This post was written in response to Mairin Kerr’s “Are Museums Apps Boring?” on the Edgital blog.
As someone who has spent a large part of my career thinking about online outreach and engagement, I’m especially drawn to apps that are not designed to only be used inside a museum.
For example, I’m a big fan of the Magic Tate Ball. It is clever and designed to be used anywhere and—perhaps most importantly—repeatedly.
The Smithsonian has a few apps in their large collection that give users something interesting to do. See the crowdsourcing apps (from left to right): Access American Stories (audio descriptions of objects on exhibit); Stories from Main Street (hometown stories); and The Will to Adorn, (stories about why we dress the way we do).
For me, downloading an app is a commitment and, therefore, that app should be something that becomes part of my daily life or that I turn to time and again.
For on-site museum experiences, I’d prefer to just access a mobile website for something as run-of-the-mill as an audio tour. (See my recap of the Museums Mobile Conference for more on this issue.)
I did enjoy the Romare Bearden Black Odyssey Remixes iPad app as a platform to explore the motifs and techniques of an artist on my own terms. I especially liked that I could add audio recordings and text of my choosing to truly customize my creations. Is this something I’ll use over and over again, however? Most likely not.
Science museums are doing some really interesting things with citizen science apps that are meant to be useful to the individual and the collective. Check out Leafsnap and Project Noah for two examples of apps designed to be used out in the world, giving users something to do that contributes to the field at large (in this case take photos of trees or animals to identify them but also add data about populations to a larger dataset). Like the Magic Tate Ball, these are programs that can be useful over the long haul and are designed for repeated use.
I was a fan of The Extraordinaries app (which I believe is now defunct), whose premise was making good use of those chunks of minutes people have in their day (on the bus, waiting in line, etc.) to do something useful, such as tag images from museum collections with relevant terms to help improve search. This fills the same kind of niche as Candy Crush Saga, which is easy to pick up and put down at will over and over again.
In sum, I do agree that many museum apps don’t live up to the full potential of the medium—they are glorified audio tours, or memory-greedy exhibition brochures. But I also think there are many other examples of museums pushing the boundaries by going beyond the museum visit. The apps I describe get at the core of what makes museums so exciting and important to society—the incredibly rich store of human history and creativity they preserve and provide access to, and their ongoing research that makes our world a better place.
It seems to me that some of the most successful museum apps do a few things well:
* meet a real need or desire in their users
* give people something meaningful or exciting to do
* take the museum’s mission and content outside of its walls
* are a result of an interesting collaboration
I personally look forward to working on mobile app projects with other interested parties who can bring a fresh perspective and enthusiasm to the table—whether that means working with artists, young people, scientists, or other people trying to improve the health and happiness of other humans. The meeting of diverse fields and perspectives often makes for the most interesting projects.
So, who’s game?