Frankenstein’s Museum App: Learning from the Landscape of Digital Initiatives

Tracy Stuber, George Eastman Museum, USA, Kate Meyers Emery, George Eastman Museum, USA


Of over a half million objects in the George Eastman Museum’s collection, only a small fraction, totalling under .001%, are on view for the average museum visitor to see. In a recent visitor survey, we found that many people leave the museum wanting to see more from our permanent collection. In particular, docents and educators want the ability to dive deeper into conversations that connect what is on view with the other objects we have that are not. Since over 60% of these objects are available online, we determined that the best way to tackle this challenge was by creating a digital tool that could leverage our digital collections to expand the experience of visitors while they are on site. This presentation argues that in the current rich landscape of digital museum initiatives, no one needs to start from scratch when developing their own tool or platform. In our experience, the process of exploring and experimenting with existing models is just as worthwhile as a final product, since these exemplars introduced unexpected ways to think about and interact with our collections. This presentation shares our survey of inspiring initiatives at other museums, including the Cleveland Museum of Art’s ArtLens app, the Corning Museum’s Glass App, the Hammer Museum’s Expanded Digital Archives, and the Art Institute of Chicago’s JourneyMaker. Further, we will detail our process as a case study, moving from rapid paper prototyping to creating a functional in-gallery digital tool. By being open and transparent about the failures, successes, and issues encountered, we aim to provide a starting point from which others can create their own institution-specific projects.

Keywords: app, collection, interactive, photography


With the advent of online reviews, comes the ability to learn more about what visitors appreciate about an institution but also the opportunity to use less-than-stellar comments as a tool to improve experience. A common thread in our negative reviews is that visitors are disappointed that they don’t get to see more from our permanent collection or that they do not have the opportunity to see “classics,” such as works by Ansel Adams or Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother.

While we have made changes to improve access, such as rotating the classics from our permanent collection into our History of Photography (HoP) gallery, a recent visitor survey found that many guests still leave the museum wanting to see more. Of over a half million objects in the George Eastman Museum’s collection, only a small fraction, totaling under .001%, are on view for the average museum visitor to see. Due to the delicate nature of photographs and related technology, and the small size of the museum, we are limited in what we can display and always do our best to rotate images out of the vault for the visitors.

The challenge for us, and we expect for many other institutions, is how to engage people in the works currently on view when the works that they may be interested in are in a vault or how to expand the experience so that guests can see more of what interests them, without adding more exhibition space or leaving objects out for extended periods that may cause harm to them.

In October 2016, we launched our online collections, which includes over 60% of our permanent collection. While this resource has been used to engage with the general public and scholars in digital spaces, it has not been used as a resource on site. We determined that the best way to tackle our challenge was by creating a digital tool that could leverage our online collections to expand the experience of visitors while they are on site. The next challenge becomes, what does this look like, how is it built, and what will work best for both our collections and our audience?

Luckily for us, finding ways of creating engaging online spaces and augmenting on site engagement with digital tools is not new. In addition to the many popular apps and platforms out there fighting for our attention, such as Instagram and Netflix, museums have been finding ways to utilize their digital collections and engage with guests in new and creative ways. Therefore, instead of starting from scratch, we decided to focus on assessing what others had done before us.

This paper shares the inspiration that guided us in the early steps of our journey to develop an onsite tool for engaging audiences in our permanent collections. For each exemplar we selected, we have documented basic information about its purpose, use, and structure as well as assessed how well it would work in our space. From this assessment, we took the parts of each that we found most attractive for our own purposes and share the first stages of testing these on our own audience. We conclude by sharing a vision for our final product, which will be launched in early Summer 2019. Like Frankenstein’s monster, our tool will be crafted from the parts of many others but will, hopefully, drive the masses to use it rather than rally against it. While our “monster” may not be directly useful to other institutions, we hope that by sharing our process, successes and failures, we can help others to create their own.

The Idea Behind the Monster

When we started conceptualizing a tool that could engage visitors in our broader collections, we first set out to better understand the challenges we faced and set goals that could clearly address this.

Challenge: Visitor Goals

Anecdotally, we knew that a common visitor complaint was that they came here specifically wanting to see a image or artist from our permanent collection on display that wasn’t, or they thought they would get to see more from our permanent collection. However, as Dilenschneider (2018) argues, it is important to work from data to make decisions rather than working from what we think we know, as this is potentially flawed by bias. With this in mind, we set out to use two sets of data we were collecting as part of a broader museum study on guest experience: a recent visitor survey and online reviews.

In Summer 2018, we conducted a survey of 117 visitors in order to learn more about their museum experience. While the survey was designed to learn about the visitor journey, 10 visitors specifically mentioned that a low point of their visit was the lack of objects from our permanent collection on display. Of 62 visitors who chose to leave comments, eight of those focused on the desire to see more from our collection. These included, “I thought there would be more photos on exhibit,” and “Wanted to see picture taken with the various cameras to understand the technology better.”

Next, we reviewed our lowest reviews on Tripadvisor, Yelp, Facebook, and Google. A frequent complaint in this 1-2 star reviews is the lack of objects from our collection on display. These include comments like, “Imagine a museum where you can’t see the art. What a letdown. The largest collection of photos in the world, and they won’t let you see them. Only a tiny selection is on view in the special exhibit space on the first floor; all the rest are locked in the archives and require advance arrangements to view a selection you must specify. (Insouciant1, 2015, Tripadvisor). Another says, “They have a great collection of photographs (allegedly!), but in order to see the classics you need to arrange a ‘research’ appointment! It is like going to the Louvre to see Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, but once you get there you’re told they’re in the vaults . . . ” (Horia G., 2016. Tripadvisor).

Based on this, we know that our guests do want to see more from our permanent collection. Currently, of the museum’s over half million objects, only a small selection (about .001%) are on view in HoP. While this gallery is rotated every four to six months to improve access to the collection and share photographs based around a common theme, it does not seem to satisfy. Therefore, our first goal is to build a tool that will give people the opportunity to explore the works from our collection that are not currently on view. As a starting point, we will focus on expanding the experience in HoP first, as this is where those who are interested in learning more about photographic and related technological objects are going on site.

Challenge: Ensure Use

Building it does not mean “they will come.” Studies have shown that mobile app use among museum-goers is fairly low (Dilenschneider 2017) and a barrier is getting visitors to download them. Dilenschneider also notes that, “People who use mobile applications onsite do not report significantly higher satisfaction rates than those who do not.” To make matters more complicated, MacDonald (2015) found that a museum’s online collections are one of the least popular sections of a museum’s website. This lack of interest is attributed to the poor user experience most visitors face when navigating digital collections. As Rainbow, Morrison, and Morgan (2012) found, users want easy, accessible, and multi-dimensional ways to discover and browse collections. We, therefore, face the double challenge of needing to create something that has low barriers with a user-friendly experience that is worthwhile and engaging.

While creating something with low barriers to use is more straightforward, making it a satisfying experience is more challenging. In a world where we are constantly fighting for the attention of our audience, how do we create something that they will want to use? As Huckle and Cohen (2018) argue, we make it more like tools they already use. In creating the new online collections for the Royal Academy, Huckle and Cohen’s team used algorithms to mimic the black hole effect found on many popular sites like Netflix and YouTube, whereby one gets sucked into looking at more than one thing because an algorithm shares related material you may be interested in. Throughout the prototyping and creation process, a goal will be to look to popular platforms for inspiration.

Another consideration is that this tool has the potential to be a valuable resource for our docents and visiting educators, and by creating it with this audience in particular in mind, we can ensure it will be used. We found during our visitor survey mentioned above, that regardless of age group, people enjoy our docent-led tours. Twenty-eight of 117 respondents said the tour was the highlight of their visit and many specifically mentioned that it added to their overall experience. By having the docents integrate it into their tours, they would be demonstrating its utility. Further, if we included questions and text with the objects that related to the themes in the HoP, it could be useful to visiting educators who are using the gallery as part of a lesson.

The overall goal to address the challenge of use and satisfaction is to create a tool that does not require downloading or special devices, has an easy-to-use and intuitive interface, will keep guests engaged in the experience, and can be useful for both the general audience and educators, therefore ensuring that we are spending our time on something worthwhile.

Challenge: Budget & Resources

A persistent challenge in cultural institutions is how to be creative and innovative using minimal resources? In order to keep costs—both time and money—low, we will set out to build something that uses existing resources. This means leveraging existing tools like our online collections, website, and mobile website to create a platform, rather than building something from scratch, if possible. Further, we want to be able to build it in-house rather than partnering with an outside firm. This means using the skills we have already available to us, rather than outsourcing them.

To review, the goals of this project overall are to create a platform or tool that:

  1. Allows visitors to go beyond the collections that they see on site by building a tool that lets them dive deeper
  2. Is mobile, web-based, or available on site
  3. Easy-to-use with an intuitive interface
  4. Includes aspects of popular platforms like Instagram, Netflix, or YouTube that will engage a broader audience, such as interesting related content
  5. Has educational content that can be useful for docents and visiting educators
  6. Uses existing resources for creation

Inspiration for the Monster

With our goals in mind, our first step was to look outward, because we have an incredibly powerful resource at our fingertips—you, the broader museum community. Instead of building this in a silo, we looked to what has been built before, how they successfully accomplished it, and what aspects of their projects we could borrow to create our own platform. We selected six platforms to review. These were selected based on the authors’ own satisfaction using the tools, access to information about the construction, use and success of the program, and the potential for them to be useful in creating the Eastman Museum’s tool. Further, we aimed to select a range of projects, from the more simple and low-cost to the highly complex and well-funded projects that are based onsite, online, or both, and from a variety of institutions.

For each we asked: what is it, how was it created, what is appealing (i.e. what would we like to “steal” from it), and what are the potential barriers to us implementing a solution like this? The goal is to find pieces from each that could be used to inspire prototypes that will eventually lead to the creation of our own tool.

Hammer Exhibition Archives

The Hammer Museums’ Digital Archives ( document exhibitions after they’ve left the physical museum space. The first implementations of these archives accompany exhibitions, such as Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980 from 2011-2012 (Now Dig This!, 2017). More recently, the Hammer has extended them to special features like their collection of works by Corita Kent. In addition to exhibited artworks, these archives contain related information, such as artist biographies, scholarly essays, installation images, videos, and research resources. To create the archives, the Hammer worked with a design team, One Long House, and a web-development agency, Cast Iron Coding, to produce a front-end design using Sass, HTML5, and Javascript. Their content management system is TYPO3, a free, open source, PHP-based CMS. Cast Iron Coding developed a script that automatically created Web pages for the artworks uploading to the CMS (Leider 2018, Edwards 2019).

These digital archives appealed to us because of the ephemerality of HoP installations, which change two to three times a year. While our visitors can currently access images from previous rotations online, they lack the context and text of the exhibitions. The Hammer’s archive of exhibitions is robust and includes not only the objects and exhibition text but the full range of related materials from events and marketing materials to conservation reports and essays.

While there are many aspects we like, it isn’t a perfect solution for us. From a technical standpoint, the interface is coded page-by-page, rather than being pulled from a database. While this requires less technical skills, we hope to leverage our digital collections to decrease the time involved. Using this example, we could envision a digital archive of each of our gallery rotations that includes audio from talks and tours, exhibition text, and links to related works based on the theme. To reach our specific audience, however, we’d like to consider how other modes of navigation could motivate interest and use.

Royal Academy

The Royal Academy’s online collections ( are unique in the methods they use to engage a more general audience. In particular, they created a section based around browsing that is meant to have a Netflix-like effect (Huckle 2018). Users can visually browse works and then dive into categories like “shoes” or artistic choices like color. Each artwork includes information on the work, a description, and links to related works and the artist, as well as links to related events and online exhibitions. An additional feature is that they offer online exhibitions curated with specific topics like War or Architecture and annotated digital exhibitions by individuals outside the museum, like the artistic director of English National Ballet. The collections online are powered by a database called MuseumsIndex+ that has been customized for their needs. They worked with System Simulation, who created MuseumsIndex+ and the custom API, and with Fabrique on the site design and development. An in-house developer collaborated throughout to ensure the database would work in the existing website and could be supported moving forward. (Huckle, 2019).

What drew us to this specific resource was the many ways that people could interact with the works, from the interesting audio-visual tour of works selected by non-artists in “Other Voices” to the “Start Exploring” interface that allows for dynamic browsing with little prior knowledge required. These provide different types of accessible starting points for people who are intrigued by art but are not scholars, and they provide an experience similar to that found on social media.

While the “Start Exploring” function offers an incredible way for non-scholars to gain entry into the online collections, it would require coding that is beyond our skillset and would require outsourcing. However, our online collections do allow for tagging with topics, though it wouldn’t have the same type of immersive interface. Further, we would like an interface that would work well from a mobile device and wouldn’t require a large screen for browsing.

CMoG GlassApp

The Corning Museum of Glass (CMoG) GlassApp ( is meant to be used in the contemporary gallery space as an extension of the existing text to provide expanded content. Each object includes a video about the piece, information about the artist, related media, glass terms, what you can purchase that is related, details on the piece in text, and artist photo. Additionally, the mobile website includes a scavenger hunt, information on the building and museum, and social media feed of people actively sharing in the museum. GlassApp is a “headless” Drupal 7 mobile site which provides the content through an API to a ReactJS front end framework. It is not connected to the main online collections, but rather each page and section was individually programmed (Hewitt, 2018).

What appealed to us with this tool is first and foremost that it is a mobile site meant to be used in the gallery to expand the visitor experience. From a user perspective, it also has very low barriers: it does not require downloading it to your personal device but rather is a website designed for mobile. It has a clean and intuitive interface, and it offers different types of engagement from images and text to video. These are all aspects we hope to include in our application, and the production of a mobile website is a possibility we need to consider.

In many ways, this is similar to what we want to do on the front end. It provides visitors with a way to learn more about the current works in a way that is fun and engaging. However, we don’t want to program every object and page; we want eMuseum to do the work for us, and we would only fill in the special pages. An important difference is that we want our expanded content to include other works, not just those on view. GlassApp is a great example of a mobile website that expands the onsite experience.

AIC JourneyMaker

The Art Institute of Chicago’s (AIC) JourneyMaker ( is a fun, re-usable tool for museum visitors of all ages. Accessible either at home or on a touch-screen kiosk at the museum, this choose-your-own-adventure project lets users create a story by selecting from multiple-choice artworks, based on different genres. This story then generates a print-out guide with information on the selected works, activities, and wayfinding directions.  The project, designed by Belle & Wissell and supported by funds from the Women’s Council of the Art Institute of Chicago, was built in Drupal 7, requiring a collections API, and the web client runs on Javascript. It is now available on GitHub for anyone to download (AIC, 2016; McHugh, 2017).

There’s a lot to love about JourneyMaker. It’s designed to get people excited about the museum even before they get there. This is especially great for kids who may not understand yet what they can learn from a museum. Although in itself digital, the platform ultimately encourages in-person interactions with the art on display. Best of all, it’s reusable: there are eight different themes to choose from and dozens of permutations within each theme. In our experience, making a story made us want to create another one. By encouraging visitors to come back to the museum again and again, it drives admission as well as membership.

For our own purposes, however, the JourneyMaker model would be difficult to use for short-run photography exhibitions. It requires the objects to be accessed onsite, something that we cannot ensure with our photographic collections. However, we could envision a digital tour that takes you from physical objects you like in the current exhibition and shows you related material online. Another important takeaway is the easy and fun interface—it doesn’t have the appearance of an educational tool (but is), and this is something we should strive to do: create a product that is appealing to a wide audience and has an element of fun to it so that it doesn’t feel like work.  

Brooklyn Museum ASK

Each of the previous projects endeavor to add something new to the visitor’s experience: a richer background, an unknown context, or a new route. The Brooklyn Museum’s ASK app ( takes another step backward and, in their words, “lets visitor need pave the way” (Bernstein, 2014). Visitors have the opportunity to ask questions and get answers quickly, helping them to explore the museum on their own terms. In its present form, ASK is a native Apple and Google Play app that uses messaging, the camera, and geolocating iBeacons. It was funded by Bloomberg Connects.

What’s great about ASK is that it’s visitor-driven. One of the most important insights the ASK team found is that visitors respond more strongly to custom, on-the-spot recommendations for what to explore next, rather than predetermined lists. Like Journeymaker and ArtLens (below),  personalized suggestions made their experience feel custom (Devine, 2014).

The challenge is that as implemented at the Brooklyn Museum, the app requires a dedicated staff that we don’t have. While it would be great to be able to create custom, online exhibitions for each guest based on interest, we do not have the resources. However, if we had a method to learn about what visitors want to see more of, we could better shape the content we share using our online collections and an in-gallery app.

CMA ArtLens

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s (CMA) ArtLens ( is a museum-wide mobile application that gives you a whole new way to customize your visitor journey. Guests can begin by selecting objects or themes they want to learn about on the ArtLens wall and transferring that to the app, which will give them directions to the art they’ve selected, or they can pick a tour designed by the museum. The dynamic map interface, using Navizon WiFi wayfinding, helps guests navigate the different rooms, selecting the best route to their chosen objects. Once in front of the object, augmented reality is used to allow visitors to learn more about specific aspects of each work in addition to the basic information about the piece, artist, and period. Further, the app is connected to the museum’s website, which means guests can see what is happening on site that day without having to leave the app. ArtLens was built using Piction’s DAMS, which means the information is always up-to-date and directly connected with their digital collection, and information is pulled from the museum’s website via a RESTful web service (Alexander 2014; CMA, 2019).  

While there are many aspects to this project that we love: the interactive wall that allows users to customize tours, the augmented reality interface that allows for clear connections between objects and text, the dynamic map with wayfinding; what is really appealing about this app is that it is sharing stories that are not present in wall text, diving into the object’s detail, and promoting the exploration of new works on site. Further, it includes material that allows people to learn at different levels, such as images, text, and video.

For us, the challenge, beyond funding and the lack of ability to create something at this level, is that this is all based around onsite objects. However, the ability to learn more about details in an object is something we could build upon. By selecting details in works and connecting them digitally to related works, we could create a tool that is useful and interesting.

Prototyping the Monster

From our exploration of these six exemplars, we can begin to envision our own dream application: the immersive impact of Royal Academy’s “Start Exploring” feature; a range of materials from current and past iterations of the gallery like The Hammer; the ability to explore details and expanded content like CMA’s ArtLens; the motivation for guests to ask questions like Brooklyn’s ASK; an intuitive, mobile-friendly web-based interface like CMOG’s GlassApp; and a fun and inspiring activity like AIC’s JourneyMaker. The next step is doing rapid prototyping to test ideas on our specific audience using simple analog and digital methods. Here, we share the early stages of this process and ideas for future prototypes.

Social Media to Explore User Preference

We decided to put our first test on social media as it would allow us to easily test audience interaction around collection objects. For this test, we took inspiration from the Royal Academy’s tagging method and Brooklyn Museum’s audience participation, giving our audience the ability to vote on topics they would like to see us share more on based on an image in our current HOP rotation.

In iteration 1 of the test, we used Twitter’s poll feature to share a self-portrait by Larry McNeil that he took outside of a tourist stop in New Mexico. Users were then asked if they’d prefer to see more images about New Mexico in the 1970s, self-portraits, or tourist attractions. After 14 votes, the winning selection was New Mexico in the 1970s, and we followed up with three related images from our collection, which received decreasing engagement (Figure 1). For iteration 2, we used the same strategy on Instagram but gave only two options: New Mexico in the 1970s and classic cars, plus the opportunity to make suggestions in the comments. While the first post received fairly high engagement, the follow-up did not. We re-ran this test with a photograph by Melissa Ann Pinney, offering options in the form of hashtags: #plastic and #pink. Both the original and follow-up received less engagement (Figure 2). For iteration 3, we used the question feature of Instagram Stories to allow for open answers and asked how our users would tag a photograph to see what implied themes appeared. The work by Lim Young Kyun inspired tags like #gloomygrey, #serenity, and #waiting . . . , which gave us some interesting possible starting points for sharing more collection objects. Others like #thesmellofsalt, while intriguing, don’t readily provide that same impetus.

A screenshot of a Twitter post
Figure 1: Twitter engagement from iteration 1


A screenshot of an Instagram post
Figure 2: Instagram engagement from Iteration 3


Table 1:  Summary of Social Media Iterations

1 Larry McNeil Twitter Poll Post 1: 14 votes

Post 2: 12 likes

Post 3: 2 likes

Post 4: 4 likes

2a Larry McNeil Instagram Post & Stories Post 1: 337 likes, 72 votes

Post 2: 188 likes

2b Melissa Ann Pinney Instagram Post & Stories Post 1: 144 likes, 92 votes

Post 2: 129 likes

3 Lim Young Kyun Instagram Post & Stories Post 1: 125 likes, 11 responses


The data shows that while people often enjoyed interacting with the original posts, they weren’t as interested in the follow up (Figure 3). Our current hypothesis is that due to Instagram’s algorithm, there is no easy way to make this connection clear. In the next iteration, we will take a more direct approach by using Instagram Stories to connect audience response directly to new images. Not only will this approach more closely mimic what you’d expect from a Royal Academy/Brooklyn ASK mashup, but it appears to be a direction our audience is willing to go in. Further, we will use this inspiration to create an analog version we can test on site in HoP.

Future Testing

In addition to exploring tagging and audience engagement, as we hone our model, there are questions we aim to address in our next prototypes. Visitor surveys will be conducted throughout to determine success.  

  1. Would visitors be satisfied with pre-made expanded tours created by staff and special guests, as can be found in platforms like CMA’s ArtLens and Royal Academy’s Other Voices? Using analog paper guides, we will share images and text relating to a few select images on view in the gallery and hand these out to guests.
  2. Do visitors want an expanded experience that exists on their mobile device like CMOG’s GlassApp or CMA’s ArtLens? Using our existing mobile website that normally houses our audio tours, On Cell, we will create a simplified digital site that gives users the option to explore a couple objects on site and shows connections to a few other objects from our collection that are not on view.
  3. Do visitors want other ways of navigating through the museum? Although HoP is our primary display of permanent collection objects, at the other end of the museum, we have a display of historic cameras. Using paper and On Cell versions, we will craft a JourneyMaker-inspired activity that connects these two galleries.
  4. How can we give people what they’ve already asked for? We will assemble a “Highlights” list of photographs by well-known and/or often-requested photographers that will be featured in our online collection to see if this satisfies visitor desires.


Using the results of these tests, we will begin crafting our own digital engagement tool that will launch in early Summer 2019. The tool will leverage our existing online collections, be available in a mobile website format, and will provide guests with an expanded gallery experience. Exactly how we will create this, what it will look like, and the specific experience users will have is still up in the air as we continue testing and determining what will be the best fit for our specific audience. Our early tests have so far shown an interest in exploring new categories, but perhaps not given us the best method for doing so, and we believe testing over the next months will help us further narrow down our approach.


When we started envisioning an in-gallery tool that could expand the visitor experience, we first looked to other museums to see what they had done. Those that were most helpful were not just ones with successful tools, but ones that had documented the process of creation, shared the reasons behind their decisions, and been active in talking about the outcomes in forums like the MuseWeb conference and proceedings.

While the end-result is important to our visitors, sharing our process, successes, and failures is important to the broader discipline. As we began to learn more about the tools of others, we found one of our greatest assets was discussing the projects with the people who created it—who were all more than willing to share how they had done it and why they made certain decisions. It is this type of collaboration that can make all museums stronger.

Our journey in many ways is like that of Frankenstein, borrowing pieces from other bodies that fit our needs to create something that will be stronger than what we could have made on our own. And just like Frankenstein journaled his monster, we too will continue to document and share our own journey, on our Medium blog and in presentations. Unlike Frankenstein, this monster will not be made in isolation but will benefit from the feedback of you, our peers, and our general audience, so that when it is finally released upon the world, it will thrive. We look forward to sharing a beta version of our monster at the 2019 MuseWeb meeting.


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Cite as:
Stuber, Tracy and Meyers Emery, Kate. "Frankenstein’s Museum App: Learning from the Landscape of Digital Initiatives." MW19: MW 2019. Published January 23, 2019. Consulted .