The future of museums (and my 2nd least favourite word)

Last week’s Friday Night Live at the ROM (praises of which I have already sung here and here) featured a Truth or Tale scavenger hunt. Four stations in various galleries had an artifact (some of which you could actually handle, carefully of course) and an accompanying question. If you tweeted with the night’s hashtag, the gallery’s name, and the correct multiple choice answer, you were in the running for a gift card from c5, the ROM’s swanky restaurant. As a supremely nerdy competitive type-A personality, I was all over it.

As I was tweeting away my Truth or Tale answers I  got a tweet from ROM’s resident mobile tech guru Ryan Dodge about the SCVNGR app. I had seen him tweet about it before, but hadn’t investigated it because it seemed like too much work. Yes, I can be that lazy.

But I gave it a shot. And the interface was super easy to navigate. I was presented with pre-loaded ROM-specific challenges, four of which were the same questions as the Truth or Tale.  In addition to these were other challenges, like the name of a particular artifact and how many totem poles stand by the great staircases (hint: it’s not two). The questions were challenging enough in that you weren’t likely to get the right answer unless you were right by the artifact (so no guessing from home, or even another part of the museum) but easy enough in that by scouring nearby didactic panels you were pretty much guaranteed to find the answer.

I was sort of hooked. It was easy to do, and you got points for right answers. You even got points for something as easy as posting a picture! By the time my feet gave out from walking all over the ROM I had only scored 22 out of 100 points. One of my friends with me asked “Well do you win anything?” and I answered “…Points.” But that was enough to keep me interested.

This “gamification” (a term I loathe almost as much as “synergy” – I don’t hate it, just the term) of museum spaces is the way of the future. And not because visitors need games to be kept interested in a museum’s collection. But because we are increasingly involved in their smartphones and are getting accustomed to a little something extra.  It’s becoming more and more habit to announce one’s arrival via Foursquare, Twitter, and/or Facebook. Gamification is an extension of that.

It didn’t distract from the visit. It actually made me interact with the object and its didactic panel more intently. I felt like I was being rewarded for being a museum visitor, and made me feel accomplished. You want me to find the Chinese money? On it. The name of that red sofa? Like a boss. The strategic creation of challenges helps broaden the visitor experience too. It’s not all dinosaurs and mummies, you know. There is an insane amount of artifacts to experience and this creates value in less-visited items and galleries.

Some stuffy traditionalists may be concerned that bringing mobile in to the museums will result in visitors becoming a zombie mob glued to mobile devices. Not so. While playing I was engaged with my friends, just also on the lookout for points to nab. SCVNGR even has social challenges, where you are encouraged to find other players and bump smartphones to gain more points. I’m not yet comfortable walking up to a total stranger for points, and would certainly be creeped the heck out if I were approached with a request to “bump devices.” But I would totally comment on someone’s photo for points. I think where gamification can lose out is when it asks too much of a user or puts them out of their comfort zone.That threshold of course differs by individual, and fortunately there was a wide enough range of personal investment required by SCVNGER’s challenges to keep me in the game.

So if you’re heading to the ROM, download the app. It’s free, and easy to set up (if I can do it, you can do it).  Let me know how your experience went. Gamification (blech) is new, and has nothing but kinks to work out, but the development so far gives me hope for the future.

Have you seen other good examples of mobile technology in cultural institutions?

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