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Visitor research? There’s an app for that

Museums are using mobile technology to engage directly with their audiences and in future may use this data to boost their bottom lines too

Forget snail mail and pen-and-paper questionnaires—new technology is giving museums feedback from visitors in real time. This month, the Brooklyn Museum in New York will debut the Android version of ASK, a text-message application that enables visitors to chat live to museum staff about objects on show (with a typical response time of 45 seconds).

Shelley Bernstein, the museum’s vice-director of digital engagement and technology, says that curators are using these conversations to rethink displays and object labels. Meanwhile, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York has gauged visitor interest in specific objects with a handheld gadget called the Pen. Launched last year and adapted from an inventory control device used in healthcare, the Pen enables visitors to scan wall labels and build a virtual collection of works they enjoy. Micah Walter, the institution’s director of digital and emerging media, was surprised to find that four of the six most “collected” objects in the museum were models of staircases. 

Museums might one day use this information for more than just curatorial insight; it could also help to boost their bottom lines. “Proximity marketing”, in which retailers use mobile phone data to deliver direct and tailored advertising, “hasn’t quite made it into the museum sphere yet”, says Elizabeth Merritt, the director of the Center for the Future of Museums at the American Alliance of Museums. “But I think it’s only a matter of time.”