In May, the Brooklyn Museum launched the new Android version of its ASK app, a mobile application that enables visitors to interact with the museum’s audience engagement staff in real time. Once on-site visitors have downloaded the app to their phones they are able to ask questions about specific objects, get directions to other areas of interest, or carry on a conversation about issues that pertain to any aspect of their experience in the museum. While the press release written by the museum typically lauds the innovation as setting “a new standard in museum visitor engagement by leveraging technology,” in using it myself I was impressed by the way it really did allow my experience with objects to be more intimate. On the occasion of the inauguration of the Android version (the iOS version was released last year), I spoke with Sara Devine, the manager of audience engagement and interpretive materials about how the app was developed. Devine tells me that the process for developing Ask started about two years ago with Shelley Bernstein (since departed for the Barnes Foundation), and that it was through that process that “audience engagement” became part of her official title.
Given the direction to find ways to make the Brooklyn Museum “a more dynamic and responsive” institution, Devine, employed within the Exhibition department, and Bernstein, who was the head of the Tech department, began to convene cross-departmental conversations with other staff. They spoke with members of the curatorial department, visitor services, security, and other departments, posing the question: “What are our visitors really looking for from us?” In response to that question they launched a six-month pilot program to get these answers from actual visitors. The project was modeled on an iterative planning process, a methodology often used in software development. Basically, this process consists of posing questions and allowing answers to lead to further questions with no particular end goal identified. In the first phase of the study, they observed visitors unobtrusively, later placing researchers in the gallery with clear identification to talk with visitors about what they desired. They found that visitors wanted to speak with people on staff, and sometimes have long conversations, and it became especially clear that visitors craved recommendations.
While the first phase yielded key data, the second was an important failure. The museum sought to equip 20 gallery hosts with pre-printed cards that had bits of information and a map they thought would anticipate visitors’ questions. Visitors mostly found the cards useless. Thus, the tech team learned that visitors needed dynamic and personal recommendations, and that no predictive algorithm could replace that in-the-moment experience.
In the third phase, they enlisted the help of Chief Curator Kevin Stayton who did a round of live responses to visitors in the museum. After debriefing the participants, they knew they had found something that worked. Bernstein’s version of Ask was constructed in-house, a pilot app that mimicked the behavior of Apple’s iMessage. In my own experience, the current version is very much the same. I sent a picture of the object I was interested in, and received a message answering my query. I asked other questions and went back and forth until I felt I was done.
According to Devine, Ask has so far proved that technology can successfully broker interactions with visitors. Visitors reported that they looked more closely at art in the galleries (rather than at their phones), and this was also borne out by staff observation. Devine says that one of the key features that they made sure was built into Ask is anonymity. As evidence for this, she tells me that the historians on staff report that no one apologizes for asking a question that may be otherwise seen as silly or too naïve. This, Devine concludes, shows that people consider the app platform a safe space where they can pose any question without embarrassment. This yields the close looking, deeper understanding, and cross-collection understandings that Devine and the engagement staff are seeking.
Another benefit to the user is that there is no limit on the conversation. The longest Devine has witnessed being five hours, but the average is 13 messages. So far, only an estimated 1 percent of visitors use the app, but with the launch of the Android version and aggressive advertising around the museum (there are banners for ASK in the front of the lobby, on T-shirts worn by front-desk staff, vinyl strips on elevators, and some wall labels).
The development effort has largely been funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, specifically the Bloomberg Connects arm that funds digital programs that bring ideas to the public. Devine says that on the very day they discovered that the app successfully enhanced visitor experience, Bloomberg Connects offered to sponsor them. Essentially the bulk of the money goes towards paying the salaries of the team of art historians who answer visitor inquiries.
These historians are a varied group of five full-time and two part-time historians that include an artist, a teacher, an archaeologist, and one member with a master’s degree in library science. Each member has an area of specialty, in addition to having broad art historical knowledge, research skills, and experience dealing with the public. In order to spread the wealth of knowledge, each week an Ask team member does a small tour with other museum staff to show one or two items that they know a good deal about. As visitor traffic through the museum fluctuates, the Ask team scales up or down.
Devine says she has discovered that the team’s familiarity with the museum and its objects is a major asset to the app. The more familiarity that one has the deeper the questions go and the longer the interaction. They’re hoping that more visitors view their visits at Brooklyn museum — with the help of the ASK app — as a kind of interactive, fascinating, and self-empowered experience.