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.

Explorer - Mobile Navigation and Interpretation at the American Museum of Natural History

Linda Perry-Lube and Melissa Lefkowitz, American Museum of Natural History, USA


This paper advocates a visitor-centric approach to designing a solution for navigation and interpretation. The American Museum of Natural History iPhone application Explorer combines state of the art location awareness, interpretation, and social networking to deliver an enhanced visitor experience both onsite and online. AMNH had four objectives with this project: to facilitate visitor navigation, to provide an application that appeals to visitors and encourages repeat visits, to enhance exhibit information without detracting from the exhibits themselves; and to anneal visitors' onsite and online experiences. This paper examines the reasoning behind utilizing a mobile device for wayfinding; the choice of the iPhone platform; the challenge of bringing "GPS indoors" and the resultant technical solution; feature set determination and usability; the role of mobile devices in the pre- and post-Museum visit continuum; the challenges of curated mobile content creation; deploying the application on Museum-supplied devices and through the iTunes store; and marketing of the device and app. The authors present the challenges faced by the American Museum of Natural History in executing a cross-Museum enterprise and share lessons learned, in order to offer the wider museum community an opportunity to build on our experience and expertise.

Keywords: mobile, iphone app, location awareness, digital mobile museum tour, mobile exhibition, wayfinding


1.1 American Museum of Natural History Problem

Since its founding in 1869, the American Museum of Natural History has advanced its global mission to discover, interpret, and disseminate information about human cultures, the natural world, and the universe through a wide-reaching program of scientific research, education, and exhibitions. Today, it is one of the largest natural history Museums in the world, housing more than 46 exhibition halls, numerous laboratories and teaching facilities, one of the Western Hemisphere's largest natural history libraries, and vast areas for the storage of the Museum's collections, which include some 32 million specimens and cultural artifacts. Of the Museum's 1.5 million square feet, roughly 38% (almost 570,000 square feet) is public space.

The Museum's permanent halls, temporary exhibitions, and theaters display an extraordinary depth and breadth of scientific information, but are not linked in a coherent path either physically or pedagogically. Establishing a successful wayfinding system has been an enormous challenge to the Museum for a number of reasons, including:

  • The complex and roundabout nature of the Museum's 24 interconnected buildings, spread over multiple non-contiguous floors, which were constructed at various times between 1877 and 2000
  • The lack of visual access between adjacent halls, hence offering little sense of what lies beyond
  • The historic nature of the buildings, which precludes more physically intrusive solutions
  • The unique aesthetic of the museum, carefully designed by curators to minimize clutter

1.2 Why A Mobile Device

Given the challenges, the Museum has implemented various wayfinding systems in the past. Canvas banners above the entrance to each main hall were instituted over 15 years ago and are still largely in place. Another system of floor plans and pictorial information boards is located at each public elevator bank and at hall entrances. More recently, floor stickers that direct visitors to frequently changing temporary exhibits have proven successful if only because they provide Museum employees a convenient way to offer directions to visitors.

The museum currently relies heavily on paper floor plans. However, the paper floor plan is a flat static document with references only to halls and galleries. Attempting to identify all exhibits would result in a cluttered visual and would complicate wayfinding.

Digital cartography can provide a dynamic, customized experience to the visitor. A handheld wayfinding device can help visitors locate a specific exhibit or give them a guided tour. A dynamic digital map also enables language localization, allowing the visitor to take a tour in their native language. The mobile form factor enables a one-handed navigational reference to a user, or group of users, without distracting from the Museum experience.

1.3 Objectives for Wayfinding

After a thorough review of the state of the art of digital wayfinding projects, cross-functional meetings to gather requirements from all departments in the Museum, and in-depth surveys of visitor behavior and preferences, the following objectives were identified to guide the development of the application.

Facilitate visitor navigation at the Museum

Visitor navigation was the key objective of the project. In surveys run by the wayfinding team, over 60% of visitors, including repeat visitors, had to ask a member of the Museum staff for directions at some point during their visit. The number of visitors who wander the halls without knowing where they are going is presumed to be even higher. The wayfinding application must provide visitors a simple navigation experience, minimize "lost time" and allow them to experience the Museum in the way they want to.

Provide an application that appeals to visitors and encourages repeat visits

The application is designed to be easy to use by both visitors who are not generally comfortable with technology and those familiar with mobile devices. The American Museum of Natural History Explorer application must improve visitor satisfaction and encourage visitors to explorer the whole Museum, not just the well-known exhibits.

Enhance exhibit information without detracting from the exhibits

Visitor research indicated that audio content was not a desirable feature for the device. Typically in science and natural history museums, visitors carry on lively discussions during their visit. It was important that the application contribute to those conversations, and not distance visitors from the exhibits and one another.

Facilitate the pre-visit, visit and post-visit experiences; anneal the onsite and online experiences

The project was viewed as a means of furthering the Museum mission of enhancing public understanding and engagement with human cultures, the natural world, and the universe. Specifically, the project and its resultant solution were designed to facilitate the pre-visit, visit and post-visit experiences. Features and functionality included in the application were designed to enhance all phases of the visitor experience.

Figure 10: Crowdbrowsing: interface control © ZKMFigure 1

2. Approach

2.1 Visitor-Centric Approach

Throughout the project, visitor needs drove the technology and content approach. The project started out looking at what the visitors need and want to be provided with during their visit. Surveys, requirements and prototypes were tested with visitors before any technology decisions were made. Throughout the technical phases of the project, progress and decisions were tested with visitors to gauge their acceptance of both the technology and the content approach.

2.2 Audience Definition

The functional analysis phase for the wayfinding project was a key step in answering one of the most basic questions for the project: Who is the targeted user group for the application? To answer this question and determine the user demographic that would most benefit from the wayfinding application, a number of visitor interviews and surveys were conducted. A total of 968 Museum visitors were interviewed in several locations throughout the Museum. For families or other groups of visitors, one person, typically the group's decision-maker, was interviewed per party. An assessment of visitor needs was also done to understand the needs of each respective user demographic. This study showed that the major design challenge would be to effectively serve the wide demographic range of visitors that visit the Museum every day. All visitors expressed similar needs, but because of the varying user demographics, designing a simple user interface to meet the needs of any visitor group would be critical for success. Some key findings collected as a result of the survey were:

  • Overall, 60% of the respondents needed to ask for help during their visit.
  • Interest in using a hand-held navigational device was significant, over 50%

2.3 Project Phases

The following phases were undertaken as part of the project.

Initial research and competitive analysis

The Wayfinding team spent the initial phase of the project researching visitor requirements and understanding the landscape for handheld applications within Museums. This work provided a foundation for the development and helped the project steer away from mistakes other institutions have made in creating handheld navigation platforms.

Requirements creation and testing

Significant interaction was made with visitors to understand their requirements and their desire to use the features a handheld platform could deliver. These interactions used surveys and visitor interceptions to gather information. A set of use cases was created from the requirements, and to test these use cases, a visual prototype was built.

Technology Research

The visitor requirements were fed into a set of technical requirements. The main technical challenge for the project was locating the visitor within the Museum. The majority of technologies such as GPS were discounted quickly as they did not provide the accuracy or reliability required. A significant proportion of the project focused on creating a solution that was implementable within the Museum space and would not become obsolete quickly. Two solutions met the requirements:

  1. WiFi: By using WiFi triangulation, a device could position itself within the Museum with enough accuracy to display the exhibit hall in which the visitor is located
  2. WiFi augmented with RFID: RFID can be added to the WiFi system to allow visitors to be pinpointed with a greater accuracy and a faster response time.

The subsequent decision to move to the iPhone platform and enable Museum visitors to use their own devices negated the utility of the WiFi augmented with RFID solution, as those visitors would need to add an RFID tag to their personal devices.

Application building (Windows Mobile)

In 2008, research was conducted on the appropriate platform and device for the American Museum of Natural History Explorer. Research was done to access the possibility of using the visitors' own devices, but at this time it was not deemed feasible. When the project was started, the common and most flexible platform available was the Windows Mobile platform. At the time, the Windows Mobile Operating System was ranked number two globally and was expected to maintain that position through 2012. Apple was approached at this time, but their operating system would not then support the location technology available. An application was successfully built using Windows Mobile for an HP iPAQ device. The device has the advantages of a large screen, rugged design and battery life and HP committed to supporting it for the next five years. However, the device is not widely used outside of enterprises, and it proved to be a challenge to develop the usability desired for the application.

Usability testing

A highly structured usability test of the Windows Mobile-based application was run with Museum visitors, and results were fed back into the further design and development.

Infrastructure rollout

Installing WiFi access points and cabling throughout the Museum in the numerous locations necessary to provide accurate location to the wayfinding application presented significant challenges. These included three-foot-thick walls, asbestos, lead paint, and buildings with no structural plans Above all, the Museum's operations could not be affected. Work would have to take place overnight, and great care be taken not to disturb fragile and valuable exhibition artifacts and specimens. Additionally, opening up our WiFi network for visitor-provided devices required a significant technology and security effort.

Application building (iPhone)

During 2009, it became clear in mobile development that the both the support and usage of Windows Mobile was fast declining, and the uptake of other platforms was quickly rising. Some of these platforms would allow a greater number of visitors to use wayfinding by allowing the application to be available on their own devices. Additionally, given the changing environment, HP reduced its commitment to the IPAQ device. After surveying visitors and conducting technical feasibility, the iPhone platform was chosen. Surveys conducted at this time with Museum visitors indicated 28-30% possessed their own iTouch or iPhone. Also, the iPhone platform better met the visitor usability requirements gathered in the usability testing of the Windows Mobile device. Finally, the iPhone platform allows visitors not only to pick-up a device within the Museum but also to use their own iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. The iPhone platform was developed using the base application developed for Windows Mobile.

Content design and creation

Throughout the project, content plays a significant part in the wayfinding experience. This content includes maps, photographs, tours, treasure hunts, visitor amenities and exhibit information. All of the content had to be uniquely created for the Explorer and for the exhibit-related content, curated for scientific accuracy. Each type of content was thoroughly tested with visitors. A key requirement from our visitors, has been simplicity. Overly complicated maps or verbose exhibit content would detract from the visit experience.

Deployment and marketing

To deploy the application on both Museum-provided and visitor-provided devices required development of unique processes for each. New visitor infrastructure and services procedures were created to facilitate the distribution, storage and maintenance of these devices. A marketing plan was developed to introduce visitors to the availability and capability of this unprecedented mobile application.

2.4 Key Technical Breakthrough

The American Museum of Natural History Explorer was the first application to first provide indoor, real-time location awareness. The innovative use of location awareness in the Explorer application is a significant technological breakthrough and marks the first time an institution or business has been able to offer people a live, continuously updated determination of where they are inside a building.

3. The Visitor Experience

3.1 Usability

As described above, significant effort has been made to provide a pleasurable experience for the visitors using the wayfinding application. The Explorer followed Apple interface guidelines, facilitating simple adoption by experienced Apple device users. The simple interface, and additional affordances such as using descriptions along with icons to indicate functions, helps users not experienced with the iPhone interface.

3.2 Unique features provided by AMNH Explorer

While not exhaustive, the following American Museum of Natural History Explorer features indicate the key differentiators from other current museum applications.

Free Form Tours: Visitors to Museums want to experience the exhibits in the way they feel most comfortable, in the order and with the timing that suits them. Traditional Museum handheld tours do not accommodate this as they prescribe tours with a linear path, making visitors work through every exhibit chosen for them before moving on. The AMNH Explorer allows visitors to skip objects on the tour as they wish, see the tour highlights in any order, or even create their own tour. This feature is unique to the Explorer.

Virtual Tours: While one must be in the museum to use its wayfinding capabilities, people can access the Explorer's exhibition content, the tours, and the floor plans no matter where they are. With vivid color images of all of the exhibition halls, special exhibitions, and over 100 highlights from the collection, it is possible to enjoy a rich virtual tour of the museum at home or at school. Indeed, we have much anecdotal evidence that young children who have never been to the museum delight in finding the dinosaurs, elephants, and giant blue whale just by exploring the application.

3D Room Map View: In addition to familiar 2D floor plan views, 45-degree angle 3D views of each exhibit hall were created for Explorer. The 3D Room Map View shows only one room at a time. When visitors use the 3D view for navigation, the route is displayed on the 3D view as a line with arrows.

Routing Engine: Explorer has a routing engine has the ability to calculate a route between two points in the museum. This route is provided to the visitor as a route line on a map and as turn-by-turn textual instructions (such as "turn left at the end of the hall" or "take the elevator to the second floor", etc). The routing engine has the ability to determine if a visitor has strayed from the correct route and can recalculate the route accordingly.

Tours: Visitors will have the ability to visit a series of exhibits/objects that are defined as a tour. They will be routed from one object to the next and will be provided with information when they reach each stop.

My Tours - Build Your Own Tour: Visitors can plan their visit even before they visit the Museum by using the Explorer on their own device to select the exhibits they wish to visit and using them to create their own tour.

Bookmarks: Visitors can bookmark exhibits and objects during their visit and later receive a list of the bookmarked items by e-mail, with links to more information about the items online..

Social networking links: Built-in e-mail capability and the ability to create posts in Facebook or Twitter enable visitors to mark their visit and share their visit to the Museum with friends and family.

3.3 Role Of Mobile Devices In The Pre- And Post-Museum Visit Continuum

While one must be in the museum to use its wayfinding capabilities, people can access the Explorer's exhibition content, the tours, and the floor plans no matter where they are. With vivid color images of all of the exhibition halls, and special exhibitions, and over 130 highlights from the collection, it is possible to enjoy a rich virtual tour of the museum at home or at school. Remember the children and the dinosaurs.

The My Tours functionality strengthens the pre-visit planning experience through the exploration of our collection and the creation of a personalized tour based on visitors' interests. With the launch of our new Web site, our Plan Your Visit tool helps people plan a day at the museum and will eventually send a record to their Explorer. Educators in particular are aware of and enthusiastic about how the Explorer can facilitate their use of the museum as a teaching resource. The museum has always provided teachers with in-depth Educator's Guides for special exhibitions and for the permanent exhibition halls visited most often by school groups. These guides articulate the learning goals of the exhibition, and offer a range of activities to do before, during, and after a school group visit. Now, teachers can use Explorer to create a custom itinerary of exhibits, preview it with students and group chaperones before the field trip, and review the trip later when they return to the classroom.

The Explorer's bookmarking feature lets people capture a link to an exhibit or collection item that they want to learn more about later, thus deepening the visitors' relationship with the Museum and strengthening the post-visit experience. Bookmarks created during a visit are e-mailed to the user, and linked to expanded information about the items online. We also foresee enhanced collecting experiences where visitors can use Explorer to take pictures and save exhibit content in a persistent, personal My Museum area on the Web site, where they can use online applications to create and share scrapbooks, custom tours, or lesson plans.

4. Measuring Success

The Explorer launched July 28, 2010 and in order in ensure the Explorer is fulfilling the Museum's objectives, the team conducted research with the initial users of the application. The survey found:

  • 80% of respondents rated their experience using the Explorer as good or excellent.
  • 87.5% said they would use the Explorer on future visits to the Museum.

Recently, educators enrolled in a professional development course extensively evaluated the Explorer for potential use with the half million school children who visit the Museum each year. The teachers provided feedback on how they might use Explorer; they also provided feedback for enhancements which will provide additional utility for teachers, suggestions on additional tours, and curriculum which would facilitate classroom visits.

Cite as:

Perry-Lube, L. and M. Lefkowitz, Explorer - Mobile Navigation and Interpretation at the American Museum of Natural History. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted