Smartphone apps are BIG; people love them—over 200 billion were downloaded in 2018. I love apps too. I also love museums; yet there’s only a couple of museum apps I love. This article delves into museum apps—the research on what visitors say about them, their key challenges, reviews a handful of good and bad ones, and provides recommendations on how to fix them.
First things first, museums should consider apps for a few reasons, primarily because people are increasing their use of mobile internet and using apps more. They’re using smart phones to access information, education and entertainment, and, doing so through apps. App downloads are expected to increase 45% by 2022. They also account for 87% of time spent on mobile devices. This shift is significant. Adapting to changes in online behaviour is an opportunity for museums to attract and sustain visitors—in-person and digitally.
Data on Museum Apps
The data on museum app usage is pretty thin, but a report by Colleen Dilenschneider who collects and analyzes data for cultural organizations describes museum app usage in 2017 and 2019. It reveals low usage rate for museum apps in comparison to other media for visitors planning a museum visit (chart below). It also reveals that museum apps don’t deliver higher satisfaction levels compared to other information sources during an on-site experience. On the surface, it’s grim news for museums.
What’s a Museum to Do?
Should museums even bother with apps given the data that suggests low usage rates? YES they absolutely should. Museums can’t afford to ignore the shift towards app and mobile usage and not dig deeper. Below are factors I suggest contribute to low satisfaction levels, along with a deeper dive into the fundamental problems with museum apps in general.
Why Most Museum Apps are Brutal
Though it sounds harsh, the majority of museum apps stink—I’m not the only one who thinks so. Just read customer comments on any number of museum apps on the app store—people are pretty blunt; comments include, “horrible”, “does not work with AirPods”, “crashes”, “not worth it” and more.
Factors impacting satisfaction include: technical issues, ‘official’ apps versus those developed for profit by outside parties, app design that is poor and/or not intuitive, apps lacking key information like address, admission info, etc. Another issue, most museum apps aren’t integrated into the museum’s strategy—they’re not promoted in museum materials, on the website, or inside the museum. This disconnect affects adoption rate and sustainability.
‘Official’ vs Not
Some apps are not developed by the museum but by a third party—typically for profit. These apps appear to be the museum’s official app, but aren't. This can create problems, one being that the integrity of the museum might be compromised.
The British Museum in London for instance, doesn't appear to have its own app, but there are at least four developed by outsiders. All offer in-app purchases; most have poor customer reviews (see image gallery below).
Some museums that have their own app, as in the case of the Louvre and The Getty, but are competing with others. There are at least two apps marketed to Louvre and Getty visitors that are developed by outside companies.
The American Natural History Museum addresses the problem by stating ‘official’ in the app's description directly beneath the app's title. (image right). This is helpful.
Technical barriers are significant, they include battery drain (mostly for navigation when visitors’ location is tracked on their phones), downloading app content which takes up storage on the phone, crashing and freezing, and audio tours only working with plug in earbuds. Finding the museum’s app in the app store is another barrier— apps that don’t include the museum name creates confusion (one example is Cleveland Museum at Art's app named 'Artlens').
Apps are typically designed for two purposes either for visitors to, 1) plan a visit: getting information on hours, fees, current exhibitions, parking, events, etc., OR, 2) for the museum visit: navigating within the museum, self-guided tours, exploring the galleries, and audio guides. A handful do both. Most do neither well.
Few apps provide a digital experience designed to go beyond the visit. This (third) category presents an opportunity for museums to sustain engagement by providing a education or entertainment to visitors who have already visited, or are interested in the museum.
There’s often a disconnect between what’s offered digitally—the museum app, and the in-person experience. Usually there’s no mention of the app on museum materials (maps), signage, or on museum exhibit labels. Often the museum personnel don’t know either. Even within museums ‘planning a visit pages’, available apps are rarely mentioned.
Image gallery below with screenshots of select museum apps and visitors comments.
Review of Museum Apps
I rate the following apps on: ease of use, quality of content, and educational/informational value on the three dimensions mentioned: 1) planning a visit, 2) in-museum experience, and 3) post-visit or digital exploration.
British Museum: No official app available. For a museum of this scope, size and ranking, I’d expect the museum to have its own app, more so given that other developers have jumped in the fray with poor quality apps that appear to be ‘official’.
Explorer, American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), New York City: Kudos to AMNH—they have an ‘official’ app and make it clear. Explorer seems effective for an in-museum experience with location based guidance. It includes a robust section on amenities. The big drawback—it lacks any information on planning a museum visit—it doesn’t even include the address of the museum (!), directions, or the hours. However you can purchase tickets. Overall it’s a huge miss. Reviewers also complain about battery drain due to location tracking.
My Visit to the Louvre, Louvre, Paris. It appears to be the official app; it focuses on the in-museum experience. But it includes an in-app purchase for the audio guide. This is a poor decision on the Louvre’s part—it seems stingy and doesn’t align with other museum practices. Charging visitors for the audio guide who download the official app creates a barrier to engagement; it's also confusing given several apps by ‘unofficial’ developers all with in-app purchases.
Artlens by Cleveland Museum of Art. A fairly good app designed for the in-museum experience, but there are issues. Though the tours are its best feature (there are several including some designed by visitors), it’s not intuitive. One section on the app titled ‘YOU’, is designed for the user to add favorite works of art, though instructions are vague. Apparently you can add works “from the ARTLENS Wall”, but it’s not clear where the Artlens wall is.
The app also doesn’t much value for planning a visit—there’s no address, directions, or details on admission, though it does display hours and events by day. Another downside—it takes up a big chunk of storage space—217.5 MB. It's far more than the ask BKM app (rating below) which takes up only 18.3 MB. Even Instagram is far lower at 113.5 MB.
Getty 360, J. Paul Getty Trust, designed for two locations, the Getty Center and Getty Villa. A very good app for planning a visit to the Getty with information on both locations including events, exhibitions, and detailed information on amenities including restaurant menus. There’s also an ‘About the Getty’ section and a downloadable map. Getty 360 is great for the pre-visit, though it could benefit with a function to search the collection, or include a collection highlights.
Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Institute of Chicago. A good app geared to the in-musuem experience; there are over ten audio tours that are well done. There’s also a punch-by-number audio guide for the permanent collection. However you need plug in headphones to hear the audio. The ‘Events’ section is good with a calendar view. But the info section is weak; a ‘Become a Member’ banner displays at the top of the information page before the museum information. Museum information is minimal; only the address and hours are listed. Navigating within the app is poor.
Overall the app is very good for in-museum experience, but poor for planning a visit. It has potential for a digital experience with its offering on current exhibition tours.
LACMA, the Los Angeles County of Art. It hits all three criteria; plan your visit with comprehensive information including an event calendar. It supports an in-visit experience with an audio guide, descriptions and directions to current exhibitions, a map with amenities, and my favorite—a search the collection feature. Best of all there are the detailed descriptions of current exhibitions that include excellent overviews and videos.
LACMA app also works well for a digital experience. Exceptions: some reviewers mention the app freezes; you need separate app for a digital membership card, and you can’t purchase tickets from the app.
'Outstanding': The Future of Museum Apps
askBKM by Brooklyn Museum takes visitor engagement to a new level with it’s award-winning ASK app. Not only does it have the features for planning a visit (there is a section that takes users within the app to the museum’s mobile website), but it encourages dialogue between a museum engagement team that includes art historians, educators and curators. Visitors can, “ask questions, share insights via live one-on-one texting” according to the Brooklyn Museum’s website, and “It’s easy and fun, and you’re in control the whole time…” .
The app appears part of a cohesive strategy, it’s mentioned on the ‘visit’ pages of its website. There's also signage within the museum about the app. ASK’s two-way conversation with visitors is the future; Akron Museum of art offers a similar program with a virtual museum assistant, ‘Dot’ available through Facebook messenger..
These two programs are examples of museums who don’t view visitors as passive recipients of information, but as active and involved participants contributing to their visit experience.
Should museums have their own apps? This question reminds me of the time when Facebook (FB) came on the scene and organizations were considering whether they should have a FB page or not, as I said then—it’s not a matter of should, but a matter of when. It's the same with museum apps--it's not should we, but when should we.
My advice for museums who plan to, or are in the process of building an app:
I hope I have provided some ideas for museum practitioners and visitors; in the meantime I’ll continue trying out new museum apps and write an update post in the coming months.
Note: All app screenshots appearing in this post are from Apple app store.
I recently visited a small but mighty museum in Rapid City, South Dakota—the Museum of Geology located in the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology (SD MINES). It’s a gem of a museum (pardon the pun). I share here highlights, pictures and describe why it’s an excellent example of a visitor-focused space that provides ideal conditions for learning and enjoyment.
The SD MINES is a public research university established in 1885 with a focus on the industry of mining; it’s evolved into a leading science and engineering university in the region. The museum opened the same year as the school with the loan of a professor’s collection of over 5000 mineral and fossil specimens. In 1923 the museum opened to the public and like today, with no admission fees.
In 1899 the first curated specimen was added--an alligator snout discovered in the Badlands (a fossil-rich region in SD consisting of 244,000 acres of hills, mountains and grasslands) by Professor O’Harra while on the school’s first paleontology expedition.
The museum focuses on two areas: 1) South Dakota and Northern Plains fossils and 2) minerals from South Dakota and around the world.
Dinosaurs and More
The dinosaurs are really impressive; there’s nothing like large-scale skeletons of historic beasts to capture visitors’ imaginations. They almost embrace you when you first enter; though small in comparison to other Natural History Museums, it feels BIG. My favorite display is the huge plesiosaur in the middle of the gallery—a marine reptile of the Mesozoic era with large paddle like limbs and a long neck. This defines the space and creates a wow factor. But the rest of the museum lives up to the wow. Including the mammoth head, also discovered in South Dakota (several mammoth remains have been found in the area, mostly in Hot Springs which has an active paleontological excavation site and museum).
The dinosaur skeletons and other fossils are arranged spectacularly in full view, some are in dioramas, others in glass cases. What’s impressive is that almost all the specimens are from South Dakota, discovered by paleontologists on expeditions affiliated with the school. This makes the museum unique—it’s a research institution that openly shares its discoveries with the public and encourages engagement and learning.
Some of the discoveries on display include a near-complete alligator skeleton found in 1924 in the White River Badlands by three professors on an expedition. Another is the Triceratops head added in 1928; it was found in Hell Creek in SD and is now South Dakota’s state fossil. One novel discovery visitors love to learn about is the mosasaur skull, found by a local schoolboy in 1945. It was collected by one of the school’s professors and displayed shortly thereafter.
The Minerals: Bright Cases & User-Friendly Labels
The gem and mineral collection is spectacular. It includes minerals from all over the world, and includes meteorite specimens. The display cases are well done; they are bright with excellent descriptions. I like the user-friendly labels written in conversational language. They are relatable and help visitors make connections to real life. Take the sulfates exhibit label for instance, it reads “Looking within yourself with Barite”, and describes how barium drinks are used by some people for x-rays to help doctors see contrasts.
I compare this museum’s mineral exhibits to the Natural History Museum near me; sadly even though a large, respected museum, its gallery is dark, with even darker cases and labels that use academic language that are hard to relate to.
A Model for Small Museums
The Museum of Geology gets rave reviews on Trip Advisor and Yelp. Both give it a solid 4.5 out of 5 stars. In addition to the tremendous displays, bright and inviting interiors, it has a kid zone with activities for children to engage with, explore and touch. The ‘Touch Table’ is my favorite, visitors can hold and touch different fossils, rocks and minerals.
The museum's visitor-focused approach creates conditions that invite visitors to explore, establishing the groundwork for learning and discovery. For instance, there are more ‘do touch’ labels than ‘don’t touch labels, including signs that encourage visitors to open drawers, view and explore ('don’t touch’ labels combined with hovering security guards create barriers to engagement).
Conditions that encourage visitors to engage, explore and feel welcome include:
If you ever find yourself in the area of Rapid City, SD I encourage you to visit. The museum is about a 45 minute drive to Mount Rushmore and the beautiful Black Hills of SD. If you can’t visit, check out the Museum’s online exhibits (below).
More to Explore
This post explores what it means for museums to be innovative in today’s digital culture, and describes unique, forward-thinking programs and initiatives in five different museums.
What does it mean for a museum to be innovative? When thinking of innovative companies and institutions, Amazon comes mind, as does Apple, AirBnB, even Bank of America with its digital tools that support virtual banking (like depositing a check with a smart phone). I don’t usually associate museums with innovation. Words like staid, traditional and stoic seem to describe museums best, traditional ones at least. For the most part, cultural institutions are not leading the way in offering guest-centric, unique, user-friendly experiences.
I was reminded of museums’ status as ‘traditional’ institutions in Successful Museum Management a course I’m taking with Northwestern’s Museum Studies certificate program. The instructor, a museum director of a small museum, shared a graphic illustrating strategic planning elements for museums (below); the graphic shows the mission statement and values lasting for 100 years (!).
A mission statement steers the ship so to speak. Yet a hundred years seems eons in today’s fast-paced environment when technology is drastically changing consumer behaviours. Yet it doesn’t mean that organizations can't adapt with shorter-term goals and objectives. A recent article by an experienced museum practitioner discussed the need for adaptable strategic planning, more importantly, the need for a responsive, flexible mindset that's open to change.
Easier said than done, change is hard. Yet, one only needs to look at how retail has changed over the last couple of years, the number of big retailers are defunct due to shifts in customer purchase behaviours, for example Toys R Us, Sears, K-mart and others, to see how inability to adapt led to an at-risk business model. Cultural institutions are just as vulnerable.
So how do museums adapt, become agile organizations? I don’t work in the museum sphere, but I do know that it’s leaders of organizations who act as visionaries, who assess opportunities and strengths within their organization that can lead an organization to sustainability; who know how to leverage people and resources effectively, are responsive to the environment, can create and implement strategies that meet the needs of customers (visitors) and employees.
Below are examples of museums that are innovating—are trying new, unique initiatives that disrupt traditional ways of operating. One project listed (SFMOMA’s app), is no longer operating as it was intended at launch, yet I still included it, as it’s a constructive example of how initiatives can be at risk without the support of resources and/or leaders who aren't able to adapt to change.
Grading Art: The ‘D’s Gotta Go
The Non-Curator Curated Exhibit
Fire the Curators
“Alexa, What IS This”?
At San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) Tech Goes Awry
As we’ve seen with this selection of five unique initiatives, innovation IS happening within cultural institutions, change is afoot with much to look forward to. As in any industry, there are leaders and laggers, I’m going to keep my eye on the leaders and see where it takes us!
A blog sharing my museum experiences and ideas to make museum programs, exhibits & practices more welcoming, relevant, engaging and real!