Nancy Proctor, Head of Mobile, Smithsonian Institution

Nancy Proctor heads up mobile strategy and initiatives for the Smithsonian Institution, and is co-chair of the Museums and the Web annual conference. From 2008-2010 she was Head of New Media at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Nancy served as program chair for the Museums Computer Network (MCN) conference 2010-2011, and co-organizes the Tate Handheld conference among other gatherings for cultural professionals. She also manages, its wiki and podcast series, and is Digital Editor of Curator: The Museum Journal. Learn more about Nancy at

Why is mobile interpretation important for Museums?

According to Nancy, mobile interpretation has the potential to allow for a plethora of interactivity between the museum and its visitors. It allows museums to add more information than what can be put on a label or wall text and can even offer interpretation in a multitude of languages, the impetus for some of the very first mobile devices in use in museums. Mobile interpretation is important because it opens up the collections and allows for increased access to the stories behind the objects but it also, especially these days, allows for a lateral communication with museum visitors. Social media, web presence, and apps network the visitors and the museum constantly. This is unprecedented in the history of museums and now more than ever the conversation between the museum and its visitors is easier, quicker, and more transparent due to the rise of mobile devices.

Mobile interpretation is important for the future of museums but it needs to be included in the overall planning process of museums. See the Smithsonian Mobile wiki for how to build strategy. It cannot be an afterthought or technology for technology’s sake. If mobile planning is tied to the overall mission of the museum it will be invisible, meaning it will fit in with the overall visitor experience in a museum and will not stick out like a sore thumb. If it is the museum’s mission to increase the diffusion of knowledge, mobile strategies need to provide avenues for this mission to take place.

Mobile business models and Return on Investment

Mobile apps or mobile websites will not reach 100 percent of museum visitors because not everyone has the technology in their pockets, yet. Many sources predict mobile internet usage to top desktop usage by 2013-2015. Although, 100 percent of the public cannot physically visit the museum due to geographic location but with network technology a museum does have global reach. With the 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition stating that, “The global network supporting mobile devices of all kinds now covers more territory than the electrical grid.”

Having a presence on mobile devices will allow museums to meet people where they are and cultivate niche audiences right now. Free apps achieve the greatest number of downloads and therefore have the greatest reach. As soon as charges are applied, the download numbers drop significantly. Apps are expensive to produce today and generally apps do not make the money back, but if the traditional view of return on investment is updated to include education, increased website visitation or increasing support for another revenue generating initiative memberships for example, than mobile is successful. The network effect is key. See the paper Nancy co-authored at the Museum and the Web conference 2010 regarding mobile app business models. Using the Smithsonian Mobile wiki, transparency and openness plays into this as well. By publishing work on a wiki and allowing people to collaborate, contribute, and create solutions that would otherwise not be possible, Nancy has been able to produce successful projects with volunteers and relatively no budget.

Mobile = Awareness and Relevancy

I encourage you to listen to the audio file, there is so much more in this interview than I can possibly sum up in this blog post. Mobile meets our 21st century visitors where they are; having a presence on mobile devices is imperative for museums. It increases awareness and in turn increases the relevancy of the museum, that network effect that Nancy talked about. Museums can now concentrate on augmenting their collections, to bring out stories, to leverage mobile to work for them. Mobile is not only about engaging people but getting them involved in a dialogue with the museum.

Listen to the interview

Listen to the streaming audio above or download the mp3 file.



  1. Amber Glen says:

    Nancy’s interview provided a lot of information that I probably would not have learned outside of this class. With all the mobile apps out there, it’s difficult for museums to compete if they do not have the budget to make the app free. I’m impressed that the majority of Nancy’s projects are created without a budget and it just goes to show that the museum field is one that could not create some amazing technology pieces without collaboration. I can’t imagine how a small museum would create something without the knowledge and willingness to share that other museums have.

    This will be one of those things all of us will need to pay attention to as mobile technology advances!

  2. Cherie Whipple says:

    I was so sorry that I missed the ‘live’ interview with Nancy this past week. Here are some of my observations and comments as I listened to the recording today.

    I share a similar journey with Nancy in that I, too, have been able to follow my passion for the most part in my career. I’ve been fortunate that I could take on jobs that interested me first and provided a paycheck second. I agree with Nancy’s ‘career skills’ list near the end of characteristics needed for a successful entry into the field: adaptability, flexibility, willingness to learn new things and keep up with trends, good communication skills, etc.

    “Interpretation is like cutlery at a banquet.” Priceless. I have a new analogy to add to my culinary analogy tool chest. The food may be beautiful and soul satisfying but we have to have the tools with which to eat it….even if it’s just with our simple fingers.

    Mobile doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It should be part of the overall interpretive strategic plan for the museum. Having technology for technology’s sake is not a strategy, just as hope is not a plan. Really thinking about the content and determining what content ties to the museum’s mission then determining the medium for delivery is the better approach.

    I liked the idea of the holographic docent (the visual in my head while Nancy was talking about street museum and augmented reality – there’s the scene in Star Wars where Princess Leia is beamed into the room by R2D2…); so, the costumed guide at Williamsburg pops up as a holographic image on the smartphone in your hand to tell you about life in 1699 Virginia.

  3. Averie Buitron says:

    So many good points were brought up during this interview. I especially found Proctor’s example of the bad mobile strategy to be a good reminder that you need to create two-way interactive modes while extending the reach of the exhibition to be fully successful. Great words to take from that was to, “Know your audience and know yourself”.

    Her advice about opening up the dialogue despite fears from museums that Web 2.0 will take away from visitors coming the physical site is a great reminder to again remember the mission of the museum and to also be confident in your institution.

    I was especially intrigued in what she thought the future was for mobile. Augmented reality and visual recognition seem to very promising. Also, I’m very appreciative of the advice she gave for those of us who may be interested in this field. Network, network, network!

  4. Juliana Olsson says:

    I too loved Nancy’s comments about interpretation, and her continued emphasis on knowing the audience and knowing your institution. You can’t assume anything, and you need to answer a lot of difficult questions about what you’re trying to do, for whom, and why, before you even begin a project. Yes “riding on the coattails of the hype” can be beneficial, but you need a larger, underlying goal (perhaps branding, or education).
    I also liked Nancy’s comment about technology starting to recede and become an invisible part of the visitor’s experience. Yes gadgets can draw an initial audience because of the “gee whiz” factor, but their long term success depends on how well the platform seamlessly supports the incredible content.
    Apps and other mobile programs are increasingly popular/expected, but they’re very expensive, and they really only “work” for museums if you make them freely available. So, with a new model for ROI that has no (direct) financial return on the investment, how do museums justify spending on these projects? We haven’t talked much about fundraising and development, but I think this is going to remain a crucial field, and I’m not sure how well it’s being updated in the Web 2.0 age.

  5. Megan Byrnes says:

    I’ve heard Nancy speak a few times before, and each time I’m impressed by her insights and candor. One of the many things that stood out to me in the interview was her reference to the Tate Modern’s stance that “the meaning of artworks [add other content here] is not self evident.” This, coupled with Nancy’s expression that “interpretation in a museum is like cutlery at a banquet” really highlighted for me the educational capability of mobile to scaffold the visitors learning experience and facilitate multiple connections with the objects and the museum’s mission. You can provide all of the content in the world to people but if there aren’t any accessible entry points, it can be difficult for visitors to participate in a meaningful way. People like myself can tend to think of handheld technologies as a sometimes obtrusive add-on to a gallery experience when the goal for mobile (at least a well-designed example) is to be a practically invisible tool to help visitors interact more deeply with the content and with one another.

    I also found Nancy’s remarks about institutional excuses to not adopt Web 2.0 approaches to be quite refreshing. She viewed many museums fears about generating incorrect content at times to be unrealistic–we all make incorrect observations but but the true learning occurs when we put the information out there, solicit feedback and go back and correct the information. It is impossible for anyone, including organizations, to know everything and I think that it is the hallmark of a true educational institution to model learning behavior by opening themselves and their collections up to a larger dialogue, making thoughtful corrections along the way, rather than not engaging at all with their audience.

  6. Jared Chamberlin says:

    This was another great interview, Nancy has had a lot of experience in the field and has offered some great advice. When talking about the strategy that museums need to adopt, Nancy put it very well. First you have to know who you are as an institution, and then you need to know who your audience is and what they are looking for. How does this audience currently use mobile platforms, and look for this overlap in what the museum has that is unique and special. It is more than just playing to your strengths, but also playing the audience correctly.

    I was also glad to hear Nancy not completely bash the technology for technology sake principle. While this isn’t a practice to get in the habit of, I like how Nancy says that the technology hype can help the museums’ visibility, or help it get a certain message out. As long as you are aware of this, and use the technology to build later on, then this is acceptable.

    I also liked her thoughts on ROI. This definitely holds true for museums, but it shouldn’t be about necessarily getting the money that the app cost back (which is pretty difficult). Rethinking metrics of success for mobile is something that museums will have to do, which I don’t think is very far off from other museum metrics. Museums have learned to not base success on the number of visitors through the door, and the same concepts hold true with apps.

  7. Brian Rayca says:

    Well done Ryan! I really liked Nancy’s interview. I found that her comments dovetailed with what I heard at the AAM seminar on Mobile technology and Social Media. People’s constant connectedness allows them to respond instantly to things. One anecdote from AAM was that SFMOMA responded to dirty restrooms because they saw a complaint about them on Twitter. So Nancy’s point about apps facilitating feedback was key.
    I found her remarks about free vs. paid apps interesting. I’m not in a position to create an app for my museum just yet, we have a priority on just getting a decent web presence, but I was introduced to the idea of using an app to offer audio tours in addition to device rental on site. This sounded like an excellent way of increasing the reach of the audio tour without competing with the gift shop rental. Nancy’s points about free apps vs. paid apps are born out in my own behavior. Now I’m not so sure that offering the audio tour as an app is wise.

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