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Arts and Technology: How one Museum’s App is Connecting Visitors and Driving Institutional Change

With an impressive collection of over 1.5 million works, Brooklyn Museum is amongst New York City’s most popular destinations. Today, the Brooklyn Museum is making great strides in the landscape of audience engagement through their latest technology tool, the ASK app. Put simply, the ASK app is a chat application that allows museum visitors to engage in real-time conversations with a team of art historians and educators, demonstrating that even the newest of tech tools can still retain a humanized quality to them.

For the visitor, the app offers a completely different museum experience by allowing for deeper engagement and the ability to make personal connections with the art. For the Brooklyn Museum, the creation of the app is driving significant institutional changes, as it is allowing museum staff to make curatorial and programmatic decisions based on the data gathered from the conversational tool.

The National Arts Marketing Project (NAMP) talked to Sara Devine, Manager of Audience Engagement and Interpretive Materials at Brooklyn Museum, who provided insight into the Brooklyn Museum’s audience engagement initiatives, and how the ASK app has helped the museum achieved their goals.

1. At its core, what does the ASK app do for audiences visiting the Brooklyn Museum?

ASK sets a new standard in museum visitor engagement by leveraging technology to encourage dialogue between visitors and the Museum’s Audience Engagement staff, a dedicated team of experienced art historians, researchers, and educators. The app is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies through its Bloomberg Connects program, a global initiative that helps cultural institutions innovate and engage audiences through digital platforms.

Photo Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum

2. What factors led up to the decision to create the ASK app? How long did you run tests before launching?

My project partner, Shelley Bernstein, and I felt very strongly that any project we did together needed to start with our visitors. ASK is the culmination of about six months’ worth of pilot testing where we worked directly with visitors to determine what they wanted and needed from us. Through these pilots, we learned that our visitors want to chat about art with each other and with us. We also found that many visitors are looking for recommendations on how to spend their time in the Museum, but that those recommendations need to be wholly personal and dynamic—no pre-prepared suggestions or content would do. Basically, our visitors want access to our staff; ASK offers that in a sustainable way. Once we determined the approach—a chat app—it took about a year to develop the iOS version.

3. In testing the app, what methods did you use to gather user feedback as a way to build the best user experience possible? What did you learn along the way about what audiences want from the experience?

This entire process was planned using agile planning methodology, an iterative planning approach that relies on rapid-fire pilot projects and we’ve been blogging regularly about the project. We used several methods to gather feedback, most of which involved working directly with visitors including observation and interviews, both of which were particularly useful during beta testing. We actually learned our biggest lesson in a failed pilot test where we offered visitors pre-prepared recommendations on what else to see. They utterly rejected the notion, asking us “What does this have to do with me?” or “Why would I like this?” It taught us very quickly that offering a personal and dynamic experience was the only option.

4. The ASK app allows visitors to have real-time conversations with curators, which is really creative – it’s like having a curator in your pocket. What are some of the most interesting questions that you have received?

When given the opportunity to ask any question, many people go granular—one visitor, for example, asked what species of flower the infant Jesus is holding in a particular Renaissance painting. Other visitors want to discuss larger issues of race, gender, or class. The great thing about ASK is that we can have any and all of those conversations; we go along with the visitor on his or her personal exploration of art and ideas.

5. Has the feedback from visitors or the data collected had an influence on curatorial, programmatic or marketing decisions? In other words, have you seen an increase in collaboration among museum departments?

ASK is a collaborative project that would not have been possible without the help of the entire Museum. The curators are extremely generous with their time, helping to train the Audience Engagement Team on the collection and regularly reviewing questions and answers that come in via ASK for accuracy. We also work closely with the educators on best practices for engagement and train together for special exhibitions in particular. The visitor services and marketing team has been vital in getting the word out about the app and helping us determine where, when, and how to tell visitors about it.

Everything we learn about visitor interests and behavior is shared across departments and has sparked conversations about how to improve, for example, analog interpretation to better address the questions people have. The questions and answers that come in via ASK are visible on our collection online and exhibition web pages and via a searchable portal for staff. The Audience Engagement Team also researches the collection and writes internal wiki articles, which are available to staff.

6. Speaking of data, how many museum visitors take advantage of the ASK app on a weekly basis? Have you been surprised by the number of visitors using technology to engage with art?

The number of visitors using ASK varies from week-to-week, and we’re hovering at about a one percent general pick-up rate, which we’re working hard to increase. I think the more people are aware that ASK is an option, the more they’ll use it. The most challenging part is helping people understand what ASK is because it doesn’t fit into the existing mold of “museum app.”

Photo Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

I’m not surprised that visitors want to use technology to engage with art. They use technology regularly in their everyday lives, why should their time in a museum be any different? The fact that a major foundation like Bloomberg Philanthropies supports institutions all over the world as part of the Bloomberg Connects digital engagement initiative is, I think, an indicator of the important role of technology as part of the 21st century museum experience.

7. In your opinion, how has the ASK app changed, or augmented, the patron experience?

ASK offers visitors a completely different kind of museum experience. While we have our own engagement goals, including closer looking, deeper exchange with the art object, personal connection with the art object, and making connections to other works in the collection, we realize that not everyone wants to use the app that way—some people just want factual answers to their questions, and that’s ok too.

8. How is the ASK app driving institutional change?

ASK allows us to have more informed conversations about our galleries by providing the opportunity to make decisions based on the data we gather. A great example is the recent reinstallations of our American, European and Ancient Egyptian Art collections. As I mentioned, the curators regularly review questions and answers from ASK in order to check for accuracy and to learn what questions visitors have about their collection. It so happened that the first round of review coincided with the decision to reinstall several of our permanent collection galleries. Connie Choi, assistant curator of American Art, noticed in her review that visitors were not making connections between works on view intended to be understood together. When Rich Aste, curator of European Art, told us he wanted to draw stronger connections in the re-installation, we suggested he speak with Connie because of what she was learning. We didn’t hear any more about it, but the re-hang in both the American and European galleries places works in much clearer pairings and groupings than before.

Ed Bleiberg, curator of Egyptian art, noticed that visitors kept asking about the broken noses on many of the statues as well as about a painted ceiling in the main Egyptian art gallery. The broken noses were previously addressed on a single interpretive panel in the gallery that visitors didn’t seem to see, so in the reinstallation, the location of the story was changed and told in additional places. Ed also did additional research so we could provide more a nuanced answer to the question via the app and the didactics. The ceiling, which was strictly a design element, was distracting visitors from looking at the works installed below, so it was painted over for the reinstallation to refocus visitor attention on the art.

9. You’ve been building something incredible that sits at the fascinating intersection of art, audience engagement, and technology. What has been the most rewarding part of this whole process?

The most rewarding part for me is revealed in a particular user behavior we’ve noticed. Often when speaking face-to-face, people will preface a question by apologizing for it, i.e. “This might be a stupid question, but…” or “I’m sorry if this is stupid, but…” Many of us probably say it without realizing it, but it reveals a kind of self-consciousness about asking questions. But here’s the thing: not once has anyone apologized for their question via ASK. To me, that is the most incredible and rewarding aspect—to be able to empower visitors to ask us questions without feeling self-conscious or stupid. Art can be intimidating for many people and we’re offering a way in that helps eliminate that intimidation-factor.

10. What’s in store for the future of the ASK App? Do you have improvements, goals, or achievements in mind? To you, what will success ultimately look like?

I think there’s always room for improvement and we’ll be continuing to hone best practices for engagement and learning about the collection in order to have better conversations. For me there are two versions of success, one more measurable than the other. The first is to get the app in more people's hands. The second is to continue to have conversations across departments informed by learnings from ASK. The biggest possible impact from ASK comes from the data, what we learn about visitor interests and behavior, which can help us improve the experience for all visitors, whether they use ASK or not.

Photo Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

The ASK app has been out on iOS for about a year, and the museum launched its Android version in April 2016. Conversations between the increasing number of App users and the ASK team have sparked creative ideas about how to provide more fantastic museum experience. Through the ASK app, arts and technology are celebrated, and incredible changes are happening at Brooklyn Museum.

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