How Are Museums Using Technology to Create an Interactive Visitor Experience?

If there are two things we can agree on with regard to Bloomberg Philanthropies, it's the embrace of technology and obsession with measuring objective outcomes. And nowhere have these dual passions intersected more elegantly than in the curatorial and museum worlds.

As we noted last year, Bloomberg announced a $17 million commitment over three years to expand its Bloomberg Connects program in six museums. Bloomberg Connects, formerly known as the foundation's Digital Engagement Initiative, aims to use technology to make museum-going a more interactive experience. New York grantees included the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and the Jewish Museum.

A little over a year later, we can't help but channel (and paraphrase) former Mayor Ed Koch by wondering, "How are they doin'?"

Well, let's take the American Museum of Natural History. It's creating its own mobile app, enabling users to get instant information about its collection. Then there's the Brooklyn Museum's mobile app called "Ask" that will allow visitors to text questions about exhibits to museum curators and get the answers in real time. And so on.

So, what can other museums learn from all of this? First off, developing an app needn't be a costly or inordinately complex endeavor. We've seen some of these larger museums take incremental approaches to building out their app's functionality. Some start by creating apps for a single collection. The American Museum of Natural History's app was initially an interactive map of the museum complex. The museum has since built it out to include background and details about the entire collection.

Art, as we all know, is in the eye of the beholder. And one theme that runs through each of these digital initiatives is the idea of personalization. All aspects of our digital lives, from Amazon recommendations to our Facebook friends, is predicated on personalization, so why shouldn't the interactive museum experience be so? To that point, museums are building apps that provide—and we're quoting Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums at the American Alliance of Museums here—"multiple versions of the museum experience." As a result, "you can say [to a visitor], 'Do you want a humorous interpretation or something deeply scholarly?'"

Lastly, there's the issue of measurement. The great thing about interactive apps is that there are multiple ways in which to measure user engagement. They can range from the simple, such as the number of user downloads, to the more granular. For example, a museum can compare attendance figures for an exhibition with an interactive app to an exhibition without one. The comparison won't be perfect—after all, one exhibit may involve a famous artist, which by its very nature will be more popular—but the data can provide a helpful baseline and a springboard to future funding.

One Bloomberg recipient, the Jewish Museum, embraced a similar approach. It developed the "Light My Fire" smartphone app, with which users can choose a Hanukkah lamp from the museum's collection and light virtual candles for the week to share on social media. More than 20,000 people downloaded the app in 2014.

Of course, there are other ways to engage museum goers beyond shiny handheld devices and apps. Click here for a recent post looking at how museums are "going mobile," using paintings as a springboard for walking and biking tours and open-air painting classes.