What can the iPad do for museums?

Even though it is still only a few short years since the introduction of multi-touch technology in the first iPhones, already we have become familiar with the way that communications devices seamlessly integrate the internet’s vast information resources and social media networks. High-end interaction technologies are now so commonplace that many of us carry them around in our pockets all day long. And with the rise of smartphone apps, we now routinely expect these products to be endlessly adaptable and updatable.

For museums and galleries looking for new and inspiring ways to generate interactions between visitors and collections, this democratisation of technology is perhaps both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, visitors are no longer wowed by touch-screen and computer software installations per se. On the other hand, the availability of adaptable, mass-market products gives museums easy access to cleverer hardware for less money. At the same time, visitors will often be familiar with the hardware platform already and may even be able to use their own personal devices to access or interact with multimedia exhibition content.

The latest consumer products to lend themselves to museum and gallery use – and probably the most suitable so far – are the tablet devices such as the iPad and the Samsung Galaxy. Apple’s iPad is obviously the leader and major player here and already there are examples of museums harnessing the device to deliver content and interaction to visitors, despite it being less than a year old.

In some cases, iPads are being used by museums to deliver richer and expanded versions of their existing iPhone apps. The American Museum of Natural History has launched an iPad version of its Dinosaurs app and SFMoMA’s Rooftop Garden iPhone app, which provides a tour of its sculpture garden, has also been enhanced for the iPad.

But Melbourne Museum decided to build a dedicated iPad app as part of its tenth birthday celebrations. The free Please Touch the Exhibit app makes use of the iPad’s large, book-sized screen and shake functions, allowing users to explore the museum’s collection through ten specially curated science and social history themes. Similarly, highlights from MoMA’s Abstract Expressionist New York show are only available on the iPad. The AB EX NY app offers high-resolution images of selected works, videos and deeper information about the art and artists. It also includes an NYC history featuring a multimedia map of studios, galleries, bars and other points of interest.

One of the key appeals about apps like these is that they offer people a rich, tour-like experience away from the institutions themselves – before, after or indeed instead of, a physical visit. ‘One of the uses that we’ve realised people have really come to enjoy [about our app tours] is the takeaway,’ said Dallas Museum of Art multimedia producer Ted Forbes at the 2010 Tate Handheld Conference. ‘Maybe they participate in some of the tour while they are in front of the objects, but they can also go home and preview tours after their visit. It has a lot of application in the those areas, so it’s really important for us to be able to [offer these] tours.’

One of the questions that emerged at the Museums Association’s All in Hand: Working with Handheld Devices conference, held at the Royal College of Surgeons in July 2010, was whether a cultural institution can afford to develop mobile applications and whether the organisation might hope to recover its investment. In short, do mobile guides generate revenues?

There are no simple answers to these questions because every project and museum has its own requirements, target audience and budgets, but it is interesting to note that iPad apps have a higher average price point than iPhone apps, perhaps implying a higher user expectation for the iPad. Although most museum iPad apps have so far been offered for free, there is the possibility of using Apple’s App Store as a mechanism for generating revenue from multimedia content, something that would have been all but impossible with traditional gallery kiosk applications.

The success of the Guardian’s photojournalism iPad app, Eyewitness, has led to plans for an enhanced but paid-for version in the future, according to New Media Age. Whilst Eyewitness sits outside the museum sector, it is not hard to see how the evident appeal of high production quality multimedia content might also be a source of revenue and brand building for museums and galleries.

Exhibition-related games in particular might deliver a source of revenue, if they can be sold as standalone gaming apps in the App Store. As Jason DaPonte, former managing editor of BBC Mobile, told the Tate Handheld Conference: ‘You might not think about the games world and gaming as being that important to museums, but I challenge you to think about it very, very seriously. If you look at the app stores, typically the most popular apps – eight or nine of the top ten – are always games. So go where your audiences are, see what they are doing and see how you can get in there.’

At the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, an in-gallery game called WaterWorx was delivered via eight iPads in the exhibition space. This is where larger tablet devices differ from smartphone based multimedia content – they are big enough to operate as gallery based ‘kiosks’. At the same time, the app or game can be used by iPad owners at home. According to Seb Chan, head of digital, social and emerging technologies at the Powerhouse Museum, the WaterWorx game may now be augmented for commercial release on the App Store, creating revenue for the museum.

So perhaps the loss of technology’s wow factor is no curse at all. It may just mean that interactive installations are developed on the basis of relevance and content and not because of a perceived obligation to include a technology element in an exhibition space. As Silvia Filippini Fantoni, senior producer at digital media consultancy Cogapp, says on the group’s blog : ‘Mobile interpretation is not about the technology. It is about the user experience and particularly the content. Museums should focus on telling a story that answers questions, creates emotions, inspires a response, rather than using the technology for the sake of it.’

Chan echoes this, while also noting the new role of consumer technology in museum multimedia development. ‘[WaterWorx] brings with it an explicit acknowledgement that the entertainment and computing gear that visitors can get their hands on outside of the museum is always going to be better [than], or at least on a par with, what museums can themselves deploy. So rather than continue the arms race, the iPad deployment is a means to refocus both visitor attention and development resources on content and engagement – not display technologies.’


Scott Billings is a freelance journalist who write for publications including Design Week, Museum Practise, Museums Journal and Marketing.

18 Responses to “What can the iPad do for museums?”

  1. New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester are using the iPad as a interpretation tool for visitors to our current Gerhard Richter exhibition.

    Further details on the project are available here:

  2. MuseumNext says:

    Hi James

    I noticed the article about your use of iPad on CreativeBoom, but there are no picture of how the interactive looks. Do you know if there are any online anywhere?



  3. Gary Doss says:

    Our small museum in California, the Burlingame Museumn of Pez Memorabilia, uses an iPad to present vintage Pez advertising.

    It is set up like a touch screen kiosk. Our iPad is secured with a STAYPad metal security enclosure attached to a swing arm device.

    Our guests love it!

    We are in their video at WWW dot STAYPAD dot COM.

  4. Roberta says:

    I am writing a research papar on Museums and APPS, i Qwould like to have the point of view of the visitiors. Why they are using it, how the experience is interacting? How different is from a regualr visit to a museum, who is udsing it?
    Any suggestions?
    Thank you

    • Roland says:

      Hi Roberta!

      This sounds interesting! is your paper already published?

      Cheers Roland

    • Edgar Tescum says:

      Hi Roberta;

      I am interested too. I’m working with a museum in Puebla, Mexico and we want to know how the iPad is working.



    • Nils says:

      Hi Roberta,
      I am very interested too! Can you email me please?
      elearningproducer [at] aucklandmuseum [dot] com

      Thanks so much!

  5. We’ve developed an innovative mobile museum exhibition app for Museum Centre Vapriikki’s highly acclaimed Tampere 1918 exhibition about the Finnish civil war.

    Not only can it be used with iPhones and iPads, but also with almost any other touch screen mobile device whether it be an Android, Nokia or Blackberry phone.

    You can try it even on a regular ol’ desktop browser: http://zonear.com/2011/05/tampere-1918-exhibition-guide/

  6. The New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science recently installed two iPads into their new exhibits. One app displayed elements and the other the solar system. See photos and videos of the iPad Enclosures in their exhibit.

  7. Sarah Motte says:

    Everyone should check out MuseumApp. It has just been launched, so far it’s simple, user friendly and universal which means any museum can upload their content and make their own personal kiosk! Check it for only $5.99.

  8. Peter Warren says:

    The green centre in Basildon uses iPads for games and for video. 5w consumption is perfect for sustainability.

  9. Soo Nazih says:

    I am wondering if anyone uses ipads to enhance interactions between front of house staff and visitors.
    I am going to trial use of an ipad by staff in reception and gallery areas. My proposal is that it is used as a mobile tool for assisting visitors with further information via museum websites such as collections online. It will also be used to assist visitors with local CBD and tourism information. This is different from the visitor driven experience as there are still alot of visitors who don’t have smart phones and may benefit from the immediacy of the ipad experience facilitated by a staff member.

  10. Anna Mikhaylova says:

    Tell me please, what about the Internet access in museums? Is there wi-fi oк a visitor use his/her own 3G or smth like this?

  11. At SFMOMA we are using iPads on guided tours (docent tours) to show video clips SFMOMA produces with artists talking about their work. It works pretty well and visitors like it! We are using speakers that connect via Bluetooth to the iPads and use the museum’s wireless to connect to SFMOMA’s youtube channel. For those of our docents with iphones the step to using an ipad was relatively straight forward.

  12. Rolin Moe says:

    Great article. One of my questions: a lot of work seems to be in either creating the collection online to mirror the gallery, or to augment the gallery to make a greater amount of content available via tablet app. Is there research looking at ways to have the tablet enhance the real museum experience…in ways unique from what currently exists (audio tours, supplemental reading material)? What I mean: the majority of apps seem to work in this paradigm — you can walk into a museum and look at the art, or you can go online and look at the art. Are you aware of anyone doing research looking at an app that allows a greater interaction with the artifacts while using the app in the museum?

  13. At the Art Institute of Chicago we are using the iPad in numerous educational ways including but not limited for Education programs both as multimedia presentation tools for tours or workshops (audio/video integration), as creative tool: ex. mobile canvas or sketch pad for visual art exploration/creation. As evaluation tools and capture/documentation for projects and programs and many more uses. I especially do research on trends in the field of K-12 and univeristy Education (an important audience we serve). Additionally, we are working with the device for which to plan interactive exhibits. Similarly with iPads, we are exploring with potential uses with iPod Touches. All such integration is carefully planned not just in the uses but thinking strategically in creating meaninful experiences with the focus still being on the collection and the mission of the museum meeting educational objectives.

    Here is a video link on such uses

  14. Interpreter says:

    I do worry about the waste of money on ipads when there are more than equal alternatives that would save a lot of money. Especially where I am (UK) where the public sector is going through cut after cut. There are numerous android tablets which more than equal the ipad and can run the same apps. It won’t be long before our industry catches up, unfortunately there are lot of people who are technologically out of touch and their experience goes no further than apple marketing allows. We could have 3 or 4 excellent android tablets for the price we paid for our ipad (which barely sees the light of day anyway, partly because they are so afraid to bring it onto the exhibition floor.