The Disconnect: museums & mobiles

There’s recently been a very public conversation about museums and mobile. This particular conversation began with an open letter from Matthew Petrie of Fusion Analytics telling museums that we need to embrace mobile interpretation. The museum community basically responded by saying, um duh! Another open letter was published in response to Petrie’s – the authors lead a group called Mobile Experiences: Cultural Audiences.

There’s been a lot of responses from the museum world telling Petrie that we do provide mobile content for our visitors. So why didn’t Petrie know this? There’s obviously a disconnect here. Why do museums feel that we are providing mobile interpretation and museum visitors think that we don’t? I’ve done a little research (see resources at the end of the article – there’s a lot of really great stuff out there on museums and mobile). Here’s what I gathered.


1)      We are not marketing our mobile interpretation

Nancy Proctor (@NancyProctor), head of Mobile Strategy and Initiatives at the Smithsonian, sums this up really nicely in her comment on Petrie’s article.

 …the biggest mistake museums make with mobile is the “build it and they will come” approach: there may even be WIFI and a mobile program in the museum, but signage to promote them is often absent or banned for aesthetic reasons by exhibit designers and curators, so these costly resources remain woefully underused.


2)    We are just re-using analogue content

Green, Web and Henson, in their own open letter in response to Petrie’s, talk about the challenge of creating mobile interpretation for museums – the tendency to use analogue content and just repackage it onto digital devices. They talk about their initiative Mobile Experiences: Cultural Audiences, and explain

We wanted to find out if we can move beyond creating mobile experiences that are just the same old formats repeated on newer and shinier devices.


3)      Making digital content for too general of an audience

The MA’s study on museum’s use of mobile reported that majority of museum’s mobile applications are for a general audience.

Nancy Proctor explains

…museums often live within their budgets by trying to develop a single, ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution that is intended to serve a ‘broad’ audience but in effect compromises both quality and specificity at the risk of fitting none. Too often the reply to the question, “what audience is your program intended to address?” comes the naïve and wishful response, “everyone!”


4)      Not taking advantage of digital’s interactivity

Nick, in the comments section of Petrie’s article, talks about the failure of museums to create apps that are interesting and interactive.

The majority of museum applications of mobile are spectacularly dull. Most seem to have a very small user base, and most importantly they are not mobile. They’ve just put a museum multimedia guide on a mobile screen. They aren’t using the technology users have in their hands as they experience the content, nor are they thinking about how the user might interact with it (shock horror – they might not actually be in the building).


A few more Resources



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