Mobilizing Through History

When we hear the phrase “New media” we usually think of recent technology like smartphones, or Twitter, or even just the internet at large. However, as the essay collection New Media, 1740-1915 argues, there has always been “new media” that changed how humans interacted with the world. The original “dumb” telephone is an obvious example, but there are also now obsolete ones like the physiognotrace and the zograscope that were considered transformative in their time. So while the modern new media revolution is more likely to have a lasting impact than those old-timey devices, it’s important to keep historical perspective in mind when discussing current digital media. (For more on the essay collection, see my classmate Joanna Capps’ review.)

Take for example mobile applications in museums. Though thoroughly robust mobile applications were uncommon prior to the rise of smartphones a decade ago, museums have long used hand-held technology to support its exhibits. Some examples are extremely low-tech, such as maps. But audio tour devices date back over 60 years. For example, check out this video clip of Dutch museum patrons going on an audio tour in 1952 (for a translation of the narration, see the first comment here).

The woman introducing that video is Nancy Proctor, former head of the Smithsonian Institute’s mobile division, who gave this talk at the 2009 MCN conference. Proctor used that clip to illustrate her main argument about mobile applications in museums: “It’s NOT about the technology, it’s about the content.” For example, the Dutch audio tour was obviously technology limited. Yet, everyone is doing the same thing at the same time only because the content is instructing them to do it that way, not because the audio must be played that way. If instead, as Proctor suggests, the audio tour had asked the patrons to choose a favorite painting then discuss its traits with the group at large, that might  provide a more meaningful experience than passively listening to a description of the painting. Thus, Proctor believes museums should “think about content and experience design” first and foremost. Specifically, the content should be tied to the site’s mission, as well as the intended audience.

Of course, it’s still important to consider what the appropriate technology is in order to deliver the content. Designers need to understand what platforms visitors are comfortable using, especially in a museum setting. In fact, citing an earlier study, Proctor noted that museum patrons have become “trained” not to use modern technology while visiting exhibits, even if they use that technology all the time outside of museums.

Visitors are more likely to use "old" technology like brochures and wall interpretation than "new" media like audio tours or websites.

Visitors are more likely to use “old” technology like brochures and wall text than “new” technology like audio tours or exhibit websites.

To be fair, since this 2008 study, those bar graphs are probably much more even. Smartphone mobile applications truly have penetrated everyday life, becoming extremely ubiquitous. This has spilled over to museums as well. In fact, the Smithsonian alone has 30 mobile applications related to its various museums. Yet these apps all have content that serves a specific purpose, and certainly attracts diverse audiences and reactions. So Proctor’s vision that content should dictate mobile designs is now more important, as potential technological barriers have been diminished due to a proliferation of technology.

Put another way, think of your favorite application (museum or otherwise). Is the technological or design aspects what makes you appreciate and use it? Or is the content more important?



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About Zach Klitzman

A History Grad student at American University

3 responses to “Mobilizing Through History”

  1. Historian Who Prefers Paper says :

    To answer your question, my favorite history related apps are the ones with great design. Have you seen the latest Ken Burns app? This is my favorite because it mixes content with visual pleasing videos. The best part is that it has music and vocal recording, and videos. They are perfect because they are short and to the point but have links to further texts and films. Check out this review:

    • zk9098a says :

      That does sound like a really cool app, Nicole. However, I don’t have an iPad so I can’t download it. This relates to what I wrote on our discussion page prior to Nancy Proctor’s visit to our class. How does a museum (or in this case, a documentarian) choose which platform(s) to launch an app on? Is it better to release on a wide range of platforms to maximize downloads? Or is it more important to maximize the quality of the app, even if it limits the consumer base?

      Clearly with “Ken Burns,” Burns chose the latter. Still, something to think about.

      Thanks for sharing!

  2. amandazim says :

    I have to agree with Zach here. While content and design must (as Nancy Proctor states) come first and must be tied to the museum’s mission and intended audience, you also have to think of the practical side of things. How can you know what devices your audience has or is comfortable using? When there is an alotted amount of money for a project such as this, you have to be extremely careful in the choices you make. I guess we can never be sure we are making the right choices, but we certainly have to make every possible effort to make the best choices for the particular site and audience.

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