Review of museum apps – 10 features which enhance the visitor experience

Last autumn I visited New York for the first time. The list of museums that I wanted to see was very long, which left not so much time for each museum. One of the highlights – the Metropolitan Museum of Art –  was of course on that list. As an avid museum visitor, I knew I had to compromise somehow. So, I booked a guided tour, about which I have heard previously: Museum Hack. Museum Hack fills in the gap between typical museum tours by offering entertainment elements: their guides tell juicy stories about artworks, encourage to take selfies and play games. Thus, Museum Hack tours are targeted to people with little time and a short attention span (which probably describes more than 90% of potential visitors), that would otherwise not visit the museum or not enjoy themselves while visiting.
Museums can entertain their visitors by providing suitable tours, and a well-thought app is of much help. Here is a quick overview of museum apps according to their features.

1. Overview of highlights is useful, especially for art history museums. The Met App does not offer guided tours (there is a separate audio-guide for that purpose), but at least provides a list of must-sees, events and other additional information from their curators. Another example is the Hermitage Museum app, which includes basic information about the museum and its building, offers a map and lists highlights of key artworks in the collection. Such apps are basically replacements for museum brochures.

2. Overview of topics is important for science or history museums. The newly opened Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science in Miami offers the Frost Science app, with descriptions of permanent and temporary exhibitions and enhanced experience features. During the museum visit, visitors can get additional curated content via Bluetooth.

3. Audio guides can also be replaced or partially used in an app. The LACMA  and MoMA Audio apps are good examples, as it is possible to type in the number of an artwork (a method usually also used for old-school audio guides) and hear comments of the curators. A museum map, which is included in the LACMA app, helps visitors not to get lost.

4. Asking questions about artworks online can be fun. ask BKM is an app of the Brooklyn Museum, launched in 2015. Visitors can ask art historians questions about the collection, the history of the museum and current exhibitions in the museum. The difference to other similar apps is that the museum staff is answering questions instantly and it is also possible to ask questions anonymously. The application looks similar to the iPhone messaging service, where users can quickly type messages and share shots of artworks. Art historians can also identify the location of visitors with iBeacons.

5. Storytelling – in the way Museum Hack does it – can be incorporated in an app, e.g. the KHM Stories app by Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Visitors can explore highlights and less-known artworks on a specific topic, like “love” or “magic” and explore secrets and behind-the-scenes information in an interactive way.

6. Gamification is one of the best ways to entertain young visitors. The recently reopened Weltmuseum in Vienna has launched a WMW App, offering – among others – a tour with just ten highlights. Less quantity does not mean lower quality: with just ten artworks visitors can learn, for example, a couple of words in the language of Odawa Indians or take a selfie with an ancient Mexican headdress on.

7. Virtual reality. Which could be a better place for time travel than a museum? In August 2016, the Städel Museum released a free VR application which provides insights into the architecture of the museum and how it presented its collection in 1878. To enjoy this experience, visitors need a Samsung Gear VR headset and a compatible smartphone.

8. Augmented reality. Carnuntum (near Vienna) is an archaeological site-museum, where once a fortress of the Roman Legion stood. The site offers the Carnuntum App, which allows augmenting today’s reality by adding the buildings that once stood here. The virtual buildings are inserted into the actual landscape image in the visitors’ mobile phone camera. A VR-mode is possible too: visitors can see a virtual image of what Carnuntum once looked like, both in 2D and 3D.

Augmenting reality in Carnuntum. Photo: 7reasons


      But not just an image can be augmented. In 2017, the British Museum in a cooperation with Google Cultural Institute has created an interactive exhibition Virtual Pilgrimage, where visitors could augment physical environments with sound, light or mechanical reaction.
Personalised visit with the app of Louvre

9. Personalisation.  Personalised tours contribute significantly to the quality of a museum visit. One simple step in this direction is the preferred length of a museum tour. The LAD Guide of the Louvre Abu Dhabi offers overviews of museum highlights in 40 or 60 minutes. Museum applications of Cuseum (a company which provides museum app templates) indicate how much time each of the tours will take (used, for example at Perez Art Museum Miami and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh). The Louvre went one step further in this direction: their My Visit to Louvre app can generate personalised tours for visitors based on how much time they have, preferences in subjects and possible restrictions (e.g. reduced mobility). The app of Armani/Silos museum in Milan enables visitors to collect favourite fashion objects from the museum by adding them into their own virtual wardrobe. The Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam encourages visitors to share high-resolution images from the collection with the Rijksmuseum app. The Artlens app of the Cleveland Museum of Art allows visitors to create tours of their own and guide them through the exhibition with a real-time map. 

10. Commercial aspects are not so entertaining but can make the life of a museum visitor easier. Buying tickets and making donations online, ordering prints of favourite museum artworks – are some of the features from which both museums and visitors can benefit. The Frost Science and Städel App are good examples.

Creating a great museum app is not rocket science. Guided tours, maps and key information regarding the museum are the basic ingredients. Customisation, user-friendliness and a certain playful attitude are great add-ons. The ideal topping is the entertainment value, as Museum Hack cleverly demonstrates.

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