April 13-17, 2010
Denver, Colorado, USA

The Museum Is Mobile: Cross-platform Content Design for Audiences on the Go

Nancy Proctor, Smithsonian American Art Museum, USA


Acknowledging that the only constant in technology is change, this paper proposes ways of ‘thinking outside the audio tour box’ in developing mobile interpretation programs in museums: instead of making mobile interpretation a question of which device, platform, or app the museum should invest in, it puts the focus on cross-platform content and experience design.Putting audiences at the center of museums’ mobile content and experience designs make it possible to engage them through the media consumption practices and platforms that they already use outside of the museum.

 Based on research conducted at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and with the principals of, this paper offers a ‘question-based’ methodology for developing an interpretive strategy that starts with mapping visitors’ queries in the galleries. From this conceptual map we can derive a matrix of platforms, media, and narrative voices that work cross-platform. The traditional audio tour, with its analog ‘linear’ content and random access ‘stops’, offers important paradigms for ‘mobile 2.0’ content design: on the one hand, conceptual overviews and immersive ‘soundtracks’ provide a ‘score’ for the museum experience, and on the other hand, ‘soundbites’ in a range of media (audio, multimedia, or text) can be searched, saved, shared and favorited in multiple contexts. From social media, we can also learn how to integrate links, apps and user-generated content into the mobile mix. Finally, the paper considers how content style impacts shelf-life. What is the enduring legacy of creating ‘quick & dirty’ interpretive ‘snacks’ versus investing in more nutritional fare? How can museums best allocate their mobile content budgets in this light?

Keywords: mobile, content design, user experience, evaluation, tours, handheld

It’s Not about the Technology.

In the black and white film, a crowd of well-dressed Europeans moves as one through Amsterdam’s State Museum. The voice-over explains, “By use of a ‘hearing aid’ the visitors get information and are being guided to the different artworks in the exhibition. The spoken words are recorded in several languages on a so-called tape recorder.” As the “invisible guide” instructs, heads lean in to examine a detail in a painting, and then just as suddenly, move away to the right to follow the tour into the next gallery. ( themasites/mediaplayer/ index.jsp?media=19799217&refernr=19265092&portalnr=4158511 &hostname=geschiedenis&mediatype=video&portalid=geschiedenis ; translation by Ronden, 2010)

Figure 1

Fig 1: Still from a 1952 news clip from the Dutch Gescheidenis (History) Web site, demonstrating a new audio tour technology at the State Museum in Amsterdam

Although this video from 1952, excavated by Loic Tallon, shows an example of one of the earliest tour technologies, a common perception of museum tours is that they are not terribly different today. Despite having evolved through numerous generations of mobile content delivery technology in the past 60-odd years, museum tours continue to face criticisms – however unfair they may be – that:

  • Standardized tour content creates a homogenous, one-size-fits-all experience, possibly watered down to better appeal to mass audiences but ultimately boring to both the novice and the expert
  • Museum tours dictate visitors’ movements and time in the galleries. Even though ‘random access’ devices that allow visitors to select commentaries in any order have been prevalent in museums for nearly a generation, visitors still choose not to take audio tours because they ‘prefer to visit at their own pace. (Luce, 2010) And it is true that wherever linear content is used – for example, a one-to-wo minute audio commentary about an object – visitors can feel obliged to continue looking at that object until the end of the commentary, whether they remain interested or not.
  • Digital tours produce herd behavior among visitors and crowding around exhibits as everyone taking the tour looks at primarily, if not exclusively, the selected objects featured on the tour
  • Audio and multimedia tours are in competition with human docents and represent an attempt to replace social interaction with a cold, isolating technology.

Perhaps in part as a result of this reputation, audio tours have never gained the status of indispensable parts of the museum visit, despite having been introduced so long ago. They are a ‘nice-to-have’ rather than a have-to-have: after all, audiences do not visit the museum in order to take the audio tour, ‘take-up rates’ remain stubbornly well below 10% for most permanent collection tours, and many cultural professionals and members of the public are downright hostile to the platform (Longo, 2010). In contrast, in the past decade, one new technology after another has been heralded as the ‘must-have’ tool for the next generation of museum interpretation: multimedia tours, cellphone tours, podcasts and downloadable audio tours, even Twitter and text-message tours have all come on the scene amid high expectations, but have so far failed to transform significantly the interpretive landscape.  Web apps and iPhones are the latest great hope, and offer exciting new ways of reaching audiences on-site and beyond. Yet as a 2006 study at SFMOMA showed, a minority of visitors uses technology for on-site interpretation, opting instead for traditional 'analog' tools – if any – when given a choice.(Samis, 2007). So are these new platforms doomed simply to replace the traditional audio tour with ever more complex and expensive, but no less marginal, solutions for museum interpretation?

It’s in the context of this repeating cycle of dashed new technology hopes that I’d like to propose we frame the question differently. Mobile interpretation is not about the technology: which player, which platform, which app or other bell or whistle. It may be easy to assume that the Dutch museum-goers moved as one in the 1952 film clip because the audio tour used a broadcast technology: everyone is hearing the same content at the same time, so all are compelled by the technology do the same thing at the same time. But imagine, for a moment, that the content asked visitors to spend a couple of minutes looking around the gallery, then to choose a favorite artwork and describe it to a companion. Using the same, archaic broadcast tour technology, we would have seen a very different experience played out in the museum. Instead of herd movement, we would have seen individuals experiencing the exhibits at their own pace. Instead of tomb-like silence, we could have seen lively social interactions. Instead of obedient, passive visitors, we would have seen pro-active teachers and ambassadors, advocating for the works that touched them most and reinforcing their memories, learnings and experiences by sharing them with others. When the content and experience follow the technology instead of the other way around, we risk turning our visitors into comical cyborgs – a melding of human and machine – following “borg-like” behaviors prescribed by the platforms and interfaces we offer them. If the museum tour experience has not made many gains in popular opinion since 1952 despite all the innovations in mobile technology in the past 60 years, perhaps it’s the content, not the technology, that is the problem.

Figure 2

Fig 2: Norbert Kanter using the new location-based audio tour technology from the Fraunhofer Institute’s “Listen project” in the Beat Zoderer exhibition at the Kunstmuseum, Bonn, 2003

Thinking Outside the Audio Tour Box

A compelling interpretation program is the result of great content and user-centric experience design first and foremost. And in the “www” age of “whatever, whenever, wherever,” information on demand, our visitors are increasingly determining the museum’s interpretive experience themselves, using new informational practices adapted from their Web 2.0 lives. Since we can no longer even assume that our visitors are physically in the museum, the question becomes: how does the museum think outside the audio tour box to “meet them where they are – and take them someplace new”?

Thinking outside the audio tour box means thinking about content and experience design first and foremost. Following are six questions towards the design of an evaluation-led, user-centric mobile experience. But before embarking on any mobile project, it is worth any interpretation designer’s time to check out the research and evaluations of mobile projects and their audiences that have gone before. By 2005, over 100 handheld pilots had been conducted at museums around the world (Proctor, 2005). Most of these repeated some, if not all, of prior experiments in ignorance of their colleagues’ learning in other museums. Although convincing internal stakeholders that evaluations are worthwhile can be a challenge, significant progress has been made of late in centralizing access to data that has been published on mobile platforms and projects. Several wikis and Web sites are referenced in this paper and make an excellent starting point for any mobile interpretation project.

1. Who is your target audience - really?

Whether you’re targeting on-site visitors or ‘virtual’ visitors through the mobile Web, identifying and understanding your target audience is not just a question of demographics. In designing an interpretation program, we also need to know what platforms they already use to get content and information on a regular basis.

  • Are they already in the habit of taking traditional audio tours?
  • Are they comfortable using cellphones or smartphones?
  • Do they regularly download podcasts and other content for time-shifted playback on their personal media players?
  • Do they use mobile social media applications; e.g. text-messaging (SMS), Twitter, Facebook…?

If museum visitors are reluctant to use technology in the galleries, Web and cellphone use statistics show that they are certainly using it everywhere else, with Internet penetration rates well over 50% for Europe and 74% for North America (, and mobile phone subscriptions surpassing 60% globally ( What do they like about the tools and devices they use every day? What makes accessing content on those platforms compelling, addictive, and automatic – or difficult and not worth the effort?

In light of your organization’s mission and key messages, what do you want this target audience to know, think and/or feel? Having understood a bit more how your target audiences operate, what delights and frustrates them, we can begin to have a sense of how to reach them on all the platforms they use, both inside the museum and beyond. And with a bit of forethought and judicious content design, it should be possible to create a mobile program that will move cross-platform as easily as your visitors do.

2. What do they want to know?

Just as important as understanding what mobile platforms and tools visitors already use and enjoy is getting a sense of what they want to know. What in your exhibition or collection makes them curious? What questions pop immediately into their minds when they enter the gallery or encounter a particular object? Are those questions already being answered by existing interpretation solutions?

At the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, museum studies students and interns experimented with ‘question-mapping’ in the galleries. On maps of the museums they wrote down the questions that came to mind as they toured the galleries, noting the point in the museum where the question occurred to them. Their questions ranged from the general to the specific, from questions about why the collection existed to the curators’ intentions in a given gallery hang, to questions about specific artworks’ histories and meanings. This semi-structured interview method yielded rich insight into what inspired these visitors to stop, notice, and think about what they were seeing. It also revealed where existing interpretation was insufficient to satisfy and then further stimulate visitors’ curiosity.

Question-mapping is not the only way to gather the questions that structure the mobile interpretation program. Most museums get comments from visitors, written on cards, in books, or by e-mail, or posed in person to staff. These questions and ‘FAQs’ are a rich resource for understanding what engages visitors in the collections.

Of course, it’s easier to gather questions about an existing installation or body of content that is already available to the public on-line, but this isn’t to say that mobile interpretation planning shouldn’t start until the installation or Web publication is public. On the contrary, the earlier the interpretive program is woven into the presentation design, the more effective it will be in terms of both impact on visitors and cost. When planning new displays and their interpretation, the evaluation with target audiences to determine their interpretive interests and needs for the proposed presentation may take on a different form, but it is no less critical to the overall planning process.

By starting with visitor’s questions rather than the curator’s key messages, we turn the conversation around. Even if aimed at a well-defined target audience, quite often the design of a mobile interpretation program starts by asking, “What are the key messages of this exhibition/collection?” Curators or other subject experts are consulted about what they really want visitors to go away knowing, and the tour is developed around this agenda. Little surprise, then, that audio tours have so often missed the mark, when their intended audiences aren’t even consulted on what content they’re interested in.

3. Where do you want to take them?

Leading the mobile program design process with the visitors’ questions makes us think about the needs of different kinds of visitors. What do first-timers and novices to the field of study represented by the collection or exhibition want to know, versus what interests more experienced visitors? Sometimes visitors may not be familiar enough with a subject even to think to ask certain questions; or the exhibit is “like Teflon and requires ‘interpretive velcro’” to hook the passing visitor (Samis Velcro, 2007). Here the input of curators and other experts is key: engaging with and rewarding visitors’ most general and fleeting initial interests create an opportunity to capture their attention and introduce them to other aspects they may not have thought to ask about. Now that we have the visitors on board, where do we want to take them? The subject expert is in the best position to chart this course.

In finalizing the map of visitors’ questions plus the new insight that the curatorial team will add to that conversation, it is probably easiest to follow the organization of the collections or exhibitions: both physically, for on-site visitors, and conceptually or by object, for those who may be visiting through the museum’s Web site or other digital platform. But we should also think outside of those traditional boxes, based as they are on curatorial ontologies that may or may not be compelling, or even visible, to non-expert visitors. Can we use visitors’ questions to conceive of other ways of organizing information on our collections?

Once they are grouped into whatever broad categories will be used for structuring the mobile content and experience, it will generally be necessary to filter the responses by questions that speak to the museum’s mission and key messages for the target audience, so that resources are put towards answering the questions that will yield most interpretive benefit. Above all, we should prioritize the questions and topics that elicit great stories, as they are the basis of any great museum experience and, hopefully, what visitors will remember most of all.

4. Soundtracks, soundbites: both or more?

In the early days of audio tours, storytelling was actually facilitated by the limitations of the technical platform. Whether given by live guides, broadcast (as at Amsterdam’s State Museum in 1952), or lugged through the museum on reel-to-reel tape players, the first museum tours were linear:


From starting point A to end point N, the exhibits interpreted on the tour were strung along the tour’s linear route like pearls of wisdom on a necklace:


The value of the tour was measured in stops:


The messiness, but also the magic, happened in the spaces between the exhibit commentary or ’stops’ on the tour:


People got lost in the interstitial spaces, uncertain of where to find the next stop (o), or lost track of where they were in the audio tour tape:


Or they got bored, or distracted, or tired of following the herd, or simply decided to get off the tour at the last stop:


But in the best linear tours, the spaces in-between were where it all happened: that was where you got the background information and context that brought the exhibits to life:


The connective tissue of the tour immersed you in music and storytelling that carried you along effortlessly from one stop to another, transporting you to a different, magical world. In some courageous tours, the liminal spaces were an opportunity for audience participation. The tour could issue challenges to the visitors to play games, complete tasks, or simply give time to share impressions with a companion. The more marketing-minded tours gestured towards galleries and exhibits along the way as opportunities to return and find out more in another tour:


Fear and impatience with the messiness prevailed, however, and the second generation of audio tour technology introduced ‘random access’ tours. Visitors could choose which exhibits they saw and hence which ‘stops’ they listened to absolutely at random.

o        o        o

 o       oo  o         o

    o                 o

It was the first digital ‘personalization’ in museum tours, and was promoted by ambitious vendors in Modernist terms as a liberation from the herd, eager to recoup their investment in the new technology and steal a march on the competition. Thanks to the new technology, we could finally ‘do our own thing’ in the museum.

But as Laura Mann, a veteran of the audio tour industry, once remarked, “We lost something when we moved away from the linear tour” (Mann, 2009).

By focusing on content and experience design rather than simply bringing out a better audio tour technology, I think we can recover some of that early magic – and even some of the productive messiness – in the next generation of museum tours.


A variant on the original linear audio tour, the ‘soundtrack’ provides tools for understanding key principles of the displays. It helps me avoid being blinded to the forest by the trees. When I walk into an exhibition space, the first thing I need may not be to know when that painter was born and died; I probably need some conceptual orientation: where am I? What’s going on here? Why is all this stuff in this one place? What am I supposed to be taking away from it? The typical two-minute Director’s ‘Welcome to the Exhibition’ message, in which the marketing blurb for the show is dryly reiterated, is unlikely to do the trick. The visitors have already read that. They’ve bought the ticket or committed time to entering the gallery. Now we need to give them the keys to unlock the magic they find there. Help them see what the curator sees: the stories that connect and hold the displays in an electrifying web. Show them the sparks that fly when you put those artists in the same room, or on the same Web page. Directly or indirectly, explain the process that produced the connections among selected exhibits, the color of the walls, the type fonts. Call their attention to how the installation inflects, seduces, and stimulates their vision, their curiosity, and their understanding. Give them the tools to rediscover the display’s main concepts wherever they may go after the museum visit. After leaving a Picasso exhibition, I should have some grasp of not just the Picassos that were in that show, but any Picasso I may encounter hereafter. I should understand why the exhibition’s scientific or historical concept is important, and read it in my everyday life. The aim here is not just some pedantic, pedagogical mission: recognition and understanding produce pleasure in the visitor. This is why we so often seek out exhibits and artworks we know, passing by the unfamiliar to revisit old friends.

For those visitors in a hurry, or uncommitted to more than skimming the surface of this exhibition at first, the soundtrack overview is ideal, packing meaning into a survey of a number of objects – and thereby increasing the chances of the visitor getting hooked on one and ending up staying longer to learn more. The soundtrack can also be designed as a downloadable or fixed Web tour, meaningful for audiences off-site as well as in the gallery. Especially if illustrated as a video or slideshow, the overview soundtrack provides, through the Web, access for all those non-visitors who’ll never be able to come to the museum in person, and sometimes far out-number the actual on-site visitors at some museums (Griffiths, 2006). Our Web sites are designed (I hope) to serve those who’ll never be able to visit us physically. Why shouldn’t our mobile content also aim to achieve that broad a reach and return on investment – especially since now an increasing amount of our traditionally ‘fixed Web’ activity, like e-mail and Web surfing, is done on a mobile device? Indeed, Gartner predicts mobile devices will overtake PCs for Internet access by 2013 (Leggatt, 2010).

Ideally, the soundtrack is a story or a conversation that the visitor can join. It can be a rich narrative in which the visitors immerse themselves, or a dialogue that opens up a space for the visitor to join the conversation and form his or her own opinions. As demonstrated by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker through, the dialogue models the way the experts acquire their knowledge, and can be more engaging than the straight-forward lecture in which the visitor is positioned as the passive recipient of wisdom from on high.

Although much longer than the more familiar audio tour ‘stops’, the Soundtrack can be divided into a number of segments without ‘losing the plot’, because the segments are connected and read sequentially. One logical way of creating chapters or shorter segments from the soundtrack, to facilitate download and podcasting, is to divide the soundtrack by room or gallery overviews. Alternatively, the story may be divided thematically, as in an account of the story of American art by medium, period, or movement.


Soundbites are the curated ‘stops’ or nuggets of information on specific objects or exhibits. Their most common interpretive analog is the wall label. Since the introduction of random access digital tour technology, the majority of audio tour experiences have been based on the visitors choosing which exhibits they want to hear about, and then triggering the commentary by dialing in the related ‘stop number’ on their audio play. Often those commentaries are audio versions of the object label, rewritten more or less well for the ear. The fact that visitors often lose patience with standing in one place for the duration of the stop has prompted Beth Harris to refer to these commentaries as ‘starts’, because visitors start hearing the message while looking at the related object, but walk away before the end (Harris, 2009). Alternatively, stops are too short, failing to go into great enough depth for the object that really captivates you, not answering your burning question about it.

Since there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all interpretation, stops should be layered, and ideally enable access to a variety of types of content to satisfy different kinds of questions and learning styles: not just audio and video clips, but wall labels, catalogue text, interactives, and user-generated content too. Uniformity may be neat and comforting, but it’s also boring. By varying what’s available, we set an achievable goal in content production for the museum: if you’ve got audio, video or multimedia commentary, great; if not, make your collections records available: wall text, catalogue essays and links to others’ content, visitor commentaries, favorites and votes. Tate Modern tested visitors’ reactions to mixed media and style content on its Collections Tour of 2005 and found that while they certainly preferred richer media, they didn’t mind simple text and collections records if that was all that was available; what they hated was finding nothing at all (Wilson, 2004). With more varied and layered stop content, Tate also introduced an element of mystery and surprise to each object’s stop menu.

The ideal interface for soundtracks, soundbites and more

In theory, soundbites are like atoms that can be searched and combined with other stops in a variety of ways to build new insights and bodies of information around a given topic. In practice, I have not yet seen this achieved on a large scale in digital tour programs, where it seems soundbites are almost impossible to get right as stand-alone units of information. This is why severing them from the linear narrative of the early audio tour had such a deleterious effect on the ability of the random access tour to satisfy visitors’ curiosity and innate desire for narrative.

With the right interface, soundbites can be reattached to the soundtrack at relevant points along its timeline, and equally can link to third party and user-generated content to serve as a conduit to even deeper and broader content. By the same token, when used in strategic combination with links to soundbites and interactive functionality, the soundtrack can both trigger and capture visitor response, e.g. through voting or favoriting, or leaving comments as text (including tweets and e-mails) or voice (via cellphone, e.g.).

Figure 3

Fig 3: An ArtBabble interface, annotated to indicate the soundbite, soundtrack and linked content. By Shelley Mannion.

ArtBabble probably provides the best model for an interface that successfully combines soundtracks, soundbites, and links to other content and applications. In this model, the soundtrack overviews can be presented as videos in which the soundbites and links are embedded as notes. Visitors can choose whether to follow the linear narrative of the tour (either on-site or on-line), and at whatever point, object or display their interest is piqued, they can drill down to a stop or to links to related third party content.

While soundtracks, soundbites and other content like interactives can be locally stored on a tour device for use in an ‘offline’ environment (i.e. without wifi or cellular network coverage), links to content and applications ‘in the cloud’, including social media and feedback mechanisms, require a network connection. The physical and technical possibilities of the museum can therefore determine the extent to which third party (non-museum) and user-generated content and applications can be incorporated into the on-site mobile experience. On the other hand, for ‘virtual’ or non-visitors, this kind of social media practice is by now a given. As we design mobile experiences that are meaningful beyond as well as within the museum’s walls, considerations of how our audiences consume content and information in the rest of their lives put increasing pressure on the museum to ensure ubiquitous network connectivity in order not to cut visitors off from their usual informational habits and pleasures.






Offline or



o  o  o  o



x   x   x   x



|    |    |







^  ^   ^



§   §   §

Social media

Table 1: Determining content modalities. Some mobile content can be locally stored for playback in an ‘offline’ environment. Content and applications hosted ‘in the cloud’ requires cellular or wifi connectivity.

5. How will you tell the story?

There is little media more intimate and personal than mobile. As Jonathan Finkelstein has remarked, speaking into someone’s ear, or interacting with them on their personal devices, is about as close as a museum can get to its visitors (Finkelstein, 2009). The power of that proximity should be matched with careful selection of the voice trusted to convey the museum’s message. Choose someone who is at once insightful about the subject, able to relate the content to the museum’s mission and key messages, and is a good communicator with the target audience in term of voice and manner.

By far the most requested tour narrators are the artists, curators, or other experts who are perceived as authoritative on the subject at hand. After all, visitors come to the museum and take guided tours because that’s how they’ll get accurate and useful insight into the topics addressed by the collections and exhibitions. This optimistic engagement on the part of the visitors is quickly squandered if the expert voice or the content is hard for the visitor to connect with: not relevant nor accessible to the audience’s interests.

Equally common in traditional museum tours are professional narrators. Although they often bring higher production values to museum audio content than non-professional speakers, the anonymity of professional narrators can jar with audiences increasingly used to the personal touch of our social media age. For many audiences, it’s easier to connect with and be touched by an interlocutor who is named and whose relevance to the subject matter and the audience is clear.

Interviews of curators and experts by a friendly interlocutor have been a frequent technique in audio tours for establishing a less formal and more accessible tone while cutting production costs by removing the need for scripts. has shown us how to open the interview up further into a dialogue in which both parties are exploring and learning about the exhibits and objects on view together. This structure seems to create a space for the listener to participate as a third point of view, and models the processes that create subject expertise.

Some museums, including Tate Modern, have also included ‘vox pops’ – interviews with visitors or other non-experts – in their mobile programs to add the interest and relevancy of multiple voices to the museum’s own more authoritative or analytical content. These early experiments with user-generated content have indicated the potential to empower the visitor as a storyteller. By equipping visitors with the means to capture their own impressions and learning from the museum to share with others, we turn them into a global teaching force that will act as advocates for the museum for generations to come.

6. What platform(s)?

Only once all other aspects of the content and experience design have been addressed should we focus on the technology, so that the technology serves the needs of the visitors and  their experience, not vice-versa. Table 2 summarizes the strengths of each platform in supporting each kind of content: ‘playback’ content like soundtracks and soundbites; content using ‘single player’ interactive interfaces; and networked content and applications, including links to third party content, social media applications, and user generated content and feedback.

  Audio player Multimedia player Cellphone Personal media player Smart Mobile Browser phones Mobile App
Soundtrack x x (x) X X X
Soundbite X X X x X X
Interactive   X     X X
Link     X   X x
Feedback     X   X X
Social media         X X

Table 2: Choosing the right vehicle for your content.

Museum-purposed audio and multimedia players

Even in a ubiquitously connected world, there will always be visitors who come to the museum without a mobile device they can use in the museum, or with a flat or short-lived battery, and therefore will need to pick up something on site in order to enjoy the tour and the mobile services available there. This number, and hence staff and hardware overhead, can be minimized by publishing to as many other platforms as possible, and by marketing downloads etc. through pre-visit channels: for example, the visit information on the museum Web site should loudly encourage visitors to download the podcast tour or iPhone app prior to visiting the museum. As discussed in the podcast interview with the principals of, visitors prepare for other trips: plane journeys, the daily commute, going for a run: we need to teach them to think of the museum in the same way. (

Podcasts and other downloadable content

Podcasting and its video equivalent, vodcasting, should be a standard additional means of distributing tour content, and not just audio and video, but also related PDFs. Both soundtracks and soundbites can be easily provided, freely or for a fee through the iTunes store, through iTunes U (where all content is free), as well as from the museum’s own Web site and other RSS outlets. Downloaded content can be used in the museum or anywhere the visitor chooses to take it.

Though it’s difficult to measure what subscribers have listened to, podcasts offer a powerful and personal channel through which to develop a relationship with museum audiences. In addition, because the content is locally stored on the visitor’s own media player, it can be enjoyed on the visitor’s daily commute, or wherever he or she may be inspired to enjoy the production - even if no network connectivity is available in the museum.

Once subscribers have signed up for a podcast or RSS feed, it’s easy to offer new information of varying types through the feed as well, including invitations to enjoy further museum programs, or support the museum with a donation or membership. Many NPR programs have begun including a call for donations in their podcasts, using mobile giving through text message to make sponsorship easier and better capture listeners’ generous impulses in the moment.

The Cellphone

Cellphone use is not always possible in museums, either because of poor reception or cultural opposition to using phones in the galleries. Even where cellphone tours can be used, the audio quality is poor, and for many, holding a phone to the ear for a traditional 45-minute museum audio tour would be exhausting – though cellphones with hands-free headphones are clearly much more comfortable in this respect. Other visitors are loath to run down their cellphone battery taking an audio tour if they’re going to be out all day (Whitney, 2009), or simply prefer other tour platforms. There are also business model limitations to the cellphone tour: it will really only ever reach a domestic audience, and with per-minute fees charged to the museum, the cellphone tour can actually be a victim of its own success if more people call in to the tour than were budgeted for.

But cellphones are a great solution for ‘audio snacking’ – quick calls to find out about a handful of objects that pique our interest, especially where the museum is not able to offer mobile devices on site. Perhaps most powerfully, cellphones can be used as two-way communication devices (Proctor, 2009a). I can listen to a stop, take a quiz, vote, and leave an audio or text message comment through my phone. Plus the phone is mine, so the museum doesn’t have to train me on its use and interface. By thinking of the tour experience as more participatory or game-like, museums can create great mobile experiences for domestic audiences’ cellphones and take advantage of the best of both the traditional audio tour and the two-way communication device, using the platform that has reached the largest percentage of the world’s population.

Mobile Web apps

By 2009, 32% of Americans had accessed the Web through their mobile devices. ( As we do more of the surfing from our mobile devices, museums’ mobile offerings become more and more visible and in greater demand. A Web-based version of museum tours, designed for the small screens of smartphones, increases access to the content not only for on-site visitors, but also for non-visitors, who can virtually tour collections and exhibitions thanks to soundtracks and other content that can be meaningful independently of the physical site.

Accessed through wifi, Web apps can be a cost-effective platform for the museum and visitor alike. More easily designed for use by the full range of smartphones than dedicated apps like iPhone or Android apps, mobile Web-based content and applications are free to the end user wherever free Wifi is available.

Web apps also provide the opportunity for the tour to incorporate or reference other functionality available on the mobile device, such as leaving voice or text comments, taking pictures, or sending content from the visit or tour to friends. Koven Smith has written an insightful paper about expanding our thinking about the mobile museum experience beyond the ‘tour’ paradigm to incorporate the major mobile Web functions that people use daily already (Smith, 2009).

Smartphone apps

The platforms chart (Fig. 5) makes it clear why developers and museums are so excited about smartphone apps. Combining the versatility of a Web app with the stability of locally-stored content, smartphone apps support the full range of content types that can be included in mobile interpretation programs today.

But currently smartphone apps require bespoke development for each mobile phone platform and are limited to the small, albeit growing, number of people who own smartphones. And although it is possible to have Wifi hotspots in the museum to allow downloads and even apps that require connectivity on-site, this will not be possible for all museums, so app use may well be limited to those who have the time and foresight to plan their visit and download the app before visiting the museum. Nor should it be assumed that visitors will have enough free space on their smartphones to be able to download an app, especially if it’s heavy with content, without deleting other content from their phones first. Nonetheless, there is no question that dedicated smartphone apps are a growing platform for museum content, both for on-site tours and for extending the museum visit beyond its walls.

Investing in the longtail

Since the era of the cabinet of curiosities, museums have been sanctuaries for specialists and their niche interests. As Chris Anderson has pointed out, it’s often our niche interests or hobbies that elicit our deepest commitments and investment of time and energy. The museum is ideally positioned to tap into the power and passion of the longtail. In his keynote address at the 2009 “Smithsonian 2.0” conference, Anderson encouraged the Institution  - and, by implication, all museums - not to be afraid to cultivate specialist content, ideas and initiatives in quantity. Though many will fail, some will take root, flourish, and advance our missions (Anderson, 2009).

But resources are limited even at the best-funded of museums. Where should we prioritize the investment of our hard-earned resources? The answer will obviously vary depending on each organization’s individual circumstances, but here are my top 10 tips for building a ‘longtail’ mobile interpretive program that will yield benefits for both the visitor and the museum for the long term.

  • Invest in research and evaluation first. Even if you can’t commission a bespoke study for your program or audience, make the time to consult colleagues and read and learn from the studies of others before beginning the planning process. Although we should be encouraged to innovate, to take risks and to fail, there is no excuse for wasting money by reinventing the wheel – particularly when that wheel has already been demonstrated to be broken!
  • Mine existing assets. Even if you can’t produce audio and video content for your mobile program, can you reuse existing text from labels and publications or the collections database? In combination with basic functionality like search, this simple content can provide valuable tools for the visitor to experience your collection more deeply and broadly.
  • Prioritize good writing. Even if you can’t afford a new script and are forced to reuse wall labels, catalogue essays and other existing assets, invest in an experienced writer who can make those texts speak fluently. A curator may be a great author, but writing for the ear is a very different skill set from writing for print.
  • Recruit good interlocutors. Quality may be in the eye of the beholder as Chris Anderson has argued (Anderson, 2009), but it’s also important to recognize that in a polyvocal context, the museum’s role and value is as a reliable and respected authority; therefore, museum-authored content should be held to a higher standard than, say, user-generated content. Museum content does not have to be expensive, but it does have to be good; a ‘karaoke audio tour’ can undermine trust in the museum as a source of quality, reliable content.
  • Cultivate diversity in voices and points-of-view through user-generated content. A number of museums (including Tate Modern in 2003 – see Wilson, 2004; and the Powerhouse Museum – see Chan, 2009) have demonstrated the value of visitor input to their interpretive programs and collections information - both on-line and in the galleries. Not only can a plurality of voices add interest and new ‘ways-in’ for visitors, but leveraging passionate amateurs and ‘citizen curators’ can also add real scholarship to the interpretive presentation .
  • Wherever possible, capture content in video. The Internet is increasingly a video platform, and even where video is not appropriate or may be distracting, its audio track and/or still images can be reused as stand-alone assets in other contexts. Many years ago Peter Samis issued a call for museums to video visiting artists, for example, even if there was no immediate use planned for the videos (Samis, 2005); those who heeded the call, like SFMOMA, are now sitting on a goldmine of interpretive assets.
  • Invest in low-cost recording devices, some training in basic editing, and iterate. There are many free apps and inexpensive audio and video recorders now that enable museum staff to produce content without requiring professional editing skills and facilities. Use them for rapid prototyping; test new content approaches with staff and visitors; and repeat!
  • If you can’t do anything else, podcast in iTunes U and iTunes. Podcasting is a classic longtail platform, building audiences slowly but steadily over time through ‘push’ content. Anecdotally, several museums have reported getting more downloads of their podcasts and PDFs from iTunes U than even iTunes. Both are free to museums and offer either a paid or free distribution channel to the public (downloads are free from iTunes U). Once you’ve put your downloadable content on-line, market it: let people know as soon as they visit your Web site that they can download your interpretation and bring it to the museum, or enjoy it elsewhere.
  • If you can do a little more, build a mobile version of your Web site – or at least the pages dedicated to the visit and your interpretive program. Titus Bicknell has described how a mobile tour can be built in Wordpress in as little as an hour (Bicknell, 2009). Several individuals and institutions have also made their mobile platforms available as open-source to the community (Alexander, 2008: Forbes, 2009; Bachta, 2009).
  • Share what you’ve learned with your colleagues. One of the privileges of working in museums is that our work aims to make the world a better place. By sharing our knowledge and expertise generously, its value accrues exponentially across the industry as visitors satisfied with one museum experience are more likely to want to visit other museums, either on-line or in person. This helps enhance the reputation of museums in general virally through their activities and personal contacts.


Thanks to Shelley Mannion for the illustrated ArtBabble interface illustration, created during my presentation in the 2009 Online Handheld Conference, and to Norbert Kanter for unwisely sending me that photo of him in 2003. I’d also like to thank my many colleagues who so generously gave of their time, ideas and scholarship as I was developing these concepts; in particular, Eric Longo and Matthew Petrie for sharing their audience research data and insights; Dale Kronkright from the O’Keeffee Museum of Santa Fe and Conxa Rodà from the Museu Picasso de Barcelona for their feedback on this paper and its initial concepts; Loic Tallon for finding that amazing video of the 1952 Dutch audio tour; Jonathan Finkelstein for his brilliant observation about the intimacy of podcasts and, by extension, mobile interpretation; Michael Mansfield for being willing to put my theories into action; Laura Mann for her thoughtful analysis of the trajectory of mobile content design over the decades; Beth Harris and Steven Zucker for their groundbreaking work with – a seminal inspiration for my own musings on mobile content design; the geniuses at the IMA (Rob Stein, Daniel Incandela, Charlie Moad, Ed Bachta and their colleagues) for developing ArtBabble, and patiently giving feedback on my mobile babblings; and, as always, Titus Bicknell, whose deep understanding of all things mobile has supported and informed my entire career in this field.


Alexander, Chris. San Jose Museum of Art iPod Touch tour case study and Web casts at Consulted January 31, 2010.

Anderson, Chris. “The Smithsonian's Long Tail”. Keynote presentation to the Smithsonian 2.0 conference, Web cast at Consulted January 31, 2010.

Bicknell, Titus. “No Time Like the Present: Rapid Deployment with Open Source Technologies - At What Cost?” Presentation to Handheld Conference Online: From Audiotours to iPhones June 3, 2009. Consulted January 31, 2010.

Chan, Sebastian. “Another OPAC discovery – the Gambey dip circle (or the value of minimal tombstone data)” on fresh + new(er): discussion of issues around digital media and museums, April 27, 2009. Consulted January 31, 2010.

Finkelstein, Jonathan. Unpublished interview with Len Steinbach and the author. New York City, January 1, 2009.

Forbes, Ted. Opensource tour solution. Web cast on May 10, 2009. Consulted January 31, 2010.

Gescheidenis (History). “Draadloze rondleiding in het Amsterdamse Stedelijke Museum,” film clip from Polygoon Hollands Nieuws, 28 July, 1952. Details at Consulted January 31, 2010.

Griffiths, José-Marie, and Donald W. King. Interconnections: The IMLS National Study on the Use of Libraries, Museums and the Internet. School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The study was published as a series of reports over several years, beginning in 2006 on the Web. See

Haley Goldman, Kate. “Evaluation Report on Luce Foundation Center: Mobile Content by the Fall 2009: Evaluation Theory & Techniques Class of Johns Hopkins University”. Unpublished report, 2010.

Harris, Beth. Conversation with the author at Museums and the Web, Indianapolis, 2009;  first reported in Nancy Proctor, “Evaluation-led Mobile Experience Design” January 3, 2010. Consulted January 31, 2010.

Johnson, T., D. Mitroff, and P. Samis. “Of Ansel and Atomz: Surfacing Deep Content On-line and On-Site at SFMOMA”. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 31, 2005 at - I recall hearing Samis argue for the value of video in his presentation of this paper, but SFMOMA had in fact begun videoing artists many years before. Consulted January 31, 2010.

Leggatt, Helen. “Gartner: Not long before mobile Internet access exceeds access via PCs”. Biz Report January 14, 2010.  Consulted January 31, 2010.

Longo, Eric. E-mail to the author, January 30, 2010.

Mann, Laura. Conversation with the author at Museums and the Web, Indianapolis, 2009; first reported in Nancy Proctor, “Manifesto for a New Mobile Architecture,” Museum Mobile wiki. April 25, 2009 Consulted January 31, 2010.

Moad, Charlie. “TourML (in progress)”. May 14, 2010 Consulted January 31, 2010.

Proctor, Nancy. “Off Base or On Target? Pros and Cons of Wireless and Location-Aware Applications in the Museum”. Paper presented at ICHIM 2005 Consulted January 31, 2010.

Ronden, Vincent. Translation into English of Gescheidenis (History), “Draadloze rondleiding in het Amsterdamse Stedelijke Museum”.  Film clip from Polygoon Hollands Nieuws, 28 July, 1952 at 4 January, 2010. Consulted January 31, 2010.

Samis, Peter. “Gaining Traction in the Vaseline: Visitor Response to a Multi-Track Interpretation Design for Matthew Barney: DRAWING RESTRAINT”. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2007 Consulted January 31, 2010.

Samis, Peter. “Visual Velcro: Hooking the Visitor”. In Herminia Din and Phyllis Hecht, eds. Digital Museum, The: A Think Guide. American Association of Museums, 2007.

Smith, Koven. “The Future of Mobile Interpretation”. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2009. Consulted January 31, 2010.

Whitney Museum of American Art: Audio Guide Technologies Survey Final Report 2009. Consulted January 31, 2010.

Wilson, Gillian. “Multimedia Tour Programme at Tate Modern”. In David Bearman and Jennifer Trant (eds.) Museums and the Web 2004: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, 2004. Consulted January 31, 2010.


Cite as:

Proctor, N., The Museum Is Mobile: Cross-platform Content Design for Audiences on the Go. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted