Dear museums: the time is right to embrace mobile

11/02/2015 By Matthew Petrie

First published in The Guardian.

Dear museums, we love you. You inspire, engage and educate. We visit you to have an experience, to learn something new, or for a day out with family and friends. We love you because you actively bring change and development to our communities. You just make us feel good.

And it seems that London Museums are having a bit of a moment. The British Museum was recently named the UK's most visited attraction in 2012 for a sixth year running, while Tate Modern moved into second place, with a 9% rise in attendance from the previous year. The V&A had its most successful exhibit ever with Hollywood Costume (over 250,000 visits) and David Bowie has just become the fastest selling event in the museum's history. Well done.

But now we need to have a word. Many of you celebrate the past, history and heritage exquisitely, but that doesn't mean you can't be forward thinking too. See all those people coming through your doors? You know what the vast majority of them don't leave home without? That's right, their mobiles.

It's high time for mobile
In fact, a recent study at the New York MoMA found that a whopping 74% of visitors brought a mobile device with them. When so many of you museums are introducing innovative exhibits that utilise new technologies to great effect, you're missing a trick if you don't cater to what visitors are already carrying in their hands. In fact, half of Hollywood Costume visitors who visited the V&A website did so through a mobile device.

The implications become more evident when you realise that the UK has one of the highest penetrations of smartphones, with 58% of the population owning one in 2012, and almost one in five (19%) owning a tablet. US consumers are not far behind – nearly half (44%) of the US adult population (18+) owns a smartphone.

And these people are doing a lot more than just talking. A majority of UK and US smartphone owners use their phones for non-talk activities, such as taking pictures or video, browsing the internet and looking up directions and maps. On top of that, UK consumers are downloading more data on their devices than their counterparts in other countries.

We suspect that you want to meet this growing demand, and provide your tech-savvy visitors with what they've come to expect in their daily lives – access to digital information – to enhance the experience. And some of you are making huge strides in this area.

A study undertaken in 2012 for the American Alliance of Museums and the UK's Museums Association revealed that more than half of US and nearly half (47%) of UK museums offer some form of mobile interpretation, in the shape of either a museum-provided device or mobile features (accessed via the web or downloaded).

V&A leading the way
Leading the way is the V&A, which recently commissioned a mobile visitor market study to gauge the scale and nature of these opportunities. More than 70% of visitors surveyed own a smartphone (and more than 80% took it with them to the museum) and the majority are already using their phones to enhance their cultural visits, creating an opportunity to leverage these existing behaviours.

Photography and object information offer the richest immediate potential, as by far the most frequently reported smartphone activity while at a museum is taking a photo or video of an object on view.

Of course it is significant that foreign visitors comprise almost half of all V&A visitors and are far more likely to have their data roaming turned off to avoid hefty charges. This makes the availability of Wi-Fi – something increasingly expected by consumers in public spaces – crucial for overseas visitors to access mobile interpretation.

Personal v museum-provided devices
Another key finding of the research is that around half of the visitors surveyed who own a smartphone say they would prefer to use their own device over a museum device. Reasons for this include ease and familiarity, hygiene and the convenience of already possessing an interpretation tool, with no need to collect or return a guide.

Museums, as you are enjoying record attendance levels, the time is right for you to seize the opportunity and increase the digital offering to your captive audience. You'll motivate new visitors to come in, and encourage existing ones to come back for more.

We encourage you to tap into existing visitor demand for mobile services and products. But remember to promote it; more than eight out of 10 V&A visitors were not aware that the museum provided Wi-Fi.

Your collections are so rich that they can support myriad stories and experiences. This is a brave new world – visitor mobile museum preferences are not well established. But the key to creating engaging mobile products that visitors will want to use will take testing, measuring and refinement.