“Songs from Chicago” is an exhibit exploring the history and culture of Chicago through the songs written in and about the city. The city’s economic and industrial achievements have always been developed alongside the arts and entertainment, and that duality can be seen through to the Chicago of today. Check out “Songs from Chicago” on the Omeka site Paris of the Midwest: Chicago 1837-1987.
After using the Encurate mobile app at the International Museum of Surgical Science, I can say that I think the app is an innovative way to connect with visitors to the museum. However, I think it has serious strides to make before it competes with on-site interpretation through labels or docents.
My two first impressions of the app were polar opposites. Walking into the museum, signage promotes the app, and the attendant at the front desk encouraged me to use it. Clearly, the museum is excited about the new technology and wants feedback on it, which reflects well on their interest in attendee engagement. However, the first thing that I noticed when I opened the app was a spelling mistake. This error ended up summarizing my entire experience with the app: fine, but it clearly needs more work.
I think the biggest benefit of the app is the capability for multiple tours. There are four interest areas for visitors to explore, the life of Eleanor, highlights from the collection, the history of the mansion, and a seasonal “Morbid Morsels” tour. This hits on what I think are the three major reasons that people would visit the house. People are interested in the history of medicine, curious about the life of Chicago elites in a certain time period, or possess a little schadenfreude and want to see the “dark side” of medical history. It’s easy for users to follow just their interests, or to flip through the app and get a little of all the options.
The visual interface is also a benefit to the app. Having a map that updates itself with your location is great for directionally impaired people (ahem). The app also allows people to revisit portions of the museum from a distance. Basic facts and locations can be confirmed by looking back into the app, since it doesn’t require you to be physically in the museum to use it. Encurate could be a really interesting platform for museums looking to do digital exhibits or to create digital exhibits that work in tandem with physical ones.
The downsides to the app are not a function of Encurate itself (or, at least, I don’t think they are). The interpretation in the app is seriously underdeveloped, to a point where at times, it felt silly to be using it. First, I think that the tours about Eleanor and about the history of the house should just be combined. I understand why Eleanor’s life was separated out, since she was an interesting woman for her time. But if the two tours are to remain separate, that tour needs to be seriously developed out. Honestly, I didn’t even register they were two different tours until going back into the app now. I also think that if the history of the home is going to be a tour option, there needs to be something for each room. The fact that the museum is in a mansion is an omnipresent focus, so commit to it.
One thing that I thought might be a possibility through the app is a “speed tour” of the museum. It’s not a big place by any means, but there are a lot of objects in a fair number of the rooms. Instead of having the app say, “this is the radiology room, here’s a brief history of radiology, here’s what these three large items are, read the posters for more information,” it highlights items of interest. To me, this is a little redundant since those items were usually already drawing visitors in through their appearance or the wall labels with interpretation. I’d prefer a quick and dirty explanation of each room’s theme rather than pointing out two cool items.
The odd tour separations and app interpretations are indicative of the largest problem with the app, which is that someone needs to spend more time on it. There are spelling errors and places where the app points you to objects that are no longer in the specified location. One weird moment was when the app talked about the hidden safe, and there’s no information on whether or not you’re supposed to open the closet door and look at the safe. Some rooms have three slides to look at, while others have none. The inconsistencies are off-putting and detract from the user experience of the app. I’m not an expert in app development by any means, but I do think it should be relatively easy to go into the back end of the app and add the interpretation. If this is happening right now, I think it’s worth it to add as a disclaimer that the app is a work in progress and to check back soon for more information and interpretation.
One last issue with the app is that sometimes the beacons misfire. I was on the fourth floor and getting notifications about the third floor. This is a technological issue that might not have an easy solution, but it was hard to use the app to learn more about where I was when it kept pulling me away to other areas below me.
Overall, I really like the idea of Encurate’s app for the Museum of Surgical Science. Since the museum is relatively small, allowing visitors to move through the galleries at their own pace but with provided interpretation could cut down on staff costs, which is always a good thing. It also makes adding more interpretation easier, since the options are not limitless. I think with additional refinements and the investment of more time, the app could be a truly great resource for the museum and stand as a best practice example of app usage for small institutions.