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Change and Technology at the NAEA Museum Education Pre-Conference Part 2

In Part 2 of our technology session at the National Art Education Association Museum Education Pre-Conference, Marla Shoemaker, Senior Curator of Education at the Philadelphia Museum of Art shared some experiences in Philadelphia with cell phone audio tours that exemplify changes in audio tour delivery devices that have come about in the past couple of years. The Philadelphia Museum of Art contracts with Antenna Audio for audio tours, but has been conduction experiments in alternate audio tour methods over the past year.

Their first experiment was for a special exhibition audio tour – Mexican and Modern Printmaking: A Revolution in the Graphic Art. While this traveling show was a big exhibit is smaller museums, it was a small exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and seemed well suited for the first ever cell phone tour at the museum. The audio was created in-house at no cost, and narrated by a curator. Twelve audio stops were produced, with an introduction by the museum’s director and stops about specific works of art in the exhibit. No music or effects were included, because the audio quality on a cell phone sounds like a cell phone – music or other effects add to the noise and obscure the voice. One feature of a cell phone audio tour is that the public can leave messages on the system, just like leaving a voice mail. Feedback on the tour included several positive responses, including a visitor who pointed out that you can listen to the stops anywhere at anytime, not just in the museum. This visitor was doing exactly that, listening again to the cell phone stops at home, an advantage he thought was great.

You can listen to the Mexican and Modern Printmaking audio stops by dialing 215-525-1673 and entering numbers 1 through 12, each followed by the # sign.

It’s acknowledged that museums seldom earn any income from traditional audio tours of permanent collections, spending far more money to lease, staff, update and maintain the equipment necessary to provide the audio tours than can be recouped in fees paid by visitors. Museums do sometimes make money on special exhibition audio tours, especially if they are able to build equipment costs into fees visitors pay to attend the special exhibit. Cell phone audio tours can’t currently compete with the audio quality offered by wands or MP3 players, but they can be easy to produce and there are no equipment costs for the museum. Leasing fees, staffing costs, and maintenance problems disappear.

Philadelphia did produce a two-sided brochure for the Mexican and Modern Printmaking cell phone audio tour that explained to users how to dial the tour, but quickly discovered it wasn’t necessary. People know how to use their own phones, another great advantage of cell phone tours. When people bring their own devices, Philadelphia Museum discovered, there’s no need to provide user support in the form of staff or even printed material. Just provide a phone number and the visitors will take it from there.

The museum’s second experiment involved a special installation of Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic. In a huge civic effort over 2,000 individuals contributed to the purchase of this painting – at a cost of $68 million. But the installation didn’t answer the question: what makes it a masterpiece worth saving? Knowing visitors might be loathe to read a lengthy text label on the subject, the museum chose a cell phone audio stop to allow the curator of American Art to address the question. The curator takes such a conversational tone and is so enthusiastic about the painting that it feels as if you’re calling her on the phone to ask her about the painting. Hear it for yourself by dialing 215-525-1673 and entering 100 followed by the # sign.

The Philadelphia Museum’s third experiment involved a permanent collection installation of the Constantine Tapestries, a set of tapestries that the museum knew a lot about. Putting all that information on text labels would have been like writing a book on the wall, but the audio tour takes advantage of users ability to pick and choose what they want to hear about with having to read a great deal of text. For example, using the same phone number as above, users can press 472 followed by the # sign to hear the story of Constantine and Fausta illustrated on one of the tapestries, or press 482 followed by the # sign to hear the answer to the question: what is a tapestry? Or press 483 followed by the # sign to hear about the tapestries were made. Or listen to all of it!

Cell phone audio tours have a numbers advantage over traditional audio tours. Caller i.d. on most people’s phones (very few cell phone users have this feature blocked) provides all kinds of data about how cell phone tours are used and who is using it, an impossibility with traditional audio tour delivery devices like wands or MP3 players. Using a standard Web browser Marla was able to demonstrate the statistics returned on the use of cell phone audio tours at Philadelphia. The statistics displayed the number of times each stop was phoned, as well as area codes that indicate where people came from (or where they acquired their cell phone number) and even displayed the users on a map.

Cell phone audio tours don’t typically follow a prescribed route, conducting a tour like an audio-only docent. Cell phone tours typically are constructed for “snacking” on content. Peter Samis, Associate Curator, Interpretation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), points out that visitors typically want more information when they are standing in front of the object in question, not when they are at home preparing to leave for the museum and remembering to download the tour to their iPod, and not when they are standing at the admissions point to the museum, considering whether or not to rent the audio guide. One of the questions the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been grappling with is whether cell phone tours will co-exist with other types of audio tours in the future. Currently it seems that older visitors who want linear tours are happy to take the traditional audio tour while younger visitors with cell phones are pleased to use them to access content. Whether cell phones remain the preferred device is another question museum staff is considering. Podcasts and iPods, or PDAs seem popular considerations in the world of museum content creators, but will they last?


  1. Rotkapchen Says:
    April 29th, 2009 at 11:48 am Thanks for this. This is critical thinking toward the evolution of experience design and the corresponding economic considerations.