Exploring the Universe

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Mara Kurlandsky

Published on February 28, 2011 , Modified on March 01, 2011

  • Description:

    On a recent lovely Saturday, I went down to the National Air and Space Museum to check out what sorts of hands-on activities were in their exhibitions. I wandered around a bit and then discovered to my delight a cell-phone tour on offer in the Explore the Universe gallery. Cellphone tours have caught on like wildfire in museums across the country as an accessible and inexpensive way to provide visitors with enhanced content by using the devices they carry into the museum. I’m still on the fence about their value to the museum-goer, so I thought I’d give it a try.

    The Smithsonian Institution has an ambitious mobile strategy in place (you can check out their wiki at http://smithsonian-webstrategy.wikispaces.com) and this is not the first time that NASM has experimented with mobile technology. In 2009, NASM piloted a program that would allow visitors contact the Welcome Desk so as not to physically return every time they had a question. And in 2010, the Ask an Astronaut Tour allowed visitors to call in and chose from 4 questions with answers pre-recorded by real astronauts. The cell-phone tour in the Exploring the Universe (ETU) gallery is fairly similar. A sign placed squarely in the middle of the entrance to the gallery notifies visitors of the cellphone option. Visitors are given a local phone number and instructed to look for labels throughout the exhibit that have a question related to the exhibit and a code number. After dialing the number and punching in the code, one will hear an audio clip between one and two minutes long. The sign at the entrance offers the code to hear an introduction by the exhibit curator who reminds the visitor that this is a pilot program and he or she is welcome to press another number and record comments about their experience. I went through the exhibit determined to get the most out of my (free) cellphone tour while considering its merits as an experimental addition to the gallery.

    What Works?
    I’m not usually a fan of audio tours, but somehow the idea of getting to use my own little device to get something extra was exciting. I almost always have my smartphone in my hand or pocket, so engaging with it is second nature. At the entrance there was a family with a teenaged daughter who immediately got out her smartphone to give it a try, so right off the bat it seemed like this could be an effective way to engage kids and young adults who are accustomed always being on a cellphone. One need not have a smartphone, only a cellphone that can make outgoing calls. This allows the widest variety of cellphone carrying visitors to access the tour. The most obvious benefit of having the tour is the ability to provide extra content. At one “stop” on the tour, I called in to find out “What was Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s great discovery?” It explained her accomplishments and I also learned a bit more about what it was like to be a woman at the turn-of-the-century Harvard Observatory. At another stop I called in to hear “Who invented the telescope?” The text panel nearby was all about Galileo and the telescope, so I thought the question was redundant. However when I phoned in, the recording explained that Galileo had not in fact invented the telescope, but was the first person to use it to study astronomy. The curators may have felt that focusing on Galileo was more relevant to the gallery. In this case, I was able to learn something interesting that there simply may not have been room for in the original design.

    The ability to add information to the exhibit is especially important in a gallery about astronomical discovery. One panel showed a comparison the heliocentric model of the universe advocated by Copernicus and the reigning geocentric model of that time period; both showed only the first five planets. The cell-phone prompt asked “Where is Pluto?” The recording explained that Pluto was not missing from the diagrams as a result of its recent reclassification as a dwarf planet but rather because the diagrams show the planets visible to the naked eye in Copernicus’s time. The prompt question indicates that the curators realize visitors will be familiar with major astronomical discoveries and content can be updated to reflect this. The cell-phone tour further enlivens the exhibit by providing the voices of experts. Several tour stops ask a question of a real scientist, astronomer or astronaut and hearing the voice of an authority talking about an artifact or concept presented to the visitor can make it more concrete and interesting. Finally, all 25 of the audio clips function as stand-alone narratives with background given before the question is answered. This means that one does not have to have read the related text in order to understand the subject and would thus be a good option for audio learners or visually impaired visitors (though they may need assistance in locating the stops, which do not have braille).

    What Doesn’t Work?
    The success of the cellphone tour obviously depends on the visitor having a device with them. This prohibits the visitors without cellphones or students who have been asked to leave their cellphones on the bus from accessing the content. And even if one does have a cellphone, the tour can be quite static. You phone in and stand in one place while passively receiving information. And it’s quite static in the other sense of the word: many of the recordings were of poor sound quality and were difficult to follow. This could make a visitor lose interest if the extra content they are supposed to be receiving is unintelligible—why bother? Beyond the sound quality, the noise in the gallery was also a major deterrent. Anyone who has ever been to NASM knows that it’s quite noisy from the sheer volume of visitors alone, which often include large school groups. Adding in the videos that play on repeat in the gallery and frequent loudspeaker announcements about docent-led tours, it ends up being exasperating trying to listen to audio recordings via cellphone. It’s quite telling that I saw very few people using the tour; in fact, after I saw the teenager and a couple try it out at the beginning, I didn’t notice any other users. Other interactives such as a simple tabletop with a light button and a hand crank (illustrating the different ways of measuring light) inspired much more enthusiasm and allowed for discussion. I suppose a group could listen to the recording on speakerphone to create a more social experience, but this would certainly add to the noise problem. Lastly, the majority of the recordings simply reiterated the written content. Though this may be a good accessibility option, it makes the tour redundant for the visitors who are already reading the text.

    Overall, the cellphone tour in the Exploring the Universe gallery is not particularly impressive. It’s difficult to hear, the experience is limiting in terms of social engagement and active learning. Other than actually dialing the number it’s a completely passive experience and often a repetitive one at that. Many experts like Kovan J. Smith of the Metropolitan Museum argue that cellphone tours preserve the audio guide format, but audio-guides are popular with a very small percentage of visitors1. To be fair the ETU tour ¬is a pilot program and it certainly has potential, particularly as a quick and easy way to address new discoveries, as an accessibility solution for visually impaired patrons, or to offer foreign language interpretation. After each individual recording is a reminder that visitors are encouraged to share feedback by simply pressing a two-digit code and recording their message. Changing the individual tour stops should be fairly easy, since most “stops” appear to be printed stickers with the phone code stuck to a gallery label. These could be removed and reprinted and audio re-recorded. Hosting companies that offer museum cellphone tours use basic formats like .wav or .mp3 that are easy to save and transfer. The services are relatively inexpensive; price varies by project but guidebycell.com is offering $99 per month. The major cost here would be in staff time spent scripting and recording audio. Many of the tour stops would be more engaging as video, but if cost is an issue, the cellphone tour may be the best compromise. The Smithsonian Mobile and Web Strategy website has fairly detailed information about its other cellphone initiatives2, but I wasn’t able to find much information for the ETU gallery. I did find a comment suggesting that the average listening time was 50-70 seconds, which actually seems quite good. I don’t know that this is accurate, but if so it suggests that those who opt-in to the tour are listening to most of it. Ultimately it comes down to the return on investment for NASM. Is the cost of the tour low enough to justify providing a service to a small segment of the population, even if this segment uses it enthusiastically? Enabling visitors to record their opinions was a smart move for NASM and it’s obvious from their previous attempts with cellphone usage that the museum is committed to finding out what works for its visitors.

    1 Smith, K., The Future of Mobile Interpretation. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2009. Consulted February 27, 2011. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2009/papers/smith/smith.html

    2 http://smithsonian-webstrategy.wikispaces.com/SI+Mobile+Projects

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