in which they had been entered the collection (Fig. 3). This all-inclusive, chronological sequencing quite literally laid bare the vagaries of collection-building and exposed the ever-evolving definition of contemporary architecture and design.

That said, aside from a single introductory wall text explaining the exhibition’s premise, situated slightly outside the galleries, the actual exhibition space was devoid of explanatory texts and even basic object information. Instead, visitors were invited to take large format laminated cards listing all the objects on view, keyed to numbers on small Lucite cubes placed next to each object. A supplementary layer of content, revealing the back-stories behind specific objects and the processes by which the museum had acquired them through the voices of curators, registrars, and even the Museum’s director, was reserved for delivery over the airwaves – literally – through a cell phone tour (

figure 3

Fig. 3: Installation view of “246 and Counting”. Photo credit: Ian Reeves Photography, Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The Art of Participation

In contrast, the third exhibition was thematically organized, ambitiously scaled, and pervasive: elements of the show were presented on four different floors of the museum. Organized by Media Arts curator Rudolf Frieling and titled “The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now”, it traced the genealogy of what we now think of as Web 2.0 principles back to artists who put viewer participation and co-production at the center of their creative practice, beginning with John Cage and the Fluxus artists of the Fifties and Sixties and continuing through to today. The exhibition included both analog and digital components; among the latter were Lynn Hershman Leeson’s virtual archive located in Second Life, “Life2” (, c a l c and Johannes Gees “communimage” (, a weekly e-Bay auction in which people could bid for the right to intervene personally and alter the “1st Public White Cube” (, and MTAA’s “Automatic for the People: ( )” (, in which visitors and on-line voters determined through a set of weekly polls the parameters of a performance on the exhibition’s closing weekend.

In the galleries, performances – both scheduled and spontaneous – included a daily rendition of John Cage’s 4’33” at a grand piano (with keyboard closed and reopened between each of the three movements), spontaneous “1-Minute Sculptures” inspired by Erwin Wurm’s props and instructions, and visitors failing to communicate in spite of their best intentions due to the time lag in Matthias Gommel’s “Delayed” (2002) (Fig. 4).  Furthermore, visitors could have their portraits taken in a makeshift photo studio that had been assembled on the third floor landing (Jochen Gerz’s “The Gift”), and gather on Thursday evenings to enact Tom Marioni’s thirty-year running performance piece, “The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art” (commonly referred as  FREE BEER salons).

In other words, the exhibition was something of a free-for-all and spectacle, but not without historic and philosophic grounding. How to convey that background to visitors, who were at times presented only with dry artifacts of important past performances, and at others asked to engage in a spontaneous action with little regard for historical or social context? Finally, how to indicate to visitors the variety of locations and options available to them on the day of their visit to the museum, and throughout the exhibition’s three-month run?

A variety of analog and digital solutions were assayed, including an on-site brochure (functioning primarily as a navigational tool), a hybrid educational and exhibition space called “D-Space” (a transformation of the existing Koret Visitor Education Center), a comprehensive exhibition Web site, an active presence on the museum’s blog Open Space ( and once again, a cell phone audio tour. This last doubled as a set of audio stops that could be played on-line ( Click on the Related Multimedia tab) or downloaded to an .mp3 player and brought to the museum.

figure 4

Fig. 4: Two SFMOMA patrons experience Matthias Gommel’s participatory installation “Delayed” (2002)

III. Evaluation: What Did We Learn?

In each of these exhibitions, new technology interventions were programmed early as part of the collaborative, inter-departmental Interpretive Goals process, and designed to fill a particular function in the menu of visitor experience. Did they succeed? Through a mix of on-site evaluation and data gathered via user logs, we can begin to answer this question.

In the first case, the Frida Kahlo exhibition, two evaluations were conducted:

  • A set of 41 in-depth exit interviews based on a questionnaire designed by Randi Korn & Associates led to a qualitative assessment and summative summary report of the contribution of interpretive resources to overall visitor experience (Randi Korn & Associates, 2008; Samis, 2009).
  • A more ambitiously-scaled survey of 443 visitors providing statistics on the Kahlo multimedia tour was conducted by the in-house Corporate Intelligence Group at Discovery Communications, Inc. (the corporate parent of Antenna Audio). This study tracked preferences for various types of analog and digital interpretive resources among 224 users and 219 non-users of the multimedia tour  (Discovery Communications, 2008).

The in-depth exit interviews following the Randi Korn protocol revealed that each resource had its partisans. That said, “[Some] interviewees said the multimodal approach enlivened the exhibition’s content and that they appreciated accessing information at varying levels of depth.”

I liked all of the resources – I mean, of the – the ones that we’ve spoken of.  The multimedia tour, I thought it was excellent. The brochure complemented it well and the wall text was a nice introduction to whichever room you were in.  Um, and I think that they – they definitely enhanced the overall experience because I think her work is so packed full of symbolism that you might not otherwise notice; you might not otherwise, I don’t know, take note of or understand, for that matter.  I think it really enhances the overall experience when you get to hear the background and hear some of the -the analysis and the meanings that it provides for you through the resources. ( Respondent #36)

The dataset of the Randi Korn study was insufficient to determine whether the phenomenon noted in the 2007 Matthew Barney exhibition – where the more interpretive resources used, the more meaningful visitors found the exhibition, and their museum experience – applied here as well (Samis, 2007).

The Discovery study was more granular. Among the insights it afforded:

  • While 90% of non-guide users cite wall text as their preferred way to get information, for 81% of audio guide users wall text takes a back seat to listening (Table 1).

Table 1

Table 1: Preferred sources of information when visiting a museum
(Discovery Communications, 2008)

While many visitors both listen and read, one interviewed in the Randi Korn study expressed this preference as follows:

I felt like I couldn’t get into read[ing] anything so [the multimedia tour] was going to help me to learn a few things.  I also didn’t have the patience to read the walls, so I thought maybe… the same information would get spoken to me.

Visitors most highly value listening to the artist’s own voice, followed by curators and critics, then public figures and celebrities, and lastly the voices of other visitors (Table 2).


Table 2: Viewpoints of interest (Discovery Communications, 2008)

  • Visitors raved about the ability to tap on their PDA screen to “point” at details of an artwork for audio analysis (Fig. 5). This “Touch-and-Listen” feature provides a more granular, interactive audio experience in which tapping the handheld screen stands in for pointing at the work, and fosters a feeling of dialogical interaction.

figure 5

Fig 5: Visitor using the Touch-and-Listen feature of the Frida Kahlo multimedia tour.

table 3

Table 3: Preferred multimedia guide features  (Discovery Communications, 2008)

In fact, visitors valued this capacity more than videos of or about the artist, which always rate highly in visitor preferences (Table 3). This finding is not altogether surprising: people are coming to see the artworks, after all, and one of the ways a multimedia tour can improve on traditional audio tours is to be less long-winded and more specific, responding to the visitor’s increments of curiosity.

Written feedback culled from the Antenna Audio Visitor Comment Log corroborated visitors’ enthusiasm for this feature:

Best audio guide I have taken. I loved touching the screen on the details.

Loved it! Especially the video segments and that you could touch on highlighted bits of the paintings for a detailed explanation.

Very nice. One of the better audio tours. Favorite one so far. Really liked how you can select different parts of a painting. (Moses)

Tour really improved my understanding. Particularly liked highlighting sections of picture and historical info.

I would like to tap on every work of art.

Platform preference

Much discussion in the museum field has centered lately over whether visitors would prefer to use their own devices rather than devices supplied by the Museum. It seems that many museums, at least, long for a time when they can forego the cost of maintaining either an expensive leasing arrangement with an outside provider or their own fleet of devices in a constantly evolving hardware environment (Tate, 2008).

For the moment, it seems that visitors do not yet share this view of an ideal, visitor-supplied, platform-agnostic future. For most of them, purpose-built, museum-lent or leased devices still seem to fill the bill just fine (Tables 4 and 5).

table 4

Table 4: Guide platform preference: Museum device or personal mobile phone (Discovery Communications, 2008)

table 5

Table 5: Guide platform preference: Museum device or personal iPod/mp3 device (Discovery Communications, 2008)

So while museums go out of their way to furnish cell phone tours and downloadable podcasts, the majority of visitors solidly prefer a museum-provided device. And who can blame them? Cell phone reception varies, the audio can be poor, and foreign visitors must pay outrageous international roaming charges. Furthermore, barring the aid of a headset, users are asked to hold devices to their ears for extended periods –  physically taxing for some. Podcasts, while offering superior sound quality, require pre-visit planning (“Oops, I’m already here!”). Finally, Wi-fi networks are temperamental, especially in crowd situations. Until these obstacles are removed, pre-loaded devices – even at a cost – will correspond to the premium cultural experience museums are expected to provide.

These insights would have stood us in good stead when we were preparing the educational technology strategies for the two other shows under discussion: “246 and Counting” and “The Art of Participation.” In both cases, the museum opted for cell phone tours (supplemented in the case of “The Art of Participation” by a podcast feed) as a relatively inexpensive way to deliver quality content to our visitors’ ears. Yet one can always ask, if a cell phone tour broadcasts in a museum and nobody listens, is it still there?

Indeed, the statistics reveal an underwhelming cell-phone tour take-up rate. During the six-month run of “246 and Counting” (July 8, 2008 – January 5, 2009), the museum’s Guide By Cell line received a grand total of 3,510 calls – an average of only 19 inbound calls per day. The authors suspect that in large part, these low numbers are a consequence of the near-invisibility of the Guide by Cell stop information. The lack of space alone – by the final rotation, 336 design objects were densely arrayed in a single gallery – had precluded the use of standard object labels. As a consequence, object information was relegated to a set of large-format laminated cards distributed in holders at the entrance and exit of the exhibition. On these cards, the objects treated on the cell phone audio tour were numbered in red – but not everybody carried the cards.

By contrast, the presence of cell phone stops in “The Art of Participation” was clearly indicated directly on the relevant object labels (Figure 6). A paragraph of relevant instruction, along with phone number, was printed alongside the introductory wall text and listed in the takeaway brochure. We were confident that the increased visibility of tour information would result in a higher take-up rate among exhibition visitors. The statistics, however, told a different story. While reaching a marginally larger percentage of overall visitors to the museum, the Participation tour ultimately failed to meet expectations. During the three month run of “The Art of Participation” exhibition, a total of 2,118 calls accessed the twenty-four stop tour on via the museum’s Guide By Cell line – a dismal 22 inbound calls per day, representing a negligible percentage of average daily visitorship.

figure 6

Fig 6: Sample object label, with cell phone tour stop, from The Art of Participation 

Interestingly, the number of visitors who opted to access the same content on mp3 devices, rather than cell phones, was nine times higher. Over the same three-month period, there were 18,613 downloads of “The Art of Participation” tour stops. Whether those users actually made use of the content at home or in the galleries cannot be known from statistics alone. Yet these numbers seem to indicate a preference for the higher quality audio and level of comfort (headphones) offered by the podcast version, even at the cost of  time and pre-planning. For this constituency, the just-in-time convenience of using a free cell phone tour was not a compelling sell.

While low usage numbers may be taken to indicate an ignorance of the cell phone tour option, a questionnaire administered to visitors near the end of “The Art of Participation” exhibition actually surfaced an active antipathy to using cell phone technology for interpretation.  Among 145 visitors surveyed, only 9 said they had opted to use any cell phone tour stops at all, while 37 agreed with the phrase, “I had no interest in using cell phone tour technology” (SFMOMA Education Department, 2009). While sample numbers are not high enough to be statistically significant, they do seem to indicate a trend that we had not anticipated. It would be desirable to see further research at other venues on this point.

IV. Halo Effect and The Question Of Universal Access

Users of the “Frida Kahlo” multimedia tour, on the other hand, were so euphoric that they made the following bold statements:

  • Fully 92% of multimedia tour users interviewed indicated that they would be either “very likely” (71%) or “somewhat likely” (21%) to take “a tour like this,” if it were offered, of SFMOMA’s permanent collection.
  • Even more implausibly, fully 93% stated they would be very or somewhat likely to take a tour like this for an exhibition by an artist with whom they are less familiar.

table 6

Table 6: Multimedia tour conversion for permanent collection exhibitions & less well known artists (Discovery Communications, 2008)

That is what could be called a mega-Halo Effect. Past experience at SFMOMA and other museums indicates that traditional permanent collection audio tours typically net a mere 3-5% of visitors; similarly, exhibitions of artists without major name recognition typically net far lower take-up rates than specially ticketed blockbusters. So these numbers may be taken as an indication of the enthusiasm visitors felt for the way in which the tour had enhanced their experience of the Kahlo exhibition. In fact, as demonstrated in Table 7, visitors who had taken the tour were fully 25% more likely to rate their overall experience at SFMOMA as “very satisfying” than non-guide users.

table 7

Table 7: Satisfaction levels with museum experience among multimedia tour users & non-users (Discovery Communications, 2008)

Comments in the Antenna Visitor Comment Log trended in the same direction: “We WANT more information on every piece of art” or, alluding to the touch-and-listen feature: “I would like to tap on every work of art.”

So, even taking these prognostications of astronomical tour take-up rates with a grain of salt, how do we harness the enthusiasm visitors felt for multimedia interpretation and channel it into improved visitor experience of the (often challenging) art on view?

The problem is, at the very least, two-fold: one of production and another of perception. Merely making a high-quality multimedia tour about the permanent collection will not automatically mean visitors with years (or decades) of museum-going experience will change their habitrails and flock to it, no matter what they say in their elation after seeing a single exhibition. Inevitably, old patterns will re-assert themselves as they re-enter the building lobby six months hence, or in two years.

So even as the Kahlo evaluation provides a great vote of confidence in the virtues educational technology can bring to bear, and its vital role in the interpretive mix – as opposed to usage rates and opinions regarding cell phone offerings, for example – any campaign to develop a comprehensive multimedia tour of the permanent collection, or of special exhibitions featuring lesser known artists, must be accompanied by a museum-wide strategy to promote these new resources. Marketing a new experience plays an essential part in any solution, lest the efforts and resources expended come to naught. And price is part of marketing – although by no means the only variable at play.

In fact, three major New York museums – the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim – have recently adopted a Universal Access policy, offering audio tours free of charge to every visitor who comes in. Indeed, take-up rates have soared from the 3-4% typical when PC tours are offered for a fee to between 20–61%, depending on the museum and the other exhibitions on view (Bodinson, 2009; Potts, 2009; Krantz, 2009). 

(In the case of MoMA, the universal access policy coincided with a rise in the admission price to $20, corresponding with the opening of a new building. Present ticket prices at the Guggenheim and Whitney are $18 and $15, respectively.)

V. Closing Reflections – Without Saying “One Size Fits All”

So what have we learned? While visitors continue to gravitate to the analog resources (especially wall texts) first, a significant percentage enthusiastically embraced the Frida Kahlo multimedia tour and said they would be eager to transfer that behavior to both permanent collection exhibitions and shows featuring artists who are less well known to them. On the other hand, tours distributed primarily by cell phone technology failed to meet expectations and play the role they had been allocated in interpretive planning.  The information we had hoped to convey at little or no cost to a wider audience through their use fell largely on fallow ground.

Visitors apparently are not as eager to use their own devices as museums might wish; rather, they appear to desire a high fidelity, immersive experience that focuses their attention on the specifics of the works in front of them. In this light, the parsing out of audio messages through a touch-and-listen interface is a winner. 

However, before we drink the Kool-Aid and believe that just because we build a mobile multimedia tour, visitors will take it, museums would do well to remember the notoriously low take-up rates for paid permanent collection audio tours – even at bastions of high culture like the Louvre and the Metropolitan. With that in mind, so-called universal access – offering devices free of charge to all visitors – seems to be the way of the future. (Of course, visitors are always free not to avail themselves of the offer.)

One might ask: in proposing such a multimedia tour, are we imposing a fundamental change on the quality of most museum-goers’ experience? One that de-privileges direct perception?


One that presumes people’s direct perception can be supported and encouraged?


What, then, are the top three takeaways from the Interpretive Goals process – in which the particular challenges of each exhibition are collaboratively considered, and the solutions developed then evaluated whenever possible?

  1. One is that it is only through concerted planning and collaboration across all departments of the museum that visitor experience can be addressed, nurtured, and improved.
  2. A second is that if the institution is going to delegate significant aspects of the interpretive load to new technology devices, then it becomes imperative that those devices be made as effortlessly available to users as the wall texts and artworks.
  3. Finally, although it is not explored in this paper, our findings indicate the need for a flexible authoring and publishing platform for mobile devices, to which we can publish quality multimedia content casually, on an as-needed basis, with full confidence that it will reach our visitors when they need and value it most.

But that is the subject for another paper!


Bodinson, S. (2009). E-mail correspondence regarding universal access for audio tours at the Museum of Modern Art, 1/29/2009.

Discovery Communications (2008). Matthew Petrie and Steve Gustavino, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Visitor Survey, November 2008. Silver Spring: Discovery Communications Corporate Intelligence Group.

Krantz, G. (2009). Georgia Krantz, E-mail correspondence regarding universal access for audio tours at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2/9/2009.

Potts, K. (2009). Kathryn Potts, E-mail correspondence regarding universal access for audio tours at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 2/3/2009.

Randi Korn & Associates (2008). Interpretive Goals Summative Evaluation: Frida Kahlo, Summary of Findings, December 2008. San Francisco: SFMOMA.

Samis, P. (2007). “Gaining Traction in the Vaseline: Visitor Response to a Multi-Track Interpretation Design for Matthew Barney: DRAWING RESTRAINT”. In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.), Museums and the Web, Selected papers from Museums and the Web 2007. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. 73-83. Published March 1, 2007 at Consulted February 18,2009.

Samis, P. (2008). New Technologies as Part of a Comprehensive Interpretive Plan. In P. Hecht and H. Din (Eds.) Museums in the Digital Age. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums 19–34.  Published On-line at Consulted February 18, 2009.

Samis, P. (2009). Interpretive Goals Briefing: Frida Kahlo, February 2009. SFMOMA internal document, February 2009.

SFMOMA Education Department (2007). Interpretive Goals Worksheet. SFMOMA internal document.

SFMOMA Education Department (2009). Visitor survey on “The Art of Participation” Interpretive Resources, February 2009.  SFMOMA internal document.

Tate Modern (2009). Tate 2008 Handheld Conference Wiki. 2008, last updated November 6, 2008 at 7:52:31 GMT. Consulted February 18, 2009. available

Wilson, G. (2004). Multimedia Tour Programme at Tate Modern. In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web 2004. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. 99-109. On-line at Consulted February 18, 2009.

Cite as:

Samis, P. and S. Pau, After the Heroism, Collaboration: Organizational Learning and the Mobile Space. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2009. Consulted