Nov 04, 2020

The use of mobile phones in museums: pros and cons

Museum 5 min read

Did you know that more people have a cell phone than own a toothbrush? Yes, you’ve read that correctly. Out of the 7.2 billion humans on the planet in 2016, 4.2 billion people had a mobile phone while only 3.2 billion owned a toothbrush.[1] It’s impossible to imagine a world without our mobile devices. We take them everywhere: to the supermarket, the office, the bar… But what about taking them into museums?

Museums and mobile phones have a complicated relationship for multiple reasons. Next to arguments about copyright issues and photo flashes potentially damaging the delicate artifacts, opponents have claimed that using phones in museums would take away from the real-life experience. But is this really true? We talked with our museum panelists on what they think about mobile phones in museums.

Museum etiquette

Let’s assume most people do take their phones with them during a museum visit. Do they also actually use them? Dave Patten from the Science Museum in London did some research in the past and it turns out that “the barriers are many and people are not that keen on using [their phones] in museums”. One reason is because we’re too thoughtful and wary of what other people might think if we pull out our phones to take pictures of the collection pieces. It seems to be an unwritten rule in the established etiquette of museums.

Indeed, some museums still have a restriction policy in place when it comes to (flash) photography. And it might be for good reasons too, so guests should always respect that request. But more and more museums are welcoming mobile devices and are fully embracing photography by visitors with relaxed photo-taking rules.

Do it for the Gram

ARTECHOUSE 2 What’s even more, the rise of the online social photo platform Instagram in particular and the explosive success of Insta-friendly pop-up installations have changed the way traditional museums organize their space with photographable elements. It creates interactivity between visitors and the exhibition. The immersive digital art installations by ARTECHOUSE for example, just ask for selfies and pictures to be taken.

In addition, social media can also be an important promotion tool for museums. With people from all over the world active on Facebook and/or Twitter, giving their opinions on the products they buy, rating the books they read and movies they watch, or writing about all kinds of experiences they want to share; social media is a way of reaching out to new audiences. It’s like word-of-mouth advertising, but with one simple click you can potentially reach more than hundreds of other social media users.

Read more about the power of social media for museums in our ebook.

Extra experience

But there are many more ways museums can explore the use of mobile phones in their venues. Augmented reality, for instance. AR allows museums to add content about objects in the exhibition and humanize the stories of the collection. It shifts the way people look at objects, engaging them into the background story.

And iBeacon technology is another option. You can offer personalized information on a specific artifact based on the visitor’s location in the museum, or organize scavenger hunts similar to the extremely popular Pokémon Go. It’s the perfect mix of physical and digital using something people have ready in their pockets.

Looking at the future, phones will become increasingly important in museums as interactivity tools. And especially important in the current situation: it’s covidproof.

Also check our previous post about phones as safe BYOD alternatives.

Diversified audience?

However, there’s one important side note to keep in mind. Although we started this post with the dazzling amount of people that do own a mobile device, there are still also visitors that don’t have access to a smart phone supporting apps and AR features. Make sure to provide alternatives that allow you to always include your entire audience of visitors in the interactivity of your experience.

Conclusion

The use of mobile phones has often been looked down upon by museum purists, but over the last few years this has started to change. When people look at their phones, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not interested in the collection. On the contrary, they might be looking up extra information on the work of art they just saw or sending a picture to their friends telling what an amazing experience they’re having. Museum curators and exhibition organizers start to recognize the advantages these mobile devices can bring to their venue in terms of promotion, communication and engaging experiences.

Our panel

Arnold van de Water is partner at Factorr, a creative consultancy agency, founded in 2005, that provides global services in Strategy, Spatial Concepts, and Transformations. In addition, Arnold is acting as general manager of the Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience for the Van Gogh Museum. With over 15 years of experience in the arts and culture and touring exhibitions sectors, Arnold believes in using technology to create more personalized experiences and immersive storytelling. 

Dave Patten is Head of New Media at The Science Museum, London, where his role includes managing all aspects of new media and AV, from conceptual design, prototyping and production to project managing external developers and production companies. He has a background in electronics and computer science, and has worked at the Science Museum for over 30 years, developing exhibitions and leading development teams. Dave Patten runs the Science Museum Groups Digital Lab Initiative which experiments in emerging technologies and visitor experiences.

Global thought leader, speaker, creative strategist, founder and director of Molten Immersive Art, Dorothy Di Stefano leads a collective of experiential artists who create large-scale, site-specific, digital immersive experiences. As an ambassador and consultant for the arts and with 20 years' experience, Dorothy sits on many cultural committees and is the International Partner representing Australia in the Global Startup Leaders committee of the World Business Angels Investment Forum (WBAF).Awarded LinkedIn's Top Voice for 2019, Dorothy has a worldwide following on this platform which she uses to highlight the importance and impact of art on our world and to showcase global artists to a business-focused community.

Hilary McVicker is Communicatrix at The Elumenati – a title that would translate to VP of Sales and Marketing at most companies. The Elumenati are thought leaders in the field of immersive projection design, creating innovative applications in education, enterprise and entertainment. Partners and clients range from NASA and NOAA to Dreamworks and Deloitte. Hilary has managed collaborative projects for The Elumenati with leading museums from the California Academy of Sciences to the American Museum of Natural History, with a focus on incorporating technology to create transformative learning experiences.

[1] https://www.bentsoncopple.com/uploads/Cell%20Phones%20and%20Toothbrushes.pdf

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