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ASK! Cultivating a Better Visitor Experience With Technology at The Brooklyn Museum

September 26, 2019 8:21 AM | Megan Eves (Administrator)

ASK! Cultivating a Better Visitor Experience With Technology at The Brooklyn Museum


More museums are using data to drive decision making. This data can influence marketing decisions, membership development, and shaping visitor experiences. In 2015, The Brooklyn Museum created ASK, an app that encourages visitors to ask questions. Questions like "what do the curved and straight edge lines mean?" when examining a Cubism painting or "How does this mask open and close" when looking at a mask from their collection on view in the galleries. The app invites you to ask questions by texting with one of the Brooklyn Museum's staff. The goal? To make the museum a more dynamic and responsive institution. But it also helps the museum answer the question, "what are visitors looking for from the museum?"

The ASK team continue to self-evaluate how the app functions. These ongoing self-evaluations are important when transforming visitor experiences. The Brooklyn Museum is using technology to create a new standard for museum visitor engagement. Before landing on a text message like app, the museum used pre-printed cards to try to anticipate visitor questions. It failed. The team learned that visitors wanted a more personal interaction. Testing and trying ideas for a public engagement tool is critical for success.


What is the ASK App?

ASK provides a more intimate experience and more in-depth knowledge than a simple Google search. Fueled by museum staff, this smartphone app is "like having a curator in your pocket" according to New York Times reporter Daniel McDermon. Answers to questions are personal and do not feel auto-generated, because they're not. Staff insert their personality into responses and follow up inquiries with related questions. Staff responses like, "What do you feel about their facial expression?" for a visitor looking at portrait helps to encourage further discussion, or create the space to allow the visitor to think deeply about the art in the museum’s collection. As ASK app was being built, the developers purposefully excluded  collection search options, guide maps to the galleries and social media prompts to "tweet this" or "hashtag that.” ASK focuses on engaging visitors to ask museum collection questions that are answered in real time.

For visitors who might be hesitant to ask gallery attendants, the app provides visitors opportunity to send a text from their own devices to get personalized information in an interface that is easy to use on a screen is similar to common texting screens. 

Some conversations have made their way to the museum's website. Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" prompted some critical feedback captured by the app.These questions and answers are now live on the museum collection website page. Conversations like this are now part of the museums public profile. 


How Does it Work?

The app only works inside the museum. The app asks you to make sure you turn on your phone's:

  • Bluetooth. The museum uses bluetooth beacons to tell staff which art you are near

  • Connection to WiFi. The museum offers free WiFi

  • Location Services for ASK. This helps staff tailor information based on where you are in the museum, i.e. what else to see nearby

  • Notifications for the app. This is how you'll know when staff answers your question- like a text alert

  • Camera. Can't describe what you're looking at? Take a picture and send it in the app to get more information.


Behind the Scenes and Self-Evaluation

The development team behind ASK are incredibly adept at self evaluation. Their blog BKM Tech focuses on the technology efforts at the Brooklyn Museum. Staff writes about current projects and the process itself. The blog documents successes and where to improve as the app develops. It also provides a platform for comments and discussions. Sara Devine, Director of Visitor Experience & Engagement wrote about how to get visitors to use the app with labels. Hoping to inspire interest to download the app, labels included questions. Devine wrote that while successful at first, only 30% of users asked the questions on the labels. ("Labels Do Heavy Lifting for ASK- March, 2017). These labels were enough for some users to use the app but Devine felt that they were too one-dimensional.  "Given our lofty engagement goals for ASK, we started to question this type of engagement. It felt too superficial and not at all what we were hoping for as engaging visitors with art," Devine wrote. The team removed them and focused on advertising the app for the official launch.

The ASK team was keen to not pollute their own data by overly directing the public to the app. In special exhibitions, the team tested different label versions. These versions reintroduced leading questions, but this audience rarely used them. But even this varied from special exhibition to the next. Devine wrote that these labels "were doing some heavy lifting in terms of getting people into and using the app." This data along with visitor evaluations will continue to strengthen the app.


Shaping the Visitor Experience

"What are visitors looking for?" Back in 2014, the Brooklyn Museum began a six month study. The museum found that visitors wanted to speak with people on staff. That visitors wanted a conversation with experts and recommendations for more.

"One questions that came up again and again was: how much are we guiding our visitors, and how much are we letting them street the tour themselves?" wrote Jessica Murphy, Manager of Visitor Engagement. It's understanding how to move visitors through the museum but permitting flexibility. This question came up when developing the app to accompany special exhibitions. Allowing visitors to experience exhibitions on their own determined the app language used. For example, Murphy writes that switching from designating works as "highlights" versus "hidden gems" allowed visitor adaptability. Do visitors want the exhibition overview? Highlights. Or are they searching for more exclusive content? Hidden gems.

The ASK team tested tour concepts with museum colleagues. Their feedback suggested tours need to give visitors "a certain amount of control over their experience" but still provide some amount of structure.

Beyond bolstering visitor engagement, the Brooklyn Museum creates tours for special exhibitions.

Recently, the ASK team created "Trends Across Time: An ASK Fashion Tour." This ASK app tour accompanied and focused only the special exhibition "Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion." The team created information cards that provided simple instructions. (i.e. "10 Moments in Fashion History...explore styles from the past in this interactive tour via text message"). Using a different approach visitors could also send a text using a prompt word besides using the app.

Experts provided interesting facts and engaged with visitor questions about the exhibition.


Five years on...

In 2016, the Brooklyn Museum won two MUSE awards from the American Alliance of Museums for its ASK app. MUSE awards recognize outstanding achievements in Galleries, Libraries, Archives, or Museums media. The app also received a Gold award in the Mobile Applications category and the Jim Blackaby Memorial Award (a special jury prize granted to an entry selected for its achievement as a media or technology focused museum program). Today the ASK team continues to evolve the app and expand its role in visitor engagement. The team continues to blog their journey onBKM Tech and they've even open sourced their code on Github.

The ASK app began as a three year initiative funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Today it continues to challenge traditional visitor engagement by employing technology.


The Museum Association of New York strengthens the capacity of New York State’s cultural community by supporting professional standards and organizational development. We provide advocacy, training, and networking opportunities so that museums and museum professionals may better serve their missions and communities.

Museum Association of New York is a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization. 

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