Mar 27, 2020|News|5 minutes

Social Distancing & Museums: don't touch the art ... or anything else

Why the global pandemic marks the end of the rented audio guide.

This summer, Artemisia Gentileschi was set to make her debut at the National Gallery in London, Kusama’s infinity rooms were due to open at Tate Modern and the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition was headed for another juggernaut year.

Had they gone ahead as planned these shows would surely have been incredibly successful with all the trappings of blockbuster exhibitions as they’ve come to be known: long queues and audiences jostling for space.

While the museums may be closed for now, when they do reopen popular exhibitions will bring with them a whole host of new problems. As we ease out of lockdown how will museums make visitors feel comfortable to return and keep them safe once they arrive?

American Civil War Museum CEO Christy Coleman recently tweeted this question: “What would it take for you to feel comfortable?”


Many of the responses discussed various levels of social distancing, from queue management to how closely artworks are hung.

“You need to find a way to enforce social distancing […] think about how close objects are to each other. Can I look at painting A while you look at painting B safely?”

As one respondent puts it ‘“I go to grocery stores now. I’d go to a museum that was showing the same precautions.”

Museums Association director Sharon Heal has already suggested that smaller museums could be the safest to reopen as they are “well-suited” to appointment viewings with “set route[s]”.

Cultural destinations cautiously reopening in China are already implementing some of these measures with required face masks, limited visitors and online ticketing while museums opening in Germany are requiring visitors use credit cards instead of cash and are providing plexiglass shields for ticket desks.

Whilst social distancing now feels like second nature to most, there will be one change unique to cultural institutions: the global pandemic marks the end of the handheld rented audio guide provided by museums and even throws the viability of group guided tours into question for the time being.

Even with timed entrances, traditional hardware such as audio devices, headsets and even state-of-the-art virtual reality goggles are, at a base level, surfaces that may collect germs that put visitors at risk.

If we’re living in a world where we are all more hesitant to shake hands for years to come, the idea of visitors feeling comfortable picking up a device that has been potentially handled by hundreds if not thousands of visitors is unthinkable.

Some of the latest museums to open in Brandenburg Germany did so under the Brandenburg Museum Association guidance that “Museums should not offer group tours and should only provide audio guides if they can be carefully disinfected after each use” and just last week Universal filed a patent for an in-ride sanitisation device.

A recent IMPACTS survey even found that the public’s indicated interest in attending cultural sites has increased for places where social distancing could be easily observed such as parks and aquariums.

In contrast “performing arts entities and touch-based museums” will suffer an “expected decline in visitation” with the study suggesting museums highlight “permanent exhibits that aren’t reliant upon touch”.

So what happens to the information available on these devices?

Expert interpretation, family trails, audio description, historical context, tours, reaction, response, critique and dramatisation add a richness to the museum experience that doesn’t need to be lost. Instead it should move onto the personal handheld device we already carry with us everywhere we go: our phones.

Visitor listening to Audioguide
A visitor listens to a museum audioguide © Wallpaper Flare

Mobile phones have had a mixed reception in museum circles. In the early 2000s there was a “perception that [mobile phone use] was disrupting the museum experience” (Museums and the Web 2015) with the Washington Post even claiming that visitors who were unable to ‘put their phones down’ were ‘ruining museums’.

In addition, developing and maintaining an app is costly and time intensive. A recent study white paper from Hatch Apps found that the average cost of developing an app was $100,000 — a price out of reach for many museums even before Covid-19 closures, which have led to on average 80% loss in income. While these apps provided a way to deliver content to users’ devices, the average museum app has historically only been downloaded by between 3–5% of visitors.

Screenshot 2020 07 17 at 15 20 35
Smartify app tour page and artwork stop © Smartify

This is where universal apps with easy to use content creation tools that work across multiple museums come in. For example, Smartify tours are built and edited directly by staff using our management dashboard with drag and drop tools.

With venue personalisation options and an already engaged audience of over 1.5 Million users this kind of BOYD option is not only safer for visitors but can also become the basis for a resilient digital-first business model.

Visitors can download tours offline if the museum has connectivity issues; the app can process payment transactions; and it shifts visitors from “leaning in” to read exhibitions panels to looking at their own personal devices.

Mary Beard Trail Screenshot mockup
Smartify museum tour dashboard © Smartify

The value of BYOD in this context is even beyond the assurance that the only person touching your device is you.

On a platform like Smartify, where museums receive feedback on audience preferences and routes through museums, it will be possible to highlight potential hot zones in museums before they become an issue.

AI assisted tour generation could mean suggesting routes through museums to visitors based on current capacity levels in order to avoid bottlenecks whilst offering interesting, personalised experiences.

Screenshot 2020 07 17 at 15 24 50
Push notifications on the Smartify app © Smartify

Push notifications can be employed for timed ticketing, exhibition advertising for off-peak times and even proximity alerts for guests. Not to mention an increase in accessibility with immediately available text-to-speech, large text object interpretation and multiple language translation available at the press of a button.

As museums explore everything from Animal Crossing art collections to telepresence robots that can be guided around museums in your place, now is the time for BYOD to become an integral part of the museum experience.

BYOD offers not only a more sanitary way to deliver important museum content but also potentially brings with it a number of tools to empower museums around the world to reopen safely.

This is a museum, please keep your phone in hand.

written by

Molly Skinner

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