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Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

Getting on (not under) the Mobile 2.0 Bus


The use of visitors' own devices for mobile programs in museums, which began with podcasts and cellphone tours some years ago, has enjoyed a renewed popularity in the age of the smartphone. A recent survey of nearly 1,600 visitors to the Smithsonian on the National Mall found that over half (52%) had an Internet-enabled phone, and 30% had a phone that could play apps. These growing numbers of powerful personal computers in the hands of museum visitors hold out the promise of reduced overheads for mobile interpretation and information services. Obviating the costs of stocking and staffing device distribution on-site, the BYOD (bring your own device) movement has also fueled hopes that the Internet-connected phone would open up new possibilities to reach off-site as well as on-site audiences, beyond the traditional audio tour business models or even the cellphone tour and podcast. Sharing this optimism, new and more specialized vendors have made it easier for museums to buy the elements of their mobile programs à la carte, mixing in-house development of both content and technology with outsourcing. In the past few years, museums have also learned that they can create their own content, as well as enlist the help of script-writers and sound designers, and publish their content to multiple platforms.

So far, however, even as equipment and staffing overheads have been removed or reduced by reliance on visitors’ using their own mobile devices in the museum, new cost centers and challenges have been introduced: proprietary museum-built audio players have often been replaced by equally proprietary app platforms, and the museum that wants to reach the other 70% of its on-site audience is still faced with the question of how to provide devices to visitors who don’t come with – or want to use – their own phones during their museum visits. The museum that can manage a small stock of players on-site for the low take-up rates of permanent collection tours may be overwhelmed by the sudden spike in demand caused by the blockbuster exhibition. Are museums ready to take on responsibility for the mobile hardware/distribution model as well as content and software?

This paper draws on recent case studies at SFMOMA, MoMA, Balboa Park, the Smithsonian and learnings from other mobile projects around the world to consider museums’ options in response to these challenges and the new business models that are emerging for mobile platforms:

  1. Digital retail (app/download sales)
  2. Freemium (e.g. in-app sales)
  3. Donations (e.g. by text message)
  4. Subscription content (e.g. iPad catalogues, magazines)
  5. Sponsorship and ad-supported content
  6. Monetizing data from mobile social media
  7. Providing devices for blockbusters in the BYOD economy
  8. Using mobile to support membership and other revenue channels

We will discuss the macro and micro impact of mobile technology on museum business today; the economics, including costs, financing, benefits, return on investment, and opportunity costs; and the risks of being both on and under the mobile 2.0 bus.


Paper - in formal session


NancyProctor's picture
Nancy Proctor is co-chair of Museums and the Web, and heads up mobile strategy and initiatives for the Smithsonian Institution. With a PhD in American art history and a background in filmmaking, curation and art criticism, Nancy Proctor published her first online exhibition in 1995. She co-founded...
psamis's picture
Peter Samis is Associate Curator of Interpretive Media at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). He attended the first ICHIM conference in Pittsburgh in 1991 and lived to tell the tale, then served as art historian/content expert for the first CD-ROM on modern art in 1993; taken together...
ABurnette's picture
Allegra Burnette is the Creative Director of Digital Media at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, overseeing the design and production for the museum's website,, as well as mobile devices, interpretive kiosks and digital displays. Online projects include two complete site redesigns,...
Rich Cherry's picture
Rich Cherry is the Director of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative (BPOC), whose mission is to facilitate and execute a fundamentally change the way museums, cultural arts and science institutions in Balboa Park San Diego use of online technology. BPOC is a consortium of 27 cultural organizations...

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