Cell Phone Snapshot: Results of a 2009 Cell Phone Audio Tour Survey

By Museum-Ed Editors
May, 2009

In May of 2009 several members of the Museum-Ed Discussion List posted questions to the list about cell phone audio tours. The Editors of Museum-Ed offered to create an online survey to streamline collection of information about museum cell phone audio tours. The resulting survey was based on questions generated by the members of the Museum-Ed Discussion List and was offered on the Museum-Ed Web site (www.museum-ed.org) from May 21 to July 1, 2009. The following report consists of survey results compiled by the Editors of Museum-Ed.

Twenty-four museums responded to the Cell Phone Tour Survey on Museum-Ed’s Web site. Of these, twelve had offered a cell phone audio tour for over one year, eight had offered a cell phone audio tour for 6-12 months, two had offered a cell phone audio tour for 1-3 months, and two of the museums had tours still in development.

cellphoneexperienceThe average number of stops offered in cell phone audio tours in museums was 25 stops; the highest number of stops was 126, the lowest, five. Among museums reporting the percentage of their visitors using cell phone audio tours, 15% was the average; 60% being highest, 1% being lowest.

The majority of the tours were designed for general audiences. Seven museums offered family-specific tours, four offered senior tours, and four offered tours specifically for children. Only one museum offered tours specifically designed for visitors with visual impairments.

Technology Availability
Four museums had complaints from visitors about using their own technology. Three museums avoided this problem by providing “loaner phones” to those who did not want to use their own cell phone (or did not have one). One museum offered mp3 files of the audio tour on their website, and encouraged visitors without cell phones to access the tour that way.

The vast majority of museums (20 total) did not feel that cell phone tours detracted from social learning between visitors, two refrained from answering since their tours were still in development. In their comments, three educators pointed out that audio tours of any kind are one layer of an institution’s interpretation strategy that also includes docent-led tours, didactic information, and the like. One educator recounted seeing “people listen to the recording and then talk about it or share it with others they are with,” an example of social learning in action that nine other educators echoed. Other positive comments included cell phone audio tours being a way to deliver information to visitors outside of reading, a way of making content available when visitors are not in the museum, and providing visitors a way to hear the voices of artists and/or curators. In fact, stops that include the artist speaking were found to be most popular.

Fifteen of the educators reported that visitor feedback had been positive, in shades ranging from “very positive” to “generally positive.” Some tours allow visitors to record their own comments directly through their phone, a feature that one museum found under-utilized, and another well received. One educator commented: “I’d like to get more feedback using the audio tour. I think the flexibility of the technology could allow us to incorporate visitors’ ideas and responses, however I have found them to be more interested in listening than talking.” Most visitors saw the fact that cell phone audio tours are “self directed and free” as a benefit.

Six museums reported that seniors were not resistant to cell phone tours, five that they “sometimes were,” and two said that seniors were resistant. The primary issue seemed to be seniors who did not have cell phones, easily resolved by providing loaner phones or MP3 player versions of tours.

Restrictions and Policy

Seven museums depended on staff (either guards or front-desk staff) to remind visitors to not use their phones for calls or photos. Another seven used reminders at the beginning of the audio tour and/or signage in the galleries to prevent calls or photos. For some of the museums, cell phone use is not an issue at all, for example outdoor living history museums, exterior tours, or museums without a “no camera/cell phone” policy.

Production and Delivery
Eleven museums were pleased with their current cell phone tour service. Twenty-one museums produced their recordings in-house. This was accomplished through a variety of methods: four used Audacity audio editing software, three used Garage Band, one used Roxio, and seven used Guide By Cell’s recording over the phone system. A few used their in-house media departments or a generous audio-editing spouse. One museum was in the process of creating a program for high school students to develop tours.

Only one museum reported paying someone to narrate content for their audio tour. The rest was either narrated by staff members or volunteers, in one case a local radio personality. Three of the museums had staff or spouses of staff with acting or speaking experience. The tours often include stops narrated by the director, curator, artist or scientist involved with the exhibit.
Sixteen museums update their tours with each exhibit change.

The average yearly cost of a cell phone audio tour (not including production) was $3,588. The most costly tour reported in the survey was $10,000 and the least costly was $1200. Unpredictably, the costs of cell phone audio tours did not necessarily correlate with the number of stops. Eight of the museums reported having sponsors for their tours.