Heads Up! How Museums Are Using Digital Technology

I recently had occasion to do research on how museums are using digital technology, so in this week’s newsletter I’m going to share my learnings.

Museums are of course filled with largely physical objects – paintings, sculptures, photography exhibitions, cultural artefacts, and a whole lot more.  So digital technology isn’t necessarily a natural fit for museums. Indeed, some museums ban the use of smartphones altogether (much to the frustration of selfie-takers). The reason is they don’t want you to get distracted with digital nonsense, they want you to absorb their impressive art collections. But that attitude is changing and increasingly museums are embracing digital technology – particularly mobile phones – in order to enhance your museum-going experience.

SFMOMA Channels The Movie Her

I love visiting museums and galleries, particularly when traveling. I’ve been to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) a number of times, although I haven’t yet seen the newly expanded museum. It recently opened after a three-year project and it’s getting rave reviews, as much for its refreshed digital strategy as for the upgraded museum. One of the digital highlights is a new mobile app, which updates the notion of an audio guide. Instead of shelling out $10 or more for a clunky handset (which in my experience tend to have battery problems and other usability issues), you get to use your modern smartphone. You also don’t have to input the assigned number of the artwork you’re standing in front of. Instead the SFMOMA apps uses GPS to track your progress throughout the museum, so that you’re delivered content automatically based on your location. As for the audio itself, it’s upbeat and narrated by local celebrities. Prompting SFMOMA chief content officer Chad Coerver to call the app “a cross between This American Life and the movie Her.”

The theme here is that SFMOMA is encouraging you to have a heads-up experience with their mobile app. Older style audio guides – or indeed older versions of museum apps – typically require you to spend time with your head down, looking at your screen and inputting stuff. SFMOMA is trying to change that with indoor positioning technology. They want your head up as much as possible, checking out the art.

Brooklyn Museum’s Ask App

Brooklyn Museum hasn’t ditched heads-down technology just yet, because its messaging app requires you to type into your phone. But it’s certainly a clever way to get you engaging with the museum’s content. The app allows you to ask questions to the museum’s art experts in real-time, via messaging. I know I’ve often come across an artwork in a museum and found its description wanting – if indeed there even was a description. As The Verge noted in its review, previously the only solution to that was “emailing the museum or hoping Google had some ideas.” The Ask app is a means to get around that, by using messaging to tap into the knowledge of Brooklyn Museum’s staff.

It isn’t without glitches. Courtney Johnston, director of The Dowse in Lower Hutt (my own city’s museum), recently visited Brooklyn Museum and found the Ask app not entirely satisfactory. For example, sometimes she had moved onto another art piece by the time the answer to her question came through. But overall, Courtney concluded that the app deepened her engagement with the art. “The inquiring part of my brain was lit up by using the app,” she wrote, “and I found myself generating an unusual number of questions.”

V&A Website

Sometimes I despair that the humble website is getting left behind in this current mobile and social-obsessed era. But if you’re a content rich organization such as a museum, it’s not all about having a Facebook Page and a smartphone app. A website is still the best way to catalog your content digitally and promote your offerings. After all, a Facebook Page offers little in the way of information architecture (try searching for content on a Facebook Page!), while a smartphone app is most useful for real-time interaction (like the two apps discussed above).

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London (the V&A) recently launched a new website. In a blog post about the changes, V&A Head of Digital Media Kati Price explained that the mission was “to bring the V&A to life online.” The implication is that the previous version of the website didn’t have an adequate identity. Certainly if you compare the previous version with the new one, the new website is much more colourful and striking. [for posterity’s sake, here’s a screenshot of the Botticelli Reimagined exhibition webpage dated 1 June 2016 and the same webpage dated 8 March 2016 – the latter via the wonderful Internet Archive]

But it’s more than just superficial looks. The new site is powered by a bespoke content management system (CMS) that “uses the museum object as the atomic unit of content.” This means that, for example, an image of a Botticelli painting can now be easily connected to relevant articles and videos about that particular painting. According to Kati Price, it allows V&A digital staff to “curate objects online in a way that’s conceptually similar to how we do it in the museum itself.”

When it comes down to it though, the main purpose of the V&A website is to turn online visits into physical visits. Especially since, by the V&A’s reckoning, 70% of its online visits are people who simply want to know what’s on at the museum. The new object-focused CMS helps with this too, since V&A staff can see “which content is generating the most audience engagement, and what features are most successful in driving up conversions.” Hmmm. Does that mean we’ll start seeing listicles and ridiculous headlines on art works at the museum? “You’ll Never Guess What Botticelli Did Next!” Let’s hope not.


If we’re looking for best practises, then we can see from the above examples that encouraging heads-up exploration (SFMOMA’s audio app) and real-time interaction (Brooklyn’s Ask app) are two of the best ways for museums to use smartphone technology. Likewise, the V&A’s recent website re-design shows the value of a vivid, art object focused site for potential visitors to explore.

But we haven’t even touched on the cutting edge innovations that I’ve been writing about this year – virtual reality, Snapchat and other Experience Age apps, augmented reality, smart clothing, and more. I think there’s a lot of potential for museums to utilise these newer technologies over the coming years.