American Museum of Natural History’s Explorer App

I chose the AMNH’s Explorer app because I wanted to see what kind of app a prominent museum with a large budget would produce. I’ve looked at a few apps from some smaller Italian museums that, in my opinion, are poorly designed and barely functional. It feels like some of these museums are creating apps as a kind of gimmick. So I was curious to see what the best kind of museum app looked like, and whether it could actually improve a visitor’s experience.

Perhaps the first thing to note abut the Explorer App is that right away it offers you a list of topics and exhibits for you to chose from, and then guides you from exhibit to exhibit with your phones GPS technology. Obviously I wasn’t able to test this out, but I have tried using paper maps in museums before, and they’re not always easy. If this app makes it easier for visitors to navigate the museum building, then this free app is already worth downloading.

Other features worth noting is the alerts when you get near an exhibit that you marked as being of interest. The app then offers a bunch of photos, fun facts, and audio clips related to the exhibit. This feature of the app works brilliantly. The photos are all very good quality, the windows pop up on the app without any lag, and it’s easy to navigate back to the home screen. However, I wonder if the photos and the extra info really add to the visitor’s experience at the exhibit. I can imagine the app being just as much of a distraction as an aid. I also wonder why these photos and the extra info in the app were not added to the exhibit in the first place.

I was born in 1984 and I resisted making technology part of my life until like 2006. I still don’t like it when people fidget with their phone during dinner or during a conversation. So I think that I’m of a demographic that would be more content with the exhibit by itself. The photos, audio clips, and games that come with the app feel gimmicky to me. All I really want is the GPS navigator.

That said, I can also see the app being useful for a parent who is forcing their child to visit the museum. At least the kid can pretend like he’s experiencing the museum by playing with the app while mom and dad look at the exhibit. Maybe the tree of life game or the guided tour with the cartoon bear could be fun for a kid. But if I have to strain my brain for a scenario in which all the functions of the app are useful, than maybe most of it is just for show.

As visually appealing and intuitive as the app is, I think it’s best feature is the GPS navigator. Everything else that comes with the app will likely not add anything significant to a visitor’s experience. This could well be my prejudice against technology speaking; however, I think people visit museums because they want an unmediated encounter with the past. An app could help, but it could also get in the way.

One thought on “American Museum of Natural History’s Explorer App”

  1. I think your discussion of the gimmicky aspect of these apps is spot on. They can be a powerful tool in the right place and time but sometimes they seem overly clunky and pretty much useful for taking up space on a phone.
    The context and overall messaging of the museum effects whether or not the app is warranted, useful, or even appropriate (I can’t think of the US Holocaust museum having an app…?).

    It seems like this app replaced the older technology of handheld audio-things that some museums would hand out to use while browsing the museum (thinking of the “press 2-4-2 to hear more about Lincoln’s hat” kinda things).

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