Apps for your mobile phone are becoming a feature of many people's daily life, this Tate Debate questions their appropriateness in context of museums

Tate Debate Banner image

The rise of the smartphone means we are beginning to expect to catch up with our friends, check the weather and read the headlines simply with a flick of the finger or tap of the thumb.
Many museums and galleries have started to produce their own apps – giving you the chance to experience an aspect of that organisation right in the palm of your hand!
We think we should be doing more in this area, what do you think?
Would you like to see more apps from galleries?
What should they focus on - what’s on in the galleries, information on objects on display, games, video content?
Do you think mobiles are the wrong place for experiences with art and culture?
Let us know which side of the argument you come down on.
As food for thought, here’s what we’ve made ourselves or seen and liked from other museums.
Tate’s apps so far (all for iPhone or iPod touch):

Miroslaw Balka App

How It Is is an experience, gaming-influenced app based on the Miroslaw Balka Turbine Hall commission from 2009.
Tate Trumps is a game to be played in the gallery at Tate Modern.
We have two guides to exhibitions at Tate Modern: Miró and Gauguin.
And a vintage photography app, to Muybridge-ise your images We’ve also seen a lot of things we like from other organisations:

Love Art from the National Gallery, London:

Streetmuseum, Launchball, Field Guide to Australian Flora and Fauna, Love Art, Explorer
Streetmuseum, Launchball, Field Guide to Australian Flora and Fauna, Love Art, Explorer


Davide Orlando

Interesting comments. I'd say definitely more apps and definitely multi-platform, hoping they'll replace audioguides as on-site tools to engage visitors and explain artworks!

Kirstie Beaven

Thanks @Tom. Your Duxford app sounds like an excellent example of something that makes complete sense on a mobile device, and is led by a visitor need rather than by the technology.

I agree it's interesting that we've touched less on the rich content or publishing side of things. There hasn't been much discussion of tablet apps, which I think might drive the publishing of quality content since it does seem so much more enjoyable to consume video or images on a tablet-sized screen, than on the small screens of the average smartphone.

Also agree that iOS is a niche within a niche and that we should be aiming for publishing across platforms.

Kathryn Booth

I love apps that give information about exhibitions and are a 'souvenir' of the exhibition. (The Cult of Beauty one was good) No games though - not a gallery thing at all!

seemaa mehra

ofcourse-- finally accepting art as part of the market place. PART OF REAL LIFE AS IT UNFOLDS IN FRONT OF US.

Bruce Wyman

You run a slippery slope asking about apps and mobile in museums when you ask a question along the lines of, "Based on what you've seen or done, do you think we should do more?" There are a few hierarchies of interaction with museums, and @edrodley begins to get at them above. I often think I see Maslow at work in this hierarchy.

Basic Need - what's on, how do I get there, where do I park, what are the hours. There's little reason to do this in an app, especially an app dedicated solely to this. Mobile web serves it well and most museum web analytics that I've seen have shown this to be a well-visited portion of the website.

Exhibit Derivative - the modern version of the audio tour. That, as you move about the museum, there's additional information and content available through your mobile device. It's where the modern layer of tech is at and tries to satisfy the visitor need of having a guide or docent available throughout the museum for everyone at all times. This is baseline app stuff but also doesn't fundamentally change the museum experience.

Extend the Experience - This is where it starts to get interesting and some of the apps described above, Muybridgizer, Streetmuseum, Victoria's Field Guide, Launchball, etc, head in this direction. These aren't direct interactions with the museum and its displayed content, but leverage the museum as a source of an experience.

The Next Step - And this is rare and won't be discovered by a focus group. This is where you try out something insanely new that sounds crazy and tickles and itch of many. Twitter nor the iPad were invented by a focus group but worked with existing tech in new ways that surpassed and delighted people.

I want to see museums innovating on the 3rd and 4th tiers, but here's the rub. It's hard to do those well unless you've worked your way up to creating those kinds of experiences. You need to cut your teeth on the lower end experiences to see how to develop, what it means to manage that sort of project, and how to create meaningful interactions. At the same time, doing that lower tier often helps museums reorganize internally to create a new digital infrastructure that allows the really good stuff to happen. If you start out at the top, you may create something brilliantly bespoke, but it's difficult to scale that experience and succeed again.

So, yes. Do more apps. Not because everyone else is making an app but because you have something to share, an experience to extend, a way to engage people. Do the crappy apps and get them out of the way so you can wrap everyone's head around how to do the hard stuff. It's a learning process both internally and externally. Along the way, be insanely skeptical that this stuff is working and if it's not, kill it off. And, when you get the crazy idea that nobody's tried before, then you're in a position to try because you have the mechanics in place.

The apps that create new experiences, whether it be gaming in the museum, or adding a user-contributed augmented reality layer to an exhibit, or pull the content out into the real world, are the ones that we ultimately need to create. The experiences don't have to satisfy everyone—hell our own content doesn't do that—and be comfortable with that.

Ellen Grigsby

I enjoy museum apps and I use them frequently. As regards your questions, my thoughts are as follows:

1. I most enjoy/use apps *after* having visited the museum/exhibit attached to the app. While I have downloaded apps for museums that I've not visited since the download, after the initial viewing, I find I never open that particular app. However, after recent visits to the V&A and the National Gallery, I return to the apps as a means of reliving/re-experiencing those visits. 2. Thus, for me, it is important that apps be functional outside the museum itself. Again, for me, such is the case not as a means to "substitute" for an actual visit but, rather, as a means to deepen/prolong what was valuable about the visit. 3. I agree with above commentators vz. keep it simple, focus on the art (not bells and whistles), and do give people information about the art. Information does not equate with "taming" our viewing; it can enhance our viewing and prompt us to read/view more deeply on our own. 4. Free apps are very important. Minimize fee-based apps. 5. I agree with posts above, vz. being mindful of your associates/financial supporters. Don't pretend that what the Tate does is apolitical. Museums are as ideological/political as any other institution (as many of your exhibits have been quick to point out).

Kirstie Beaven

Good point @Chris, and we shouldn't forget that many mobile experiences with museums/galleries will still happen through the browser, no matter how many apps we have! @Keith Harrison also made the point that apps themselves are necessarily for a niche audience.

Though you say browser-based experiences can be equally rich, I wonder if there are also ways, as @Mike Ellis says, that the "mobile-ness" of mobile can be better harnessed, and whether apps currently allow us to do that more easily?


There seems to be an App based stampede at the momemt? I like my smartphone to give me this or that! There are many detailed and in some ways technical replys. i would like to raise a simpler question (if the moderator allows) Are these apps cost effective to produce given that the typical user appears to be a smartphone user wishing to enhance their exsperience? Would the funds be better spent producing something that reaches out to a wider audience?

Chris Garrett

Interesting response Kirstie. You can still optimise experiences for mobile in the browser, for instance you still have access to contextual sensors such as GPS.

We recently undertook a project for English Table Tennis, Although it's not a museum project, it still shows how a browser based tool can work across platforms and still help people discover new venues and events using mobile specific contexts such as current location. This, for me, is the future.

An open and future proof, singular code base that isn't tightly coupled with any particular platform or means of distribution.

Mike Ellis

Seems an odd question. A bit like asking "should museums build websites?"...

To which, answer is: yes, in some contexts - no in others :-)

I have to say, I've been fairly underwhelmed by a number of museum apps. I banged on about this a while back ( - the fascination with collections per se seems somewhat bizarre.

However - use of mobile because it is *mobile* and not just because you can - is a whole other matter. I think we're only just beginning to see innovation in this space, and there's lots of room for more exciting stuff.


Yes for apps! I prefer museum apps that have additional content such as video, interviews, event details, and "behind the scenes" sort of stuff, etc. I am not so much in favor if just putting up every piece in the collection, though those who enjoy looking at art will undoubtedly choose to see a piece in a museum and not just on a device. Perhaps an app where you can curate your own show in a digital gallery space using pieces from the collection or pieces from recent exhibitions would make this approach more interesting and interactive. Bringing art to people in any way is a plus!

Chris Garrett

If the purpose of these apps is to liberate the information and resources held by the museum, I would question whether the app stores are essentially the wrong channel for distribution. Why decide to liberate information, then put it behind a pay-wall (even if the apps are free, you still need to buy the specific application to run the app).

A more sensible use of budget would be to create engaging browser-based experiences, which can be equally rich if we leave behind the now outdated platforms. This makes the information open to all, and will hopefully engage the extremes at each end of the age bracket, who don't necessarily have access to smart phones.


Exactly Kurt. 1-The Google Art Project is a winner but only as long as it is supported by those who can licence the use of their collection's images. 2-If museums can realise more funding from sources like apps (nobody argues over whether there should be glossy catalogues) then more art can be bought for exhibition to the public. As a developer I would add that closely designed apps like the ones highlighted in the article are the exception on the AppStore. It's possible to waste a lot of time and money building a sprawling, unfocussed and probably un-useful App and that should not be at the expense of acquiring artworks for exhibition Interesting comments on the article! Thanks.


On one side I feel that going into a cultural venue should be an opportunity to enter an oasis of calm, to be allowed to think, contemplate and take in the experience, clear of the clutter of texts and tweets and beeps that surround us the rest of the time.

On the other hand I love my tech and being able to pull up additional information in an instant is brilliant. I love the idea that I could get artists and curators statements in plain English. I can get context if I want it, see additional works by the artist or movement that aren't on display, engage my kids in something and take it away to follow up at home and perhaps return to re-evaluate my initial thoughts and ideas.

I worry about the rush to create apps for apps sake though. While many of the museum and gallery apps I've seen are brilliant, are they all really needed? Do they all add to the experience enough to warrant the cost of development? Look at any of the app stores, for every Angry Birds there are a thousand crappy games. Also using that analogy it is often the simplest cleanest apps that work the best. I'm still not there on video, if only because of download limits etc.

I'm still excited to see what comes next though....

As for deleting comments, they are not strictly off topic but even if they were, that a cultural institution is stifling debate is horrific. The sponsor here is part of the very technology Tate is instigating a debate about. You can't split the two out. As soon as the sponsor is associated with you, you open yourselves to criticism. Don't like it? Don't take the money. That's sponsorship 101.

Would I prefer here to just read about apps yes, but I prefer freedom of expression more. After all isn't that what art is all about?

Jess Day

I second everything Adam says! Particularly that it's all very well offering more, better-presented information about the object, but why can't that be available to everyone, using that lovely, cheap, accessible technology: PAPER! I'm fed up of exhibits with badly-written, uninformative labelling.

dave boyne

This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.


This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.

Tom Grinsted

Isn't one of the nice potentials of mobile the opportunity to actually decrease the amount of information and interpretation on display in gallery spaces, push some of it to mobile/guides for people that want it, and in doing so make the spaces more experiential and relaxing?

... possibly.


This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.

Mr Wilkes

This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.


This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.


This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.

Drew FitzGerald

I think mobiles and corporate sponsorship are both better left out of art and culture. As a society we already spend an inordinate amount of time 'glued' to our electronic devices, personally I would prefer my museums and galleries mobile and marketing free. Surely there is a limit on how much information we can actually consume and if people wish to research further they can do already through existing channels. Although sponsoring a debate about mobile usage by a mobile phone company appears to suggest you have already made your decision.


This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.

Matthew Pringle

This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.

Gregory Deacon

This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.


This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.


This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.

Matthew Pringle

This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.


Are you asking a museum to perform censorship? Really?

Marina Pepper

This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.

Rolo Tamasi

Why do you go to museums and not look at the exhibits?

I would like a personalised real time guide that allows me to efficiently organise my time to see what I want and also to learn far more about an exhibit than can be displayed next to it.


That's just not the topic here. Sorry but it is polluting the exchange.

Tom Grinsted

As a few have already pointed out, there are a number of reasons why museums and galleries might create apps - and they're very similar to classic publishing opportunities: * to augment the experience in-gallery (Tate trumps, IWM's own Duxford Air Shows app) * as a take-away after a visit (like the book of the gallery, maybe BL's treasures) * to generate revenue from audiences who may never visit the museum or gallery (we're releasing a posters app in September for this purpose)

Each of these has different use-cases and tests to see if they're a good idea. In-gallery apps must help extend and augment the visitor experience and ultimately their appreciation of the object / art / message. Personally, I think that apps can really help with this, but a clear vision of how they'll be used, and testing with users during development, are both key. In our case, we created the Duxford app to give real-time information on planes that are flying , allow people to share that info, and direct them to where in the exhibition spaces they can find out more. There's a very clear visitor requirement for this type of information and the capabilities of handsets (real-time aspect of use, GPS etc) really helped to effectively communicate this.

The latter two reasons to create an app are much more rooted in having quality content and a clear business case (be it brand-reach, sponsorship or a paid-app model). As content creators museums and galleries should, I think, be active as digital publishers as a way to broaden reach and drive revenue generation. In these cases, quality and rich content (or plane addictiveness in the case of Launchball) are critical and stuff like video, audio, deep zoom or interactive diagrams add quite a lot of value. I think that it's interesting that most of the comments so far have largely left this type of app out.

Regarding Android: our policy is to cross-deploy everything to iOS and Android. This is partly to hit as large a market as is reasonably possible, but it's also really important as far as access and the digital divide is concerned. Android phones are, on average, far cheaper than iPhones. As such, I think you could argue that we have an obligation to publish to them, unless we're happy with only the better-off having access to our content and experiences.

Phew - done now.


This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.


This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.


This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.


This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.

Chris Waite

This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.


This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.

Kirstie Beaven

So we can discuss apps in Museums and Galleries, we're going to have to delete off-topic comments.

Roy Bard

This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.

Daniel Bye

I love the idea of museum apps. I work in the arts and there's plenty more we can all do to use the tools emerging technologies provide. And increasingly these technologies are becoming material, too: they present not just new ways of delivering, accessing and experiencing art, but new artistic possibilities.

As a member of Tate, I'd welcome an app that tells me what's on and gives me more information and context on the work. And I'd welcome explorations in the creation of art for that platform, art that perhaps never appears in the main gallery.

However. I won't remain a member of Tate if you continue your association with BP and Vodafone. These are toxic brands with a whole raft of ethical blind-spots. They make you look increasingly ridiculous. By all means develop apps, but find a more suitable partner.

Matthew Pringle

This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.


This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.

amy vyctorya

This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.


This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.


This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.

Rolo Tamasi

This point of view appears predicated upon the believe that none has anything to benefit by using mobile apps over alternatives. Something that the huge number of apps in use in just about every area of activity must surely bring into question.

The fact that some individuals may not wish to use them is no reason to remove the benefits from others.

If museums are not to be free to use sponsorship then they must make their users pay more.

Richard Appleby

This comment was removed by a moderator as it was off-topic.