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Mobile devices for orientation and way finding: the case of the British Museum multimedia guide

Silvia Filippini-Fantoni, Cogapp; Sarah McDaid, LSBU; and Matthew Cock, British Museum, United Kingdom


When the first handheld devices became commercially available, museums were particularly excited about the opportunities that these could offer particularly in terms of visitors' orientation and way finding. The presence of a touch screen, in fact, supports the use of interactive maps, which, alone or in combination with location aware technologies can help visitors understand where they are and decide where to go.

More than 10 years have now passed since the implementation of the first handheld guide and, unfortunately, many museums are still struggling to develop and implement effective way finding solutions on mobile platforms. Location aware technologies have proven to be expensive and problematic to install and maintain, while interactive maps, particularly of complex sites can be challenging for people to use and interpret on small screens.

Building on the experience of other institutions such as Tate, the Met and the Louvre, the British Museum has recently launched a multimedia guide in 11 languages that supports way finding and orientation without relying on location aware technology.

In this paper, we will present in details the various way finding solutions that were developed for the guide, as well as the results of research and evaluations that were carried out on these applications during and after the launch. Through our experience, we hope to provide a reference for other medium and large size museums, which are grappling with similar issues.

Keywords: Orientation, Way finding, interactive maps, multimedia guide, handheld, guided tours

1. Introduction

Since the turn of the century, a variety of multimedia guides have been piloted or adopted by a range of museum worldwide. This is mainly due to the great potential that such solutions offer to museums and their visitors. Advantages include variety of interpretation, engagement of visitors, outreach to new audiences, support for orientation, and flexibility with content distribution (Filippini Fantoni and Bowen, 2008). Hoping to capitalizing on such benefits, the British Museum has undertaken in 2009 a one year project for the development of its first multimedia guide, whose aim was to completely replace its audio offerings both for its temporary exhibitions and permanent collections.

2. The British Museum Multimedia Guide

The guide, which launched in December 2009, is sponsored by Korean Air and will be distributed in the museum until December 2014. It is available in 11 languages (English, Korean, Arabic, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish and British Sign Language) and provides audio descriptions, filmed interviews with curators and conservators, 360 degree views of selected objects and contextual material in the form of photographs and music for over 230 objects in the collection. Version for families and visually impaired visitors are also available.

This content is made accessible on the guide in multiple ways to accommodate the needs and preferences of different visitors. Firstly, visitors can choose to use the virtual keypad, which allows them to type in the number of selected works on display to play relevant commentaries (see figure 1a).

Secondly, an interactive map of the museum's three floors is available for those who feel more comfortable with spatial navigation. By using the zooming and scrolling functionalities and/or inputting the room number into the keypad, the map can be centered on a selected location, showing the objects that are featured on the guide and allowing easy access to the relevant commentaries (see figure 1b).

Finally, for visitors who need more guidance and support, the guide provides a choice of seven guided tours with audio-visual directions between objects, combining audio instructions, with images of landmarks and the path highlighted on the map (1c).

Figure 1: Screenshots of the guide's virtual keypad (1a), zoomed in interactive map with highlighted the location of the objects featured on the guide (1b), and an example of audiovisual directions in the Ancient Egypt guided tour (1c).Figure 1: Screenshots of the guide's virtual keypad (1a), zoomed in interactive map with highlighted the location of the objects featured on the guide (1b), and an example of audiovisual directions in the Ancient Egypt guided tour (1c).

While guided tours and the interactive map provide alternative ways to access content to visitors with different needs, they also offer an incredible support for way finding and orientation in the museum. An application called the "Museum Navigator" has been added after the launch to further help visitors find their way around the intricate galleries.

Using the same approach that was adopted for the guided tours, this application provides audio-visual descriptions of the location of selected objects, galleries and facilities (e.g. restrooms, lifts, stairs, cloakroom), without relying on location-aware technology (Figure 2). The descriptions provided are general and include an indication of the floor, level, room number, orientation (North, South, East or West side of the museum), and the proximity to one or more landmarks in the museum (stairs, lifts, ticket desk, entrance, multimedia guide distribution desk, etc.). Without knowing where people are, these descriptions have proven to be fundamental to allow visitors to get a sense of where objects or galleries they are interested in are located and to help them find their way there.

Figure 2: Screenshots of the guide's Museum Navigator's functionalities (2a), including audio-visual directions for finding popular objects (2b) and facilities (2c)

3. The development of the way finding and orientation features: an iterative process

The need to support way finding and orientation was one of the main reason behind the British Museum's decision to adopt a touch screen device. This is because finding your way around the building can be particularly challenging for visitors. The museum is, in fact, organized on three different floors, which are distributed over multiple levels that can be reached only from certain areas of the building. Furthermore, visitors are often confused by the fact that objects are not necessarily exhibited in geographical or chronological order. Also, the high number of objects on display in some of the cases makes it very difficult for visitors to find artworks of interest or even identify those that have a commentary attached to them.

Given the challenges presented by such a complex architecture and display, which has changed and grown organically over time, it was very important for the museum to be able to develop a guide that would not only provide commentaries about key objects but that would also and especially help visitors find these objects as well as their way around the building.

In order to provide such support, we decided to adopt an iterative process, which allowed us to progressively refine the way finding solutions based on the results of a series of evaluation and user tests that were carried out throughout the project. A detailed description of the different phases of such a process is provided in the sections below.

3.1 The initial steps: research, choice of a provider and phase I

When considering the best possible way to support way finding and orientation in the museum, we looked into various location aware technologies, such as Wifi, RFID, Bluetooth, IR, etc. However, after exploring the available options, we came to the inevitable conclusion that we could not adopt any of the existing solutions due to reliability issues, budget, maintenance and time constraints. This meant that we had to opt for a way finding and orientation approach that could be manually controlled by the user via an interactive map and/or a series of guided tours.

Amongst the companies that responded to the tender, Antenna Audio was the only one that, at the time, had already developed a fully functional Content Assembly Tool (CAT) and device (XPvision), which supported both interactive maps and guided tours and which they had already used in similar large scale installations such as Tate and the Louvre Museum. However, the solutions offered by Antenna's CMS were not a complete fit with our requirements and needed to be adapted accordingly.

For example, when it came to developing the guided tours, we decided not to opt for the feature available on Antenna's CAT, which used the interactive map to highlight the path to follow. Based on negative feedback from the Louvre Museum, which had adopted this approach on their guide, we chose instead to provide audio-visual directions combining maps, images and audio. As highlighted by the Metfinder project evaluation results in 2006 (Metfinder, 2006), this approach is the most effective in guiding visitors around the galleries, because the audio information is reinforced by maps highlighting the path that the visitors must follow and/or by images of specific landmarks that the visitor will encounter on the way.

To avoid some of the problems that visitors experienced using the guided tours at the Louvre Museum, we also made sure that objects included in the tours were in close proximity to each other and followed a logical and progressive path, thus avoiding long and complicated instructions that would be difficult for users to follow and memorize. In order to reduce the length of the directions, we also decided to break them down into small subsections. Each subsection was associated with a specific architectural landmark either highlighted on the map or as a photo on the screen.

The directions, which were written by museum staff, were first recorded in house using a non-professional microphone. They were then combined with the relevant images and tested with users before being finalized and translated into all languages (with the exception of British sign language).

The interactive map functionality supported by Antenna's CAT, also needed some fine-tuning. We knew from previous experiences at the Louvre and Tate, in fact, that visitors had problems not only understanding on which floor they were, but also navigating the map on such a small screen using the existing zooming and scrolling buttons. As a way to facilitate usage of the map, we thought it would be useful to allow visitors to input the number of the room they were in directly into the keypad, so that the map could position itself automatically on the correct location. A small prototype covering a few rooms was created to test the effectiveness of such an approach, with positive results. Unfortunately however, this feature was not supported by Antenna's CAT at the time and had to be developed from scratch. This meant that this application could not be ready at launch since Antenna needed a few months for its implementation.

3.2 The post-launch evaluation

In January 2010, immediately after the launch, we carried out an evaluation of the existing guide. The evaluation, which included a quantitative study in the form of a self-administered questionnaire and qualitative usability tests with a small group of participants, provided interesting feedback regarding, among others, the orientation and way finding features of the guide.

3.2.1 The questionnaire

From the results of the questionnaire it could be seen that participants were in general very satisfied with the guide, which they used for an average of two and a half hours (153mins. out of 187mins. on average spent in the gallery).

Of the features available on the multimedia guide the most popular were the guided tours with a total of 293 of the 425 respondents (68.9%) taking at least one of the tours. At the time of the study, the multimedia guide contained three guided tours: the Parthenon sculptures tour; the Korean Gallery tour and the Ancient Egypt tour, which proved to be the most popular.

In addition to the tours, visitors could choose to orient themselves and find objects in the museum using the map and/or by entering the appropriate stop number via the keypad. When asked 69.7% of respondents confirmed that they had used the keypad to find information on objects while 40.5% had used the interactive map. It should be noted that these people may have taken one or more guided tours as well.

Table I shows the breakdown of these numbers in terms of those who used both the keypad and the interactive map and those that used just either the keypad or the interactive map. From this it can be seen that using the map on its own to find objects was only chosen by a small number of people (7%) compared to those who used only the keypad (37%).

  No. using
the feature
% MMG users
using the feature
Keypad only 155 37
Both keypad and interactive map 141 33
Interactive map only 31 7

Table 1: Percentage of guide users choosing to use the keypad and/or map to find objects

The main question that this raised 'was why such a small number of people were using the map?' By looking at the difficulties reported regarding orientation and way finding (Table 2), it could be seen that the visitors who used the interactive map were having difficulty both using the zoom in and out buttons or the scrolling functionality (26%) and orientating themselves around the museum (22%). This confirmed our initial intuition that the interactive map functionality was too complex for the visitors to use.

  No. using the
No. reporting
% MMG users
using the feature
I found it difficult to use the interactive map (e.g. scrolling, zooming in and out, selecting objects) 172 44 26
I found it difficult to orientate myself using the interactive map 172 37 22

Table 2: Percentage of guide users reporting difficulties when using the interactive map or guided tours

3.2.2 The usability testing

While the questionnaire showed the general problem areas, related to the use of the map and guided tours, the usability testing was able to pinpoint and further expand on the nature of these difficulties.

A total of nine adults participated in the usability study. The group consisted of five females and four males with ages ranging from 19 to 57.

Participants were observed using the multimedia guide to take the Ancient Egypt tour and performing a number of specific tasks. These included: listening to the welcome message; identifying the purpose of icons and the ways in which the guide could be used; and finding objects and particular rooms using the keypad and interactive map. The participants were asked to indicate which mode of interaction they would choose to use first if they were in the museum on their own. On completion of each task, participants were probed via a semi-structured interview in order to ascertain their feelings regarding the task and to clarify any unexpected actions and/or problems that they were observed having. Test sessions lasted between 60 and 90 minutes.

The user tests generally supported the findings and challenges identified by the survey. The guided tour was the most popular first choice for way finding with two-thirds of the nine participants choosing this option and the remainder saying that they would opt to use the interactive map. Tellingly, at the end of the test eight out of the nine participants named the guided tour as the feature of the multimedia guide that they preferred. (The ninth participant mentioned using the keypad as the best option.) Suggesting that while an interactive map was an attractive feature for participants to interact with, difficulties encountered while using it for orientation made it a less than satisfactory experience in its original form. The guided tours

The guided tour was seen as the easiest and most instructional option, and a good way to get around the museum without getting lost. In particular, the combination of images, landmarks and directions were described as very useful. It was observed also that less technology assured participants gained confidence in using the multimedia guide whilst following the tour.

The Ancient Egypt tour also used a number of animated room maps to help identify the location of particular objects. Interestingly, these were cited by some users as one of the best aspects of the guided tours and sometimes easier than the audio directions for orientating themselves and finding an object in the rooms. This suggested that in themselves interactive maps could be both a usable and an effective route finding tool.

However, the guided tour format was not without its own challenges. One of the main concerns identified by users was the way that objects were displayed on the screen. Often the size of an object was not clearly indicated from the image or it could not be distinguished from similar objects. In a number of case participants expected objects to be much bigger than they really were and this hindered their ability to find the item in the gallery.

Furthermore, many participants did not look at the multimedia guide screen whilst they were following the audio directions but rather allowed the device to hang down around their necks. Consequently, when instructed to look at a particular way finding object or landmark on the screen it had disappeared by the time they picked up the multimedia guide. The interactive map

The interactive map was an undeniably attractive mode of interaction for some test participants with one in three adults choosing to use the interactive map in order to find a particular room first. Unfortunately, two were unable to orientate themselves in the museum and after some unsuccessful attempts it was suggested that they take the guided tour first. Their confidence in using the guide, somewhat knocked by their initial experience, was rebuilt during the guided tour.

Overall the interactive maps were considered very useful for local orientation, for example, when finding an object with a commentary in the current room. In fact, participants preferred using the map to find local objects and even when specifically asked to identify an object from its 'stop icon' label they would consult the interactive map instead. One user commented that it was easier to use the interactive map than the museum labels to find an object with a commentary. Some participants also used the position of the highlighted objects in a room to orientate themselves on the interactive map. However, while useful at the room level, the interactive map was not thought as practical for orientating oneself in the museum as a whole.

When asked what was the worst part of the guide 80% of the participants' answers featured some facet of the map. The usability study identified the following aspects of the device as causing difficulty or confusion:

1) Representation of the museum layout

The museum is made up of three floors (lower, ground and upper) each of which has a number of levels (two, four and three respectively). The multi-level representation of the floors and levels was difficult for them both to understand and use on the small screen and as expected most people found it hard to build up a mental model of the layout of the museum.

In particular, many participants had difficulty recognizing which floor of the map they were on and working out how to changing floors. This was no doubt one of the reasons why they found it difficult to orientate themselves within the museum using the map.

2) Zooming in and out of the map

Two ways exist to enlarge the interactive map to its highest magnification, either by repeatedly clicking on the general map area or using the 'zoom in' icon at the bottom of the map. Many participants only used the former method and consequently didn't know how to zoom back out (these icons were not highlighted in the welcome message). Often magnifying the map was a side effect of touching the screen rather than an active desire to zoom into the map.

Even participants who recognized and understood the use of the zoom icons felt that the map was either zoomed in to too high a magnification, making it difficult to work out where you were in relation to the adjacent rooms, or it was zoomed out too far (to the three floor map) making the representation of the floors too small to be of any use. Most of the participants, who commented on it, thought also that the zoom in and out facility was too fast and jumped from too small a representation to one that was too big in so few stages. Some, who had not understood how to zoom in and out, also expected the magnification to be reset when they reselected the interactive map icon but the display always returned to the last magnification value.

3) Scrolling around the map

Scrolling around a floor of the museum on the interactive map was achieved using small arrows at the sides and corners of the map. However, because the interactive map interface was depicted in a greyscale, some participants did not notice the scrolling arrows on the map as they were very small and not clearly differentiated from the background color. This is thought to have contributed also to the idea that some participants had that they could move around the maps by touching the screen and dragging.

4) Stop number text

As with the arrow icons, used to scrolling around the interactive map, a number of people commented that they couldn't see the object numbers easily on the map and others didn't notice any of the numbers at all until they were pointed out to them.

5) Expectations of the keypad function

At the time of the user test entering a number into the keypad would provide information on an object. This number referred to the stop number displayed next to a selection of items around the museum. It became apparent when participants were asked to find a particular room that they expected to be able to enter a room number and be provided with instruction on how to get there from their current location. This feature was already intended to be part of the next phase of the multimedia guide and was duly implemented, together with other recommendations that came out of the evaluation.

3.3 Post-launch amendments

The evaluation results were particularly helpful, as they confirmed that some of the choices that we had made such as the use of audio-visual directions in the guided tours were particularly successful with visitors. They also confirmed the need to facilitate the use of the map by allowing people to key in the room number and have the map focus on the gallery in question. This was a feature that we knew would be useful from the start but which we could not implement at launch due to time constraints.

The evaluation also helped to pinpoint the need for other important adjustments that, once implemented, helped to enhance the usability of the guide in general and the way finding aspects in particular. Below is a detailed description of the main improvements that were implemented.

In order to reduce short-term memory overload it was suggested that information be presented in smaller amounts i.e. chunked. These should be small enough to remember and replayed easily. This suggestion was taken into account particularly when recording audio-visual direction for four additional guided tours that, given the success of the first three, were added to the guide. They were also useful with respect to the welcome message and instructions on how to use the guide, which, as a result, were also simplified.

Generally, and within the interactive maps in particular, we introduced style and color to distinguish icons, buttons, different areas of the map etc., so that these elements could be clearly differentiated and understood by the viewer (see Figure 3).

In the interactive map, the number of steps used to move from the lowest to the highest degree of magnification was reviewed so that at each level the information on the map was readable and useful for the visitors (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Screenshots of the interactive map's different zooming levels (a, b, c and d). The images also show the use of color to distinguish the different areas of the museum.Figure 3: Screenshots of the interactive map's different zooming levels (a, b, c and d). The images also show the use of color to distinguish the different areas of the museum.

Animation and object images in some areas were re-edited so that objects were easily distinguishable from each other and images stayed on the screen for a sufficient period so that that users could register them. This last change was applied equally to the animations in the welcome message, how to use the guide section and during the guided tours.

The general museum signage and system of room numbering had at times caused some confusion for the test participants when both following the guided tours and using the maps. As many of the access and thoroughfare elements in the museum for example stairs, lifts, room entrances etc. are already labeled with a cardinal point prefix (and used in the tour directions) the north, south, east and west labeling of the museum was emphasized and used consistently throughout the directional instructions. Therefore wherever appropriate in orientation and way finding advice these elements were reinforced and highlighted.

Another important recommendation to emerge from the evaluation was the need to find a way to help first time museum visitors build a simple mental model of the layout of the museum, and the location of the most important work, galleries and facilities. Given the success of the audio visual-directions in the guided tours, we decided to use the same approach to develop the museum Navigator, which as described in section 2 of this paper, provides a general orientation for the museum (see Figure 4) as well as audiovisual descriptions of the location of selected objects, galleries and facilities (e.g. restrooms, lifts, stairs, cloakroom), without relying on location-aware technology.

Figure 4: Screenshots of the guide's Navigator providing tips for general orientation in the museum (a and b)Figure 4: Screenshots of the guide's Navigator providing tips for general orientation in the museum (a and b)

3.4 Testing the changes before implementation

Given the amount of changes to the guide and the investment that these required in terms of time and budget, before implementing them in all languages, we developed a prototype in English, which we then tested with seven participants. As we did before, the participants were given a number of tasks to complete followed by a semi-structured interview. Test sessions lasted approximately 60 minutes each.

It was found that the combination of a new welcome message, additional general orientation information, the Navigator, more detailed and shorter directions in the guided tours, a color-coded map with slightly modified zooming views and the option to find a room by entering the room number directly into the keypad greatly increased the participants' confidence and ability to find their way around the museum.

In particular, the use of North, South, East and West throughout all these aspects of the guide helped the participants build a simplified mental model of the layout of the museum. This model was reinforced when a room number was entered into the keypad and by the use of the closest stairs/lifts (north, south, east, and west), floor or level as a reference in the Navigator. People were able to remember this relatively small number of items and focus on them both on the interactive map and the general museum signage. It was also easy for them to re-enter the room number on the keypad if they want to remind themselves of the information.

Generally, users seem to be able to remember stairs, floor and room number combinations fairly well but if they were given more information, for example, about multiple locations of facilities, they found it harder to remember the correct combination for the particular facility they were trying to find and had to play the animation again. Therefore, it was suggested that the simple three item format for defining an object/room/facility location was used as much as possible as a reference.

Taking this feedback into consideration, we made a few final changes to the scripts, had these translated in all languages, included the relevant images and added these features to the guide, which was made available to the public in its new version at the end of March 2010. More content and guided tours were added in May and September of the same year.

3.5 The challenges of this approach

Certainly the changes that have been made to the guide throughout the development process have contributed to improve its overall usability, particularly with regard to the way finding and orientation features, proving that it is possible to help visitors find their way around the museum, even without using location aware technology.

The approach adopted, however, is far from being an ideal solution, as many challenges and issues are still associated with its use.

First of all we need to consider the costs and time involved in writing, translating, producing, editing and testing audio-visual directions for the guided tours and the Navigator in 10 different languages. Even though significantly less conspicuous than those involved, for instance, in setting up and maintaining a wireless infrastructure in the museum, these costs are still quite considerable and require a significant investment from the museums staff, thus limiting the number of tours or directions that can be produced.

Time and costs can be even more significant in museums with frequently rotating displays. When an object goes on loan and/or is temporarily removed for research or conservation purposes, new audio-visual directions have to be recorded, the map has to be updated and/or specific guided tours must be temporarily removed from the guide.

Similar challenges come from having multiple distribution point for the guide, which require directions to take into consideration the visitors' starting position. In the case of the British Museum, for instance a second distribution desk near the Parthenon gallery is open at busy times of the year. This has forced us to provide multiple starting points for some of the tours, thus increasing the production costs and the time necessary for assembly. Changes to the museum structure such as the North West development, which is scheduled to open in 2012, will also require some adjustment to the tours and directions.

Another challenge is presented by the need to continuously update the guide to accommodate changes resulting from object rotations and room closures. Unfortunately at present, this process is particularly challenging and slow due to the support technology provided by Antenna Audio (it takes more than 12 hours for an update, making it impossible to achieve it over night) and the number of guides available in the museum, which varies between 400 and 700 depending on the period of the year.

4. Conclusions

Despite these limitations, the project has enjoyed a certain degree of success with the public, as evidenced by the increasing take-up rates and the positive results of the evaluation that was carried out at the beginning of 2010 and of the various user tests that have been conducted throughout the development process. A second formal evaluation will follow in the upcoming months, which will provide useful quantitative information regarding the more recently added guided tours and way finding and orientation features.

Even though the project itself is not particularly innovative from the point of view of the technology used, it plays an important role in the history of mobile technology in museums. First of all it provides a way finding and orientation solution, that although with some limitations, can be adopted by other small, medium and large scale museums, which cannot rely on location-aware technology for support.

Another important aspect of the project is the involvement of the user in the development process. As explained above, research carried out by other museums was taken into consideration when developing the way finding features, in conjunction with the results of user testing and evaluations that were performed in house throughout the course of the project, thus guaranteeing that the features developed were in line with the effective needs of the users.

Last but not least, is the fact that the project has been developed mostly in house. The guide's information architecture, content development and assembly processes have, in fact, been carried out mainly by internal staff and free lancers, who worked on script writing, video shooting and editing, translation and production checking, evaluation, user testing, distribution and content updating. Support from external contractor was used for audio and BSL video production, translation, and software and hardware provision.

Despite the challenges that the museum had to overcome in the development of the project, the experience has been in overall positive showing that with adequate resources, it is possible to develop a mobile guide in house that is easy to use and provides adequate support to visitors' learning and orientation.


Filippini Fantoni S., and Bowen J. (2008). Mobile Multimedia: Reflections from Ten Years of Practice in Digital Technologies and the Museum Experience: Handheld Guides and Other Media, edited by Loïc Tallon and Kevin Walker, AltaMira Press, August 2008

Metfinder (2006). Metfinder: A Handheld Solution for Independent Exploration and Discovery in the Museum. MCN Conference, Pasadena, November 2006.

Cite as:

Filippini-Fantoni, S., et al., Mobile devices for orientation and way finding: the case of the British Museum multimedia guide . In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted