Museums are now using digital technology to understand and build better customer experiences to help curate and customize a specific journey for each individual during their visit, while enhancing the institution’s relationship with each individual user.

Since as early as the sixth-century BC, museums and their curators have been careful keepers of culture. They have provided a sanctuary and destination for the general public to experience art, history and science that aren’t accessible anywhere else. In the digital age, however, where every fact or research report and every image of the world’s greatest works of art can be instantly accessed on the web, what is the role of museums?

RE-EXAMINING THE ROLE OF MUSEUMS IN THE DIGITAL AGE

Just as libraries have been transformed through electronic media, museums are having to re-examine their mission in light of new technological possibilities and figure out how digital connections can further that mission. To remain sustainable into the future, museums have to be freshly relevant and engaging to every new generation.

Additionally, with today’s digital tools available in everyone’s pocket, every person is an artist. This means that infinite quantities of content are simultaneously competing for our attention on Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and so forth. Given this saturation in the market, how do museums successfully capture the attention of their audience? Many cultural institutions are looking to digital for the answer. In a recent research report by Museums and the Web and Axiell, 60 percent of museums report that they are creating a digital strategy to attract and keep their users. Furthermore, these strategies are bearing fruit, as 50 percent of museums have seen their website traffic increase and 82 percent are seeing greater numbers of users engage with them on social media channels.

IT’S ALL ABOUT EXPERIENCE

The value of museums will always center on direct experience. Being up close and personal with artifacts you can look at, and in some cases touch, is a distinctly different and more powerful experience than viewing content online. No amount of digital technology is ever going to replace real life. It makes sense, therefore, that as museums define their strategy for digital transformation, they are focusing on ways of using technology to enhance the experiential aspects of visiting the museum. The museums and the Web survey found that 50 percent of the institutions that responded are prioritizing ways to enhance the visitor experience using mobile apps, 30 percent had digitized at least one-fifth of their collections and 86 percent are prioritizing creation of new educational opportunities.

THE BYOD REVOLUTION

Much of today’s digital enhancement of customer experience is based on an understanding that people almost universally bring their own devices (BYOD) everywhere they go. Where museum-goers once only pulled out their phones to take photos or communicate with friends, personal devices are now recognized by museums as being key portals through which to reach out to and connect with visitors. Based largely on the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, museums are now using digital tools to create an omnichannel customer experience. This experience is made up of interactions in four categories: Personalized Experiences, Directed Experiences, Educational Experiences and Ongoing Experiences. Here’s an overview of each of these channels and of the way in which digital is deepening and intensifying them:

PERSONALIZED EXPERIENCES

Museums are using digital technology to understand user preferences and help curate and customize a specific journey for each individual during their visit. This interactive dialog with visitors is particularly valuable in museums with collections so vast that they can’t be covered in one day. Extensive collections can feel overwhelming, and visitors will feel happier (and thus more likely to offer financial support) if they can select the exhibits that mean the most to them personally. These personalized apps also make use of Bluetooth beacon technology to answer immediate visitor questions such as the location of the nearest restroom or cafe.

  • New York’s American Museum of Natural History offers the Explorer App (one of their nine apps), which asks visitors to select their interests and then recommends the most appropriate path to take through the museum. This app includes various other functions, including augmented reality experiences, social media sharing and the ability to buy tickets without standing in line.
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art has exceeded expectations for customer experience by offering an app that the NY Times calls “beautifully designed” and “a rich, accessible experience on its own, primarily because of original content and a pleasingly cheeky tone.” This app proves that a well-executed digital tool can extend and add to a brand’s reputation. The Met spent one full year developing its app, according to the museum’s Chief Digital Officer, Sree Sreenivasan, “to be simple, useful and delightful.”

DIRECTED EXPERIENCES

Once visitors decide what to see, the next big challenge is to find it, which can be particularly tricky in the crowded acreage that make up some of the world’s most important museums. Museums are using mobile and Bluetooth beacon technology to help visitors find their way in between exhibits (wayfinding), recommending where to go next depending on visitor preference and even unlocking special content depending on the user’s location.

  • The Brooklyn Museum in NYC has rolled out an interactive app entitled “Ask.” This enables users to send their questions to a team of historians and curators, who answer in real time, providing background as well as recommendations for what to see next. The app relies on beacon technology that tells where in the museum the visitor is when they’re asking their question.
  • The National Slate Museum in Wales was the first national museum anywhere in the world to use iBeacon technology to provide interactive maps as well as curated multimedia content and activities.
  • The Philips Museum uses the location technology in the architecture of its interactive family game, Mission Eureka.

EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCES

Augmented Reality powered by mobile devices adds an additional layer of engagement onto museum exhibits.

  • The American Museum of Natural History Explorer App has two AR experiences: “Be the Bear” and “Dino Detective,” which enrich existing exhibits with beautiful educational animations offering a quest-like storyline for visitors. The museum’s eight other apps offer multimedia content focused on specific exhibits, including a family AR game on micro-organisms featuring nine “Micro-crises” that players must resolve.
  • Google’s Arts & Culture App partners with over 1,100 institutions to provide a rich educational experience. A virtual reality tour lets visitors move around remotely in a museum, while an audio tour talks about what they’re “seeing.” However, the goal is to get the user physically into the museum in real life, at which point the “Art Recognizer” portion of the app comes into play. This provides an experience that’s similar to a traditional audio tour, but without any need to input keypad codes. Instead, the app simply recognizes what the phone’s camera is pointed at, and automatically provides video and audio background information.
  • The multimedia guide for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts works similarly on open-source TAP architecture.

ONGOING EXPERIENCES

Museums rely on donations, so they want to enrich visitors’ experiences and keep them coming back for more. When exhibit content comes alive, even outside the museum, then the excitement and curiosity of the audience connect them to the museum. Making large portions of museum collections available online has increasingly become a way that museums claim their place among the world’s storehouse of culture. It also happens to be a way that Google chose to showcase its platform’s capability with the Google Art Project in 2011.

  • The Louvre is an example of an institution’s beneficial partnership with a private app developer. While the Louvre’s official app is a work in progress, the Louvre HD app developed by Evolution has won widespread praise for its virtual tours and HD zoomable images of over 2000 paintings. The app also provides users with the ability to download images for offline viewing and to search by various criteria.
  • The Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam) offers a similar experience, encouraging their visitors to download their app prior to their arrival at the museum. The app includes the ability to purchase reproductions of the artwork, and it also offers a Family Quest virtual game along with numerous other features.

VIRTUAL REALITY

New virtual reality tools and partnerships are proliferating, as the digital world continues its leap out from computers and smartphones into the 3D real world. One VR tool that’s just at the beginning of its life is Google Cardboard, which offers inexpensive and DIY headsets that work with various apps to deliver an immersive VR experience.

It requires skill and judgment to provide a digital user experience that encourages more visitors to come through the door of a museum. No matter how immersive and real a virtual exploration may be, museums exist to preserve and display the physical objects that make up our cultural heritage. For a museum, going digital must transform and enhance the institution’s relationship with each individual user so that each successive generations finds fresh excitement in the irreplaceable treasures of the past.

(Originally published on the Centric Digital blog // October 11, 2016)