A few years ago, you might remember seeing signs to stow away your cell phones upon entering a museum. Perhaps because there used to be a widely accepted and unspoken understanding that exploring a museum is solely a physical experience. But now, as museums are repositioning themselves for the new digital age, they are becoming more than just physical places to visit. From museums as large as the Met to local history centers, museums around the world are now embracing the digital experience to breathe new life into their attractions.

Here are four digital technologies and strategies that are revolutionizing the museum space:

Augmented Reality

Augmented reality (AR)  is the future, but you don’t have to take our word for it. Apple recently acquired Metaio, an AR startup, Google has invested $500 million in an AR firm called Magic Leap, and Time Magazine named Microsoft’s Hololens as the number one gadget of 2015. So what exactly is augmented reality and how has it managed to entice such powerful tech firms?

AR is the synthesis of digital information with the user’s environment in real time. It uses the existing environment and overlays new information on top of it, distinguishing it from virtual reality (VR), which creates a completely artificial environment.

Let’s compare the Oculus, a prime example of VR, and Microsoft’s Hololens, the poster child for AR. The Oculus is trying to reel you into another universe altogether while the Hololens overlays graphics and text on the real world, giving holograms real-world context and scale. Essentially, the Hololens is a more refined version of where Google Glass, augmented reality eyeglasses, crashed and burned. It provides a more natural experience and is far more practical because it enhances the world you currently live in.

This may sound fascinating, but you might be wondering if an AR like Hololens has the potential to really redefine the museum space. Well, imagine listening to your tour guide who is talking to your group about Triceratops living in the Cretaceous period, while seeing a live Triceratops walking about the museum. The Royal Ontario Museum is making this a reality with their “Ultimate Dinosaurs” exhibit that uses AR to add flesh to the bones of dinosaurs and allows them to move around.  AR’s potential is immense: it can bring the inanimate to life and transport you to different time periods for an engaging and educational experience.

                                                     

Beacons

Beacons, or Apple’s version, the iBeacon,  can strengthen the impact of AR on museums. Beacons use Bluetooth to emit a low power signal with a unique identification number that compatible apps can look up to prompt a variety of actions, such as social media check-ins and push notifications. The most important feature of beacons, however, is to provide a smartphone information on its location. Beacons can transmit location information to phones anywhere from centimeters away to over fifty meters away.

What does that mean for museums? In coordination with a museum app, the app is able to exactly sense where a visitor is and thus provide a rich feed of information including audio talks and videos. As an added bonus, you can also use beacons to track how patrons interact with your exhibits.

Many museums on a global scale have secured an edge on beacons, and have already integrated beacons into their visitors’ experience.  Specifically, the Brooklyn Museum has taken a unique approach to this budding technology. They have integrated iBeacons into their app so that visitors can reach out to staff about questions they may have regarding the exhibits.

Leveraging Social Media

The usage of social media is no new concept, but many museums still lag behind when it comes to effectively leveraging social. In fact, according to Statista, 2 billion people worldwide are using social networks. Of those 2 billion people, 1 billion actively use Facebook.

Museums are utilizing their social media presence to reach a larger audience and foster a dialogue between themselves and their visitors. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) has placed a strong emphasis on Twitter and has encouraged their staff to balance their accounts between a personal and professional narrative. Since implementing this strategy, ROM has seen a major increase in activity levels and engagement. Between July and August of 2014, the total number of shared images increased from 147 to 604, and reach increased from 9,083 to 227,605.

The National Gallery of Denmark, down the road from our friends at the Royal Danish Theatre,  is also capitalizing on social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. These social channels are increasingly being used to report on events going on in the museum currently. Staff are also encouraged to share museum-related content on their personal profiles. As a rough measure of success, the National Gallery of Denmark experienced a significant increase in the number of  likes on their Facebook page and gained more Instagram and Twitter followers.

Social Media

 

Mobile-Friendly Design

Mobile-friendliness essentially means that when a website is accessed through a mobile device, the user doesn’t have to zoom in to read parts of the text or scroll in different directions to access its content. Already, more people are web-browsing via mobile devices as opposed to laptops or desktops, and according to Statista, more than 63.4% of mobile phone users will access online content through their devices by 2017.  That’s why it’s essential to make your web design mobile-friendly.

The surefire method, and in fact Google’s top choice, is to provide your users with a consistent and quality experience through responsive design. This technique allows the user’s browser to adjust your website to fit their screen. Essentially, one template serves a multitude of devices.

Many museums are racing to implement mobile-friendly websites: The Guggenheim, Springfield museums, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and more. Doing so can garner more traction and site visits.

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Roy Chomko

Author Roy Chomko

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