Extending the Visitor Experience with Wi-Fi at the Art Institute of Chicago

Sam Quigley, USA


Having made the big investment to provide unfettered wireless connectivity in all its public spaces, the Art Institute of Chicago has now geared up to digitally activate its visitors and their experience of the museum. The prioritization process and resource allocation was both energizing and agonizing, touching a broad array of possible technologies, and an equally diverse range of attitudes held by stakeholders about what usage should be supported. Initially, free wireless offerings include the Art Institute of Chicago Tours app with turn-by-turn wayfinding support which is achieved by leveraging indoor positioning services. Wi-Fi as a utility opens the future up for other content delivery and of course, full access to social media channels. This article provides a window on what decisions were been made, what went into those deliberations, what has been deployed, and indications of future developments.

Keywords: Wi-Fi, indoor positioning, tours, Art Institute of Chicago, Apps, Meridian

1. Introduction

On February 20, 2013, unfettered wireless access to the Internet in all public spaces in the museum of the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), the culmination of an enormous investment of time and money, was announced (AIC, 2013). As this article was written prior to launch, I will discuss the institutional aspirations of providing not only new interpretive content about the collections, the AIC Tours app, but also offering Wi-Fi as a utility with which new programming can be developed and visitors will be able to transform their own experience of the museum and its resources. Discussion of project planning, development, implementation, initial objectives, and how this complements other initiatives will constitute the significant portion of this article.

Engaging Multiple Audiences

The Art Institute of Chicago has long been a proponent of using digital technology in the service of curatorial operations and to enhance public access to its collections. These efforts have targeted several different audience segments using a variety of delivery modalities.

Like most museums, AIC provides public access to basic information about a portion of its collections via the online database. As a transformation of selected metadata in the internal curatorial database of records, this has served reasonably well a certain audience (i.e., those looking for quick reference and purely informational data). Currently, it represents about 65,000 objects in the collection, with about 88 percent having an image.

In response to the Getty Foundation’s (2009) prescient digital publishing challenge and with their generous support, AIC became a participant in a consortium of nine museums focused on developing a robust capability to publish original scholarly art historical research in the online environment (Quigley and Neely, 2011). Coincidentally, the AIC’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI) effort was immediately preceded by a reformatting of a print publication as an app enabled by the mobile platform company, Toura, entitled French Impressionism at the Art Institute of Chicago, for use on iOS and Android devices (AIC, 2010). While useful as an effective presentation vehicle for a relatively straightforward narrative, this effort underscored the need for a higher level of sophistication to meet the needs of the scholarly community.

Various AIC projects addressing the need for interpretive programming in or near the galleries have also been conducted over the years, most notably “Cleopatra: A Multimedia Guide to Art of the Ancient World,” an interactive learning lab, launched in 2000, both on the Web (http://www.artic.edu/cleo/index.html) as well as in a room adjacent to the exhibition gallery. The most recently developed project of the AIC’s department of Digital Information and Access, LaunchPad, provides rich interpretive materials to visitors via iPads installed in two suites of permanent collection galleries dedicated to European Decorative Arts (opened October 28, 2012), and the Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art (opened November 10, 2012). This two-and-a-half-year project has also been discussed elsewhere (Neely, Sayre, and Jaebker, 2012), but since further development is planned, a brief mention of our aspirations will be included in the course of this article.

The Allure and Promise of Wi-Fi

Just as in most other sectors, providing Wi-Fi (802.11a, g, and n) has long been a topic for animated discussion among museum professionals. Our missions and methods seem to beg for it; yet, owing to the nature of most of our physical buildings, its implementation is expensive and complex. For at least four years, the Art Institute of Chicago repeatedly considered the cost/benefit equation, a process that had always been centered on determining exactly what content would be delivered wirelessly, and later, how this new utility would be used by visitors.

The two threads of our discussion began to actively intertwine (or unravel, depending on your perspective) after the mid-2010 launch of the American Museum of Natural History’s Explorer app (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-3quWNKB6w8). While we had started developing LaunchPad, a wireless system of in-gallery kiosks for delivery of media rich interpretation, Explorer showed how wireless indoor positioning could be used for touring the collection. And by that point in time, it had become patently obvious that Wi-Fi was simply expected in a major public venue for any number of uses. Our readiness to take the plunge was still a bit tentative until autumn 2011 when our newly appointed director, Douglas Druick, dramatically declared his commitment to enabling wireless in all public spaces and, with the Trustees behind him, began the process of allocating funds to finally realize this elusive vision.

2. Organizing the project

As soon as the decision was made to offer Wi-Fi as a part of a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago, AIC’s technologists urgently came to discuss two questions: what content would we provide, and in what manner would we provide it? To give scope to the director’s vision, organize a project plan, and broaden the leadership of this very important initiative, I led a multifaceted collaborative steering group charged with oversight of Wi-Fi content development and the provision of clear objectives for Wi-Fi infrastructure implementation. Along with me as vice president for Collections Management and Museum CIO, the group also consisted of the vice president for Marketing, director of Public Affairs and Communications, director of Digital Information and Access, and acting executive director of Museum Education. This core group continues to plan and manage the project and was augmented early on by the vice president for Information Services, executive director of Telecommunications and Network Services, and manager of Collections Information and Technology. Other internal stakeholders also have been consulted frequently on an ad hoc basis.

Policy Development

Based on inquiries I sent out beginning in January 2012, the steering group first determined that we would provide barrier-free wireless connectivity with no required click-through to an even minimal Terms and Conditions agreement. This was due to several factors: the difficulties we had experienced with the user management of the password-protected Wi-Fi network in the museum’s Ryan Education Center; as well as the recommendation of various colleagues at other museums, especially those at the J. Paul Getty Museum. The Getty had recently rolled out Google Goggles and found that users of Android-enabled devices were frequently stymied by the necessity to agree to the Getty’s Terms and Conditions statement, thus disrupting the receipt of results to the visual query. In addition to solving the mechanical issues of the user experience associated with agreement to a Terms and Conditions, our internal discussions revealed that philosophically the Art Institute was ready to accept more network usage risks than anyone had previously expected—clearly a sign of changing attitudes regarding institutional policing of the Web and the ubiquity of social media.

Content Development

By the time we considered what kind of visitor experience to support with Wi-Fi, many in the museum community had already come to the conclusion that simply providing a digital floor plan for navigation would fall short of the mark. Indeed, Nick Farina, the co-founder of one of the vendors in this arena, Meridian, had expressed this opinion several months before: “…creating a useful indoor navigation app requires more than navigation. So, an effective mobile UI should be more “smart guide” and less “paper maps” on your smartphone” (Farina, 2011). We soon concluded that the direction to follow was dynamically delivered engaging interpretive information about the artworks in the galleries, provided in the context of helping visitors find their way to specific galleries throughout the museum.

We knew we could easily supply an image and information at some level of completeness about every object on display via the Web or some other more internal channel. Simple identification data, however, would hardly seem to be rewarding enough to those who would use a handheld device in a gallery to dive deeper than what is offered on the wall label. And we knew that in the short time of one year, it would be impossible to significantly expand written interpretation for the nearly 5,000 objects on view in the museum. Indeed, it would take longer still if we were to tackle the opportunity to further enliven the objects with newly made rich-media assets. So, as a synthesis of common wisdom about desired features and that which was feasible for a first-phase implementation, we decided to provide visitors with fifty short tours—about six or eight artworks each—and focus our efforts on upgrading the interpretive content about the 300 to 400 objects they featured.

Fortunately, because the museum had created monthly Self Guides (later to be known as Mini-Tours) in April 2006, we not only had a large number of themed tours from which to choose, we also had a good idea of which ones were popular by both the number of electronic downloads and how many printed versions had been picked up in the lobbies. The theme-based tours included objects located in many galleries, specifically chosen to move visitors around the museum on their tour. Collection-organized tours more closely followed the logical layout of contiguous galleries. The steering group viewed these tours as an ideal resource to refine and reuse as the basis for the content of our new Wi-Fi offering. We were somewhat concerned, however, about whether the director would agree with our recommendation, since the production of the Self Guides had been an initiative of the Marketing and Communications department, instead of curatorial personnel. The Self Guides had been written with broad audience engagement in mind, deliberately in a different voice than the scholarly tone typical of the curatorial staff. A detailed discussion with the director on the whole initiative ratified this position, and although this represented a bit of a departure from the norm, the director encouraged the approach. It was also decided that several additional tours needed to be developed, in a similar authorial style, to round out the offering and give a more balanced visitor experience of the entire collection on view.

Content Presentation

With the basic question of what content we would present decided, the questions to be answered became: how to present it, and what vehicle would be used. The question of buy or build was not seriously considered, as we knew this technology was going to change rapidly and that we did not already have a development capability in house. Google had already unveiled their indoor positioning system for Android-enabled devices and had approached us to become a partner. We were intrigued but concerned because Google was vague in discussions about when they would support iOS, a significant issue for us. We knew that a large percentage of our visitors (both physical and virtual) strongly tended to favor Apple products, and we had made a policy decision to be as cross-platform as possible in all our development projects. Although we expected Google to become an option for us in time, after a rapid review of the fairly limited array of indoor positioning systems vendors (e.g., Wifarer (http://www.wifarer.com), Navizon (http://www.navizon.com/its.php), Indoor LBS (http://www.indoorlbs.com/p/indoor-navigation-systems.html)), we began discussions with Meridian (http://www.meridianapps.com), the company that enabled the American Museum of Natural History’s Explorer app.

Tours with Turn-by-Turn Wayfinding

Meridian provides several tiered product levels and supporting systems for both Android and iOS devices. Since the Art Institute viewed this initiative as a strategic positioning effort as much as a means of helping visitors navigate the galleries, we chose to negotiate for their white-label product. This level allows for the graphical and marketing branding we felt was necessary such that our name and mark will be prominently displayed on the App Store and as the app icon on smartphone screens. While it is not inexpensive, we hold the opinion that this decision brought us an appropriate value.

Development of the AIC Tours app was well defined as part of the contract discussions, and the roadmap outlined by the vendor was followed to a reasonable degree. Basically, AIC supplied accurate architectural floor-plan drawings of the physical plant, and Meridian loaded and transformed them into their content management system (CMS), which is where spaces and direction pathways are described in a modular and connectable manner. The CMS is also the repository for narrative text about the objects and pointers to additional online resources. Dynamic updates of object metadata, including “tombstone” and current location information, occur nightly as a JSON pull from our internal curatorial database. To date it appears that the CMS is flexible and open enough for us to add and modify metadata to the extent we feel is necessary for the present scope of the project.

The Art Institute of Chicago Tours

The first phase of tour app development work utilizes the basic features offered by the vendor’s templates. The AIC Tours app provides narrative text for each tour and object, a thumbnail and a full-screen enlargeable image of each object, all organized into tours with turn-by-turn directions to find any given object included in the app. Visitors can also initiate full-text searches and, in effect, create a tour based on the query. Viewing an enlargeable floor plan with informational tags, as well as tapping on a “Facilities” button for restrooms, exits, and the like, is also part of the basic app.

In addition, we provide a link to the object’s record on the AIC’s mobile-optimized Web Collections database. If that link is followed, a visitor can explore other interpretive resources when available, and also tap hyperlinked text to start queries for related objects. These searches are already part of our Web Collections offering and include such  queries as other objects on view in the same gallery, by the same artist, in the same collection, and other ad hoc associations.

Figure 1: Screens showing the basic structure of the Tours appquigley.fig1

Figure 2: Screens showing the anatomy of a specific tourquigley.fig2

Figure 3: Screens showing writing style and available imagesquigley.fig3

Figure 4: Screens showing the answer to one of life’s most persistent questionsquigley.fig4

Figure 5: Screens showing turn-by-turn directions

3. Wireless infrastructure… for what purpose?

Over the course of numerous gallery renovations coincident with the building of the museum’s Modern Wing, designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, significant portions of the existing campus had been upgraded with general expectations of some kind of wireless infrastructure in the undefined future. This work, which transpired between about 2006 and 2010, resulted in some infrastructure being in place but in a variety of stages of completion: some galleries had empty conduit, some had cabling in place, and others were complete with a few installed access points.

In the Modern Wing, where full wireless infrastructure for connectivity was built in, Wi-Fi networks were activated only in a few areas, and these were necessarily cautious and only moderately successful developments. Even though the infrastructure was in place, it became clear that the purpose(s) of Wi-Fi in the museum context needed to be defined before further physical infrastructure could be successfully implemented. The early and foresighted partial wiring work as part of the renovation of galleries in the older buildings, however, positioned us to augment and complete the effort in a remarkably short period of time after Wi-Fi project funds were made available at the end of March 2012. With reliable connectivity and indoor positioning now clearly stated as goals, our network engineers could plan the proper configuration and have Wi-Fi enabled for internal testing throughout all public spaces in the museum by the end of the calendar year.

Retrofitting an existing building for wireless presents different challenges compared to starting fresh with new construction. Even when the options are wide open, as in a new building, careful consideration of the purpose of Wi-Fi usage is critical. Given the painful decisions inherent in deploying any new technology in a “permanent” installation—knowing, as one does, that it will inevitably become obsolete—the best advice is to build with flexibility in mind. Typically, we rely on consultants to advise what constitutes the fastest, most farsighted infrastructure installation, and this is especially important when installing physical infrastructure, but they must be given clear directions about what objectives are to be achieved. Because indoor positioning systems rely on measuring the signal strength of at least three separate access points (APs), a very different implementation strategy of locating the APs is necessary as compared to general connectivity. In essence, the APs for general connectivity are placed in the centers of rooms, whereas for indoor positioning, they should be located near the corners. It is critically important that the goals of the wireless infrastructure be clearly communicated before network planning begins.

If adequate budget can be allocated, engage consultants who have installed wireless infrastructure specifically for indoor positioning, since this is particularly vexing in several specific circumstances. Anyone installing wireless infrastructure should be especially wary of Atrium spaces, where signals from APs on one floor freely mix with those of another floor, possibly resulting in directions starting on the wrong floor. Careful placement of APs can decrease this problem somewhat. Huge open spaces and corridors pose their own set of challenges, but here again, careful surveying prior to installation can help achieve maximum precision.

Other considerations came to the surface once we had stated our goal of wireless access throughout all public spaces. Auditoria, dining spaces, stores, and other public gathering areas presented challenges of a more traditional flavor (i.e., the need for abundant yet episodic bandwidth for relatively short periods of time). Although we initially focused on enhancing the gallery experience, we had to become reconciled with the inescapable fact that to adequately serve the needs of an audience in a hall that seats 385 patrons, it would be necessary to saturate the area with expensive wireless infrastructure that would only be used a fraction of the time, as compared to Wi-Fi usage in the galleries. Finally, with bandwidth in mind, we also decided to throttle certain purveyors of streaming video so that a few movie viewers in the galleries would not unfairly appropriate more than their share of our precious Wi-Fi resource.

Meridian’s touring software system leverages Cisco’s Mobility Services Engine (MSE;  (http://www.cisco.com/en/US/products/ps9742/index.html) achieves a reasonable degree of accuracy locating a Wi-Fi device using trilateration. If the deployment density of APs is very high (an expensive proposition), MSE can locate a device down to specific places in a gallery, an experiment Meridian conducted at a trade show last year in Barcelona. More typical and affordable wireless infrastructure installations, however, are accurate only to a 30-foot radius, 90 percent of the time. In other words, expectations of accurate positioning created by GPS experience, when brought to the interior space of buildings, can cause some people disappointment. It hardly matters that in the world of public opinion, it is actually unfair to use that metric indoors since, for the scale of the great out-of-doors, a 30-foot radius accuracy seems quite adequate most of the time. What remains, then, is the challenge of providing a highly positive visitor experience using a somewhat imprecise indoor positioning system, a challenge we feel can be met creatively.

To cover the Art Institute’s sprawling public spaces, we installed more than 300 APs with an investment of almost $1 million, after taking into account all the pre-project renovation infrastructure installation, as well as the budget spent since March 2012. This density of APs allows a Wi-Fi device to be located fairly well much of the time. Depending on the specific area, however, the blue location dot may appear inside a gallery on the floor plan when the visitor is, in fact, in a nearby corridor or even an adjacent gallery. To mitigate the potentially confusing lack of accurate positioning, we supply carefully worded turn-by-turn directions that reference easily recognizable architectural elements in the building. Based on the experience of others, we expect that visitors will find the wording of these directions to be a useful supplement to the floor plan and accept what is an unavoidable lack of positioning precision. Over time and as we fine tune the system, we will prepare both to install additional APs and update the direction wording to increase location accuracy.

4. Future uses of Wi-Fi

Once the utility of free Wi-Fi has been launched and the Tours app is announced, we will focus on ensuring excellent functioning of both. Since we tend towards caution in these uncharted waters, we have chosen to not add more capabilities until we are certain of the success of the basic services. After we are confident about the robustness of our Wi-Fi utility and the visitors’ awareness and comfort level, we will begin to offer more ways to extend the visitor experience with more digital offerings. Without being too explicit about our plans, the following will give an idea of what we will roll out in the foreseeable future.

Google Goggles

The first additional Wi-Fi–enabled activity was Google Goggles. This app involves the use of a smartphone camera to initiate a visual query. We enabled Goggles since this requires little more than a one-time upload of small images and limited metadata for the objects. From a communications perspective, however, we chose not to much of this in the press announcement about the Tours app and the new wireless environment. Initially, records and images for all objects on display were uploaded, and it is our intention to continue adding into the future.

3D Engagement

The Art Institute has actively begun in the past year to explore the opportunities for using three-dimensional (3D) scanning and printing technology to engage visitors with the collection. This technology and the promises it holds have received much excited attention in the press. The explosion of interest in 3D and the possible applications of it for use in a museum are too numerous to itemize here, but we are eager to include 3D scanning as another program enabled by Wi-Fi. We have acquired a 3D printer, engaged our colleagues in Museum Education in the development of programs, and expect an open-ended, long-term experimental period of highly enjoyable and productive activity within this arena.


The initial LaunchPad implementation is based on iPads, which are fixed on stanchions in the European Decorative Arts galleries, as well as in the Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art. Enabled by Wi-Fi, these kiosks allow visitors to explore related stories, comparative illustrations, videos explaining the manufacture or context, 360-degree views, and lengthy texts about selected objects on view. Initial anecdotal observations indicate that visitors enjoy the many layers of information, learning styles, and atmospheric elements designed into the presentation format.

Figure 6: Screen from an EDA LaunchPadquigley.fig6

Figure 7: Screen from a Jaharis LaunchPadquigley.fig7

From almost the beginning of its development cycle (started in mid-2010), we anticipated making LaunchPad an app that can grow beyond its present reach. The system was designed to enable publication of digital assets authored and maintained in our increasingly animated curatorial information repository in a manner similar to that of OSCI. And, except for the specifics of the software toolset, the AIC Tours app is another example of this same thinking. As we grow and refine the LaunchPad system and add content from other curatorial areas, it will become almost a natural necessity that we provide this new programming via Wi-Fi to personal devices carried around the galleries by visitors.

Practically speaking, because of the physical and visual impact the iPad stanchions and holders make in our exhibitions (not to mention the technical attention required to maintain them), we don’t want to stay in the business of installing and supporting more than a minimal number stanchion-based kiosks. Perhaps more importantly, however, since all predictions point to the huge increase in the percentage of visitors who naturally expect to use their Wi-Fi handhelds to access information in every part of their lives, we see the evolution from an installed to a mobile system as natural and philosophically proper.

More Layers Beyond

Audio tours, do-it-yourself tours, linked open data connections, gallery sketching, digital dialogues, gallery playlists, and a myriad of other new uses of Wi-Fi will all be examined for their true capability to activate gallery experience and enhance visitor engagement. The list of possibilities—those already known and those yet to be invented—is too numerous to summarize here. The Art Institute will pay close attention and respond to what we learn from visitors and colleagues. Where appropriate and affordable, we will continue experimentation and production of new resources for enhancing and extending our programming. And of course, we know that social media channels will continue to explode in unimaginable ways. Rather than try to predict our efforts in this wild realm, AIC will remain involved and agile in its attempts to keep abreast of these developments and support their usage to every extent that we can.

5. Conclusion and commencement

Implementing free and open Wi-Fi required that AIC usher out a special product so that we could craft an easily understood public message heralding this new capability. In fact, the big news is that our new wireless environment now enables us to remain a participant in contemporary society. Entering the world of ubiquitous connectivity and becoming a member of a growing club of wireless public institutions is really only the beginning. Wi-Fi in a museum will soon be seen as just another utility, as basic as electricity, ventilation, or plumbing. It will (and should) become old news.

As we move ever more quickly into the new networked world, it is just simply a fact that museums will have to stretch and grow to provide programming, interpretive information, basic data, virtual exhibitions, online courses, and digital publications—nearly everything we try to communicate and care about—in a format that anyone can access whenever and wherever they chose, including when they are inside our buildings. The generation born after HTML was codified demands it, and if museums want to embrace that generation as visitors, we must provide this new utility and all that goes with it. We need to be more nimble and provide our resources in an easy, efficient, and convenient manner; we have to become more comfortable with dialogue instead of having the authoritative voice; we can become accustomed to being rated and recommended; and we should become an advocate of this new normal.

As a new realm for exciting internal development, for the population visiting and connecting to others from within our walls, for those who learn about and enjoy art in our galleries using the Internet to extend and enhance that engagement—for these and many other participants, the implementation of Wi-Fi is the commencement of an extremely energizing era of new possibilities. It is truly a great moment to be extending technology in the service of art and culture!


There are so many people to thank for their contribution to the Wi-Fi and Tours project that it is difficult—almost unfair—to single out any particular individuals. Nevertheless, Kevin Lint, AIC’s indefatigable executive director of Telecommunications and Network Services, must get a shout out for all his great work planning and implementing Wi-Fi on time and on budget. Erin Hogan, the quick-witted mastermind behind the Self Guides and director of Public Affairs and Communications, must also take a bow for infusing the project with thoughtful sparkle. Not enough praise can be heaped on Carissa Dougherty, the steady and strong go-to manager of Collections Information and Technology of the Digital Information and Access department. And, of course, there is no more enjoyable, energizing, or effervescent colleague in my working experience than Liz Neely, the director of Digital Information and Access. My heartfelt thanks to them all, and to all the other fantastic project collaborators.


Art Institute of Chicago (AIC). (2010). “The Art Institute of Chicago launches first mobile app showcasing permanent collection of Fresh Impressionist art.” Press release. Consulted January 27, 2013. http://www.artic.edu/sites/default/files/press_pdf/French_Impressionism.pdf

AIC. (2013). “Art institute becomes first art museum to offer tours with ‘indoor GPS’ for Apple and Android devices.” Press release. Consulted February 22, 2013. http://www.artic.edu/sites/default/files/press/Wi-Fi%20Tours%20PR%20FINAL.pdf

Farina, N. (2011). “Why indoor navigation is so hard.” O’Reilly Radar. Consulted January 27, 2013. http://radar.oreilly.com/2011/10/indoor-navigation.html

Getty Foundation. (2009). Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI). Getty Online. Consulted January 27, 2013. http://www.getty.edu/foundation/funding/access/current/online_cataloging.html

Neely, L., S. Sayre, & K. Jaebker. (2012). “It’s all in the details.” Slideshare. Consulted January 27, 2013.  http://www.slideshare.net/eneelyAIC/launchpad-the-art-institute-of-chicago

Quigley, S., & E. Neely. (2011). “Integration of print and digital workflows at the Art Institute of Chicago.” In J. Trant & D. Bearman (Eds.). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings (Toronto: Archives and Museum Informatics, March 31, 2011). Consulted January 27, 2013. http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2011/papers/integration_of_print_and_digital_publishing_wo

Cite as:
S. Quigley, Extending the Visitor Experience with Wi-Fi at the Art Institute of Chicago. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published February 1, 2013. Consulted .

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