Skip to main content

Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

Getting On (not Under) the Mobile 2.0 Bus: Emerging Issues in the Mobile Business Model

Allegra Burnette, Museum of Modern Art; Rich Cherry, Balboa Park Online Collaborative; Nancy Proctor, Smithsonian Institution; and Peter Samis, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, USA


The use of visitors' own devices for mobile programs in museums, which began with podcasts and cellphone tours some years ago, has enjoyed a renewed popularity in the age of the smartphone. Growing numbers of powerful personal computers in the hands of museum visitors hold out the promise of reduced overheads for mobile interpretation and information services. Obviating the costs of stocking and staffing device distribution on-site, the BYOD (bring your own device) movement has also fueled hopes that the Internet-connected phone will open up new possibilities to reach off-site as well as on-site audiences, beyond the traditional audio tour business models or even the cellphone tour and podcast. Sharing this optimism, new and more specialized vendors have made it easier for museums to buy the elements of their mobile programs à la carte, mixing in-house development of both content and technology with outsourcing. In the past few years, museums have also learned that they can create their own content, as well as enlist the help of script-writers and sound designers, and publish their content to multiple platforms.

So far, however, even as equipment and staffing overheads have been removed or reduced by reliance on visitors’ using their own mobile devices in the museum, new cost centers and challenges have been introduced: proprietary museum-built audio players have often been replaced by equally proprietary app platforms, and the museum that wants to reach the other 70% of its on-site audience is still faced with the question of how to provide devices to visitors who don’t come with – or want to use – their own phones during their museum visits. The museum that can manage a small stock of players on-site for the low take-up rates of permanent collection tours may be overwhelmed by the sudden spike in demand caused by the blockbuster exhibition. Are museums ready to take on responsibility for the mobile hardware/distribution model as well as content and software?

Keywords: mobile, apps, audio, media, multimedia, business


This paper draws on recent case studies at SFMOMA, MoMA, Balboa Park, the Smithsonian and learnings from other mobile projects around the world to consider museums’ options in response to these challenges and the new business models that are emerging for mobile platforms:

  1. Digital retail (app/download sales)
  2. Freemium (e.g. in-app sales)
  3. Donations (e.g. by text message)
  4. Subscription content (e.g. iPad catalogues, magazines)
  5. Sponsorship and ad-supported content
  6. Monetizing data from mobile social media
  7. Providing devices for blockbusters in the BYOD economy
  8. Using mobile to support membership and other revenue channels

We will discuss the macro and micro impact of mobile technology on museum business today; the economics, including costs, financing, benefits, return on investment, and opportunity costs; and the risks of being both on and under the mobile 2.0 bus.

The past year has seen a rise in speculation about the power of mobile apps to redefine the Web and reshape the way we consume information (Anderson and Wolff, 2010). We may well be at the Peak of Inflated Expectations, in the imagery of the Gartner Hype Cycle (Fig 1), where even institutions as staid as museums look to this new media product as a panacea, promising all things good: currency in the common culture, marketing panache, and revenue to boot.

Fig 1: Gartner Hype CurveFig 1: Gartner Hype Curve

And while there is certainly much to be celebrated about the changes over the last year, it is our unfortunate duty as early adopters to cast, if not cold water, at least the cool light of reason on this latest avatar of irrational exuberance. The Mobile 2.0 landscape surely is superseding the traditional audio tour and providing museums with new options and processes, both internal and external, for reaching our audiences and fulfilling our mission, but with those opportunities come new challenges – and new expenses. Perhaps we can be forgiven for saying the Trough of Disillusionment may lie dead ahead!

The audience for mobile 2.0: an expanding field

The use of visitors’ own devices for mobile programs in museums, which began with podcasts and cell phone tours some years ago, has enjoyed a boost in popularity with the rise of the smartphone. This comes as no surprise, with the pool of potential users growing by the day: a recent survey of nearly 1,600 visitors to the Smithsonian on the National Mall found that over half (52%) had an Internet-enabled phone, and 30% had a phone that could play apps (Smithsonian, 2010). Other surveys at SFMOMA and MoMA show that over half the visitors have smartphones or iPads, while at Balboa Park 10% of website traffic now comes from a mobile device, three times that of last year (SFMOMA 2010).

The growing number of powerful personal computers in the hands of museum visitors holds out the promise of reduced overheads for mobile interpretation and information services on-site at the museum. But how many visitors will museums reach through consumers’ own devices, today and in the future? At SFMOMA, the number of people who bring their own devices to the museum is up 100% over two years, yet only 12% of visitors are currently mobile tour users. Among non-users, 46% said they would prefer to take a mobile tour using their own personal device, but it remains unknown how many of these would actually “convert” when offered the opportunity (SFMOMA, 2010).

The choice of mobile platform also dramatically impacts the size of the potential mobile audience: cellphone audio tours, for example, can in theory reach the largest mobile audience, but they offer limited functionality and may not work in museums with poor cellphone coverage. Smartphones, on the other hand, support the richest media and functionality, but are still only carried by limited sectors of the museum’s visitorship (Neilson, 2010). The availability of WiFi in the museum may also dramatically impact mobile audience numbers, enabling foreign visitors to download mobile content without paying high data roaming rates; however, the cost of providing a satisfactory WiFi experience means increased capital and operational costs to the museum.

This question of how to increase “take-up rates” for on-site mobile programs has taken on a new urgency as the BYOD (bring your own device) movement has fueled museums’ aspirations for increasing their mobile audiences. Especially in art museums, the personal media player, like the simpler audio tour before it, promises the grail of just-in-time interpretation to visitors on the spot, in the gallery, without disturbing the delicate aesthetic equilibrium of the white cube cherished by artists and curators. So while some museums prepare to cut costs by leveraging visitors’ handheld devices, the desire to increase visitor access to the content by offering consumer multimedia devices like the iPod Touch distributed within the museum can thwart that cost-cutting impulse. The museum that wants to provide the benefits of mobile multimedia interpretation to its visitors is faced with the question of how to provide, protect, and maintain devices for visitors who don’t come with – or want to use – their own phones during their museum visits.

Reaching mobile audiences beyond the museum

The rise of the Internet-connected phone also opens up new possibilities to reach off-site audiences through the new AppStore and Android Market download model. The app may encourage these audiences to visit by providing a planning tool and promotional “what’s on” information (Balboa Park app). It may also include content such as podcasts and videos for more “armchair” experiences of the museum in addition to on-site tours (MoMA app and mobile website). An increasing number of museum mobile products aim to serve remote audiences primarily (e.g. the National Museum of Natural History’s MEanderthal app) or to serve them alongside on-site visitors (the Hirshhorn’s Yves Klein exhibition app).

Our online audiences number in multiples of those on-site. As we move away from device-specific tours within the museum, and as mobile becomes an increasingly important channel for museums overall, our offerings also begin to move away from being solely focused on in-museum tour experiences. Recent apps include calendar and collection information, games and activities, and other features in addition to the more traditional audio tour material. The potential also exists to bookmark or save content or works of interest for further exploration outside of the galleries, whether it is in the café, at home, or elsewhere.

Fig 2: Balboa Park’s Giskin Cell Phone Adventure Fig 2: Balboa Park’s Giskin Cell Phone Adventure

The additional functionality in museum apps is a sign of both the new platform’s richer capabilities and the increased aspirations museums have for their mobile programs. The new features that are now possible – and often required – to take the wonder of the museum experience to remote audiences and visitors’ own devices add complexity and cost as well. Again, it seems fair to ask: Is it, in fact, less costly to publish to the new smartphone platforms? Or, when the mandate to serve the needs of all on-site visitors as well as new, remote audiences is taken into account, might the new model in fact end up being more expensive than the old? Perhaps a hybrid model works best, where the content can be accessed in multiple venues, be it on devices in the museum or through mobile apps or browsers.

Mobile content in the expanding field

Over the past five years, the opportunity to produce either podcasts or cellphone tours (using Interactive Voice Response systems) has helped museums redefine themselves as DIY audio content producers. There were a number of approaches to this first step:

  • hiring new, or training existing, staff to serve as in-house content writers and media producers
  • working with freelance writers and/or sound engineers to produce polished audio content without building in-house capacity
  • accepting a variety of production levels to include what could be phoned in by a curator, educator, or in-house voice talent

In the past two to three years, in-house video capacities have also been ramped up, and many museums have begun creating video content for their own websites, YouTube, ArtBabble, Vimeo, and others. That content can now be added to the traditional audio tour format to create a more varied experience on multimedia tour devices, smartphones, and elsewhere.

Coinciding with these internal changes in museum media production capabilities, a plethora of new vendors has entered the museum arena, promising easy app publishing with little or no infrastructure cost and no cumbersome legacy copyright restrictions on content they help the museums to produce. So with all these tools in hand, and as more and more museums own their own content, the possibilities for broader distribution are opened. The same content that was originally found on an audio wand in the museum can now also be accessed online through traditional websites, mobile sites, podcasts, and apps. Visitors can access tour information at home, on the go, or at the museum itself, conceivably on their own devices.

This interchangeability of content platforms has driven the creation of a proposed data standard, TourML, to support mobile content sustainability and portability among both existing platforms and future ones (Stein, 2011). As more and more interpretive content becomes available to be served up, location detection or segmentation can also be used to optimize the experiences by serving up different content on- and off-site. For example, content that appears in a longer form online may be shortened for an in-gallery presentation, where visitors’ foot fatigue is an issue; directional language that guides visitors through the museum may be removed for an app meant to be viewed remotely.

And however content is being developed – be it through outside producers, internally, or some combination of the two – there is no doubt that the amount of audio and video content being produced for distribution online has radically increased in the last few years. Whereas this content production may have happened in pockets throughout the museum, many museums are now in the position of needing to think more holistically about it. What format is being produced (audio, video, multimedia)? What audience is it intended to reach (visitors, researchers, casual browsers, experts, etc.), and where (before, during, or after a visit; in the museum, home, classroom, in transit, or elsewhere)? Where will it be distributed (marketing campaign, in-gallery, museum website, social networks, etc.)? Who is producing it, and who is participating in the reviews and sign-off (curators, educators, consultants, etc.)? What economies of scale are possible in building content and mobile services for both on-site and remote audiences? It is not a coincidence that many museums are developing broader strategies around their media development, creating designated multimedia channels to house and help manage the distribution of all of this media content.

Many “early-adopting” institutions sit at this crossroads. As Dave Patten (2011) of the Science Museum of London put it:

We are looking to develop a digital strategy that encompasses all public (in its widest sense) outputs and it will include the web, gallery based exhibits and experiences, social media, mobile devices, commercial activities, digitization, content creation and management and infrastructure.

We are also looking at where the digital offer sits within the institution, what the reporting and management structures are and how it is staffed.

Next we will examine some of the established and the emerging business models that might support these aims and the overhead they require.

Competing objectives? Balancing interpretation, education, and revenue goals

The tension between commercial goals and mission imperatives is a perennial one for museums: on the one hand, the museum’s mission is fundamentally one of service – of providing access, education, and interpretation to all audiences – but on the other hand, there is an increased drive for revenue to fund the museum’s programming.

SFMOMA has adopted the following principles and is trying to live up to them:

  • We are committed to offering a quality art experience regardless of whether visitors have a smartphone or not.
  • We believe interpretation is a right, not a privilege.
  • We feel strongly that quality interpretation – at least of the permanent collection – should come free with museum admission.

These principles imply:

  1. availability of other, potentially analog, interpretive affordances for all visitors; they could also imply a fleet of multimedia players free for visitors to check out (the current practice)
  2. no surcharge for basic interpretation of the permanent collection and most exhibitions
  3. the opportunity to charge for interpretation of blockbuster exhibitions, where, past practice has shown, visitors fully expect to pay for audio tours.

The Smithsonian’s Mobile Strategic Plan similarly states that profit should not be the first goal for the Institution’s mobile products; rather, as a largely publicly funded organization, mobile’s priority should be to achieve the Smithsonian’s key mission objectives (broadly and historically stated as the “increase and diffusion of knowledge”) and to use mobile initiatives to create “network effects”, supporting and increasing existing revenue streams (such as sponsorship and membership) and the success of allied initiatives. The Institution’s first app in the iTunes store and Android Market, MEanderthal from the National Museum of Natural History, was offered free to the public with the aim of increasing audience interest in and understanding of early human species. This desired outcome was measured by visits from the app to the Museum’s Human Origins website, where users could find out more about the hominids featured in the app. Since its launch in early May 2010, that aim has been fulfilled: mobile traffic to the Human Origins website has increased by over 650% – an additional 13,672 visitors in eight months.

At MoMA, a website redesign that involved a completely new infrastructure, combined with a multi-year history of offering audio tour content for free online and in the museum (thanks to a generous sponsorship), set the stage for a more comprehensive mobile website and app for iPhone, iPod Touch, and Android. It includes a calendar, tours, collection and general information, and more. While this does not preclude possibly offering feature content in the future to members or for a fee, the base application was designed for the broadest possible reach and is therefore offered free. The impact of the various apps has been an overall increase in Web traffic, as well as an extension to new audiences. For example, the number two and three audiences for the iPhone app are Japan and South Korea, while those countries fall much lower on the list for MoMA’s main website, And while the number of downloads for the app is certainly of great interest, the bigger goal is sustaining that increase to online traffic, as this means people are using the app to access information about the museum, its daily programming, and its collection.

Experience to date has shown that apps and other mobile products that are free to the end-user achieve greater usage rates than those with a charge. For example, the Balboa Park App saw pickup increase by four times on moving from a $0.99 app to a free app via anonymous sponsorship (Fig 3); conversely, the National Gallery of London’s Love Art app, produced by Antenna Audio, experienced a significant decrease in the number of downloads after a fee was added, despite the promotional benefit of being the first museum iPhone app on the market (Lagoudi and Sexton, 2010).

Fig 3: Increase in app downloads in month following free offer for Balboa Park App Fig 3: Increase in app downloads in month following free offer for Balboa Park App

On the other hand, the museum and its activities must remain financially viable in order to provide those services, through sponsorship, a self-sustaining business model, or other external subsidy. Initially conceived as a way of providing multilingual access and interpretation for museum collections, audio tours have also been sources of revenue for some museums and exhibitions – at the expense of universal access. However, not all museum audio tours are profitable, even if charged for: historically, only blockbuster exhibitions have generated significant revenues for the museum and its tour providers, while permanent collection tours have typically been “loss-leaders” but important to delivering on the museum’s core outreach and interpretation missions. In fact, in this 20th-century audio tour model, where museums needed the tour – for mission-driven exhibitions without brand name appeal – that wasn’t where companies necessarily wanted to provide the tour.

The introduction of new mobile products like apps seems to have reawakened strategic questions for museums’ mobile programs, such as: Do revenues compensate for the loss of outreach and users when mobile products are charged for? Or does the drop in users for “paid apps” and mobile services compromise the museum’s core mission? Finally, is it possible to quantify the “good will” benefit that comes from offering free apps and services in order to recognize and use this as a valid metric against which to measure the success of the mobile program?

Revenue models from tour rental to mobile giving

Whether “free” or “paid for” by the end-user, there is always a cost to the museum to develop the mobile program. A review of business models developed over the 60-year history of the audio tour shows that some models persist in the Mobile 2.0 economy; others are the result of new functions possible on handheld computing platforms and the new business forces that are bringing them to market.

Omnibus: One way museums have traditionally struck a balance between their educational missions and the need for revenue has been to tie the permanent collection tours to the more profitable blockbuster exhibition tours in “omnibus” contracts through which interpretation of the permanent collection is effectively subsidized by temporary exhibition tours. For its app incarnation, see “Freemium.”

Freemium: The new “freemium” model of the Web 2.0 economy has been greeted with much enthusiasm by many cultural professionals (see, for example, DaPonte 2010), but so far there are very few examples out there. The National Constitution Center’s app, for example, has basic visiting information, the Constitution, and links to current political news, and is free to download but then charges $0.99 for each themed tour within the app, offering free sample stops for each one. A variant on the omnibus mobile, freemium combines the concepts of the “free” and “premium” content in one digital product: educational and revenue imperatives are balanced by providing the app with some amount of free “loss-leader” content (think: permanent collection), and the possibility to make an “in-app purchase” to add more content at a fee (think: special exhibition). Currently in-app sales are the closest museums can get to providing digital content via subscription through the iTunes store: this suggests interesting new possibilities for selling updates to apps and digital catalogues, but these new products may require a new workflow within the museum to support the process of updating content – rare in the print business that museum are more familiar with, where once a product has been published, only new editions and print runs permit content changes.

Sponsorship: Another model is sponsorship, which covers the cost of the audio tour creation and distribution, allowing the museum to offer the program free of charge to visitors, thereby making the content available for broader distribution without being in conflict with a revenue source for the museum. In this case, the pickup rate for the tour within the museum increases significantly over that of for-fee tours. For example, when MoMA’s audio program was offered for $5.00 after the museum reopened in 2004, in the first year, the take up rent hovered around 5-8%. Beginning in 2005, courtesy of a grant from Bloomberg, the pickup rate went up to 31% and now reaches more than 45% with the broader distribution through MoMA WiFi and other channels. Similarly, for several years, AT&T sponsored SFMOMA Artcasts, the museum’s podcast series (though that sponsorship was eventually transferred to a higher ticket funding opportunity).

Advertising-supported: Until now, sponsorship has been limited to the introduction of commercial brands into museum settings, unlike symphonies, theater, and ballet, which distribute programs where advertising is plentiful. One example of an early experiment with in-app advertising is the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s 100 Acres tour. The museum agreed to a “media-swap” with the local Sunday paper: in exchange for publicity for the mobile website in the newspaper, a “disappearing” banner ad is seen briefly at the bottom of the map each time it is accessed in the app. (Fig 4).

Fig 4: Indianapolis Museum app with banner ad visibleFig 4: Indianapolis Museum app with banner ad visible

Outside the museum world, some app and mobile website publishing platforms that are free to the publishers and/or users include the platform owner’s logo, advertising, or the possibility of selling advertising as an indirect way of paying the platform authors/owners for the use of their service (e.g. WireNode, Mobify; many Twitter apps are free to end-users but include advertising banners). But so far this funding source has not been fully explored by the museum community.

Membership Benefit: Some museums use audio tours, provided at a fee to most visitors, as a membership benefit. The Royal Academy in London, for example, provides free audio tours along with free entry to their exhibitions for members, enabling them to skip the line to get into blockbuster shows as well. This is a good example of leveraging a mobile product for its “network effects”: in addition to its direct revenue potential, the audio tour adds an incentive to join the museum and thereby drives an additional revenue stream above and beyond tour rental fees.

Donations: Mobile giving got its biggest boost in public awareness from the Red Cross’s text donations to Haiti campaign: in less than 10 days, over $30 million US had been donated in $10 increments from 3 million unique donors, with additional donor development benefits for the non-profit: 95% of the text-message donors were “first-time donors to the American Red Cross,” and “20,000 opted in to receive ongoing email communications from the nonprofit organization.” (Mobilemarketer, 2010) These spectacular results attracted many museums to try mobile giving but, as Megan Weintraub, new media manager for Oxfam, said to the NonProfit Times, “Not everybody is the Red Cross.” She also said, “You don’t have Michelle Obama telling you to text with other organizations.” The decidedly more modest results from mobile giving at cultural organizations have peaked with event-driven campaigns that make extensive use of traditional marketing and advertising outlets to publicize the cause and its donation short code. The Philips Collection (Kaufman, 2010) solicited text message donations of $5 and $10 to help restore the museum after the September 2010 fire. Anyone contemplating mobile giving campaigns must also take into account the marketing overheads required to make them successful; however, ancillary benefits like increases in new donors and opt-ins to the museum’s mailing list should also be factored in.

Bringing it all back home

There is a simple attraction for museums creating interactive experiences that rely on the visitors bringing the devices or using their own devices outside of the museum. In theory, no device for the museum to manage means less capital cost and fewer public-facing staffing costs. In fact, the BYOD mobile tour financial model is a complex one, be it old-fashioned audio-only or state-of-the-art multimedia; it perhaps only appeared simple in the past because outside vendors had so skillfully mastered its complexities and museums thought the high expenses were due to mobile vendor profits. Now more museums are getting a taste of all that it takes to make it work. And as mobile expands beyond the in-museum tour model to reach a broader external audience with extended content and functionality, these expanded museum programs bring with them expanded costs.

The following table groups some of these mobile cost centers into the different overall components involved.

Content Development/ Scripting for Ear
Content Production
(Sound and Media)
Publishing to Devices
Hardware Provisioning
Marketing, Sales, and Distribution
Analytics & Evaluation

Table 1: Mobile cost centers

For the on-site experience, a museum that has taken over the development and production of its own tour content as in Steps 1 and 2, and then purchased a fleet of devices – be they 20 like the Dallas Museum of Art, 60 like the IMA, 200 like SFMOMA, or 765 like the Boston Museum of Fine Art – still has to charge, maintain, and distribute them.

This takes staffing. The more ambitious the goals for outreach to visitors, the more staff required to distribute the tours. At most sites, information desk staff can take on the added responsibility of a small number of devices. At SFMOMA, additional staff is required on weekends, holidays, and all summer long, when attendance is at its peak. But the museum that can manage a small stock of players on-site for the low take-up rates of permanent collection tours may be overwhelmed by the sudden spike in demand caused by a blockbuster exhibition. In such cases, are museums ready to take on responsibility for the mobile hardware/distribution model as well as content and software?

An important but often neglected aspect of Marketing, Sales, and Distribution is internal marketing to let visitors know about the options available to them. And ultimately an integrated approach to marketing takes into account on-site and online, and traditional as well as newer marketing outlets. Here are some different ways of marketing your venture:

  1. Signage with a splash – especially in strategic, decision-point locations

Fig 5-7: Effective marketing of mobile app at American Museum of Natural History: lobby signage, t-shirt on guide, stanchion sign. Photo Shelley Bernstein. 

  • at points of interaction with the product (intro walls, elevators, bathrooms, benches, lines – wherever people stop, may be waiting, have time to download, etc.), and

Fig 8: MoMA signage on view in the elevators Fig 8: MoMA signage on view in the elevators

  • leading questions on the labels, pegged at visitors’ level of interest, e.g., “Why is this portrait cracked?” displayed with a phone number visitors can dial to hear the answer. (NPG, 2009)
  1. WiFi splash page offering direct access to app download for the site

Fig 9: BPOC screenshot of WiFi splash pageFig 9: BPOC screenshot of WiFi splash page

  1. Social media/viral marketing
  2. Other platforms: kiosk; video; referencing in printed brochures, docent guides of exhibitions
  3. Traditional marketing materials: mobile is integrated here, meaning apps are included in all museum advertising, brochures, catalogues, and programs related to the app topic
  4. Press release, e-news, and PRNewswire (PRNewswire involves an extra cost which is dependent upon how much audio, video, and imagery is included, but the release gets distributed to more than 5,400 websites through PRNewswire’s syndication network)
  5. QR codes and similar: on websites, in exhibitions, in museum public spaces

Fig 10: MoMA Mobile page with QR code for downloading the Android appFig 10: MoMA Mobile page with QR code for downloading the Android app

Fig 11: The National Museum of the American Indian promotes its Vantage Point exhibition mobile website and cellphone tour in-gallery with signage that offers multiple=Fig 11: The National Museum of the American Indian promotes its Vantage Point exhibition mobile website and cellphone tour in-gallery with signage that offers multiple ways of accessing the tour content both on-site and beyond

Conclusion: Getting on the Mobile 2.0 bus(iness)

In the summer of 2010, Fast Company blogger Aaron Shapiro wrote:

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has said the App Store has generated more than $1 billion in revenue for developers. That sounds like a big number. But… One billion dollars in revenue for the approximately 225,000 apps is $4,444 per app – significantly less than an app costs to develop.… A typical iPhone app costs $35,000 to develop. The median paid app earns $682 per year after Apple takes its cut. With these calculations for the typical paid app, it takes 51 years to break even. It's not any better for free apps. A free app also costs about $35,000 to develop. But there are so many free iPhone apps that at a rate of 2 seconds per app, it would take approximately 34 hours for someone to check out each one. That’s not great odds for a revenue model based on advertising. (Fast Company 2010)

Despite the perhaps disappointing financial returns, museums have been early adopters and innovators on the new mobile platforms, continuing a tradition begun at least 60 years ago with simple broadcast radio systems, originally designed to assist people with hearing impairments in cinemas. The significant investment since then has been justified because of mobile’s unique ability to meet other needs of the museum’s mission, offering greater possibilities for extending outreach, improving the quality and accessibility of interpretation and education, and supporting other revenue initiatives through network effects. But mobile is also revolutionizing the way museums do business – whether they are aware of it or not: as our audiences increasingly expect information and experiences on demand, wherever and whenever they are, the market is growing for mobile content about museums. A huge and perhaps overriding factor in museums’ mobile strategy is the question of who will produce museum mobile content and products: it will surely be not just the museums themselves, but also a wide range of third party publishers, both commercial and informal, which must be factored into the changing landscape of mobile business models.

For now anyway, it seems we must conclude that the greatest value of mobile, both as a revenue stream and support for the museum’s non-financial missions, is to be had when the mobile product or program is developed as a part of a larger ecosystem of products, platforms, and outreach initiatives. At the end of the Gartner Hype Cycle lies an approach to mobile that leverages network effects to create “a rising tide that floats all boats.” The metrics of success for mobile, like its goals, are therefore not just the number of downloads and dollars received, but also measures of engagement and support by mobile for the full range of museum programs and activities. These are clearly much more difficult to quantify, but devising such metrics, measuring tools, and a management culture that values them should be a focus of effort by the museum community at this point in the development of mobile initiatives across the industry. Only an approach to mobile as broad as our audiences and the platform’s potential will help us avoid both the hype and the Trough of Disillusionment, and enable us to direct our energies and resources to develop sustainable mobile solutions that also increase the quality and relevance of museums’ engagement with their many audiences.


Anderson, C. and M. Wolff (2010). “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet.” Wired Magazine, September 2010. Available online at Consulted January 25, 2011.

DaPonte, Jason (2010). Keynote presentation at Tate’s 2010 Handheld Conference by Jason DaPonte. Consulted January 31, 2011.

Fast Company 2010. Shapiro, Aaron. “The Great App Bubble”, August 20, 2010. Consulted January 27, 2011.

Kaufman, Jason Edward. “Text $ for Post-fire Phillips Collection.” ArtInfo, September 9, 2010. Consulted January 31, 2011.

Lagoudi, E. and C. Sexton. “Old Masters at Your Fingertips: the Journey of Creating a Museum App for the iPhone and iTouch.” In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted January 27, 2011.

Mobilemarketer 2010. Butcher, Dan. “Red Cross Haiti campaign attracts 3M unique mobile donors.” Consulted January 31, 2011.

National Portrait Gallery 2009. Example label from the “The Mask of Lincoln” exhibition audio tour, originally in-gallery and now online at Consulted January 30, 2011.

Neilson 2010. “Mobile Snapshot: Smartphones Now 28% of U.S. Cellphone Market”, November 1, 2010. See also “Nielsen: US Smartphone Penetration to be over 50% in 2011.” GPS Business News, March 30, 2010. Consulted January 31, 2011.

SFMOMA 2010. Fusion Research & Analytics. SFMOMA Strategic Mobile Visitor Research: Highlights. San Francisco and Washington, D.C.: SFMOMA.

Smithsonian 2010. Survey and interviews of mobile use and preferences of visitors to the National Mall by Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Policy and Analysis, published online at Consulted January 31, 2011.

Stein, R., and N. Proctor, TourML: An Emerging Specification for Museum Mobile Experiences. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted March 31, 2011.

Tallon, Loic. “About that 1952 Sedelijk Museum audio guide, and a certain Willem Sandburg,” Musematic, May 19, 2009. Consulted January 30, 2011.

Cite as:

Burnette, A., et al., Getting On (not under) the Mobile 2.0 Bus: Emerging issues in the mobile business model. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted

Program Item Reference: