Mobile technology in museums


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An overview of the challenges and opportunities raised by the use of mobile technology in museums

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Mobile technology in museums

  1. 1. Mobile Technology in Museums:An Overview of the Challenges and OpportunitiesIan RowsonMobile technology in museums is a sector which Adlib Information Systems, as a leadingsupplier of collections management systems (CMS), predict dramatic growth over thenext few years. Unsurprisingly, then, it is a subject that the company has becomeactively engaged with. This paper outlines the key challenges faced and opportunitiesopen to museums when adopting mobile technology. It draws on research from anumber of sources, including real-world experience gained from implementation ofmobile technology projects.Mobile technology is fast become pervasive in most areas of life, and is changing theway people interact with information, products and services. This can easily be noticedon any railway journey where on the platform and on the train, passengers areengrossed in their smartphones or tablets. In a recent article on the CNN website,portable devices employing a touchscreen interface were identified as number 1 in theTop 10 Tech Trends for 2012. Technology expert Peter Cashmore predicts that suchhandheld, touchscreen based devices (tablets, smartphones) are not simply nicealternatives to the desktop and laptop computer; but that they will in time replace them,in a similar fashion to the way graphical based user interfaces replaced the old commandline computer interface. For Cashmore, the end of 2012 will see mobile operatingsystems already achieve a position of dominance in the marketplaceBut it’s not simply through reasons of fashion that mobile technology is exploding acrossthe world. The time and the places people want to interact with information, as well ashow they do it, are changing. Museums and heritage sites have been beginning toexplore the use of mobile technology both in terms of curatorial practice and, perhapseven more so, in interpretation for their visitors.Curatorial UseJulian Tomlin’s report Reviewing Machine Readable Labelling Systems for CollectionsManagement and Access reviews the use of mobile technology for collectionsmanagement. This report, produced in 2008 for the London Museums Hub, focusses onthe use of barcodes and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags for automatingcollections management, and includes a number of case studies. This report isrecommended reading for anyone considering this kind of project.Museums who have so far employed mobile technology, have done so with the objectiveof improving efficiency in the following processes:  Inventory checking  Movement control  Identifying objects (through rapid look-up access to collections database)The chief opportunity presented is undoubtedly that of reducing the staff time spent onthese traditionally time-consuming activities and their associated paperwork. Forexample, the RFID company Smarttrack claim that since the introduction of RFID taggingto its collections, The Vatican Library estimate that staff can complete its annual
  2. 2. inventory process within one day, a task that previously meant it had to close for awhole month.In addition, there is always scope for human error in the recording of inventory data andinput to the CMS, particularly if the staff have to make paper notes while working in aremote store which are later copied into the CMS, perhaps even by someone else.Smarttrack term this the potential for ‘increased visibility’ of the collection. By theirdefinition; the certainty that the whereabouts of every collection object is known,through simplification of the inventory process and the elimination of human error indata entry. Errors in object location recording can be extremely costly in terms of theboth the staff time required to attempt to correct them, or worst case, the actual loss ofobjects.Of course, in order to reap the benefits described above, there are challenges to befaced by the institution when introducing a fully automated system:Before a project is started, a lack of familiarity with the technology can potentially leadto expensive mistakes. It is best find a technology partner who are used to mobileworking such as Adlib Information Systems, who have a successful track recordimplementing mobile systems that fully integrate with the collections managementsystem. It does not have to be an obstacle if the institution is not using an Adlib CMS.The Adlib Mobile Suite can also work in conjunction with other CMS, for example Multi-Mimsy. Tomlin asserts that; “The greatest success[es] may be found where suitablesystems, training and support, and procedures are [all] in place”.Barcode labels or RFID tags need to be created or purchased and attached to theobjects. Modern CMS such as Adlib incorporate barcode label generation tools, but themethod of their attachment to objects can be problematic, depending on the type ofcollection. Barcodes are certainly cheaper than RFID tags (Tomlin estimates they areonly about 10% of the cost), but they may not be so durable, and they do require a‘line-of-sight’ from the scanner to be able to read them. A key advantage of RFID tags isthat they (usually) can be read without removing the object from its packaging, meaningthat the object, and other objects around it, do not have to be disturbed in order toconfirm its location (assuming, of course, that its tag remains securely in place). Adisadvantage is that you need a special scanner to read them.Tomlin reports that; “When used for large-scale collection moves, the use of machine-readable technologies have been highly successful, and cost effective.” To summarise hisfindings, if the processes of labelling objects can be included as part of a plannedcollections move when every object is already going to be handled, the institution willreap the benefits of time saving in every subsequent operation from the unpacking andre-location, and including every future movement.This is certainly the experience that Adlib Mobile Suite customers have reported to thecompany. Tomlin’s report concludes that “Major [collections automation] initiatives areunlikely to take place outside the context of major re-display or storage projects”. Thiswas certainly true when the report was commissioned, but it could be argued that today,four years on, the costs of technology have reduced to the point where if your
  3. 3. organisation undertakes a high level of object movements in the general course of yourwork, then the potential for efficiency savings is there to be made.Smarttrack give the example of the Australian Parliamentary Library, which recouped thecost of implementing RFID technology within 3 years, purely through the gains in vastlyreduced stock-taking and audit times. Their white paper A cost-benefit analysis of RFIDfor Museum and Art Gallery collections contains more detail for those interested.Adlib Information Systems are addressing these challenges with our Mobile Suitesoftware, which is an off-the-shelf package which provides a flexible method ofmanaging the processes of inventory control and movement. The software can of coursebe configured to suit the needs of the organisation, but no bespoke softwaredevelopment is required for a typical museum installation. This keeps theimplementation simple, and the costs down.The applications can run on a Windows laptop, notebook or handheld PDA. They canwork over a WiFi connection to the database, or off-line for later synchronisation.Although PDA devices with their built-in scanners are very convenient, they are costly,and users report that battery life is limited. At least one spare set of batteries istherefore essential to swap out in order to keep working. Adlib plan to make the mobilesuite software more device-independent, which will mean that it can run on Windowsbased smartphones or tablets. This will also reduce the hardware cost and provide amore familiar interface for users.Future product development plans include a tablet based application for thedocumentation of monuments/built heritage. This will make full use of the tablet’scapability for image capture with GPS location-awareness and 3G upload of data to anAdlib database. One highly portable device will therefore replace the camera, GPS andlaptop previously required for this purpose.Visitor UseAside from the ‘back-office’ functions of the museum, institutions are investing in mobiletechnology for their visitors. A key decision is whether to aim for an ‘in-house’experience similar to the traditional audio tour, where the aim is to engage the visitor orprovide supplementary information to the museum’s interpretation, or an ‘at home’experience which aims to prepare the viewer for a visit or provide backgroundinformation to tempt a visit.Loic Tallon’s analysis of the Museums and Mobile Survey 2012 provides a wealth ofinteresting information about the current state of play in the field. The Museums andMobile Survey is conducted annually by the Museums & Mobile on-line conference, whichis held in May each year.For instance, Tallon found the key objectives of an institution in providing a ‘mobileexperience’ to be:  To give additional data to visitors  To experiment with different ways of engaging visitors  To provide a more interactive experience  To raise the profile of the institution
  4. 4. Secondary objectives were:  Revenue generation  Response to visitor demand  To provide alternative language interpretation  To attract new visitorsThe survey indicates that, at the moment, it is typically only larger institutions who aremaking some kind of mobile provision. But if it is accepted that the above are all validobjectives for all types of institution, what factors are blocking museums (especiallysmaller ones) from going ahead with mobile projects?Respondents to the survey cited the following reasons (in order of most given reason):  Too expensive in staff time to maintain  Not a priority for the institution  Too expensive to set up  Lack of demand from visitors  Lack of in-house experience in the technologyThey also identified the key challenges with implementing mobile interpretation asbeing:  Cost of keeping content up to date  Cost of set-up  The production of content  Encouraging take-up by usersAdlib Information Systems have come up with a completely novel approach toaddressing these challenges. In conjunction with mobile experience partners a:xperienceof Vienna, an off-the-shelf ‘template’ based solution for a smartphone application hasbeen introduced. This can be tailored to suit the design scheme and objectives of anykind of institution. A template based approach means that the Adlib app is much cheaperto implement than a bespoke development project, and in fact the set-up costs can beminimal. As for the issue of providing content and keeping up to date, a solution hasbeen provided for that too.The Adlib smartphone app includes a certain amount of pre-defined content, meaningthe user will always have access to certain prime material, even if no on-line connectionis available (or excessive roaming charges abroad mean this feature is disabled). The bigadvantage is that it can also dynamically retrieve content from an Adlib collectionsmanagement database. This means that it offers a truly interactive experience, givingaccess to content that is automatically kept up to date, simply by the museum staffadding new data and media into the CMS in the usual course of their work.This also resolves another factor against user take-up identified on the Museum MobileWiki (a recommended source of information on mobile interpretive technologies) of usersbeing reluctant to download apps that include masses of content which fill up thememory space of their smartphones.
  5. 5. The reason that the Adlib CMS makes such an excellent platform for running mobiletechnologies is down to the way the system is structured. An Adlib system is designed toact as a collections data server via its flexible Applications Programming Interface (API)In layman’s terms, this means that the system deals with live requests for data fromexternal devices, obviating the need to dump collections data out into a separatedatabase to be used in, for example, a gallery interactive terminal, a web site, or asmartphone app.Of course, it is not uncommon for a museum to have all these uses for collections data,and therefore to spend a lot of time dumping data into disparate systems, a processwhich we regard as a waste of time and resources. Even worse is the situation wherecollections content is specifically created for such applications, or information is culledfrom visitors as User Generated Content (UGC) which never finds its way back into theCMS, resulting in perhaps many silos of unconnected data which the museum cannoteffectively manage.It is interesting to reflect that back in the 1970s, when the first version of the Adlibsoftware system was launched, a pocket size device that could perform live queries of adatabase content from anywhere in the world would have existed only in science fiction.The fact that we have now reached this point amply demonstrates the ability of AdlibInformation Systems to keep their products up to date with current technologies, whileat the same time retaining the long-term sustainability of the Adlib solution. Theseremain core values for the company right up to the present day.Ian Rowson, Adlib Information Systems, May 2012Sources Pete (2011) The Top 10 tech trends for 2012, Special report to CNNDecember 19, 2011 (2008) A cost-benefit analysis of RFID forMuseum and Art Gallery collections available online at:, Loic (2012) Museums & Mobile in 2012: An Analysis of the Museums & MobileSurvey 2012 Responses. (February 2012: Pocket Proof & Learning Times) published at 10/05/12Tomlin, Julian, (2008) Reviewing Machine Readable Labelling Systems for CollectionsManagement and Access available at