Culture, heritage and apps

I said earlier on Twitter that I’m disappointed with the state of apps produced for museums and libraries. I’d better explain what I mean. Here’s what I said:

Disappointed to find that many museum apps (British Library, Bodleian, Concorde etc) are just the same app with different content. :-(

In each case (particularly Concorde) there’s some magic specific to the subject. Rubber-stamping the app doesn’t capture that magic.

They’re all made with a tool called Toura that sits atop PhoneGap. Makes it easy to get the content into the apps at the cost of expression.

So to be clear: my problem is not with the museums and other heritage sites. I’m familiar with the financial and political problems associated with running a museum. My social circle includes curators, librarians and medieval manuscript experts and I know that money is tight, that oversight is close and that any form of expenditure in promotion must result in a demonstrable increase in feet through the door and donations to be considered a success.

The Magna Carta

My problem is also not with the Toura product and the team behind it. They’re to be commended for identifying that while the culture and heritage community doesn’t have much money, they still deserve to be represented in our tablets and phones. The apps I listed above all feature astounding objects: examples include the Concorde aircraft, the Lindisfarne gospels and the Magna Carta.


So why are these apps disappointing? It’s basically because they’re all the same. Each of these objects has its own magic: the unique shape of Concorde, the vivid colours of the gospels and the constitution-defining text of the Carta. So why present them in the same way? Why not make a Concorde app that evokes aerodynamic speed, an illuminated Lindisfarne gospels app, and a revolutionary Magna Carta app? As many people have explained, it’s because standard content-viewing apps like Toura are all these institutions can afford.

Folio 27r from the Lindisfarne Gospels: image from Wikimedia Commons

There’s something seriously wrong in our app industry. We’ve created a world in which apps are too cheap, and developers struggle to make a living from 70ยข per sale. Simultaneously, we’ve created a world in which apps are too expensive: the keepers of some of the world’s most interesting objects can’t afford to showcase these with more than a generic master/detail view. What’s that about?

What mindset leads us to demand high worth, when we’re making products that we can’t convince customers contain any value? If they don’t see the value, are we deluding ourselves? People talk about events like the Instagram acquisition as being evidence of a bubble subset of the app economy. But isn’t that oxymoron – a free app that’s worth a billion dollars – just an exaggerated version of what the rest of the industry is up to?

Let me present this problem in a different way, by moving from apps about museums to museums about apps.

The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Last month I spent an enjoyable time with some very good friends in Amsterdam, the city of both apps and museums. While walking around the Rijksmuseum, I reminded myself that we’re in the middle of the possibly the largest and definitely the fastest technology-mediated social revolution humanity has ever experienced. Those of us enabling the application of this technology are literally providing the fulcrum around which our species is revolving.

During this year, museums will look at apps as cultural, historical and ethnological artefacts in their own right. Over the coming century, heritage institutions will shape the way that our brief period in time is presented for posterity. Be sure that all of the million apps currently available across all app stores will not be on display.

As with any presentation, perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add but when there is nothing left to take away. Just as you can’t (and wouldn’t want to) walk into a museum and see every manuscript from the 10th century on display, you won’t be able to walk into the Nieuwerijksmuseum in 3112 and see every app from the 21st century. Only those that are considered cultural treasures will be given pride of place in the galleries. Can something that apparently has no value be considered a cultural treasure? Will any of your apps be part of the presentation? I don’t think I’ve yet produced anything that will be, and that needs to change.

About Graham

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2 Responses to Culture, heritage and apps

  1. Wayne says:


    A colleague sent me a copy of this post and encouraged me to reply.

    Our group has developed it’s own mobile platform for museums. Overall our goal is marketing and promotion. The project itself is based on years of study and was developed by our team. Overall we’ve found that we can best help groups by not only providing a product, but by combining our technical knowledge with a personalized level of service.

    Instead of trying to capture the museum experience in our app (which doesn’t do it justice), we instead try to provide information to get people excited about visiting museums in person. This, I feel is the best goal for the technology and helps to solve the biggest issue that museums face (getting folks in the door).

    Beyond images and content our platform also supports streaming audio / video to enhance the experience. Providing a rich multimedia experience is our goal, and through collaboration with other organizations we’re excited about the future.

  2. Graham says:

    Hi Wayne, thanks for your comment. GalleriesHQ looks really interesting, are there any apps using it yet that you could point to?

    I agree with you that multimedia is key, it’s great for providing extra context for the artefacts displayed in the app. You could imagine an app that both attracts people to the museum/gallery and augments the experience once you’re inside.

    BTW the design looks like it’d suit Metro Style UIs really well ;-)

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