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Launching the MFA Multimedia Guide: Lessons Learned

Jenna Fleming, Phil Getchell and Jesse Kochis, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA


In this paper, we share lessons learned from the MFA's transition from audio guide to multimedia guide in the fall of 2010. Learnings include prototyping and evaluation; device and equipment selection; content production and content management; and operational considerations.

Keywords: mobile, iPod, audio guide, content, multimedia

1. Introduction

For the opening of the Museum's new Art of the Americas wing in November 2010, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, embarked upon a sweeping new program to transform the traditional audio guide into a new iPod Touch-based multimedia guide. This ambitious endeavor presented challenges as diverse as managing content production at a new scale and determining how to reliably charge 750 devices at a time.

The multimedia guide is one arm of a multi-year mobile strategy that focuses on four areas:

  • On site rental (audio/multimedia guide)
  • Online distribution of specialty tours (web site and iTunes U)
  • Mobile website
  • Targeted apps

In the phase of work described in this paper, the work was focused solely on the first bullet - providing an alternative to the longstanding audio guide that was available for rent in the Museum. The audio guide program is a revenue generator for the MFA. For many years, the Museum had been engaged with Antenna Audio to provide content and equipment for the program (although the MFA had already brought rental operations in house). With the move to the multimedia guide, the Museum's goals were to continue to provide professional interpretive content, to explore what multimedia capabilities could offer interpretation, and to gain more flexibility in being able to perform content updates. What resulted was not just a technical platform shift, but also a change in the way we conceptualized and managed guide production.

2. Planning and prototyping

The Museum received a grant for multimedia guide content development and testing from the John W. Henry Family Foundation; it enabled us to take on a project of this scale. The focus of the grant was on adding rich media coverage for objects that would be on display in the new Art of the Americas Wing. By the end of the project, we had expanded the guide to offer materials in seven languages (soon to be eight, with the addition of an ASL highlights tour) as well as a kids' guide that featured newly developed characters to guide young people through the Wing.

Because of the scope of content development and the challenges of moving to a new technical platform and operational framework, we made the decision early on to move certain features out of scope; for example, we knew that wayfinding tools could be high-value features of a multimedia guide, but adding them in a robust way in Phase One could cause our scope to become unmanageable. Likewise, social media engagement and game-like interactivity (though highly desirable) were back-burnered in favor of focusing on the development of the technical and content foundations at the core of the new program.

Multimedia content - what it offered, how visitors reacted, what was feasible to produce - was the focus of our planning efforts. Though we were concurrently researching equipment and devices, the most important area the team wanted to understand was how multimedia content would affect the visitor experience.

To answer these questions, our team (which was made up of representatives of New Media, Education, and Visitor Services) designed a visitor study in which we built a prototype iPod app and modeled seven stops using multimedia capabilities from video to touch-screen interactivity. Thirty visitors participated in hands-on, one-on-one user testing, walking through the galleries to stand in front of the seven objects we had selected and trying guide content while "thinking out loud" about what they were experiencing. An observer/facilitator was partnered with them to capture outcomes. Through this process, we learned a number of things about content, navigation and equipment, including these highlights:

  • Although we feared that visual guide content might be distracting or disruptive to the experience of looking at art, this was not the case. At least for the seven stops we designed, the content did not compete with the artwork. Most users were easily able to ration their attention to take cues from the guide without it interfering with close looking.
  • The introduction of more content per stop, and the necessity of launching media players for some content, meant that there was an increased navigation burden on users. Most users were able to navigate between stops and features easily, but some users were confused about how to get back to a keypad or home screen. More navigation introduced more opportunity for error and more need for strong, clear guidance.
  • Video was welcomed, but not if it added no value over audio. For example, a "talking head" video of a curator, when not intercut with images or footage to enrich the conversation, was not inherently more appealing than material presented as audio. Where video provided rich visual insights (such as artists at work, or behind-the-scenes views), it was perceived as very valuable.

These preliminary findings - gathered a year before the guide was to launch - informed the next twelve months of app and content development.

3. Content and features

The Phase One multimedia guide focused on providing 'enhanced' content only for the Art of the Americas Wing, but contained all prior audio content created for the entire Museum. With fifty-five new galleries to cover in the Wing, and two to three stops per gallery, the scope was too large to support any enhanced coverage elsewhere in the Museum, though this is planned for the future.

The multimedia guide launched with the following tours:

  • English - contained existing permanent collection stops as well as new Art of the Americas multimedia content; 120 new stops were added for the new Wing, each averaging 2-3 media features per stop.
  • Special exhibition tour - for a major exhibition of Chinese contemporary ink painting (Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Tradition), the tour provided video interviews with the artists, who were shown working in their studios. This was augmented by the curator's perspective on each artist's work and an exhibition welcome/overview video. Ten stops total, with two media features per stop, were created.
  • Foreign languages - permanent collection highlights for French, Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian; 50 new stops were added for the new Wing. We chose not to translate enhanced content for these tours, based on available resources. Each stop in these tours features only an audio introduction, for the time being.
  • Audio described tour - provided audio descriptions for all new Art of the Americas adult/English stops, in addition to existing AD stops for the permanent collection.
  • Kids' guide - almost fifty new stops, introduced by three lively characters, were offered for kids. We partnered with a producer from WGBH Kids, the local Boston public television station's children's programming department.

Fig 1: The three new characters developed for the kids' guideFig 1: The three new characters developed for the kids' guide

The main Museum tour (adult/English) benefited from the addition of multimedia content and features. To create consistency across the Wing and the Museum, we developed several recurring categories of features that would help guide content creation for our encyclopedic collection. These features included the following:

  • Introduction - main audio track with reference thumbnail image
  • Look Closer - reveals details of interest, such as inscriptions or brush work
  • Views and Voices - video clips of curators, artists, or others providing perspectives on the work or its context
  • MFA Connections - links to related objects or types of objects in the collection; suggestions for further exploration
  • In Context - additional narrative about the historical or artistic context in which the object was created
  • Artists' Choices - touch to change aspects of the artist's work. How does it alter the outcome?
  • How It's Made - images or video revealing methods or workmanship
  • Behind the Scenes - content illuminating what really happens at the MFA

Selected content is available on the MFA's YouTube channel ( or web site (

4. Production

As briefly noted in the Introduction, one of the goals for the New Media team was to increase production flexibility, allowing for greater in-house control to add materials to the guide. Managing content updates under the old system was difficult because devices needed to be sent away and manually loaded with content, making frequent updates undesirable if not impossible. With equipment management already coming in-house, a wireless network being installed in the new Wing, and new capabilities offered by the iPod devices, the opportunity to reinvent the production process surfaced.

The MFA took a hybrid approach to production; that is, we did not simply turn away from professional services companies and attempt to do everything ourselves. Rather, we did most of the video production in house, as well as the lion's share of the management, but we outsourced audio production, translation, and most other services. Key learnings here were:

  • Finding writers with prior experience writing for museum audio guides is still important. Writing for the experience of looking at art remains a specialty. However, writers with closely related skills could be trained to the task.
  • Many talented narrators (including foreign language narrators) can be found through professional connections or online clearinghouses, and many can provide their own recording and editing services, removing the need to book separate studio time. Narrators who offered a phone patch into the studio were the easiest to work with. Alternately, there are many sound studios that can assist with talent selection and manage the audio production side of the process. (For our Kids' guide, WGBH played this role.)
  • Retaining in-house project management/coordination, as well as in-house video work, requires dedicated resources. These roles existed at the MFA and were supplemented by contract support. For smaller museums without dedicated New Media roles of this kind, retaining in-house management of production is not recommended. Rather, seeking a creative agency or audio guide services company which can be a one-stop shop will still be the most effective strategy.
  • Local radio and television stations make terrific partners for projects of this kind. For example, for a Latin American artists tour launched after the Wing opened, we partnered with local public radio station WBUR. A well-known Latino radio host became our narrator, and recording and editing was done at the radio station. This is a path that the Museum will continue to pursue going forward.
Production Area Source
Project management MFA New Media
Scriptwriting Sandy Goldberg (formerly a senior Antenna writer) and two other contractors with museum writing experience; a WGBH Kids producer wrote the Kids' guide
Translation/transcription Outsourced translation service
Narration Voice talent sourced from word-of-mouth and online talent directories (such as Voice 1-2-3); narrators for the Kids' guide were identified and recorded by WGBH
Image research and rights MFA Education and Department of Rights and Licensing teams
Music and sound effects Web sound and music archives ( and others); special requests licensed through MFA Department of Rights and Licensing
Videography and video editing MFA New Media, supported by contract videographers
Audio recording (of narration) Most narrators recorded and edited final production-ready files; some narrators also had the ability to patch our team into their studio to provide voice direction; Kids' guide narrators were recorded at WGBH studios in Boston

Table 1: Production needs and sources for this project

5. Content management

With hundreds of individual pieces of media needing to be organized, uploaded, and maintained, the New Media team considered a solid content management system to be a critical success factor for this program. As stated before in this paper, one of the key goals of the project was to be able to flexibly update the guides going forward, ideally as needed.

Several options were considered:

  • A tour management system such as Toura, which provided excellent functionality for museum tour management, but used a profit-sharing model we were turning away from
  • The Nous Guide CMS, which was extremely robust, but carried a high price tag
  • TAP, the Indianapolis Museum of Art's open source mobile CMS project, which provided a toolkit we could develop, but it had only just been released.

Because we were lucky enough to have the internal resources to develop and support a solution based on TAP, we determined that this was the most promising path to take - a decision that has been validated as TAP and tourML continue to gain credibility among museum new media professionals.

The Museum worked with our interactive agency to build on TAP by creating a custom iPod app interface (largely for branding/identity reasons); adding a screen that listed all available tours; and, most importantly, adding a nightly update function so that devices could pull updates over the network. This latter point proved the most rewarding and the most challenging aspect of the new system.

We designed the updater function so that it had two components. The first was the app updater, which we referred to as the 'governor' for its role as a kind of code gatekeeper. The governor fetched application code updates from the server (bug fixes, new features, etc.) and had to be manually touched on every device. The second updating method handled the content. This function would check nightly to determine if new tours or tour content needed to be downloaded to the specific device it was running on.

With hundreds of devices trying to grab updates at one time over the wireless network, the initial content load was a lengthy and frustrating process, and out of that have come a number of planned enhancements to the system:

  • Better wireless math - we will add more wireless access points and better spread the device load across distribution and storage locations to avoid problems with devices losing wireless connections (and therefore missing updates). We are constrained in how many WAPs we can add because of our network type.
  • Taking turns - we will stagger device calls for updates throughout the night, and likely over a 48-hour period, based on unique device IDs. This will help to reduce the possibility of content bottlenecking.
  • More precise logic - we will alter the logic that checks for available updates so that it spends more time on accurate difference checking at the file level for each tour, thereby pulling down only for the precise media updates needed for each device, and no more.

6. Equipment

The first decision we made - to use the iPod Touch - was by no means the most technically complicated. In some ways, it was obvious; trends showed that many major museums were heading in this direction, a path that was already becoming clear at the Tate Handheld Conference of 2008 ( The iPod platform was proving itself an excellent way to deliver multimedia content and interactivity.

However, the decision to purchase consumer devices was not one that was taken lightly. How long would an iPod last in daily Museum use? Would theft rapidly decimate the fleet? Could museums absorb the cost of buying and maintaining devices? After a lengthy planning period, we committed to the iPod Touch, purchasing 750 devices with 32GB of storage space. To serve our level of audio guide demand in the past, we had needed to maintain a fleet of 450-500 devices. Purchasing 750 devices was intended to meet the expected increase in visitation expected with the opening of the new Wing, and would give us a small safety net if we had to replace some devices due to theft or loss.

System component Selected equipment
Device iPod Touch 3G 32GB
Case Nous Guide iPod case with USB charging adapter
Headphones Over-ear, single-ear headphone (no fabric parts); some older dual-ear headphones retained as fallback options; adapters purchased to make these older models compatible with Nous case
Lanyard Custom-printed 1.5" wide red lanyard with embroidered logo and headphone cable channel
Charging stations Homegrown solution. USB cables connecting devices to 7-port USB hub, which connects to a low-end MacMini (plugged into electrical outlet). Custom-built racks holding 24 or 36 iPods made and installed by the MFA carpentry department.

Table 2: Equipment selected for each component of the system

Once the decision to use the iPod was made, we began the search for a case. While we had hoped to approach a consumer case manufacturer with a custom 'museum-centric' iPod case design, a number of factors worked against that. One was our timeframe - there was no flexibility in the opening date for the Wing, and manufacturing takes time. The second was the fact that a new iPod model was about to be released, and it introduced unknowns about 'future-proofing' the design.

We then turned to Nous Guide, which made a sturdy and attractive case that was in use at sfMOMA by that time. The case featured a solution for what was described anecdotally as the probable Achilles heel of the iPod when it came to mass charging and deployment: the repeated docking and redocking needed to maintain power levels. The Nous case had a USB adapter integrated into the case that converted the potentially troublesome prongs to a sturdier USB connection, which could then be plugged into a power source. The Nous case was also sleek and well designed, an important aesthetic consideration for our museum.

When it came to charging the devices, we had some options, none of which were appealing from a price point of view. With the scale of our operation, we needed a solution that could charge a large number of devices at a time, but was affordable enough that we could purchase the necessary units. Both Nous and Antenna Audio offered options, and there were other multiple-device charging stations on the market (which would not work without taking off the case, something we were unwilling to do every time charging was needed). Instead, the Museum's electrical and carpentry departments came to the rescue. Information Technology and New Media designed a homegrown system in which USB cables from the devices were connected to a USB hub, which then passed through a MacMini that was connected to a power outlet. (As a side note, we found no iPod-compatible multiple device charging solution at the time that would allow us to go directly from USB cables to a power source without passing through something like a MacMini.) With a few months of use behind us, we are finding that power management is an issue, but one that can readily be fixed. Some cables and hubs are failing, and on occasion an electrical circuit is turned off for the night by accident, but we are finding solutions for these problems.

The last point of interest in the equipment discussion is headphones. We ended up purchasing a single-ear, over-ear headphone (similar to the one that Nous provides) that would allow visitors to hear a companion while listening to the guide. Many visitors love this headphone, but many others find it difficult or impossible to use. Those visitors generally have long hair, piercings high on the ear, small ears, or hearing difficulties. The visitors who have trouble with these headphones also tend to skew older. As a result, we retained a number of older dual-ear headphones from the old audio guide program, and they have been a useful addition to the fleet for people who cannot comfortably wear the single-ear model. An adapter is required to make these usable with the Nous case, which has a long and narrow headphone channel.

7. Accessibility

Upon choosing the iPod Touch as the multimedia device for our program, we assumed we would need to provide a separate device for blind users. However, Apple (as a result of a lawsuit) had released a set of accessibility enhancements that made it possible for us to offer the Touch to all our visitors. These enhancements included voiceover, which allowed the user to tap a navigation option once to have its name read aloud (for example, "camera" or "submit"). Touching the option twice in quick succession launched the app or loaded the screen requested.

Other accessibility features that we added include:

  • audio descriptions for all Art of the Americas works that were part of the English/main guide
  • text transcripts for each stop (which we provided by having interns tidy up and load production scripts into TAP).
  • We are now working on video captioning for the videos on the guide, as well as an ASL highlights tour to be released this summer.

8. Technical setup and support

It is worth noting that a significant portion of the time spent deploying the program was spent in the initial setup of devices. For a large operation such as ours, we caution not trying this at home unless significant resources can be marshaled to assemble and load devices. The following list perhaps gives a glimpse into the enormity of this task.

Rinse and repeat:

  • Product removed from packaging
  • Tracking information entered into our IT inventory database
  • OS software upgraded
  • App and provisioning profile installed
  • Guide content downloaded
  • Screen protector put on
  • Device put in case
  • Lanyard attached to case
  • Security warning sticker attached to case
  • Headphones threaded through lanyard
  • Security tag attached

It's no wonder that the IT back room where this multiple-person operation occurred came to be called the 'operating room,' a Frankensteinian nod of the head to the many interns and IT staff members who put together parts hoping that the program would ultimately come to life.

Fig 2: The 'operating room', where devices were assembled and prepared for deployment to the floorFig 2: The 'operating room', where devices were assembled and prepared for deployment to the floor

9. Security

With a consumer device replacing a proprietary one, we had obvious concerns about theft. In addition, we knew that 'forgetful' loss had always been a greater issue than theft – many visitors simply forgot they had the audio guide on them, and the beeping of a security alarm was a helpful reminder, rather than a feared warning. (The MFA has an existing security system but this offered a chance to re-assess.)

Though many other museums do it, we chose not to collect visitor licenses or credit cards in exchange for an iPod rental. Our reasoning was that with abnormally high visitor volume expected for the Wing, this added step in a sales transaction would quickly become unmanageable. In addition, we distribute guides from multiple desks/entrances, and visitors can enter or exit from those locations. There was a high possibility that a visitor could walk out without their license, or find themselves in the restaurant without their credit card, creating myriad headaches for the visitor services team.

For the time being, we are still using our existing security system, though we are interested in exploring the possibilities of RFID. We have also implemented weekly inventory counts of all devices before the doors open. And if we begin to perceive significant loss, we will take other measures to secure the devices. At the time of this paper, however, the rate of loss remains insignificant.

10. Sales and Distribution

Before the program launched, representatives of the Museum's front-line visitor services team as well as some guards were trained in the new application and equipment. We have found that training temporary and volunteer staff presents an ongoing challenge; some volunteers, in particular, lack confidence in their ability to understand and use the new device, and are hesitant to engage visitors in the new guide. This has had implications for staffing, as one information desk formerly staffed by volunteers has had to be augmented with Museum staff to troubleshoot and evangelize the guide.

Based on our experience so far, and based on the scale of the operation and amount of change this kind of platform shift represents, it seems likely that we will end up augmenting our front-line operations with additional staff hours - some because of the increased service demands of the program, and some because of the increased technical demands of the program. Our hope is that these increases are short-term methods to adapt to significant change, and that staffing levels will return to normal later in the first year of the program.

When the program launched, sales were average but returns were high; we quickly diagnosed and corrected a usability flaw and brought returns back to normal levels (which is to say, none or close to none). Pickup rates without a special exhibition running are now averaging double what they were before the program launched, for a comparable time period. The true test for us will be at the program's six-month birthday, with the opening of a major Dale Chihuly show. We look forward to reporting on those results later this year.

11. Conclusion

With a foundation in place, we are now looking toward building features that will showcase the capabilities of the platform: true interactivity, social media integration, wayfinding, and more. We will also be implementing usage analysis, which TAP provides (but which we did not implement for launch). Finally, we are keen to continue to contribute to TAP and to improve the resources available to the museum community as a whole.

With many museums exploring solutions, and new standards and best practices emerging, the path from audio to multimedia guide will perhaps be clearer for others than it was for us (though the journey was lively, to say the least). We hope the lessons shared in this case study - both positive and negative - will contribute to that understanding.

12. Acknowledgements

The MFA's multimedia guide was made possible through the generous support of the John W. Henry Family Foundation.

Sincere thanks to Rob Stein and Charlie Moad of IMA for their support of our team as we set up and deployed TAP at the MFA, and for their continued collaboration as we all grow it together.

13. References

From Audio Tours to iPhones: The Tate Handheld Conference 2008.

TAP at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Cite as:

Fleming, J. et al., Launching the MFA Multimedia Guide: Lessons Learned. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted