Hands On: the Natural History Museum's Revamped 'Explorer' App

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From Manhattan's celestial murals to the deep-sea diorama of The Squid and the Whale, the iconography of the American Museum of Natural History is written in paint and plaster, glass and stone, skeletons and taxidermy. In an age of shrinking smartphones and cloud-based services, the AMNH is defiantly massive and material, its labyrinthine halls and corridors the embodiment of an era cast in brick and mortar.

How, then, does a stubbornly material institution engage web-savvy patrons? While many other museums have produced compelling digital complements to analog exhibitions, the challenge is perhaps more acute for AMNH given that so much of the museum's lore and allure derives from wandering, wayfinding, and serendipitous discovery.

Enter: the latest version of the Explorer app.

I spoke with Matt Tarr, the museum's director and digital architect, and Catherine Devine, its chief digital officer, to get a sense of the ethos and development process behind the beta. While the app is designed to locate points of interest, it also introduces patrons to exhibits they might not otherwise encounter. By fine-tuning the app's geo-sensitivity and suggesting multiple narratives for each exhibit, curators have fashioned an unobtrusive digital complement to the intrinsically analog experience of exploring the American Museum of Natural History.

The Explorer app is not new. In fact, the app debuted about six years ago. Akin to an audio tour—with multimedia—the first foray resembled similar offerings from other museums. About a year ago, however, AMNH began developing today's beta, which ought to be finalized in the next month.

What is new about this Explorer app is that it blends the museum tour with something Tarr and Devine call "intentional serendipity." While patrons might enter the museum with some intent—to see dinosaur skeletons, for example—they also explore by way of chance. Perhaps you're walking to the dinosaurs, but, on your way, the butterfly conservatory catches your eye. In the past, serendipitous exploration relied upon one's own attentiveness; with the Explorer app, those tangents are threaded into the navigation process.

That process begins when you launch the app and are prompted to choose from a set of wide-ranging (and not quite parallel) interests, ranging from Dinos & Fossils and Winged Creatures to Coffee Break and Really Big. From those proclivities, the app surfaces exhibitions nearby or en route to a point of interest.

Those recommendations hinge upon the app knowing where exactly you are. Tapping a network of some 700 Bluetooth beacons scattered throughout the museum, Explorer can pinpoint location and provide turn-by-turn directions within the museum in much the same way that Google Maps charts routes on the street. Simplicity and accuracy is crucial because the last thing you want to do in the museum is troubleshoot a smartphone app.

To that point, this is an advanced beta. Whenever I checked my phone, the app had my location and recommended exhibits. Perhaps most importantly, those exhibits surface relationally. Take Northwest Coast Indians, the museum's oldest hall, and one of my regular stops. While I typically focus on the totem poles, the app recommended a fish rattle used in a ritual to summon salmon. When I visited the Hall of Ocean Life, the app recommended a series of glass models of single-cell protists in the Hall of Biodiversity. Certainly, I may have discovered both exhibits on my own, however, Explorer nudged me along.

Look around the museum and you will see children everywhere, tended by haggard parents and schoolteachers. The Explorer app is designed with an eye to those caretakers. Nearly every entry has something to entertain kids. Inside the main rotunda, the entry for the barosaurus translates the skeleton's length into shipping containers, buses, and rattlesnakes (naturally). Devine calls it the "smart parent app."

To that end, the app makes quick work of purchasing tickets and locating bathrooms, cafes, and exits. There are even a couple of kid-friendly games—Avatour, a treasure hunt challenge, and Tree of Life, a game about mammalian relatedness—that the app caches via the museum's Wi-Fi network. Some content caters to grownups. I used Explorer to view a photograph of the construction of the famous blue whale, watch a short video of conservators restoring a totem pole, and identify a hidden feature in the Berber nomad diorama.

In this sense, the app addresses kids and adults simultaneously. By embracing what Tarr and Devine call a "polyphonic" approach to design, curators tell multiple stories about each exhibit. Many of those stories provide a counterpoint to the authoritative text you might find on a museum placard. Rather than simply telling the visitor where a blue whale lives or what it eats, the app shows the patron how staff clean the exhibit and what a blue whale sounds like.

Certainly, I would welcome more narratives. When I identify my interests, I don't see why I cannot select my age or education level. Moreover, in the interest of minimizing phone time, a portable profile would enable visitors to see where they explored, where they dwelled, and to learn more from their desktops. Such features could easily fold into future iterations of Explorer. The underlying approach, which acknowledges and integrates serendipity, enables wayfinding and discovery, and promotes polyphonic exhibitions, is not only well-suited to the American Museum of Natural History—it provides a model for other digital companions.

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