Moving Outside the Boundaries – How Museums Can Engage Audiences beyond Their Walls

Elycia Wallis, Australia


Museums all over the world have been experimenting with and producing quality content for mobile devices. In this session, the focus is on how collecting institutions can provide content via mobile devices to users who are not visiting a museum venue. A number of examples are cited, including the experiences of Museum Victoria in Australia, which has produced several apps designed to be used outside the walls of the museum. A walking-tours app and science-based Field Guide apps are described. In this ‘how- to’ session, engaging audiences online and off site will be discussed, and the case will be made for developing apps versus mobile websites.

Keywords: mobile, off-site, apps, science, humanities

1. Introduction

Museums have been experimenting with, and producing quality content for, mobile devices for years. Using handheld technologies to deliver content to a museum visitor is not new. Since the 1980s, art museums have offered visitors audio tours in which commentary and interpretation of artworks are provided through a handheld device. Delivery technology has changed, from Walkmans to portable CD players to wands, to name a few. Now, the trend is to replace devices provided by the museum and containing pre-loaded content with the concept of ‘bring your own device,’ or BYOD.

The NMC Horizon Report Preview for 2013 (New Media Consortium, 2013) predicts that this trend will continue to rise, with the time to common adoption predicted as a year or less. The expectation is that museum visitors will not only come with their own mobile device, a notion borne out in statistics (Petrie, 2013), but that they will use that device to enhance their visit to a venue. Access to content on the mobile device may be through a browser and website. At the National Museum of China, for example, the use of QR codes in its galleries provides visitors with access to extended information about works on display, as well as multilingual support (Canadian Heritage Information Network, 2013).

BYOD also means that museums explore content delivery in the form of apps, designed to be downloaded before the visit commences, or at least on site, and still relevant after you leave. A number of museums have produced ‘visit’ apps—designed to be paired with a physical exploration of the museum building. Those museums include the Guggenheim, Museum of Modern Art, Canadian Museum of Civilisation (links in Dawson, 2013),  Museum of Natural History (Ngo, 2010), and American Museum of Natural History, with its Explorer (Winograd, 2010).

Visit apps typically provide information about the exhibits and collections, but also practical information such as maps, opening hours, ticket prices, and the availability of services. This taps into the notion that a visitor’s interaction with the museum starts before they arrive and continues after they leave. The relatively new (to museums, anyway) mechanism of visitor experience journey mapping allows these interactions to be predicted and studied by tracking ‘touch points.’ McCann (2012) provides a clear outline of how a visitor experience journey map helped him to identify what was good (and not so good) in his visit to the Swedish National Museum. Along the way, he used his own mobile device to access information, and he provides a critique of where that worked or did not. It is important to consider the point at which, and the reason why, the user might download an app, rather than access visit-related information on a mobile website.

Other museums have experimented with new mobile technologies by creating apps that give curated views of the collection. Making use of the high screen resolution of many mobile devices, such apps focus on presentation and imagery and are crafted to show off the museum’s collection, with or without the addition of a visit. A very few examples from many available include a number of apps from the National Museum of China, such as Ancient China, the Road of Rejuvenation, and Ancient Chinese Jades. The National Palace Museum in Taipei presents over 300 artefacts in themes or as games in its NPM InSight app. This is in addition to its own visit-based app, which functions as a multilingual tour guide in English, Chinese, and Japanese (National Palace Museum, 2013). The Musée du Louvre app showcases over 100 masterpieces from its collection, including the Mona Lisa (reviewed by Hoover, 2009). The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg provides a virtual visit (Hermitage Museum, 2012), and the Uffizi in Florence presents its collection through Uffizi Touch (reviewed by Roe, 2011). Lastly, the National Museum in Singapore has partnered with a Singapore-based startup called Viddsee to present an app that showcases ten years of short films made in and about Singapore (Xu, 2013).

Still other apps present collections with creative design or interaction twists. These apps are distinguishable in that they are intended to neither be part of a visit nor present a mechanism for browsing the collections. Instead, they entice the user into learning more about each museum and its collection through stories and whimsy. For example, two apps from the American Museum of Natural History—Dinosaurs and Cosmic Discoveries—present specimens and historic and contemporary images through a cleverly designed entry screen consisting of a photomosaic in the shape of a T. rex head or a planet. This interaction is fun but means that individual images are difficult to find again. Kelly (2010) also criticised the app for not going far enough in providing in-depth information and stories, a sentiment shared by Jenny Williams in Wired (Williams, 2010).

Specimania is based on collections at the Field Museum in Chicago. Users collect cards for museum objects and specimens, then use them to battle or to play a card-matching memory game. Cards also provide more detailed information about the history and significance of the collection item, as well as how it came to be at the Field Museum. This provision of information at several levels makes the app work for many ages and interests (Kricke, 2011).

Finally, the Magic Tate Ball is an app explicitly designed to engage users with the Tate’s collections, wherever the user may be (Templeton, 2012). The app takes a playful approach to linking the user’s personal surroundings with an artwork from the collection  using geographic location, ambient noise levels, weather forecasts, and timestamp. Detailed information is provided about each artwork, and the interaction is designed to take less than a minute, making it an app that can be used over and over again. Magic Tate Ball is described by the New Media Consortium in its 2012 Museum Edition of the Horizon Report as an app that ‘transforms the experience of looking at art into a wonderful spare time interaction’ (New Media Consortium, 2012).

These are all interesting and valid approaches for museums to take in experimenting with mobile platforms. This paper’s focus delves even further into how collecting institutions can provide content to users wherever they may be—that is, content based on the museum’s expertise delivered via mobile devices to users who are not at a museum venue, regardless of whether they may plan to go there. The emphasis in this paper is less on showing off the museum’s collection of objects, artworks, or specimens as ends in themselves—though some examples still do that—and more on showcasing the museum’s research and skills and the collective knowledge of the people in the institution. Museums are institutions for research as well as display. Some of that research finds its way into gallery labels or exhibition catalogues, as well as into research papers and conference proceedings. But now there is an opportunity to deliver research and curatorial knowledge to mobile devices, too.

What follows is a more detailed discussion of two types of apps: outdoor walking tours and scientific field guides. In the final part, consideration will be given to how to go about producing products for mobile devices: where to start and what to consider, including how to go beyond presenting collections to enable deeper engagement with museums’ research and knowledge.

2. Digital tourism: Apps for walking tours

Tourism is big business. Visitors require services, particularly to get around, find places to eat and stay, and learn about their surroundings. This need was traditionally serviced by published guidebooks or a tour guide. Entering this market is ‘digital tourism,’ in which digital technologies are used to enhance the tourist experience (Benyon et al., 2013). Many non-museum players are already in the digital tourism marketplace; however, already adept at producing audioguides for exhibitions, museums can easily branch into creating tours for users outdoors and away from their venues.

Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, has released an app that exemplifies how to combine the museum’s collection and curatorial research without focusing on the museum itself. The MV Tours: Walk through History app ( was released in September 2013 for Apple and Android devices. It uses the MyTours platform (, which provides a standardised ‘shell’ app into which customised tour content can be entered according to a template. Nicholaas Earnshaw, writing about the experience of the Powerhouse Museum, which also uses the MyTours platform, says that this model of ‘software as a service’ is a good one for something like tours, where the aim is to deliver content in a templated format that can be easily reused (Earnshaw, 2012).

The MV Tours app provides three tours around Melbourne: one that takes the visitor through the centre of the city; another for Carlton Gardens, in which Melbourne Museum and the World Heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Building are located; and a third through the industrial heritage of the suburb of Spotswood. The third tour was produced in conjunction with a local city council, and it will also be extensively used by them. All content was researched and written by specialist historians, including curators and Museum associates, and is the result of ongoing research into the history of Melbourne. Audio descriptions of each stop are voiced by Museum Victoria curators, and over 700 historic and contemporary photographs are drawn from the Museum’s photographic collection, as well as from the collection of the State Library of Victoria and other sources.

There is little, and only recently released, data yet on how successful the MV Tours app will be. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney first released its tours app in 2011, so it can provide some more lessons learned and concrete analysis.

The Powerhouse Museum Walking Tours App ( provides five free tours and one paid tour. Sold separately is the Sydney Observatory Walking Tours app. Like the MV Tours app, the walks have audio and historic and contemporary photography, and are all GPS located. In a self-review of the Powerhouse Museum tours apps, Earnshaw (2012) concludes that, firstly, most people only open the app once. He also discusses completion rates, which are only about 30 percent to 35 percent per tour, but more like 50 percent for those who start the paid tours; however, only about 2 percent of people who downloaded the app went on to download the paid tour. He concludes that the ‘freemium’ model of content provision is still problematic for museums, but that it seems that people who pay for a tour are apparently more committed to completing it. One final conclusion is that it’s difficult to draw many inferences from simple download statistics alone, and more detailed analytics are needed to really understand how users are interacting with the content.

One question that will be discussed further is, ‘Why an app and not a mobile website?’ In the case of Museum Victoria, the deciding factor was testing the ease of access to either wi-fi or mobile broadband networks along the tour routes. Melbourne simply does not have the network infrastructure that would have allowed a seamless browser-based experience, so an app was chosen. In fact, Australia generally lags well behind other countries for providing wi-fi coverage, even being described as ‘comparatively barren,’ and access is often restricted to that provided by libraries and other public sites (McShane, 2013).

Tours like the ones described above present the user with a mixed reality where the physical and the digital are intertwined. They assume that the user will have their device close to hand and will interact with it, to view photographs and play audio, as well as respond to their surrounding physical environment. Other apps blur the line between the physical and digital even more, by using augmented reality. Two notable examples are the Streetmuseum: Londinium by the Museum of London ( and its precursor, Streetmuseum ( In the Streetmuseum app, historic images from the Museum of London’s collection overlay the contemporary street view, to show how the streetscape once appeared. In Streetmuseum: Londinium, the paradigm goes a step further and uses, instead of historic still images, augmented reality to activate video vignettes of Roman scenes that play over the modern backdrop (Allsop, 2011). The Museum of London, in a case study written by Vicky Lee (2012), describes how publishing these two free apps, the use of which is not tied to a visit to the Museum, nevertheless resulted in extensive publicity (Lee, 2012) and tripled the number of on-site visitors (Johnson, 2012).

In the 2012 Museum Edition of the Horizon report, the New Media Consortium (2012) predicted the use of augmented reality to be in the two- to three-year horizon. They suggested that this is even more likely as technologies that change how users interact with their mobile devices become widely adopted. Nancy Proctor, quoted in an article in Mashable by Alize Sherman (2011), suggested that providing content via augmented reality builds on gestures that are already natural—such as holding up a mobile device to use the camera to scan an object of interest. Proctor goes on to say, ‘if that gesture triggers delivery of content to better understand something, it is a better, more organic experience’ (Sherman, 2011).

Some researchers urge caution against the overenthusiastic development of digital tourism experiences. They suggest that when an experience relies on continually having a mobile device in hand, it can lead to ‘periscope tourism,’ in which the visitor experiences a destination either through the lens of a camera or via the screen of a mobile device (Benyon et al., 2013). The same authors suggest that design of the user interface is important, the aim being that the use of the device will add to the visitor’s emotional response and ability to find meaning in the experience so that it increases the feeling of ‘presence’ in the moment or environment (Benyon et al., 2013).

Attempting to do all these things—to be unobtrusive, yet ubiquitous, and to enhance the feeling of ‘presence’—is Google Glass. When widely released, Google Glass should provide an outstanding augmented reality experience (Merrill, 2013). Testers already have access to a sightseeing app called Field Trip, which tracks a user’s location and delivers information about historical landmarks, tourist attractions, and restaurants (Liedtke, 2013). Content in Field Trip is sourced from over 130 online sources. The challenge for museums will be to create and make available content that will see them included among those sources in the next transformational wave of user engagement integrated with situational delivery of information.

3. Citizen science: Apps for natural history

The term ‘field trip’ is used above to describe an augmented reality experience that, initially at least, is intended to be used in built environments. Field trips can just as easily be taken in the natural world, with the aim being to learn more about the natural environment.

Museums have also explored the potential for delivering information about their natural history collections and research on mobile devices, to be used in the field, and with no link at all to a visit to a museum. The traditional research area for museum zoological science is taxonomy—the science of naming new species. Mobile products can be used to communicate the taxonomic expertise of the scientists, and provide information about species, as opposed to the specimens in the collection. The decision for an app or mobile website, in this case, often falls on the side of the app, as a likely scenario is that it may be used in a national park or remote area where mobile broadband connectivity is unavailable (Sherrin & Wallis, 2012).

Museum Victoria has produced two apps designed to assist in identifying animals that users might see in their local environment or when travelling. The first is the Field Guide to Victorian Fauna (, which contains information on over 730 animals and includes images for every species and sounds for birds, frogs, and some of the mammals. The second app is to the animals and plants found in the Bunurong Marine National Park in Victoria ( This app is smaller in taxonomic scope, but amply demonstrates the curatorial involvement in its production. The vast majority of images in this app were taken by Museum Victoria scientists during field trips diving and scanning the fauna and flora of the park. Information content in both apps was written by scientists. Some information, such as distribution maps, was drawn from an Australian national aggregator of specimen occurrence data, the Atlas of Living Australia ( The apps have a number of advantages over traditional printed field guides: they can accommodate a variety of types of species, are able to present high-resolution images, and can include media such as sound.

Museum Victoria also took the step of releasing the code for the Field Guide apps as open source so that other developers could also make use of the platform (Sherrin & Wallis, 2012). In the first instance, code for iOS devices only was released; this has since been updated, and code for an Android version added. Both codebases are now available through GitHub ( Several new apps have been released using the open source code (Kearney, 2013) by a variety of developers. The Auckland Museum is one, and has produced an app to New Zealand Marine Life ( using the same approaches of engaging scientists to produce written content and gathering great images to produce an informative product.

Scientists, however, are not just interested in communicating information; they also try to engage people in ‘citizen science.’ Citizen scientists don’t just consume information, they contribute to creating it. Projects include anything from transcribing field notes and the labels of pinned insects (e.g., the Biodiversity Volunteer Portal of the Atlas of Living Australia at, identifying galaxies in the Zooniverse projects (, and contributing sightings backed up by stunning photographs to Project Noah ( or iNaturalist (, to working with scientists in the field.

Museums are engaged in promoting and supporting citizen science activities, and a few have also developed mobile products to assist users to participate. One example is Leafsnap (, developed by Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution. Users are asked to take a photograph of a tree leaf, then visual recognition software is used to match the image and identify the tree. Labelling the leaf adds the sighting to a public database that can be used as baseline occurrence data. A second example, which aims to contribute to long-term environmental monitoring, is the OPAL Bugs Count app ( developed by a number of partners including the Natural History Museum in London. The catchphrase for the project is ‘see, snap, send.’ App users are encouraged to send in sightings of six key indicator species as well as participate in targeted surveys. The app project provides information on how to identify different bug species and a way to submit sightings into the central database.

In science, aggregation and analysis of large datasets provide evidence for new conclusions about how fauna and flora change over time. Traditionally, much of the scientific value of the research collections held by many museums was in the data attached to the specimens. Allowing people to contribute new data via apps, or to analyse or mobilise existing data, provides meaningful opportunities for engagement with science and opens up museum collections and knowledge.

It is important to note that there was no intention in these descriptions of mobile offerings to set up a false dichotomy between sciences and humanities. There is no reason why online or mobile offerings should be completely one discipline or another. For encyclopaedic museums that contain collections and staff expertise across disciplines, the potential to collaborate is very exciting. Similarly, collaboration with other museums with similar collections, or between museums and libraries or archives, provides rich opportunities for presenting cultural, historical, and environmental knowledge.

4. How to . . . think about building mobile products

This paper has described examples where museums have made apps to deliver content to users who may or may not actually visit the museum; in this next section, some points to consider in ‘going mobile’ will be made.

The first point is whether mobile is worth investing in, and the answer is probably yes. More and more people are getting smartphones—loosely defined as a phone that has advanced computing capabilities and can be used to access the Internet—and they carry their smartphones with them. In the United Kingdom in 2012, 58 percent of people had a smartphone; in the United States, 44 percent of adults reported having one (Petrie, 2013). In China, where there are over 460 million mobile Web users, a whopping 70 percent of new Web users report accessing the Internet on their mobile phones (Millward, 2013). Petrie (2013) also reports that research suggests that people prefer to use their own mobile device if they know that there is content available, and that there is an access channel such as free wi-fi.

Having decided to provide a mobile experience, the next question is: mobile-optimised website, or native app? This question is very closely linked with what content will be presented. If you’re planning to provide visit information to a user on the move, then they’re more likely to seek that information via a website. Referring back to the visitor experience journey mapping, the key is understanding what the information-seeking behaviour is of the visitor at each of the touch points during their journey. Mia Ridge, writing in the Object Objects blog (Ridge, 2013), asked, ‘If an app is the answer . . . what was the question?’ Ridge advocates rational consideration of what information your users want and how they’re likely to try to find it. She suggests that, in many cases, you’re better off making your core museum website work well on a mobile device rather than building a native app. She also suggests asking several questions, including: what is the user need or communication or experience offered that only a native app can meet?

If the content is tightly targeted and intended to be accessed where mobile connectivity via broadband or wi-fi may be difficult, such as for off-site tours or a field guide, then a native app is currently the way to go. Nielson (2012) states that its usability studies show that users perform better with apps than mobile websites. In the future, though, continuing improvements to Web technologies will allow developers to make websites that look and behave more like apps. Also, the human resources cost to write code for multiple operating systems and design for many device types and screen sizes will continue to raise the cost of developing native apps (Nielson, 2012). However, there is also the consideration of network access, as discussed earlier. Apps that cache content locally deliver a streamlined experience to the user. However, download size needs to be considered, as well as where you expect the user to do that download. If the app is over 20 megabytes, then a wi-fi connection will be necessary. Will that be guaranteed at the location the app is to be used, or must a user find out about the product and download it before they leave home? Practical aspects such as choosing to develop in-house or whether to outsource the build also need to be considered and factored into the time frame and cost (Ellis, 2010).

Successful mobile apps usually have a clear purpose and provide a defined user experience extremely well. Coupling the functionality of the app with the functionality of the device is also beneficial. If it makes sense to use location data, motion detection, gestures, access to social networks, and date and time data, then do so (New Media Consortium, 2012). Ellis (2010) also challenges creators of apps to think about purpose: what are you trying to achieve through use of a mobile delivery platform?

Then there is content. This returns to the question of purpose. Why is a museum investing in making the product, and what content is needed to support it? Delivery of content via an app should not be thought of as publishing to a generic outlet but as targeting specific communities with niche interests and needs. A one-size-fits-all solution will not be as attractive as tailoring content to fit the user (Malde, 2013).

The apps described earlier share the same characteristics of having text content written by museum staff and making extensive use of images, and some also use video and/or audio. Preparing the content is likely to be one of the most laborious and time-consuming aspects of the process. In practical terms, a team of people will need to contribute, and tasks may include:

  • Research and writing, then editing for voice, brevity, and style
  • Digitising historic photographs or moving image footage
  • Cropping images to meet design requirements
  • New photography
  • Recording audio or video, then editing and encoding
  • Seeking copyright permissions for content, images, and other media not owned by the museum

Other considerations relate to presentation and are summarised well by Boiano, Bowen, and Gaia (2012). It is approximately twice as hard to read text on a mobile device as on a desktop screen (Nielson, 2012). People also scan rather than actually read, so the use of short paragraphs, headers, and lists is helpful for comprehension. Audio works well, but try to account for the environment in which the app will be used. Outdoors may be windy or have a lot of traffic noise, for example. Videos should be kept short, partly to keep a user’s attention, but also because of the points previously made about ‘presence’ and the desire to try to enhance the experience of a particular place, not interrupt it with an overly attention-demanding device.

Sometimes, the content is being repurposed from existing products or from an exhibition. In these cases, as Ed Rodley (2012) writes, simply having great content is not the key, nor is copying an original, successful presentation format. He cites an app called the Minds of Modern Mathematics, where the content was repurposed from a huge, wall-sized timeline at the Museum of Science in Boston. Rodley concludes that it was not the content per se that made the conversion to an app successful, but careful design. Good design, with clear modes of interaction supported by intuitive gestures, is vital to providing a satisfying rather than confusing user experience. It is also important to acknowledge that design conventions differ between device types and operating systems, so usability and interaction conventions need to be accounted for.

The final point is that making your app and successfully publishing it, or going live with your mobile website, isn’t the end of the process. Templeton (2012) reminds us that, “A common mistake is to blow the whole budget on production and forget the essential role of marketing.” Having your product featured in store promotions or receiving reviews in the media will certainly create short-lived download spikes, but ultimately you need a longer-term marketing strategy (Earnshaw, 2012). And although the product is digital, that marketing strategy should involve offline marketing and advocates such as museum staff, members, and, hopefully, your colleagues.

There are many other points for consideration in how to develop an app. Good reference material on what to consider can be found in Sherrin and Wallis (2012); Boiano, Bowen, and Gaia (2012); and Ellis (2010), who gives an extremely comprehensive overview of what to consider.

5. Conclusion

Museums are full of rich content and dedicated specialists making it. The outcomes of museum research can be presented in many ways, and the use of mobile devices as a mechanism for content delivery provides another way to engage with people. Users of museum content on mobile devices might also be museum visitors, but equally might be interested in the reputation of museums as places to go for good and reliable information. Producing content for mobile devices that doesn’t require a visit to a museum venue is worthwhile and gets museum information out to people wherever they, and their device, are at.


Thanks go to the fantastic staff I work with at Museum Victoria—the Field Guide teams past and present of Simon Sherrin, Ajay Ranipeta, Michael Mason, Nicole Kearney, Simon O’Shea, and Simone Downey; and the MV Tours team, particularly Charlotte Smith and Jen Brook. Without all of your contributions, no apps would ever have been produced. Thanks also to Nick Tapp for excellent editing of the manuscript.


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Cite as:
E. Wallis, Moving Outside the Boundaries – How Museums Can Engage Audiences beyond Their Walls. In , N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published September 30, 2013. Consulted .

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