Please bring your own device to the museum

Museums and the Web

“To BYOD, or not to BYOD – that is the question!”

It was on a rather unusual format that this conversation took place during the 21st edition of Museums and the Web, held in Cleveland last April. Nancy Proctor moderated an Oxford-style debate opposing two pairs of professionals around the following motion: “This house holds that BYOD has failed museums.” For the motion were Micah Walters, formerly of Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and Frits Polman of Guide ID, while Scott Gillam of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and Nancy Harmon of Encurate Mobile formed the opposition. The following article is a non-exhaustive summary of this debate.

BYOD has failed museums




+ Asking visitors to bring their own smartphone can be discriminating. Some people do not have the means to afford a smartphone, others are not comfortable with their use.

+ It is better to let visitors use their own device as they are already comfortable with their  personal smartphone. This reduces the risk of frustration associated with failing to understand a device lent by the museum. It also saves the museum valuable time and money on training docents and visitors to use the device.

+ Some visitors have specific needs in terms of accessibility (visually impaired visitors for example). Their personal device is perfectly adapted to their needs. Such a level of customization is difficult and expensive to set up for a museum.

From the crowd of attendees, Andrea Montiel de Shuman of the Detroit Institute of Arts puts forward an argument in favor of the opponents side. She explains that even if the museum agrees to lend a limited number of devices to visitors who do not own one – or train them to use the loaned devices – the experience remains nonetheless othering. Indeed, visitors must present themselves at the ticket office as “a person without a smartphone” or “a person who is not digitally literate”. To this remark, the defense replies that a properly designed experience would not be feel othering but, on the contrary, inclusive.

User Experience

+ A bespoke device created by the museum adds “extra-flavor”. The device can be customized according to the institution and exhibition – something that is impossible to do with visitors’ personal devices. A bespoke device allows for a seamless experience, which reflects the personality or brand of the museum.

+ We are already used to the apps and to the feel of our smartphones. Going to the museum should consist of a “surprising and delightful” experience. This can be achieved with a bespoke device created by the museum, much less with a device that the visitor uses daily.

+ The itinerary leading the visitor to the device can be an integral part of the exhibition and create new interactions between the visitor and the docent.

+ Can a museum really hope to create a better device than what Apple, Samsung or other brands have achieved? Probably not and this is why it is better to let the visitor bring their personal device.

+ If the museum is lending the device, it is necessary to rethink the entire user path and the logistics that accompany it.

The user experience, or more specifically the experience of a visit to the museum, is a crucial node of the debate. In his opening argument, Micah Walters states that this experience must be “delightful and surprising”. On the other hand, he adds, downloading an umpteenth mobile application is neither delightful nor surprising. The visit to the museum must be a unique experience, “like the first time you opened your iPhone 8 years ago; It was a truly delightful and surprising experience. ” To this statement, the opposition replies that in a cultural institution, it is the content that constitutes delight and surprise, not the interface we hold in our hands.


+ Marketing needs are lesser than in the BYOD approach. Indeed, if the museum distributes the devices, each visitor gets one when buying their ticket, and the mobile application is pre-loaded on that device. There is no additional communication or marketing needed to advertise the app.

+ 56% of web traffic comes from smartphones. Personal devices are therefore a channel of choice to reach potential museum visitors.

+ Promoting a mobile application within the museum is an easy task. Beyond the traditional communication media (posters and flyers) the most effective method remains verbal announcement. When they buy a ticket, the visitor is informed that the museum has its own app(s). Volunteers and docents also participate in this communication effort.

What do you think of this debate? Would you have pleaded in the defense or the opposition? Do not hesitate to comment with your own views and ideas.