Will Mobile Apps Really Improve Museums? Bloomberg Thinks So.

Museums are the types of places that you either love or hate. For some people, they inspire a world of boundless learning, but for others, they bring back excruciating memories of middle-school field trips. Bloomberg Philanthropies is doing its best to get millennials engaged in culture by making museums tech-savvy and mobile app-friendly.

Although Bloomberg Connects, formerly known as the foundation’s Digital Engagement Initiative, has a broad national and international profile, a substantial portion of grant funds are staying in New York City. Bloomberg Philanthropies recently announced another $17 million commitment over the next three years to expand Bloomberg Connects in six particular museums. Three of the museums included in this recent commitment are located in New York.

“Each of the institutions we’re supporting is using technology in different ways to engage, educate, and immerse their visitors—and to make their world-class resources available to a greater number of people, more of the time,” Michael Bloomberg commented in a press release.

Bloomberg will help New York City’s American Museum of Natural History to upgrade its navigational mobile app and transform it into a museum guide that can be used both onsite and offsite. This app will allow visitors to build their own personalized museum tours and share their favorite exhibits on social media.

Another local museum getting Bloomberg support is the Brooklyn Museum, which will use the funds to enable visitors to ask experts questions in real time using location-based technology. The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum will be using Bloomberg’s funds to develop a mobile app that allows visitors to digitally make note of objects they encounter to compile and view at a later time. This museum will reopen to the public in December 2014.

Before this recent $17 million commitment, Bloomberg poured $83 million into similar technology at other museums. The total figure for Bloomberg giving in 2013 was $452 million, and mobile museum technology is a small part of that total. Still, this is big money by any measure.  

But are mobile museum apps really the answer to increasing visitors, exposing culture, and expanding engagement?

According to a 2012 Mobile in Museums study conducted by the American Alliance of Museums and the Museums Associations Members, the number of museum visitors willing to use their mobile devices in museums is expected to explode in the years ahead. Art, natural history, and science museums have been the quickest to adopt mobile technology, while children’s museums and historic sites lag behind.

Not only can museums use mobile technology to engage visitors, they can also utilize it for more self-serving purposes like marketing and gauging visitor demand for certain features and exhibits. Just walk through nearly any museum these days and you’ll probably see half the visitors glued to their smartphones anyway.

Although “virtually” visiting a museum will never compare to actually stepping foot inside, some of these apps (think the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia or the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City) are even starting to provide remote experiences that are worth the download.

So all signs point to yes: Bloomberg is on the right track with its museum mobile-app initiative. But just as museums are slow to catch up with the trend, most funders are still pouring money into tried-and-true museum support that leaves technology on the sidelines.

“The app space is fast-moving, so there is a risk taking it on by yourself,” said Matthew Cock, head of Web for the British Museum, in a Publishing Perspectives article. Virtual technology is likely to be the future but, again, “the cost could be high.” That’s where Bloomberg comes in—staying ahead of the curve, as usual.