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Time-to-Adoption Horizon: One Year or Less
The mobile market today has more than 4 billion subscribers, two-thirds of whom live in developing countries. The global network supporting mobile devices of all kinds now covers more territory than the electrical grid. A massive and increasing number of people all over the world own and use computers that fit in their hand and are able to connect to the network wirelessly from virtually anywhere. Tens of thousands of applications designed to support a wide variety of tasks on a host of mobile devices and platforms are readily available, with more entering the market all the time. These mobile computing tools have become accepted aids in daily life for everything from business to personal productivity to social networking.

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According to a recent Gartner report, mobiles will be the most common way for people to access the Internet by 2013. Perhaps more important for museums, Internet-capable mobile devices will outnumber computers by 2011. Over 1.2 billion new phones are produced each year in an unprecedented flow of continuous enhancement and innovation. An outgrowth of this explosion of new devices is that museum visitors expect to be able to use them anywhere — including the public spaces and galleries at museums.

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The available choices for staying connected while on the go are many — smart phones, tablets, laptops, and the newest class of devices like the iPad that blends the functions of all of them. Access to the Internet is less and less dependent on location, as users increasingly connect via 3G and similar networks. The devices we carry are more capable with each new release, and the boundaries between them more and more blurred. In the developed world, mobile computing has become an indispensable part of day-to-day life in the workforce, and a key driver is the increasing ease and speed with which it is possible to access the Internet from virtually anywhere in the world via the ever-expanding cellular network.

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Users increasingly expect continuous access to data and services that not very long ago were available only while sitting in front of a computer linked to the network via a cable. In addition to software for email, communication, and calendaring, new tools allow users to manage personal information (such as Evernote, Nozbe, and TripIt), collaborate and easily access and share files (Dropbox and Outpost are two of many possible examples), or keep abreast of social networks (Limbo, Facebook, Twitter, or Foursquare) — and generally make checking and updating work, school, or personal information flows something easily done on the fly.

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Thousands of applications designed to support a wide range of tasks on virtually any smart-phone operating system are readily available, with more entering the market all the time. These mobile computing tools have become increasingly essential aids in daily life, giving us on-the-go access to tools for business, capturing and editing video or audio, sensing and measurement, geolocation, social networking, personal productivity, references, just-in-time learning — indeed, virtually anything that can be done on a desktop.

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Relevance for Museum Education and Interpretation

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The relationship between mobiles and museums is a part of an ever-growing conversation around the topic of museum needs and visitor expectations. Visitors expect to play active rather than passive roles in their visits and museums with resources are scrambling to meet these expectations. Many museums have already started to leverage the capabilities of mobile computing to provide online resources in terms of both rich content and general information. San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, two of many possible examples, have recently completed redesigns of their websites based on the understanding that the majority of their virtual visitors will be viewing that information via their mobiles.

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Museums have long felt that a major promise offered by the ubiquity of personal devices would be in terms of cost savings. If visitors brought their own devices with them to the museum, this would significantly reduce the cost of acquiring, operating, and maintaining devices for audio tours, and, to some extent, informational kiosks. Museums that were early adopters of mobile technologies for in-gallery experiences, like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the Tate Modern in London, have long used portable devices to deliver traditional audio or audio-visual tours of exhibitions and collections enhanced with rich media and interactive content. Mobile technology has developed at a staggering pace over the last few years and today affords many more opportunities for museums, such as tying content to location, or taking the museum experience out of the building and into the surrounding geography.

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Conversations surrounding mobiles and the utility of smart phones and similar Internet devices for museums are often less about the devices themselves and more about the variety of content and services that can be delivered. Increasingly, those conversations center on how mobiles can be used to encourage deeper connections among individuals, institutions, and collections. The range of technologies converging in mobile devices is very broad, as is the variety of ways they can be applied: GPS and compasses allow sophisticated location and positioning; accelerometers and motion sensors enable completely new forms of control and interaction; digital capture and editing bring rich tools for high-resolution video, audio, and image capture and even editing — more and more, mobiles encompass it all.

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Museums are also discovering that simple mobile tools can be used to successfully engage visitors, particularly visitors to the physical spaces, and especially in urban environments that already cater to the tech-savvy visitor. New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and the Brooklyn Museum have established large and loyal communities of patrons in social spaces that can be accessed from mobiles, including Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare.

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A sampling of mobile applications includes the following:

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  • Education and Interpretation. The Diamond Museum in Antwerp, Belgium recently launched a geolocation game that allows students to discover the history of the city. Players choose an identity and then receive a map of Antwerp and a crossword puzzle they must fill in; they then have two hours to visit and identify 10 different locations in the city in order to discover the true identity of Stefan De Beer, a descendent of the De Beers diamond family.
  • Exhibitions and Collections. Increasingly, museums are taking advantage of the devices people carry, reducing overhead costs for services like audio tours by offering visitors self-paced tours on cell phones. The Tacoma Museum of Art website offers Ear for Art: Chihuly Glass, a cell phone walking tour of Chihuly’s artwork in the Tacoma Washington Museum District. Visitors use their own phones and access the tour for free.
  • Communications and Marketing. New services are springing up to assist museums in creating engaging in-gallery and mobile experiences for visitors. One such example is the open-source project Fluid Engage (
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Mobiles in Practice

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The following links provide examples of mobiles in use in museum settings.

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Apps from American Museum of Natural History Collections
Two apps from AMNH bring visitors into intimate contact with the museums collections. The Dinosaurs iPhone app engages visitors with the museums dinosaur content through a mosaic of images. Viewers explore a range of information about the collection, including a rich history of how the fossils were found and preserved. The Explorer app for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad is an innovative tool that directs visitors to very specific places within the museums complex facility and offers location-aware activities using the buildings wifi network to enable GPS-like navigation.

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Firefly Watch
The Museum of Science in Boston, collaborating with researchers from Tufts University, has created a mobile application for visitors and native Bostonians that allows them to serve as local “citizen scientists” aiding real scientists in a large regional study of firefly populations.

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Making Sense of Modern Art (MSoMA) Mobile
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art provides visitors with a handheld multimedia tour that includes rich audio and video, poems, and music.

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MOMA Teen Audio
This collection contains podcasts created, written, and recorded by New York City high school students about works in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MOMA).

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TAP – Indianapolis Museum of Art
The Indianapolis Museum of Art has begun offering in-gallery mobile tours designed for the iPod Touch. The tours give a very personalized, in-depth look at collections and exhibits using text, audio, video, and interactive polls.

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For Further Reading

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The following articles and resources are recommended for those who wish to learn more about mobiles.

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Five Reasons why TAP Should be your Museum’s Next Mobile Platform
(Rob Stein, Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) Blog, 5 April 2010.) This post describes the open source platform, TAP, that was developed at the IMA. The tool is freely available for mobile tour development.

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Mobile for Museums
(Sharon Leon, Director of Public Projects at Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, 2010.) This article assesses the current state of mobiles for the museum field.

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Mobile Media for Cultural and Historical Heritage, Guidelines and Pilot Projects
(Jasper Visser, The Museum of the Future, 2 May 2010.) This blog post describes some guidelines for museum staff to consider when planning a mobile project. The guidelines emerged from a brainstorming meeting of the European staff from Dutch Digital Heritage, the Dutch Museum Association, the Stedelijk Museum (Denmark) and the Beeld en Geluid.

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The Museum Is Mobile: Cross-Platform Content Design for Audiences on the Go
(Nancy Proctor, Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives Museum Informatics, 31 March 2010.) This paper, presented at Museums and the Web 2010, takes an in-depth look at how museums can design mobile projects for their institutions.

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Teaching with Technology Face-Off: iPhones vs. PCs
(Jeffrey R. Young, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 25 February 2009.) One professor found that mobile devices increased student engagement with learning materials in his class.

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Delicious: Mobiles
(Tagged by Horizon Advisory Board and friends, 2010). Follow this link to find additional resources tagged for this topic and this edition of the Horizon Report. To add to this list, simply tag resources with “hz10mu” and “mobiles” when you save them to Delicious.