Reflections on my meetings with museums in DC (with an emphasis on mobile design, but also stuff generally)

James William Yoon james.yoon at
Mon Aug 24 21:28:32 UTC 2009

Hey folks,

As a number of you already know, I spent the past couple of weeks in
the DC area and had the opportunity to meet with a number of museum
professionals to talk about Fluid Engage, particularly FE's mobile
design. I met with our advisory board members from the Smithsonian
American Art Museum and Experius (Nancy Proctor and Titus Bicknell,
respectively), as well as individuals from the Smithsonian National
Portrait Gallery and the Newseum.

They had a lot of interesting things to say about the work we're
doing, and, in a nutshell, loved it! I thought I'd share a few of the
thoughts, insights, and opinions they had.


By and far, the people I spoke with were most excited about the idea
of collecting artifacts. They loved the idea of visitors being able to
bookmark their artifacts, and take them back home. One museum
mentioned they've been wanting to do this for some time, but didn't
have the resources to do so--needless to say, he was very excited
about the possibility of using our solution in the future. People also
liked the idea of seeing what other visitors enjoyed (or, similarly,
what other visitors looked at, or collected)--this voyeuristic
activity gives visitors insight on what to look at next.

I didn't get a chance to talk to most people about the mapping design,
but the ones that I did were really excited about the idea of printing
multiple tours on a map, especially if it's dynamically generated from
an interest.


I was repeatedly asked where tours were in our design (short answer:
it's not there, longer answer: we want to put them in). In particular,
they were interested in seeing theme-based tours, audio tours, and
map-guided tours in our mobile application. Audio tours were a
particularly important topic, since museums that currently have audio
tours (or museums interested in bringing in an audio tour system)
would want to see this as a replacement to existing audio tours
systems. Additionally, the idea of visitors having to carry and
interactive with both an audio tour device *and* a mobile device like
an iPhone is very unappealing. Mobile-based map-guided tours and
dynamic, interactive maps were also items of interest.


In a generalized solution, customizability and modularity are key. Not
all museums will want everything that our solution will offer. One
individual mentioned that if they were to adopt our solution, they'd
want to start small and conservatively and try out a portion of our
features before adding others. Museum integration and interoperability
with existing systems was also something they emphasized.

Both of these issues are things I know the developers are thinking
deeply about, and I passed along that reassurance to the museums, much
to their relief.


If people are spending more time looking at and interacting with the
device than the art, *then the museum has failed*. This is so
important for us to remember! As technologists, we're naturally
technologically-centric, but we need to remember that the primary
experience isn't around our applications or solutions, but the

Also, we need to emphasize things that are on display, not things that
are in storage, especially for the in-museum case, but it still
applies to out-of-museum. Visitors often see artifacts on the website,
assume it's on display, go to the museum, and are disappointed when
they're not. We need to bubble up the artifacts on display, and make
the distinction between on display and in storage very clear.

Finally, people are messy, and we should allow for some messiness in our design.


People were thrilled about the open source nature of the project. One
individual mentioned how wonderful it is that we're looking for and
listening to feedback and guidance from museums that aren't even
officially on the project. A couple of individuals mentioned that they
were really glad to see an open group focusing on this space, and were
impressed with the level of care and consideration we were putting in.

So, that's the (sort of) quick-and-dirty summary of my August 2009
visit to DC museums. The museums are looking forward to seeing what we
release, and I get the sense that they're cheering us on.

My notes will be available on the wiki, off of the mobile wireframes
page (,
as that's where most of the feedback is geared towards (one set of
notes is already up there). The design team will be getting together
soon to discuss the feedback in greater detail, and deciding the
effect it'll have on our designs.

For those of you who haven't been to DC, I took a few pictures of the
American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery/Lunder Conservation
Center/Luce Foundation Center (they were all in the same building).
It's a beautiful space. You can see it here:

I wish I had taken some photos of the Newseum, but I was stretched for
time. I will, however, say that it's the most new media intense museum
I've had the pleasure of visiting. They had (among other things) what
seemed like hundreds of touchscreen kiosks, an interactive surface
table, and multiple very large screen displays (one was about 80 feet
long). It was done in such a way that helped the visitor really
connect with the story behind the works (photographs, newspaper front
pages, some artifacts). They have over 40 different kiosk
types/applications, and all but two or three of them were designed and
developed in house. In the end, though, it was the stories the museum
told that really got to me--many were very heart-stirring, and
awe-inspiring--the technological coolness was just icing on the cake.


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