Mobile Apps in Museum Science: Audio Versus Video

Brett Oppegaard, USA

As museum science researchers study and develop more Informal STEM Learning projects, such as mobile apps at cultural or heritage sites, scholarly questions continue to arise about the compositional aspects of these dynamic digital packages. Media consumers at a historic site, for example, now have the technological freedom to actively pursue information and experiences tailored to their interests when they are most open to such museum media — during their visit to the site — just by carrying and using a smartphone. Such ubiquitous devices bring together, as a tool of convergence, the primary contemporary communication forms — text, audio, video, animation and still images — circuitously returning to McLuhan’s “medium is the message” mantra (1967). However, instead of choosing between the media options of the 20th century, such as brochures or wayside signs, mobile technologies add media choice as yet another layer of composition, as critical as deciding on the theme and sources of a produced piece. Mobile media, with an emphasis on real experiences and direct engagement with new articulations of relationships between space and time and postmodern patterns, provides a salient example of a modern art form that negotiates, patterns, and understands our changing nature (Stein, Ruston, et al., 2009). Still, interpretation traditions persist.

Audio tours, for another example, have served as a staple of museum media for more than 50 years, with a paucity of scholarly debate about their effectiveness (Tallon, 2008). This research paper puts audio tours to the test, comparing audio-only media against video with sound as well as video with captions, in an effort to determine which of those digital forms better builds user engagement and social facilitation. This research involved building and deploying a mobile app module at the site of the Old Apple Tree Park, in the shadow of a highway overpass, in Vancouver, Washington, where the first apple orchard in that state’s history was planted. Today, this park is mostly forgotten and has little of the sacred tree’s history available to visitors, except for a few lines on a small plaque. The app provided a custom-made video, edited into the comparable forms, designed to provide similar amounts of visual and audio content, to assure a fair comparison. This app module took about five minutes for each of the users to complete, with the first stage presenting the three-minute media piece (in one of its three forms), which then transitions into a prompt for the user to enable the mobile device to take a photo that includes the Old Apple Tree. Participants then were asked if they wanted to post that picture to a public Flickr (photo-sharing service) account, or to share it privately, via email. For the final step, participants were invited to take a quick nine-question survey that measured user engagement. The results and analysis from this study provide evidence if audio tours should have such a secure spot in the museum interpretation repertoire, or not.