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Museums and the Web

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Exploring Heritage in Participatory Culture: The MuseumApp

Dick van Dijk, Waag Society, The Netherlands


The development of the MuseumApp in so-called 'Locative Labs' – a short, repetitive, interdisciplinary and intense collaboration, 2 days per week, for 6 weeks – took place in a unique meeting of curators, media professionals, concept developers and technical colleagues in the Amsterdam Museum and Waag Society. The joint development is based on experiment: rapid prototyping and testing of city tours; and on the spot content development. The Lab setting is one of the methods used by Waag Society to do creative research: explore interaction principles and demo innovative solutions in a real setting, with real stakeholders and real users.

The MuseumApp is a first step in creating a GPS-based, location aware heritage platform on which museums can create their own multimedia city tours and location-based games: connecting history and current events to locations in the city in an interactive and fun way, allowing the users to be the curators of their own experiences. They can also publish their own images, comments or suggestions related to the tour to other audiences on other (social) platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.

In the Labs the partners explore novel media practices as a new way to engage audiences with heritage. Connecting it to personal accounts and social network communities might help in getting more, new, different audiences meaningfully involved.

Keywords: locative media, social media, creative research, user experience, narrative

1. Introduction

People have always wanted to tell stories about their experiences and to connect to shared meaning and values. The advent of social media emphasized this even more. At the same time, our mobile phones are steadily turning into digital Swiss Army Knives full of informative, creative and social potential. To make sure the development of new tools and systems is "culture smart" and to explore how "mobile ready" cultural audiences are, the Amsterdam Museum, media lab Waag Society, and cultural funder DOEN developed the MuseumApp in close collaboration.

Strengthening a visitor's sense of place and context (the outside world, the city) in the museum experience – and therefore, connecting a living society with our formal heritage – means exploring the social dimensions of formal and informal heritage sites and creating new ways of engaging with an audience.

The development of the MuseumApp in so-called 'Locative Labs' – short, repetitive periods of interdisciplinary and intense collaboration; 2 days per week, for 6 weeks per Lab – took place in a unique meeting of curators, media professionals, concept developers and technical colleagues in the AHM and Waag Society. The joint development is based on experiment: rapid prototyping and testing of city tours; and on-the-spot content development. The Lab setting is one of the methods used by Waag Society for creative research: exploring interaction principles and demonstrating innovative solutions in a real setting, with real stakeholders and real users.

The core technology the Lab participants work with is a proven technical backbone (7scenes) publishing location-based content to iPhone and Android devices; it is developed further in close collaboration with the project partners.

2. Participatory culture

In her recent essay on 'the value of the amateur', art historian Seijdel (2010) writes about a new type of amateur. Innocent hobbyists have discarded paintbrush and chisel and, using new media, are creating new careers for themselves. According to a study from the Pew Internet & American Life project (Lenhart, Madden, Hitlin, 2005), more than one-half of all teens have created media content, and roughly one- third of teens who use the Internet have shared content they produced. In many cases, these teens are actively involved in what can be called participatory culture. Jenkins defines a participatory culture as a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one's creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. Though the quality of user-generated contributions is debated or explicitly regarded as negative (Keen, 2007), a participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least, they care what other people think about what they have created).

Not only teens and amateurs live in participatory cultures. Also, on the professional design side, a new approach to innovation has evolved, often referred to as Design Thinking. As CEO of IDEO Tom Kelley (2001) says:

Once you start drawing or making things, you open up new possibilities of discovery. Doodling, drawing, modeling. Sketch make things, and you're likely to encourage accidental discoveries. At the most fundamental level, what we're talking about is play, about exploring borders.

The main principles of Design Thinking are:

  • Human centered (versus product centered)
  • Built for learning (versus contemplating what you will be delivering)
  • Based on real time, interdisciplinary cooperation (versus 'cascading')

In the context of museums, Nancy Proctor defines participation as engaging in a conversation (Dekker, 2010). She considers the museum a rhizome – very much as is the Internet – accessible on multiple external platforms. The extended – dialogical – connections between museum and audience can enhance the nature and quality of information and collections. This is still a challenge, as social interaction often is regarded from a marketing rather than strategic perspective. On the same note, Simon (2010) stresses that audiences should be invited to actively engage as cultural participants, not passive consumers. Simon defines a participatory cultural institution as:

A place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content. Create means that visitors contribute their own ideas, objects, and creative expression to the institution and to each other. Share means that people discuss, take home, remix, and redistribute both what they see and what they make during their visit. Connect means that visitors socialize with other people – staff and visitors – who share their particular interests. Around content means that visitors' conversations and creations focus on the evidence, objects, and ideas most important to the institution in question.

The Web already provides sites and applications that reflect this urge for the manifestation of our individual and collective cultural memory in the form of social story networks for urban districts (for Amsterdam, see, for example, , Mobile technology platforms such as connect formal and informal cultural stories, and good practices within heritage are starting to appear.

In this context of involvement, interdisciplinarity and openness, this paper describes the case of the MuseumApp, a new mobile tool for heritage institutions. The paper explores:

  • the working method of creative, periodic Labs in which multidisciplinary teams work side by side; and
  • the end result: the development of a tool that's flexible and participatory, offering audiences tools to contribute from their own experience, using places as central (story) objects.

3. Outside in the city

Plate (2006) states that in the 20th century the western world has seen the rise of the themed walking route as a cultural product offered to tourists for consumption, enabling them to experience the urban (and rural) landscape as they purchase the tour. These walks are best understood in the context of re-establishing our relationship to the past through the experience of place. And the act of walking as a first step in 'interacting' with the environment. Through the advent of locative media, this experience can be further enhanced. The integration of low-cost pervasive and personal technology in the form of mobile devices and augmented reality (such as into everyday life has already changed our expectations about how to perceive the world around us and how to navigate it through multiple layers of meaning. People already leave traces of their emotional or intellectual experience as virtual attachments to any location (El Ali, Nack, Hardman, 2010), as also is advocated by social platforms, such as Foursquare (, Facebook (, Hyves (, Twitter ( or Flickr (

As experiencing a city is an infinitely personal and dynamic process, the cultural walk (rather than the historical walk) can be considered a personal mapping of the city. Left to our own devices we all notice different things, meet different people, etc. But the identity of the city is also dynamic as we experience it over and over again (Huyssen, 2003). By marking physical spots in the urban landscape as the places where (recent) formative historic events happened, museums memorialize explicitly the city's identity – a practice which could and should be dynamic and flow the way the city's identity is constantly evolving, challenged and adjusted. But often museum practice does not allow on-the-fly or bottom-up adjustments, due to technical or logistic restrictions that prevent published tours from being updated and altered easily.

Experiencing the city's identity – feeling where 'it' happened, turning facts into experiences – can help in understanding the diversity of this complex identity. Although the city shows "a past that is not our own, we can relate to it as if it was our own past. This allows for the anchoring of one's self in the social past and its urban spaces and so to acquire a sense of identity, continuity and belonging" (Plate, 2006). Simon (2010) refers to this process as the idea that visitors construct their own meaning from cultural experiences. And by our engaging in a dialogue – by giving back our immediate reflections to the creators of the tour – the authors start to understand our take on things, the relevance of the spot to our current life, our concerns.

4. Partners

The Amsterdam Museum

The Amsterdam Museum will be the launching customer of the MuseumApp, after which the platform will be open to all cultural organizations. The Amsterdam Museum App will feature four interactive routes exploring the fundamental aspects of the city of Amsterdam: the creative, the entrepreneurial, the tolerant and the civic agency; connecting the outside experience closely to the narrative of the new permanent indoor exhibition Amsterdam DNA (opening May 2011).

The Amsterdam Museum reflects the tolerance, enterprising spirit and individuality of the city. The objective of the Amsterdam Museum in this project is to involve a wider audience in the history of Amsterdam. The museum wants to explore how to relate to new audiences and find new ways to continue the conversation. In this context, the relationship between the history of Amsterdam and the quotidian world of the audience is interesting. Some assumptions underlying the project are the idea that stories about your neighborhood strengthen your connection to it, and the idea that lifting the discontinuity between the indoors of the exhibition and the outdoors of the museum (often the same, or at least related narratively) can help in making the stories accessible and relatable.

The museum expects that when people come into contact with heritage in their daily environment, history will speak to the imagination and give the locations more meaning. From the central idea 'I make history', the Amsterdam Museum, the city of Amsterdam and other interested parties feel that they themselves help to build (the history of) Amsterdam and our future heritage. In addition to its goal of making its large historic collection and related stories available to inhabitants of Amsterdam and/or visiting tourists, the museum understands itself as the preserver of the 'now' as the basis for the history of the future. The Amsterdam Museum has ample experience in connecting to diverse audiences on-site and through Web-based applications and is one of the fore-runners in the heritage domain in building expertise on location-based services. In its projects, such as 'A'dam Man&Mode' and 'Buurtwinkels', it already creates space for audience contributions. The museum is one of the first to make its collection freely available online.

Waag Society

The Waag Society is an Amsterdam-based Media Lab that develops technology for social Innovation. The foundation was established in 1994 and continues to empower people to both express themselves and connect to other people. It works in the domains of Culture, Health Care, Education, Sustainability and the Public Domain. One of the key subjects that Waag Society has researched is the use of locations, and more recently, modern mobile phones, both in education and cultural heritage. This research began in 2001 with Amsterdam Realtime, with users drawing a real-time map of Amsterdam by tracing their routes with a GPS. Amsterdam Realtime was a collaboration with artist Esther Polak and sparked several location-based projects. A number of projects are described in the paper "Out there: connecting people, places and stories" (Van Dijk, Kerstens, Kresin. 2009).

5. The MuseumApp

As many museums are looking into the possibility of creating outdoor tours, the Amsterdam Museum and Waag Society decided to explore the possibilities of creating one shared app for museum tours, the MuseumApp. The underlying ambition is to make sure the development of such new tools and systems is 'culture smart' and in balance with how 'mobile ready' cultural audiences are.

The MuseumApp has two intended audiences: end users (the cultural audience) and museum professionals. The app should be easy to use for the end-user, offer one clear market place to encounter the different cultural tours and content offerings from different museums, but also offer ease-of-use in content creation and facilitation for the museum professional (who is not necessarily an expert on media). Cultural funder DOEN, who contributed financially to the product, added the target that participating should be easy for museums and at reasonable cost.

The MuseumApp can be considered a white-label application – a term mainly used in the financial sector where the provider of the service purchases a fully supported product from another source, then applies its own brand and identity to it, and sells it as its own product – in which museums can create and publish their own offerings and add elements of their own (visual) identity, and then communicate through their own channels, but also through the joint MuseumApp channels. Through using an existing platform and opening it up to a large user audience, the license fees can remain modest.

The MuseumApp builds on the existing software platform 7scenes. This makes it stable and offers advantages of earlier investment payoff and future developments of the platform. 7scenes uses GPS-based interaction and offers a Web-authoring tool for heritage professionals, and mobile interface for the end-users. These authoring tools make production more flexible, and production costs can be lower. The platform currently supports iPhone and Android smartphones – phones steadily growing in popularity (Techcrunch, 2010). The platform has been developed and used by Waag Society since 2001.

Content- and functionality-wise the application creates (new) connections between the collection of the museum and the experience of the city, with a focus more intent on presenting the diversity of the city's identity than a nostalgic gaze, and plenty of possibilities to create interactions between application and end-users. Based on the visitor types presented by Falck (2009), the project partners focus most on the explorers – who want to experience new things, from interesting angles – and the facilitators – the more social visitors.

The MuseumApp as-is offers participants content (media files: text, image, video or audio), tasks and queries to fulfill, the opportunity to dialogue by adding notes to a location or uploading a photo, and the opportunity to share experiences through social media. The traditional passive approach is abandoned, and the creative ability of the public is actively targeted in the city tours.

6. Process

The Locative Labs

The cooperation between partners Amsterdam Museum and the Waag Society is cast in so-called Labs. These are short, temporary periods when curators, educators, and librarians of Amsterdam Museum, in close collaboration with technical and creative professionals of the Waag Society, explore new interaction strategies in relation to heritage. This method originated from Waag Society's Creative Research approach. The format provides the heritage professionals with direct knowledge, experience, and possibilities to unlock innovative content, and the technical professionals with the skills and limitations of an audience. The end-users are actively involved in the development process by integrating public pilots, in which new forms of interaction and access are tested. This ensures that results are sustainable and in keeping with the needs of the users. The experiences of the labs are shared publicly via the blog

In Labs the participants explored the possibilities of locative media focusing on

  • story-telling techniques
  • participatory elements, including game mechanics
  • the use of social media
  • the logistics of distribution of the devices for combined indoor and outdoor interaction

The Amsterdam Museum and Waag Society worked together in the first Lab from August – October 2010 to create the first example tours through mapping stories on to the material city, in such a way that the tour reveals the relevance of the past, without being oblivious to the presence and the subjectivity of the user(s), eliciting personal reflection on certain locations, and creating awareness of other users/wanderers.

A large number of the Lab participants were prototyping on the fly, researching content, testing and adjusting storylines, and exploring the route themselves. The 7scenes platform was used to quickly map out certain routes in the city. Locations were chosen based on what they contribute to the understanding of the city's identity, looking for possibilities to turn facts into experiences, using elements of quotidian life as it was lived, and its connections to current life, choosing items of story, chronology and convenience to construct a pleasant walk.

As a result, end-users were offered a one-and-a-half-hour route on the theme of tolerance through diverse neighborhoods, listening to stories from two fictional reporters covering recent and historic events, mixed with existing media items (e.g. statements of the (interim) mayor). While walking, they were prompted, amongst other things, to explicitly think of their personal stands on freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and were asked to photograph (with their mobile phone) what struck them in historic places that are now common places of everyday life, and to upload those photos and/or notes to the content database.

Important learning experiences for the lab participants were

  • to get users 'out' of the mobile interface and engaged with what is around them by pointing out where to look actively (and keep doing that) in audio and activities;
  • to keep users in an active role through small tasks and assignments so that participation feels natural;
  • to put opinions solicited from users in a relevant context (giving feedback on the spot);
  • to remember the importance of audio for the overall experience;
  • tp provide clear and specific guidance (where to go next, what to do now) even though people ask to self-direct their route;
  • to fit the interaction offered to the content theme (e.g. challenging tasks for entrepreneurship, creative assignments in a creativity tour)
  • to remember that giving users the ability to talk back can result in emotional responses (that you need to address in return);
  • to note that the importance of user generated content lies in the fact that it creates engagement, stimulates creativity and brings new questions and impulses for the museum, broadening the debate from just artistic value. The dialogue needs to be taken seriously and incorporated in the routines of the museum.

Public events

Within the Labs the end-users take a central place. As part of the first Lab, two small-scale user tests were held on the first pilot route on the theme of Tolerance (eight external users). Tolerance, in addition to the themes of creativity, entrepreneurship and citizenship, is part of the exhibition Amsterdam DNA that the Amsterdam Museum will present in May 2011. The four themes are the core of the city's identity and will be the basis for four routes that people walk before or after a visit to the museum. The Tolerance tour was the first to be tested with external users. At the end of the second Lab this will be repeated in the context of entrepreneurship, evaluating new-found solutions and newly created functionality.

The participants of the user tests were enthusiastic. Many people liked to explore Amsterdam in a new way. They thought it was fun to use a GPS, though the GPS inaccuracy offered some difficulties. They enjoyed seeing videos and pictures of how places looked in earlier times. Most users were enthusiastic about the element of play in the tour. It was a fun experience for them to make a picture or do challenging tasks. These were handled very creatively. Also, earning points for answering a question or making a statement was considered fun.

However, according to users the feedback on actions should be organized more conscientiously in advance of and during the tasks (e.g. explain more clearly when and why you can earn points, what happens to the answers and captured pictures).

At the Museum conference in Enschede where the app first was presented to professionals in the heritage sector, the responses were diverse and largely positive. The staff of museums on Museum Congress found it an interesting, innovative and fun way to come into contact with cultural heritage. In particular, the accessibility of the platform was appreciated. There were many questions about how the MuseumApp will be made available to the entire sector.

After feedback from users and experts, the functionality of the platform was improved, and is being explored further in the second Lab. The second Lab runs through January and February 2011, and builds on the work of the first Lab, using newly build functionalities that were specified as requirements for the final product, and incorporating more social media tactics. To ensure the heritage sector is able to participate in the MuseumApp, the project partners will be organizing workshops with and for heritage institutions.

7. Further challenges

Connecting indoor and outdoor

Outdoor interaction has been the focus of media professionals and the heritage sector for a number of years now. The question of connecting indoor and outdoor experiences still needs to be addressed in more detail, though, both in terms of consistency of the experience and in hardware and logistics. This will be explored for future uptake – by the project partners, together with providers of audio and audio-visual interpretation to museums.

Future heritage

The underlying idea of the MuseumApp is to establish a participatory link between the people and the collection in a way that the people see themselves and their experiences as part of history rather than mere observers. Making use of social media technologies, such as Twitter, Flickr, or Facebook, the museum needs to strategize incorporating user-generated information into their archival context – collecting and presenting ,for example, tweed discussions about the development of culture under the influence of the current financial crisis, or (earlier) blog posts about events such as the assassination of Theo van Gogh.

With the Locative Labs, the museum deepens its understanding of how to evaluate current social discourse to distill relevant historic artifacts. The problem is, in the longer term, how relevant material can be detected, integrated, but most important, presented back to the public, so that the feeling of social relevance within the current historic context can be better established.

Open data and reciprocity

To properly open up and link data to contextual information (linking 'facts', 'stories', 'memory' and 'cultural heritage' from all types of sources), we need to look at the openness of systems and procedures. Where once the responsibility of mediating our relationship to the past rested almost entirely with the school, family, museum and monument, the responsibility of these institutions has now shifted over into the public domain and been taken over by the media and tourist industry. Waag Society has started to explore an open data platform based on proven standards and open innovation principles. Practically, this means that it is developed with proven open source tools, and it is based on internationally recognized principles for the creation of open data structure. The use of such an open data platform will be explored in future projects with media, heritage and tourism experts and audiences.

8. Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank the staff of the Amsterdam Museum for the constructive work in the labs, and Karlijn Spoor and Frank Nack for their input on the text.

9. References

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Amsterdam Museum (2011).

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El Ali, A., F. Nack and L. Hardman (2010). "Understanding contextual factors in location-aware multimedia messaging". In Proceedings of the 12th international conference on Multimodal Interfaces, 2010, Beijing, China.

Falk, J. (2009). Identity and the museum visitor experience. Left Coast Print Inc.

Huyssen, A. (2003). Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Lenhart, Madden, Hitlin (2005). Teens and technology. Pew Internet & American Life project.

Keen, A. (2007). The Cult of the Amateur. New York: Crown Business.

Kelley, T. (2001). The Art of Innovation. New York: Crown Business.

MuseumApp (2011).

Plate, L. (2006). "Walking in Virgina Woolf's Footsteps: Performing Cultural Memory." In European Journal of Cultural Studies 9. 101-109.

Seijdel, J. (2010). De waarde van de amateur. Amsterdam: Fonds BKVB.

Simon, N. (2010). The Participatory Museum. Museum 2.0 blog

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Techcrunch (2010). comScore: Android Continues To Gain Smartphone Market Share.

Van Dijk, D., K. Kerstens and F. Kresin (2009). "Out there: connecting people, places and stories". In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web, Selected papers from Museums and the Web 2009. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Available:

Waag Society (2011).

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Cite as:

Van Dijk, D., Exploring Heritage in Participatory Culture: The MuseumApp. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted