Going Mobile in Museums: Nancy Proctor

The Balboa Park Online Collaborative hosted a workshop on February 16 and 17, 2010 on mobile interpretive tools and strategy. Day One featured Nancy Proctor, head of New Media for the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Nancy manages the Museum Mobile project, a blog and wiki for collaborative work on mobile interpretation in museums. You can find an exceedingly detailed wiki page for this workshop here, including all of Nancy and Titus Bicknell's slides.

Nancy began by reminding us that it's not about the technology, a sentiment that Titus echoed the next day. The goal is to go from headphones to microphones, from a one-way broadcast to a two-way dialogue with visitors.

Why mobile? By 2020, it's estimated that most people's primary access to the Net will be via a mobile device, not a PC.

Her strategy:

  1. Define your target audience
  2. Look at your mission and key messages
  3. Define your outcomes: what do you want visitors to know, feel, and do?
  4. What platforms are they already using?

All of this should sound very familiar to anyone involved with interpretive planning, and I loved to see how she integrated best practices into the notion of mobile interpretation, incorporating possible mobile interpretive tools alongside ones that are already in place and already working. Nancy credits Kate Haley Goldman of ILI for her early ideas on this methodology.

Early in the day, we paired up and pulled out a significant object that we were instructed to bring from home. [Note: the "significant object" discussion exercise is one used by SmartHistory's Steven Zucker & Beth Harris when they do workshops with people on their dialogue technique.]

Without telling our partner about our object, we listed as many questions as we had about theirs. Then we asked, and answered, the questions. We grouped the questions into formal, functional, relational, and emotional categories, and discussed how this got us thinking about the objects. We used this warm-up for the question mapping exercise.

Nancy also introduced the notion of soundtrack vs. sound bite, which was an interesting way of looking at chunks of interpretive content. See the video below for her definition of each.

She introduced us to a useful tool called question mapping. We were sent out into Balboa Park after lunch and asked to find (or draw) a map of a museum space, then write down every question we had on that map, locating the questions on the map. Here is a portion of my map, done at the San Diego Museum of Art:

Some of my questions were:

  • RE: nude sculpture: Does she mind being naked?
  • Why is this room peach?
  • Why did he use turquoise in a winter painting?
  • Why all the dead birds?

Then we came back and created a very large matrix, which incorporated our questions as one of the columns. (See an example of a completed matrix on Slide 62 in her slide deck.) Other columns include: target audience, key messages, themes, location (in the museum), type of interp (soundtrack/soundbite/link), voice, feedback option, platform.

While this 11" X 17" sheet was a little unwieldy to work with on our laps, I found it to be useful in helping me think through possible themes, as well as getting creative with potential voices, links, and possible ways to get visitors involved.

One example I came up with is the theme of the use of color by artists. This theme could lead you throughout the museum via podcast, audio tour, iPhone app, labels, scavenger hunt, etc. Voices on audio tracks could include painters, curators, exhibit designers, color designers, and someone from the Pantone Color Institute, who forecast color trends each year.

Possible ways to get the audience involved might be "name that color," vote on your favorite color, colorize a digital painting, try another color in this painting, send a postcard of this painting, or (this doesn't exist) create your own custom color nail polish in the museum store.

Here's my interview with Nancy:

If you are interested in the potential of gaming in museums, including the game the Smithsonian American Art Museum hosted called Ghosts of a Chance, as well as a compilation of recent alternate reality games (ARGs), see this blog post. If you're interested in the potential of gaming in museums, read this article about Columbia College's work on constructive/collaborative gaming.

All in all, this was a terrific first day and gave me some useful tools to think about incorporating technology and media into museum visitor experiences. My thanks to Nancy for taking the time to do the video interview, and to Rich Cherry of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative and Paige Simpson of the Balboa Park Learning Institute for bringing such stellar speakers to San Diego.



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