Nancy Proctor on Mobile in Museums (and Revolutionary Change)

This interview is part of our “Thought Leader” series, where we get inside the heads of the best and brightest in the museum & technology world.

Nancy Proctor

Head of Mobile Strategy & Initiatives Smithsonian Institution

Nancy Proctor heads up mobile strategy and initiatives for the Smithsonian Institution, and is co-chair of the Museums & the Web annual conference. Nancy co-founded in 1998 with Titus Bicknell to present virtual tours of innovative exhibitions. It was acquired by Antenna Audio, where Nancy led New Product Development from 2000-2008, introducing the company’s multimedia, sign language, downloadable, podcast and cellphone tours. She also directed Antenna’s sales in France from 2006-2007, and worked with the Travel Channel’s product development team. From 2008-2010 she was Head of New Media at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Nancy served as program chair for the Museums Computer Network (MCN) conference and co-organizes the Tate Handheld conference. She also manages, its wiki and podcast series, and is Digital Editor of Curator: The Museum Journal.

TourSphere: What was a stand-out museum/exhibit that caught your interest recently?

Nancy: So many good ones.  I’ll just talk about a couple that have really stuck with me:

  • Scapes by Halsey Burgund at the DeCordova Sculpture Garden is still one of my favorite museum apps. There are so many things about it that make it stand out for me. I love the way it takes traditional concepts like “stops” and “soundtracks” – and really flips around how they’re used. It’s interesting (and not surprising at all) that it’s an artist that has pushed the limits of the concept of an audio tour here.  You can read a detailed description of my thoughts on it at the Museum Mobile Wiki.
  • Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania -The entire place is amazingly complex and interesting.  All elements are perfectly and completely integrated and of the highest possible quality: from the landscape and the (recommended) arrival at the museum by boat, to the museum’s architecture, collections, exhibitions, library, visitor services, O guide, restaurant, winery, brewery and retail opportunities, everything seems mutually-supportive and organically wrapped around the visitor.  I wrote a full review of my experience for Museum3.

And here are a couple more that aren’t mobile-related (though they do rely on impressive technology):

  • Doug Aitken: Song 1 at the Hirshhorn.  This is just a phenomenal work that uses the exterior of the museum in a way that reinvented the entire Smithsonian – I loved it!
  • Isaac Julien: Ten Thousand Waves at San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. I visited this during Museums and the Web and loved it.  Worth noting is that my 2 year-old daughter was enthralled too!
Nancy’s husband and daughter viewing Ten Thousand Waves @MCA San Diego. Photo by Peter Samis

TourSphere: What was the coolest use of technology you saw in a museum in 2011?

Well, it’s not from last year – it’s actually from next year, but I am extremely excited about what the Cleveland Museum of Art is doing with their Gallery 1 project. It is a 40-foot x 6-foot multi-touch display which allows touch-based exploration of the museums collection and exhibits. It will be seamlessly integrated in their mobile app experience which will include image recognition, indoor location-aware content and social media check-ins. Visitors can simply select content from the kiosk and add it to their mobile experience.

It is supposed to launch in 2012.  I hope it does because I think it could be very exciting and inspirational for other museums, including the Smithsonian.

I’ve also been really excited by image recognition software- like that used in the High Museum’s ArtClix app and Google Goggles.  I think it is a really nice, organic integration in to the “normal” mobile behavior of people.  It doesn’t ask them to change how they typically use their mobile devices – instead it uses that behavior to enhance their museum experience.

TourSphere: Did your museum do something this year (or have something coming up soon) that you are especially proud of/ excited about?

Nancy: I think the most exciting thing we have done recently is the Access American Stories App. In essence what we did here was to crowd-source a museum guide. Through the app visitors are encouraged to participate by describing their experience within the exhibit or by describing the objects on display. The app allows visitors to respond to a comment in the app left by someone else or simply listen to comments left by other people (staff and/or visitors).  Visitors can also “vote up” favorites so they get priority in the play list for other listeners.

With this app we tackled one of our biggest challenges, which is, “How do you make 136 million objects accessible to visitors with low-vision?” But  the thing I love about it, is that it doesn’t just solve the problem we set out to tackle, it actually goes above and beyond that and creates content that is fascinating to all of our visitors.

TourSphere: Is there an app or a technology that has changed the way you do things or made your job easier this year?

eBooks and the Kindle app. I can do so much more reading on the go without hauling lots of paper around!  My other digital indispensables include podcasts (totally addicted to that medium), my iPhone and Google Docs!

TourSphere: Apple or Android (or other)?

It depends on the project, the target audience and the context.  I think Mobile Web continues to be very important.  To me it is really like asking “flat-head or phillips-head” both are necessary – it just depends on what the job is.

TourSphere: If you had to sum up what you think the theme for museums in 2012 will be in one word, what would your prediction be?

Collaboration… around data.  We’ve been talking about data for a few years now.  We’ve been preparing it and I think we are laying the groundwork so that we can start using that data.  Projects like Google Art and Art Babble shows us that the sum is greater than the individual parts.  And its not just about the museums – it’s about collaboration with the audiences as well.

TourSphere: What do you see as the biggest challenge for museums in the coming years?

Remembering our mission.  Keeping sight of it and working towards it.  Whenever you see a museum in trouble and you trace it back – it tends to go back to losing sight of their mission.  Reasonable minds can differ on the way to get there but if we are all in the same boat headed in the same direction with the same end goal in mind, we can get there.

TourSphere: Is there something you are passionate about in the museum world that you’d like to wax philosophical about or rant about?

The last rant I had was at the MuseumNext Conference and that presentation can be accessed here.  What I am really concerned about is the way that the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. It’s a particular problem for museum technologists and I put it down to confusing radical change (where you fundamentally restructure the organization and the way it works) with revolutionary change (incremental improvements in economies and efficiencies via new tools and processes).   The danger in this is that it can discredit the museum technologist who promises major change if the organization just does “this” or adopts that new platform or tool, e.g. “If we could just have an app…” and When they do “that” and the major revolution doesn’t come, it’s usually because a perhaps (easier) revolutionary change is being expected to create a radical difference in the organization (much harder). Revolutions will keep coming but they just put people with new faces into the familiar old seats of power: “The King is dead, long live the King!”

Truly radical change, by contrast, has the potential to completely restructure the systems of power and relations in our organizations. If we want real change in museums, that’s where we need to focus our efforts (though we should also engage in some revolutionary activity from time to time!).

I think we all need to get better about asking some honest questions: Is this something that is superficial or is it a deep radical change?  Do we need to approach it differently – with less heroics and more collaboration?  How will this truly impact everyone – not just our little corner of the museum community?

Thanks for taking the time to share your incredible thoughts and inspirations with us, Nancy!  Keep up with Nancy and her insights at:


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