On a muggy hot July day here in D.C., I attended the Smithsonian Mobile Learning Institute’s Mobile Learning Summit held at the Hirshhorn. Presenters shared their mobile initiatives with the gathered group of museum educators, archivists and graduate students.
What surprised me was the overwhelming majority of mobile applications being developed for the iPhone. Noah (Networked Organisms and Habitats), an iPhone app and website, has users tag and identify animals, plants and organisms worldwide. Yasser Ansari, the presenter for Noah asked us a question, kind of as an aside, but making a good point. He was confused as to why each museum uses their own digital tools. We create our own unique apps, that sync with our own unique collections databases – essentially re-creating the wheel time and time again, in one-off projects that take up time and money.
In the world of digital technology and museums, why is there not more cross-institutional collaboration for creation of digital tools?
The simple answer is that museums are a unique business. We’re public, but considered by the public to be private. We have small niche audiences, but our society as a whole expects us to always exist. When we create mobile apps (or websites, or iPod tours, etc.) no one can definitively answer who exactly we are trying to reach.
The not so simple answer is what I spent my summer researching at the Center for History and New Media.
Every digital tool developed goes through a process, one that I saw in hyper speed during CHNM’s One Week. This process can seem to facilitate collaboration breakdown. “Well, that doesn’t work for us, we’re going to do it this way” or “We’re going to hire someone to build an iPhone app for us.” Smaller institutions are forced out of the game by cost barriers and larger institutions may be creating tools that aren’t useful in the long run. Over the course of the summer I read about developing standards for digital tools for art museums. Working with Sharon Leon in the Public Projects department of CHNM, we discussed digital tool development emphasizing standards-based content.
A look at the iTunes store shows that museums are embracing mobile technology and coming up with some pretty neat apps. After my research this summer, I hope to see (and create!) digital tools not just for iPhones, but using free, open source platforms like Omeka.