Print Proposal: Smart Phone apps and Public History

As a recent convert to smart phones, I am more than amazed at how much I use my phone, from trying to find the cheapest price for a certain product to navigating the DC metro and electronically refilling my metro card.  As a graduate student in public history, one of the first apps I downloaded to my iPhone was the Smithsonian app.  This app provides information on the Institute’s nineteen different museums (and a zoo).  The user can access hours of operation, what exhibits are currently at each museum, and can be linked to maps, contact information, etc.   Other SI applications include “SI Main Street,” which is an oral history database that asked people from across the United States, regardless of age, to contribute stories that convey the meaning and importance of their hometown.

I am very intrigued by the concept of smart phone applications and furthermore, how Public Historians can utilize them to connect to the public.  The National Museum of the Native American put out an app to go along with their exhibit “Infinity of Nations,” which is currently on display at the NMAI in New York City.  I would like to explore the effectiveness of museum exhibit smart phone apps already in existence, as well as exploring future possibilities for the field.  How expensive are applications to design?  How do you craft an app so that it enhances a visitor’s experience without distracting from it?

Technology is the bandwagon that, whether historical sites like it or not, they are going to have to jump upon sooner or later.  Smart phone apps present many advantages.  They can be made available to the public for free, and once downloaded are easy to take with the visitor as they navigate around a historic site.  Purchasing a book or pamphlet may not be inconvenient when a visitor is touring a museum exhibition, but would a visitor want to lug around extra materials at an outdoor museum, a house museum, or a National Park?  The information, which can include far more details than a brochure, would already be in a device the visitor would carry with himself or herself.  The interactive capabilities could be quite positive as well.

The positives are there, but that begs the question: What are the barriers and/or pitfalls to utilizing this technology?  Are the costs prohibitive such that only larger institutions (a la the Smithsonian) could utilize smart phone apps?  What situations would make smart phone apps worth the time and expense?

Very preliminary research would include the above mentioned apps (The Smithsonian App, “Infinity of Nations” app, “SI Main Street” app) as well as checking out their user rating, reviews, etc.  Secondary sources would include:

Arita-Kikutani, Hiroyuki, and Kazuhiro Sakamoto.  “Using a Mobile Phone Tour to Visit the Ueno Zoological Gardens and the National Science Museum in Tokyo, Japan.”  The Journal of Museum Education 32, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 35-45.


3 Replies to “Print Proposal: Smart Phone apps and Public History”

  1. Great and timely topic. Looking at the existing apps you have suggested and thinking about what the future could look like here is great. I would also suggest that you take a look at ARIS, it is a mobile platform for creating mobile games and has a lot of museum potential.

    I would also suggest looking at some of the papers on mobile tech that have appeared in the Museums and the Web conference over the last several years.

    Oh, and lastly, don’t hesitate to look at non-museum apps to think about how they might suggest future tracks for museum app development.

    Now, on the question of barriers, pitfalls, prohibitive costs, etc. Yes these are clearly issues, at the same time, this is such an emergent area that it is worth nodding toward these things but we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the potential here. So I would suggest chasing the potential here over spending too much time dismissing things.

  2. Hi Laura,

    I am a graduate student in the Public History program at Carleton University. In my Digital History course, we are working on a similar type of project as you. Our task is to actually create a Smartphone App using open source technology in an effort to determine how easy it would be for small local museums and historical societies, run by people with potentially limited technical abilities and operating on very tight budgets, to create their own history-oriented app.

    Your concern about cost is valid; large museums can afford more sophisticated technology, but there are low-cost options which may be just as effective. There is a list of free platforms on our course website: My group has chosen to work with Junaio (, a free Augmented Reality (AR) platform that we will use to augment a local museum’s special exhibit. The App will recognize images in the exhibit, triggering extra information, photos, audio, videos, and even 3D animated characters to pop up on the screen to enhance a visitor’s learning experience.

    One of the concerns we had was whether it was worth it for a small museum to take the time and effort to create an App for a temporary exhibit. Once the exhibit is removed in a few months, the App would be useless. However, because Junaio works by recognizing images (unlike a GPS location-based platform), it will recognize the same image no matter where that image appears, whether it is on the exhibit panel in the gallery or in the exhibit catalogue that can be purchased by museum goers. If the App is cool enough, offering rich content and a wow-factor, it will provide museum goers with incentive to purchase the museum catalogue in order to have access to all the App’s content after they leave the museum. Images of merchandise from the museum gift shop could also trigger content to pop up, so an App that is essentially free for a museum to create could actual help the museum to make money.

    Your question “how do you craft an app so that it enhances a visitor’s experience without distracting from it?” will be one of our main challenges. It is very true that such devices can detract from the museum experience. According to the article “The Iphone Effect? Comparing Visitors’ and Museum Professionals’ Evolving Expectations of Mobile Interpretation” from the Museums and the Web Conference (to which tjowens has linked to in his reply), audio tours are currently the most popular form of mobile guides used by museums (Chart 9). In my experience, audio tours offer a bland, solitary and isolating museum experience, as people who have gone to the museum together end up not interacting with each other at all, not talking about or engaging with the ideas presented in the exhibit. A tour with an App allows for greater interactivity, both with the people you are there with and with the App itself. The case studies in the article reveal that museum goers are hungry for more interactive multimedia tour devices, especially for young children who are easily bored with droning audio tours. Reading such studies about how this technology is being received by museum visitors will help us to develop an App with content that is appealing to visitors. If you have any suggestions on further reading that might help us with our project, you can post a link to them on our course website: – I’ll do the same for you.
    Good luck with your project!

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