April 13-17, 2010
Denver, Colorado, USA

New Technology in the Museum: A Case Study of Three Museums in the Fluid Community Working Together

Jess Mitchell, Fluid Project, USA; Jutta Treviranus, Ontario College of Art & Design and University of Toronto, Canada; and Jennifer Czajkowski, The Detroit Institute of Arts, USA


Fluid Engage is a suite of design tools for managing, transforming, and presenting museum content in fresh and accessible ways for mobile, Web, and in-house environments. Engage is built using standard Web technologies and an open, participatory design methodology. These tools don't require the creation of new content from scratch, nor fundamental changes to existing collections management strategies. This case study examines how Fluid's open source community of museums, galleries, designers, and developers are collaborating to produce for visitors engaging experiences that are rich, flexible, easy to implement, and low cost.

Three museum partners have adopted and implemented Fluid Engage's mobile and kiosk interfaces: The Detroit Institute of Arts, Museum of the Moving Image, and McCord Museum of Canadian History. This paper chronicles the disparate use cases from each museum and describes how Fluid Engage addresses those needs. We will describe the open source collaboration process with museums, the design approach taken, and the technical solutions being built. This will include both a demonstration of how these museums have put Engage in production today and a discussion of the implementation considerations.

Fluid Engage is collaboratively creating user interfaces and data feeds that can be used, adapted, and implemented today by a wide variety of museums. This case study will be valuable to any museum interested in building more sustainable and collaborative means of engaging visitors. We will describe how to use and implement Fluid Engage regardless of collection size, access to IT professionals, or backend collections technology. Fluid Engage seeks to provide practical, easy to implement tools and technologies to address challenges faced by the wide range of museums and galleries; feedback and input will be welcome to help shape the project over the next stages of development.

Keywords: open source, mobile, new technology, collaboration, Web, audience engagement


To address the challenge of retaining public interest and remaining relevant in an information-rich society transformed by the ubiquity of information technology and the Web, cultural institutions are working to expand the means by which they engage visitors (Treviranus 2010). As museum curators and educators work to expand engagement, they are making use of new technologies. While these technologies carry great promise and the potential to evolve visitor engagement, they also introduce a number of challenges: cost, chaos, and strategy. Museums are finding new ways to mitigate these challenges and are building new solutions that they own, that are supported by a diverse community working together, and that allow them the luxury of strategically planning how to implement and adopt new, interrelated technological solutions.

To describe the challenges though is to paint a dire picture:


How can museums meaningfully create new technology solutions while limiting costs?

  • Costs to develop new content
  • Costs to outsource development and design to a vendor
  • Or the cost of hiring staff with skills that will translate to an ever-changing world of technology
  • Costs to implement and sustain any technologies that are added to the museum space

Most museums do not have large budgets that permit them to envision, build, test, and implement new technologies. Yet to remain a relevant and supported part of current society, museums and galleries must reach out to patrons and visitors in new ways (Treviranus 2010). A few new ways for reaching out are through engaging on-line, mobile, and in-house solutions. The path to accomplishing this is not only complicated by cost, but also seems further plagued by chaos and a sea of technological silver bullets.


While technology-savvy pioneers are exploring exciting new possibilities, most curators must contend with very little integration of tools or content, few guidelines or supports for user experience design and accessibility, no support for reuse or repurposing, and no guarantee that large investments in gaining the skills needed to become familiar and adept in the terrain will not result in orphaned content, unsupported on-line environments and irrelevant knowledge. Museums and galleries must find effective, robust, sustainable, “future-proofed” tools. These tools must create compelling applications to engage and capture the attention and imagination of visitors and potential visitors. In short, these applications must:

  • Reuse rich, existing content in the museum
  • Integrate with existing museum technologies
  • Prove relevant to any device, not just one
  • Provide support for implementations
  • Make use of existing staff talents
  • Be designed with the future in mind.

The costs and chaos of new technology ventures present considerable risk in an unforgiving time when there is no allowance for inefficiency or redundancy, and the impact of any investment of effort must be maximized to benefit the core mission.

One cannot start to talk about museums and role of technology therein, without acknowledging the ongoing public debate about museums. It seems like every couple of months, a major American newspaper carries a story suggesting that museums are at a point of crisis… In part, this sense of crisis reflects a growing ambivalence about the role of museums as social institutions….

(Bell 2002)


One way to address this ambivalence is to make the hidden riches of the museums open and publicly available. A number of museums are taking this seriously, making their entire collections available on-line. The Victoria and Albert Museum has created a Web site with over 1 million artifacts available to search and view on-line: They have also produced a mobile version: The Brooklyn Museum has published an API that allows anyone to get a data feed of the entire on-line collection. Museums are embracing openness because in many ways, “…it is more consistent with a non-profit cultural institution's public mission to make its collection as accessible as possible, as transparently as possible” (Melber 2010).

To enter this arena, Museums without existing on-line solutions need a way that is not prohibitively costly and complex. Museums need solutions for the Web, mobile, and in-house spaces now, and they need solutions that will be relevant in the future. A recent study conducted by the Center for History and New Media (2009) found that the top three reasons museums were not providing mobile content were cost, staff time, and a lack of technical expertise.

Technological solutions that address both the cost and chaos must meet museums where they are.  For museums that have IT staff, the technical solutions should allow code changes, open APIs, etc.  For museums without IT staff, the tools should allow museums to take full advantage of new technologies. Simplifying the implementation is not the answer; museums can and should take advantage of the full capabilities of new technologies (Smith 2009). The solution needs to allow museums to strategize about how to build applications that represent their complexity and that complement and interoperate with existing solutions. The solution must apply broadly to a number of devices, creating a value-add in any time spent on content. Museums need more than one-off solutions, more than flash-in-the-pan innovations. Available technologies should be stable and interoperable enough for growth and expansion.

Fluid’s open source community of museums, galleries, designers, and developers are taking on these issues and producing engaging applications that are being used to create engaging experiences for visitors. The tough context museums find themselves in now is an ideal one for turning to community source solutions. While this approach may be new to many institutions, it is an outgrowth of the costs and chaos and risks museums incur with existing proprietary solutions. Fluid Engage provides a technological alternative that is envisioned, designed, and developed by and for museums. The Fluid Engage community, the open source solutions, and the ongoing implementations will be discussed here.

Community Source

Fluid Engage is a community source project where museums, galleries, designers, developers, and volunteers collaborate on common, open solutions for creating new engagements for the Web, mobile, and in-house museum experiences. The products from Fluid Engage are made available through an open source license.

Open source software is “computer software for which the source code and certain other rights normally reserved for copyright holders are provided under a software license that meets the Open Source Definition or that is in the public domain” (Wikipedia 2010).

Community source software is similar to open source in that the software is openly licensed, but different in that the “community includes some organizations or institutions that are committing their resources to the community, in the form of human resources or other financial elements” (Wikipedia 2009).

Closed source or proprietary software is software that is not free and not open.  The code for this software is copyrighted, not legally modifiable, and not free for use or reuse.

The decision to use open or commercial (closed) software is complicated, and it is a difficult decision that institutions must evaluate with each technological decision. Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. The good news is that the choice is often not exclusive. Open software can often be used in conjunction with existing closed source solutions. To use open source, in other words, is not an all or nothing proposition.

Closed software

One of the major challenges for museums in adopting closed source solutions, however, is the problem of exclusivity. In the worst case, many of the proprietary closed source solutions in museums offer little integration with existing infrastructure, meaning museums find themselves on a one-way street with one vendor. Vendors obviously benefit when the entire workflow is made up of their proprietary solutions, deeply committing the client to their products. Even in a more hybrid environment where the museum is using a mix of tools from various vendors, those solutions rarely interoperate. This is how museums wind up with one-off solutions that are device-specific and standalone from the rest of existing technology. Museums often spend considerable staff time and effort creating content for a single platform that often has a short lifespan.

Furthermore, content licensing can make proprietary solutions problematic. Licenses for commercial solutions often leave museums without ownership of the content they created at considerable cost. Such content cannot be reused – it turns into an orphaned effort whose cost was high and whose life was short. This is in part because reuse is not a priority of closed source solutions. Unfortunately, this also means that the staff time spent working closely with designers and developers to articulate the best solution to the museum’s use case ends up only benefitting the vendor in his next contract. Despite the museum’s contribution to a creative process, it owns nothing except hardware. Software in this sense is leased and the next version with the new features requires another lease. Support often falls into this pay-for-service model as well. A priority product bug for a museum might not make it on to a vendor’s development list as a comparable priority. Museums are left waiting for a solution that the vendor prioritizes and delivers.

Open software

In search of “future-proofed” tools, museums are looking beyond the commercial model and noticing some of the benefits of open source communities (Kelly 2008). With a commitment to open standards, open source solutions have the potential to integrate more significantly with existing museum infrastructure, including Collection Management Systems, Content Management Systems, homegrown databases, and Web sites. If existing solutions are able to export or otherwise feed content, open solutions are able to ingest and transform that content for reuse. New technology solutions do not need to be a departure from an existing technological infrastructure; they can support it.

While proprietary solutions hitch museums to vendors (sometimes entirely), open source solutions provide an alternative. Participants in community source often find it an attractive alternative to falling “hostage to an increasingly hostile [or unstable] vendor environment” (Stunden 2003). The community becomes the generator of solutions, so membership in the community means a place at the decision-making table. Participation means having a direct hand in the building of that solution. The power of community source software lies in the diverse collaborators that cross institutional boundaries. That open source communities can put “orders of magnitude more skilled time into a problem” is one of their distinct advantages (Raymond 2000).

Another clear advantage to open source for museums is that the licenses ensure that the solutions are reusable and owned by the museum. This means that museums can strategically allocate staff to create content that will be reusable and meaningful to more than just one platform or one solution.

It is therefore becoming increasingly apparent that museums need to divert efforts away from an approach in which the device itself drives the content that is created to one in which the mobile platform is merely an endpoint of a given content development effort. (Smith 2009)

Museums need the flexibility to strategize about content so it is reusable on a myriad of platforms. Since open source projects aren’t focused on selling the next version of their software, they can focus on building a framework of modular solutions that will work in the many unique use cases of museums.  Add the ability to configure, reconfigure, modify, and adjust the software to fit many use cases, and museums have a means to head into the future.

An almost equally important payoff of open source is its utility as a way to propagate open standards and build markets around them… Finally, an important customer payoff of open-source software related to the trust issue is that it's future-proof. If sources are open, the customer has some recourse if the vendor goes belly-up.  (Raymond 1999)

Just as content should remain the property of the museum, so too should the knowledge from the process of envisioning, adopting, and caring for a new technological solution. In open source, the knowledge earned during both design and development informs the work of the whole community and can be applied in other contexts. Members share experiences and solutions, developing the open source product together. Support in a healthy community is broad, diverse, and responsive.

While proprietary software often requires fitting into an inflexible structure, museums are finding that open source solutions allow for flexibility on many levels: presentation, code, integration, etc.

Software rarely works as needed out of the box. Usually it requires customisation to integrate with existing systems and processes. The freedom to access the source code and modify it accordingly ensures that these customisations can be done in the most cost-efficient way available to your organisation.  (Kelly 2008)


But, as Kelly also says, “open source software is not a panacea: if you procure open source, it should be evaluated just like any other software solution” (2008). Community source is successful when the community is healthy. Signs of a healthy community include active development and participation, thorough documentation, transparent membership and governance policies, and a diverse community of skilled contributors. (Kelly 2008).

Fluid Engage: Open Source by and for Museums

Fluid Engage is a community source project made possible by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The community formed by this grant includes 3 museums, 4 universities, a list of advisors from an international group of museums that have particular expertise and interest in innovative technologies, volunteers, and pioneers in accessibility. Fluid Engage is an actively growing, healthy community where museums are working to define, design, and develop new experiences that are meaningful to their context.

Fluid Engage is actively developing and designing a mobile application and an in-house kiosk. The community is doing this work while keeping the following expectations in mind:

  • solutions will use existing content as much as possible
  • content will be reusable
  • products will work on many platforms
  • products will be easy to integrate with existing technology
  • products will be easy to implement
  • the community will continue to be active, responsive, and helpful
  • solutions should make use of the skills sets museums already have
  • solutions should be focused on the visitor, not the technology

A Healthy Community

The Fluid Engage community focuses on openness and participation. Developers work alongside museum directors of education, designers work side by side with developers, and museum curators and directors work directly with designers. Through this participation, the museum partners are able to ensure that the Fluid Engage products will meet their needs, integrate with existing solutions, and will be sustainable in their environment.

The team works closely despite geographic dispersion from Sofia, Bulgaria to Vancouver, Canada, with many points in between. The key to the health and success of these interactions is that all of the team’s thinking, planning, work, and products are transparent. All work is done on the project’s wiki, where every member is encouraged to contribute, participate, and communicate. The team works in two-week cycles or iterations to break up deliverables into small, manageable pieces. The museum partners are intimately involved in these steps, meeting regularly with the team, giving feedback regularly on design ideas and development approaches.  Part of the iteration is spent getting museum visitor feedback on early ideas and prototypes. The two-week iterations ensure that the team is meeting the needs and expectations of the eventual implementers and users of the systems.

To create sustainable open source software it is necessary for someone to foster this collaborative community, to lead and coordinate that community’s effort. That leader must ensure that anyone who wants to contribute in a way compatible with the project’s goals can do so with ease. (Kelly 2008)

Fluid Engage is a community where everyone exhibits this kind of open, collaborative leadership.  Together we lead, and together we are able to create an inviting, open community with products that reflect our close collaborations.


When museums have IT staff, they are closely involved with the technical solutions in Fluid Engage. In terms of architecture, Engage is designed for openness and resuse, enabling museums to extend and adapt the technology to their own unique needs and constraints. Engage uses open Web standards such as HTML, JavaScript, and CSS to create interoperable tools that can blend seamlessly with existing Web content (Treviranus 2010).

Interoperability is a critical concern for Engage. The products weave together disparate sources of information through the use of standards-based data feeds that can be presented in a variety of user interfaces.  This is possible because Fluid Engage takes a unique approach to data.

Every museum collection is unique, and accompanying this uniqueness is a bewildering number of competing schemas and formats for representing them. Since choosing a single standard is unlikely to satisfy everyone, Engage instead aims to accommodate a diversity of data formats by taking a "schemeless" approach. Collections are stored in a document-oriented database, called Couch DB, which provides a flexible representation of exhibit information. Each museum can store data in the format that best suits its collection, and  can easily map the data at the presentation layer (Treviranus 2010).

Engage’s approach to devices is equally agnostic. To reach the most visitors, the team focuses on open solutions that will work on any platform: for mobile, that means developing for an open Web environment that works on a number of phones. As Peter Samis found in his research, “different audiences prefer different devices. No single option clearly trumps all” (Samis 2007).

User-centered Design

One size rarely fits all. The Fluid Engage design team is acutely aware that designs must be flexible and configurable if they are to succeed. Museums are enthusiastic to participate in the design work within the community, ensuring that their uniqueness gets presence in the process. In the Fluid Engage community, design leads.

Design work stretches from the most primitive articulation of the ideas to “pixel perfect” rendering. The Fluid Engage design work is focused on adding value and engagement to the visitor’s experience. The team works iteratively, beginning with early narratives informed by scenarios developed with the museum partners; then the team begins to explore interactions and affordances that result in the intended visitor delight, getting feedback from visitors and the museum partners. Finally, the team works on high fidelity wireframes that serve as the blueprint for the development team.  The design team is made up of user experience design experts, curators, exhibit designers, museum directors, volunteers, and museum visitors.

Openness is a core component of Web 2.0. At the heart of Web 2.0 are core notions of putting users first: user-centricity and openness are therefore intrinsically linked… Users are increasingly welcoming an open debate rather than a closed, sanitised one. This open culture encourages companies to be honest about mistakes, to take a modest and open approach to listening to users. (Kelly 2008)

The Fluid Engage project tests ideas early and often to ensure valuable team time is not spent going down the wrong road.

Fluid Engage is motivated by a user-centered and participatory approach that gets design inspiration from the user’s needs and preferences. The team focuses on the best ways to accomplish this: openness, modularity, configurability, and flexibility. As Koven Smith described the visitor’s interaction with mobile content,

Even this simple step of taking content that already exists and making it available to a handheld device fundamentally transforms the nature of the handheld experience. With the ability to search, group, and filter every object, the device becomes a digital surrogate, an assistant, rather than a tour guide. The device has transformed from merely a content-delivery system to a means of helping to turn a visitor's preferences into action. (Smith 2009)


The Fluid Engage team is also centrally concerned with usability as it relates to accessibility. This is an increasingly important area for museums as a means of reaching more, engaging further. Accessible software design and development do not just benefit those with disabilities; it is just good design to make inclusive solutions. The accessibility community is pushing for museums to improve access. This was highlighted in a recent article:

Since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, museums and other institutions have been required to make their facilities "accessible" to everyone, regardless of their particular type of disability. For decades at many museums, this meant little more than providing ramps for people who use wheelchairs and Braille museum guides for people who are blind. But a landmark 2008 Department of Justice ruling forced museums around the country to grapple with what accessibility actually means.
(Jesse Ellison 20009)

The Fluid Engage team is working with museums to design and develop accessible solutions for on-line environments and mobile experiences. Most museums cannot afford to recruit accessibility experts – this is where community source adds significant value through diversity. The Fluid community members are active in policy-making, evangelism, development, and design of accessible solutions. Members of our community have decades of accessibility experience that they bring to the work of Fluid Engage.

The team brings this vast knowledge to the products. Fluid Engage is actively developing a mobile application that interoperates with a museum’s existing collection, and an in-house kiosk that is intended to inspire visitors while showing them some surprising connections among artifacts in the museum. In both products, the Fluid Engage team is reusing existing content, working to keep costs low, incorporating inclusivity, and ensuring that the solutions provide both an application and device independence (Kelly 2008).

The Detroit Institute of Arts

The DIA organizes artifacts in the museum a little differently.  The museum focuses on the level of the gallery, where a gallery conveys a “big idea” to the visitor through traditional text interpretives. The DIA is interested in extending the dialogue with visitors beyond the gallery to the relationship among galleries, where big ideas have something in common. One way the DIA wants to accomplish this is to create themed tours that are made up of a number of big idea galleries that all have a common thread.  This is one way a visitor to the museum can understand how the museum organizes artifacts while also engaging in an active conversation about the objects’ interrelatedness.

The DIA is interested in implementing a kiosk solution as a first step in a strategic plan that stretches from kiosk to mobile, to Web, and back. The kiosk should reuse digital materials that the museum already has in a local database. It should engage the visitor, allowing for a back and forth dialogue about themes, galleries, and tours. Visitors should be excited by and inspired by the in-house display and experience. The activity should fit into the existing interpretives and should augment interactions with staff, not replace them in any way.

Working iteratively and closely, the DIA has been an integral part of the design process for envisioning the kiosk. The current wireframes show the kiosk as a platform for the juxtaposition of cultural objects from different galleries but are connected through a common theme.

The DIA is planning a forthcoming implementation of the kiosk. Working up to that implementation, the team will be further refining the wireframes, testing early paper prototypes with visitors, evaluating hardware, and participating in interconnecting the kiosk to the museum’s existing technology infrastructure.

McCord Museum of Canadian History

The McCord Museum has its whole collection on-line.  The IT staff at the museum have worked to develop an API that allows Fluid Engage to ingest a data feed of that content. This data then populates the Fluid Engage mobile application. The team is currently finalizing a wireless project in the gallery space, while gearing up for an implementation of Fluid Engage’s 0.3 mobile application.

The application, dubbed My Collection, is being planned, developed, and designed for a mid-February, 2010 implementation. My Collection is a highly interactive mobile application that allows visitors to view, browse, and collect artifacts in a number of museum exhibits. The application then lets the visitor interact with their collection on-line.

The McCord has been deeply involved in the design for My Collection, giving feedback and contributing ideas through the process.  The designs are now in a high fidelity state that is leading the development efforts. The McCord will implement this application on a pool of iPod Touches. The users will first be staff members, then a select group of visitors, and then a school group. The team will gather visitor feedback and conduct user testing with each group.

Museum of the Moving Image

While McCord made the breadth of their whole collection available, MMI is working on exploring the depth of information and relationships behind a small group of exhibited artifacts as its prototype mobile solution. This use case represents the diversity of needs that Fluid Engage solutions can accommodate.  By building a modular framework, the MMI implementation can make use of existing mobile code solutions that have been created for the McCord Museum without the cost of re-developing the code from scratch.

The MMI team is working with its Collection Curator and the Director of Education to create a highly relational experience where the visitor gets a sense of the interconnectedness of complex objects. Once the prototype is complete, the application will be built out to encompass a larger group of artifacts, arranged as a highlight tour for the reopening of its facility in late 2010. The team will pull content from their collections management system directly into the Fluid Engage mobile application. This allows the museum to reuse the existing rich content they have already produced and, potentially, for information contributed by visitors on-site to co-exist alongside views of its collections information on-line.


As in any crisis, when resources are needed most, resources are most scarce. This is a time when museums and galleries need to pull together and share collective resources, but not at the expense of distinctiveness or unique identity. Shared community-maintained software solutions provide an opportunity to reuse, share, and collaborate on sustainable new technological solutions.

There is a growing realization among cultural institutions that what is needed is collectively owned, designed, developed, refined and maintained applications to extend the visitor experience. These applications should benefit from collaborative and cumulative contributions, be sustained by a growing collective of cultural institutions, but also enable customization, individual expression and the maintenance of a distinct and responsively evolving identity for each participating institution. The applications must also capitalize on the wealth of curatorial, interpretive, design and educational expertise that exists in museums and galleries by providing easy to use, cost effective tools for displaying this wealth and inviting visitors, researchers and scholars to engage in the museum experience (Treviranus 2010).

The Web, mobile and in-house experiences are dynamic environments and if they are meant to more deeply engage visitors, they will need to deliver that dynamism to the visitor at a reasonable cost to the museum. Fluid Engage is showing that a fruitful collaboration among designers, developers, volunteers, curators, education directors, museum directors and more can lead to great software solutions.


The Fluid Engage community is highly collaborative.  It’s no surprise that this paper was written in a highly collaborative manner.  A special thanks to Colin Clark for lending his keen eye to this text.


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Cite as:

Mitchell, J. et al., New Technology in the Museum: A Case Study of Three Museums in the Fluid Community Working Together. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted