Innovation on a Shoestring: Testing BYOD Concepts Without Building Anything

Natalia Hudelson, The British Museum, UK, Carlos Austin-Gonzalez, The British Museum, UK


While some museums have been implementing bring-your-own-device (BYOD) strategies for years, the British Museum has come late to this particular trend. Our reluctance wasn’t just due to our innate conservatism. We’ve been focused on delivering and enhancing our great on-site multimedia guide for the permanent collection, digital elements in galleries and exhibitions, and building up our social media following. This paper discusses our process to identify strategic goals and draw several institutional needs together into two related pilot projects. We used streamable audio to test both visitors’ willingness to use their own devices at the museum (or elsewhere) and at the same time gauge their interest in paid audio content without a formal audio guide rental. While the British Museum audio guide is generously sponsored by Korean Air, operating costs across the museum are significant, and rented audio guides have long been an important source of sustainable income for us; hence, we feel we cannot adopt the approach some peers have taken of making audio guide content freely available and streamable (e.g. Fei, 2017). To explore our questions around audience behavior and intent, we released albums of audio content in five languages to iTunes and Google Play Music. Visitors to the BM come from around the world and speak many different languages; we’ve had to take into account, and learn about, the disparate needs of our global audience through on-site qualitative research as well as the analytics provided by the digital platforms. We conclude the paper by assessing the data collected so far, lessons we’ve drawn, and how we plan to move forward based on our findings. We also hope our journey will prove useful to colleagues at other museums on a practical level, in terms of the technology platforms we used and strategies we adopted.

Keywords: audio, streaming, BYOD, pilot, language, visitor


While some museums have been implementing bring-your-own-device (BYOD) strategies for years, the British Museum has come late to this particular trend. Our reluctance wasn’t just due to our innate conservatism; we’d simply been focused on other digital products. Circumstances at the museum have been changing over the past few years; for example, we took the hard decision to stop offering audio guides for temporary exhibitions, because the economics grew difficult. Unpredictable visitor numbers and high production costs rendered the product too risky. We started looking for a new concept which would meet our interpretation goals while being more financially sustainable. Over the past two years, we have taken a harder look at when and how BYOD might work for our visitors—beginning, as always, with user research.

This paper discusses our process to identify strategic goals and draw stakeholder needs together into several related pilot projects. First, we review the range of audio content delivery methods used by museums over the past two decades; we, then, explain the approach which the British Museum has taken until approximately two years ago. Against this backdrop, we introduce a first pilot project around BYOD and explore its successes and failures. Next, we summarise three follow-on pilot projects, which build on the lessons learned in that first attempt. We conclude the paper by assessing the data collected so far, summarising the lessons we’ve drawn, and making some generalised recommendations for others.

We approached this range of products differently to how we would approach a fully-fledged native BYOD app. Most significantly, because we took one part of a familiar medium—the audio guide—and made it available online, we did not undertake an iterative development process in the lead up to our releases. We focused on developing and deploying classic interpretative audio content suitable for BYOD, which we followed with research around users’ behaviour with mobile devices and close measurement of the success of the products’ sales and marketing.

A Brief Review

Streaming and downloadable audio has a relatively long history in museum technology. Museums quickly appreciated the interpretative potential offered by new personal technologies and distribution platforms after MP3 players, and then smartphones, entered the market (Spadaccini, 2001). Parallel to the struggles which attended online content distribution more generally, museums appear to have conceived of online audio opportunities as a way to disseminate free content but not a serious opportunity for revenue. Simultaneously, institutions saw mobile platforms as key to attracting new—and especially younger—visitor groups (Proctor, 2009).

The iPod launched in 2001 and the “podcast” followed a few years later; of course, other MP3 players were available as well. Audio products from the early 2000s embraced the downloadable MP3 format. Earlier examples of this phenomenon include the National Gallery’s “Audio Tours” and the British Museum’s own Australia walkabout (discussed below); the format persists in, for example, the New Museum’s audio guide for current exhibitions ( and the European Gallery streamable guide at the Victoria & Albert Museum ( These MP3 files are generally hosted on the museum’s own website.

As distribution platforms have matured and multiplied, institutions have been able to choose other formats for audio distribution. SoundCloud has emerged as one popular choice; the Jewish Museum has moved all its audio guides there (Fei, 2017) and we ourselves use it to host access products such as our audio descriptive guides. Some museum mobile apps are primarily audio content delivery mechanisms. The Baltimore Museum of Art treads between the hosted-MP3 format and a native app with the browser-based BMA Go Mobile webapp; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ Mia native app, by contrast, resembles a simple audio player with little other functionality. The much-hailed app from SFMOMA, which exploits devices’ functionality and location awareness to deliver an experience which features audio at its core.

Audio at the British Museum

Audio interpretation has played an important role at the British Museum, dating back to an audio tour of the Parthenon galleries recorded by the curator and available on a cassette player worn over one’s shoulder. More recently, the product crystallised around an audio guide for the permanent collection and shorter guides for temporary exhibitions, typically lasting around 40-50 minutes and in a variety of formats (Mannion et al., 2016). All these cases relied upon rental devices at the museum. Dissemination of audio-to-visitor devices involved entirely free platforms: as mentioned above, the museum uses SoundCloud to publish recorded, minimally-edited lectures as well as our access products. A foray into an English-language BYOD audio in 2011 produced a free, five-stop trail associated with an institutional focus on Australia. This trail is hosted on the British Museum’s main website with an HTML interface, optimised for mobile. Each stop comes with a paragraph of textual interpretation and an MP3 which can be streamed or downloaded directly to device storage.

Screenshot of the BYOD Australia Trail tour
Figure 1: BYOD Australia trail (Trustees of the British Museum, 2011)

The BM’s digital strategy evolved to treat audio guides as digital products. The multimedia guide for the permanent collection and the exhibition guides were treated as self-contained projects, each with a budget and a revenue target. (Note that, like most other London museums, temporary exhibitions charge an entrance fee, and audio guides incur an additional cost, typically £4-5). The permanent collection guide had been profitable for some years, but this was a new approach for temporary exhibitions for which the focus had previously been on creating an interpretative experience on a slim, fixed budget. At the same time, visitor attendance of temporary exhibitions grew difficult to predict: a 2016 exhibition ran for six months with expectations of blockbuster turnout, and the accompanying audio guide had based its budget and revenue estimates on those projections. The UK voted for Brexit one month after the exhibition opening and the pound dropped in value, rendering invoices to European suppliers significantly more expensive; at the same time, visitor numbers failed to meet expectations, and for most of the exhibition’s run, the audio guide looked set to make a significant loss.

In late 2016, the museum discontinued production of exhibition-based digital guides when it determined the economics no longer lived up to profitability expectations. Actual budgets from the aforementioned exhibition, as well as financial forecasts, showed that content production comprised a relatively small part of overall costs. A high quality audio product of 45-70 minutes generally costs no more than £15,000, and could usually be created for much less. Equipment rental or purchase constituted a larger portion of overall budget, while the cost of staffing the physical desk at the exhibition entrance ran at over £4,000/month.

Category Percentage of total costs
Audio production 23%
Equipment rental 46%
Staffing 31%

Table 1: Estimated breakdown of costs for a temporary exhibition audio guide


The summer of 2016 brought another challenge, this time to the permanent collection audio guide. This product, launched in December 2015 (Mannion et al., 2015; Hudelson et al., 2017), runs on HTC mobile phones which were directly owned by the Museum. Previously, the leased devices used for all audio products could be increased for periods of high demand; now, inventory was fixed at the number of devices the museum could buy and maintain. Visitor numbers spike from mid-June through mid-August, and the audio guide desk frequently sold out of audio guides by 10am on a busy day during this period—although in a quieter month, such as November, the inventory was more than sufficient to meet daily demand. Adding further pressure, devices started to go missing in large numbers over the busier months: over 100 were lost from April to June 2016. We realised that inventory would always prove a challenge regardless of the stickiness of visitors’ fingers. If we doubled the number of devices available, we could make that money back over one busy summer month, but we’d have hundreds of devices sitting unused and needing maintenance during the rest of the year. We began to think about diversifying the audio guide product offering so that access to it could depend less on the physical devices while still maintaining a sustainable economic model for the museum.

Since the 2015 launch of the permanent collection guide, we have conducted evaluative user research in multiple languages each summer. We also use these opportunities to explore possible avenues for product development; attitudes toward, and appetite for, a BYOD paid digital visit support has been on our agenda since summer 2016 (Hudelson et al., 2017). While the promise of smartphones for this purpose has tantalised museums since before the advent of the iPhone, we found that visitor reluctance to use a personal device ran high among some visitor segments, even in 2018. However, from 2016-2018, visitor interest in using a personal mobile device at the museum has grown significantly; Chinese visitors generally already do this, and around 92% expressed interest in accessing an official museum mobile experience.

A graphic showing if visitors are interested in a mobile experience.
Figure 2: Interview results from visitor research conducted in the British Museum during August and October 2018


These converging factors drove us to look for a way to test a BYOD concept at the British Museum. We recognised that uneven demand for physical devices could be addressed by allowing users to get a similar product in different ways; we could avoid the hardware-related costs of temporary exhibition guides; and we observed the apparent growth in visitor willingness to use a personal mobile at the museum. We realised this last point was likely the most shaky and in need of proving out; when asked, many visitors might think a visiting app sounds like a good idea which they might, in theory, use—but would they really? How could we find out without actually building an app?

Curators’ Commentary

Temporary exhibitions have proven a fruitful testing ground for audio guide concepts in the past. As our former colleagues first pointed out, the sort of person taking an exhibition audio guide at the British Museum does not change much from one exhibition to another, and overall rates of takeup tend to be consistent (Mannion et al., 2016). A traditional model thus represented a fairly flat business, almost entirely dependent on overall visitor numbers. British Museum exhibitions tend to have very full textual labels compared to some of our peer institutions, and audio guides provided additional insights but not the only means of accessing key interpretative content; they were always a nice, but optional extra. This positioning, while never stated outright, made it hard to market exhibition guides as a must-have part of the experience. Yet exhibition visitors consistently claim they would like audio interpretation, and the medium provides an avenue for additional or alternative information which might overwhelm a text label.

We realised that the core thing of value to visitors—content produced by British Museum experts—was also the least costly to produce and the aspect we could best do ourselves. In fact, we had recently bought a small, portable recording booth in collaboration with our internal broadcast team to aid in producing audio and video content on-site. A colleague from that team suggested we try recording the curators speaking about an upcoming exhibition, and see if we could somehow market the audio itself. Blissfully ignorant of some of the challenges coming our way, we agreed enthusiastically and started creating a roadmap. Thus was born the Curators’ Commentary: explicitly not an exhibition audio guide.


This first effort at an experimental audio project coincided with the BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia, which opened in September 2017. Prior collaboration with the lead curator suggested he would be keen to trial the new concept and was able to speak eloquently on tape without significant rehearsal or scripting. With the resources of our internal broadcast team, we were able to keep up-front costs down to staff time alone. We had previously purchased a flat-pack sound booth (splitting the £8k cost with broadcast), which we erected in an unused basement room. It occupies only about nine square feet of floor space, and while there is a small compromise in audio quality due to the slightly reduced damping, it was an effective way of securing a recording resource for the long term. A tight timeline of just a few months meant our emphasis needed to remain on delivering a product and telling visitors about it. We were also unsure of how to distribute the product in a way that tested if anyone would pay for it.

As mentioned earlier, the museum has long used SoundCloud to disseminate free content. To test our ability to monetise, we needed a platform where users would expect to pay for content and preferably one with which visitors would be familiar, particularly since many exhibition goers tend to be older and less tech-savvy. We investigated a number of options and decided that, ideally, we would release via iTunes and Google Play Music. The vast majority of visitors would be using a smartphone which came with one of these two pre-installed and, thus, with low friction to purchase.

We discovered that, in order to publish albums on these platforms, we needed a distributor who could handle this for us and provide certain required metadata. We entered into an agreement with a distributor who, in exchange for a 9% commission on every sale on top of the 30% afforded to the distribution platforms themselves (including streams), would upload album audio and metadata to our selected music platforms. This process added a delay of about two weeks between publication by the museum and public release, which had to be factored in to our production schedule. Delays could be compounded if the metadata needed amendment. One particular challenge arose where the museum needed to set a universal cost for albums, but iTunes and Google Play Music have different pre-set criteria for how albums are priced. As a result, some British Museum releases are technically EPs, though no vinyl copy is available at the time of writing.

Because both Apple Music (iTunes) and Google Play Music allow users with a subscription to stream audio without on-the-spot payment, we were not able to set definite expectations for revenue per album. A streamed track can net royalty anywhere from £0.0001 while full album purchases are in excess of £1.00 or £2.00.

This pilot project was an abject failure in terms of revenue, even taking into consideration its low price point, but it taught us an immense amount about how to launch audio albums. Most importantly, we established ourselves as a recording artist with a distribution agent and learned how to submit an album for publication. User research conducted through interviews with 28 groups of exhibition visitors indicated that 57% of visitors would consider using an audio commentary in an exhibition, with 42% overall saying they would definitely use one if they had access to it.

Another challenge arose: this exhibition featured a significant amount of new research, and the curators proved less comfortable speaking without a script than we had anticipated. What was meant to be a several-hour recording session covering five thematic areas, turned into multiple sessions and conflicting schedules as the exhibition opening drew closer. The audio album ultimately released weeks into the exhibition, missing the opportunity to promote it ahead of opening or alongside other programming.


A pie chart showing that visitors would use an audio guide.
Fig. 3: Overlap of respondents willing to use a BYOD commentary and habitual audio guide users, from Scythians user research (December 2017 and January 2018)


The audience for a BYOD audio commentary overlapped largely with habitual audio guide users; just under a fifth of interviewees who did not use audio guides already would consider listening to something on their own device. Reaching this audience is an enticing goal. Frequent museum-goers were more likely to be cynical about the audio commentary versus first-time or occasional visitors, but those who habitually use audio guides were likely also to be enthusiastic about BYOD audio. Exhibition visitors did not want the commentary to dictate the structure of their visit or to over-simplify the content. Frequent museum-goers were more likely to put their independence first and avoid using museum interpretation that they felt would force them to follow a predetermined path. Despite the low monetary returns, we felt that we were on to a concept which could be successful if we tried it again.

Gallery Introductions

That same November, equipped with platforms for distribution and status as an official artist, we turned our efforts to bolstering the repertoire of audio on the British Museum’s iTunes and Google Play Music pages. Wanting to offer something that we expected visitors would use, we examined the already-significant corpus of information available on our on-site rental audio guides. Re-releasing audio from the current guide for download allowed us to offer something more to visitors using their own devices without needing to find an additional budget. We also knew from historical trends that late December typically sees a spike in visitor numbers and the accompanying audio guide sell-outs which characterise the busy summer months; why not try to improve the visitor experience by giving them an alternative way to access some audio guide content, if the regular guides were unavailable?

2017 saw the addition of gallery introductions to the audio guide, in which curators commented on the history and make-up of each room’s collection. These seemed a good match for online distribution—broad enough to cover the whole museum but not so specific that it would be too cumbersome to navigate in the simple interface of a music streaming service. The marriage of this new content and BYOD was opportune: here we could test content closer to the classic permanent collection audio guide model. We initially released these albums in English, Korean, and Mandarin versions; by summer 2018, we had released the Spanish and Italian versions of these albums to represent the most popular on-site languages for audio guide rentals.

We conceived of the downloadable gallery introductions as a way of helping to alleviate pressures on inventory, especially during the busy summer months. As such, the first avenue to market this product was to visitors on-site in the queue for audio guides. During sold-out periods, a dual language sign (English and Korean) was put up to inform visitors of the availability of the introductions online.

These albums soon outstripped the Curators’ Commentary for Scythians, surpassing Scythians in total listeners by the third month even before marketing for the album began. Although available in different languages, the sheer magnitude by which they overtook other albums remains surprising. We consider their success below.

A chart showing trends in visitor numbers.
Figure 4: Trend in visitor numbers vs. streams & purchases of BYOD albums (Visitor numbers not to scale) Nov. 2017 – Sept. 2018


The signage we introduced at first had little effect—probably because audio guides were not selling out at this time. We would expect the effect of this sign to scale logarithmically with the business of the museum as the audio guide desk only regularly sells out during high-volume periods; however, this hypothesis does not hold true when scrutinised. There is a leap in the number of listeners to Gallery Introductions beginning in the busy month of July, but visitor numbers had already grown to similar levels in June. The peak of visitor numbers was in August but here the languages not advertised on signage far outstrip English and Korean.

A chart showing trends in visitor numbers vs. streams and purchases.
Figure 5: Trend in visitor numbers vs. streams & purchases of English and Korean Gallery Introductions BYOD (Visitor numbers not to scale) Nov. 2017 – Sept. 2018


English and Korean versions made up a total of 68% of all album or track purchases and streams, which is much greater than the proportion of audio guide sales in those languages (25.6% from April to December 2018), which would suggest a degree of success in the physical signage. However, an average of only 22% of all-time purchases of these tracks and albums in English and Korean came from the United Kingdom. Evidently, other forces are at work.

A pie chart showing albums listened to by language.
Figure 6: Gallery introduction albums—most listened by language (January through September 2018)



A pie chart of users, showing the top five languages.
Figure 7: Audio guide users—top 5 languages (April through September 2018)


Our online marketing was limited to additional messaging delivered via our English-language social media and e-mail. We designed a banner to sit at the bottom of the museum’s online shop marketing e-mails, which was included in monthly or bimonthly e-mails between June and October of 2018. A post to Facebook accompanied this marketing in July. Interactions with these adverts coincided with the greatest period of growth of the Gallery Introductions in all languages, during which English did not see a considerably larger growth rate than the other albums. We expected English uptake to be most affected because of the language of the marketing, but it had grown close to its June numbers (when marketing was in full motion) already by May. Clicks on online adverts totalled 7.5% of all purchases from albums in the period that they were live. At this experimental stage where our BYOD products had started out completely unknown, and as we had learned from Scythians, the focus of our marketing was to raise awareness. This meant that the necessary result was not immediate conversion, especially if visitors were planning to visit the museum in the weeks or months following the time they became aware of the product.


A banner from the e-mail, introducing the audio stories.
Figure 8: E-mail banner for the Gallery Introductions album.


We observed an ability in these albums to reach an international audience, which became a prime source of encouragement for the potential of BYOD. Only 45%* of all of listeners were registered as purchasing the audio from the UK. The USA (25%)*, Canada (6%)*, Russia (5%)*, the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan and the Republic of Korea (all 2% each)*, follow as the next largest origins of purchases. 6%* of all sales came with an unrecorded geolocation—a weakness inevitable in any analytics.

*This number was updated in March 2019 to reflect a reduced number of streams and purchases with missing location data calculated by the British Museum.

A map showing number of streams purchased.
Figure 9: Number of streams or album purchases per country November 2017 through September 2018


Unique visits to the British Museum website’s audio guide page
Figure 10: Unique visits to the British Museum website’s audio guide page

Apart from the possibility of e-mails reaching abroad, we had made no international advertisements of the gallery introductions. In order to identify whence we might be drawing our non-UK audiences, we looked to the website for comparison. The proportion of streams and purchases from the United Kingdom (41%)* closely mirrored that of visits to the audio guide page from the UK (40%). This page receives visits from many other countries in relatively equal, small, percentages; however, as shown in the graphs above, BYOD streams are concentrated in a few countries. This lack of correlation suggests BYOD streams don’t come from website views. We are still trying to understand how these users find our albums.

*This number was updated in March 2019 to reflect a reduced number of streams and purchases with missing location data calculated by the British Museum.


The BP exhibition I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria was our next foray into a Curators’ Commentary. The album was released in November 2018 to coincide with the opening of the exhibition and formed a more integrated part of the experience. Within two months of its release, purchases of this commentary more than doubled the number of all albums ever bought from the British Museum over the previous fourteen months on iTunes and Google Play Music. This success came with close attention to the lessons learned from our previous ventures:

  1. As we learned from Scythians, appetite for a paid audio product existed, but we had to make much more of an effort to raise awareness.
  2. Online marketing, while minimal, was well-received, with audio commentary links getting higher-than-average click-through on pre-booked exhibition ticket e-mails and around five times as many clicks on Twitter than on the average exhibition post. However, actual take up of the album did not measurably benefit from this success. We had to include other, more direct avenues of marketing.
  3. Most visitors said that they used the main website or the panels at the exhibition entrance to find out more about the exhibition. The commentary needed to be more clearly advertised on the website.
  4. The overwhelming majority of visitors who said they would listen to an audio commentary said they expected it as an alternative to the labels, and that they would listen during their visit (as opposed to before or after).

In order to address these core findings, our second Curators’ Commentary needed better integration into the exhibition experience and visual language as a whole. Knowing from our research that visitors wanted something that did not overly prescribe their journey and that also complemented the labels in-gallery, we worked in line with the text schedule to create a thematic commentary. This commentary used anchor objects as jumping-off points for wider storytelling beyond what labels could accommodate, clearly tying the audio to the exhibition without becoming overly bound to any particular physical points in space.

Our revised production schedule saw the writing, recording, and release of the Commentary better synchronised with the opening of the exhibition. This allowed messaging for the new Curators’ Commentary to be integrated with signage for the exhibition, both within the gallery alongside relevant interpretation and as the visitors entered and left the exhibition at the entrance and exit. We used graphics on in-gallery labels and the official iTunes and Google Play Music logos outside of the exhibition in combination with a simple call to action, encouraging the visitor to search for Ashurbanipal on their music streaming service of choice.

A panel in the exhibition, telling people about the audio content.
Figure 11: The monolithic panel at the entrance to the Ashurbanipal exhibition

Desire, Love, Identity—The Trail Format

Our experiments with BYOD offered a potential solution to one of the restrictions the British Museum faces in delivering interpretation to its visitors on-site. The galleries are organised into distinct historical and cultural periods, a situation which does not address many of the connections among parts of the collection. This layout means that it can be difficult for the museum to present  historiographical takes on its collection across different cultures. Wanting to make the most of the variety of histories represented in the collection, we collaborated with the interpretation department to bring back the concept of the audio trail, using our new distribution platforms.

The concept resembles traditional audio guides in that listeners follow a trail object-by-object. It differs in its constituent spread of objects not otherwise connected by our permanent guides and its examination in focus of a unifying theme which runs through them. Desire, Love, Identity was our first iteration of this format; it took the lead from the object trail created as a legacy for the temporary exhibition by the same name, which marked the anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. We could measure the performance of this album to test the appetite for a self-led tour around the galleries that did not take the form of a comprehensive guide like the Gallery Introductions.

This format posed an awareness challenge, as there was no specific programme of events within the museum with which it coincided (and thus in whose marketing it could be integrated). Leaflets for the trail, which included instructions for finding the audio, were printed and distributed during the London Pride march as well as provided at the information desk in the museum. The interpretation department printed special labels for the trail objects; while attention-grabbing in their unorthodox orange-and-purple colouring, they did not have much space for information. The museum is currently working on a standard based on which it can integrate trail information into regular interpretative labels as galleries currently feature a variety of different sizes and styles, depending on when that room was last refurbished

As evident in Figure 4, we have thus far struggled to bring Desire, Love, Identity to as large an audience as the Gallery Introductions. The Gallery Introductions resemble much more closely a staple audio guide product, encompassing the entire museum. Outside of exhibitions, breadth is likely to have had a more apparent value to visitors than depth.

Lessons Learned

We have already mentioned some of the specific lessons from our early efforts in BYOD streaming products, which we addressed with the launch of the Ashurbanipal Curators’ Commentary. Stepping back from exhibition products and thinking more generally about what we discovered on this journey, we offer the following observations:

  1. Visitors looking for museum content are willing to 1.) pay for it, and 2.) use their mobile phones to access it. This might sound like an obvious conclusion, but until we tried the various experiments above, we couldn’t be sure.
  2. Some aspects of traditional audio guides, such as multimedia displays, don’t matter as much to the visitor as good audio content from experts. When interviewed, a majority of exhibition-goers want the focus to remain on the gallery displays—to the extent that even a large amount of textual interpretation can feel overwhelming as seven groups (25%) of visitors indicated when approached after visiting Scythians.
  3. BYOD is well-placed as an intervention to visitors already seeking something from the museum—be it an audio guide or more content around an exhibition. As we learned from the Curators’ Commentary for Ashurbanipal and the Gallery Introductions, signage in the gallery worked well at the point where the visitor was about to begin a part of their journey in earnest.
  4. Physical marketing has had a much greater effect than online marketing, although we are conscious of our lack of expertise in the latter. Signs that catch the visitor’s attention up-front or that intervene at a point where they are looking for audio have made the greatest difference. Signage on interpretative labels can be useful as a guide to those who already have BYOD, but is not an effective tool to raise awareness.

To consider this last point further, it is hard to measure what kind of physical marketing works except by correlating the publication of advertisements with trailing indicators (i.e. take up rate among the audiences targeted). We struggled to determine whether leaflets for Desire, Love, Identity at the information desk were picked up and whether those led anyone to use the online album. Observations and anecdotal data from colleagues in visitor services indicate that leaflets at the information desk are largely overlooked in favour of maps.

It is similarly problematic to compare the physical marketing for Desire, Love, Identity, the Ashurbanipal Curators’ Commentary to that of Scythians, although there was a clear improvement in its reach. Ashurbanipal received many more listeners and in a much shorter time than both other albums. There are two key differences here:

  1. Visitors to Ashurbanipal already had a goal in mind—to go around the exhibition and spend longer on each case than they would normally in the museum. Labels for Desire, Love, Identity sit alongside other labels in the permanent galleries, and despite their eye-catching orange colour, are swamped by textual information. Catching the interest of passing visitors or those who have found the leaflet or Web page is a taller task.
  2. Ashurbanipal had a large monolithic panel at its entrance, announcing the availability of the trail with clear, branded graphics. There was no such equivalent for Desire, Love, Identity which is dispersed around the museum, or even for its predecessor commentary Scythians. With our next trail concept, we plan to have signage at key points near the entrance to the museum where visitors’ interest can be caught up-front.

Recommendations for Others

We hope the experiences and lessons described in this paper prove useful to our colleagues elsewhere. In addition to the reflections above on specific lessons learnt, we make the following recommendations for those considering a similar approach:

  1. User research is comparatively cheap. If you are comfortable doing it, do it often. At the same time, remember that it can only tell you so much—visitors are likely to be enthusiastic when asked about digital products, but that may not translate to use of those products.
  2. Be conscious of different expectations and levels of access amongst different visitor segments. For us, linguistic segmentation often proves useful to look at differing expectations, but your institution might want to consider economic background, age, or other factors.
  3. Releasing an audio album isn’t enough to get people listening. Marketing is important and so is picking an album title that is easy to find and doesn’t lead to odd or confusing search results. We thought that “Ashurbanipal” would be a unique keyword; it was not.
  4. If revenue growth is one of your objectives, set expectations with internal stakeholders that an audio album product will not perform just like an audio guide or even an app. Growth may be slow; to accelerate, requires a baseline level of marketing which must consider visitor intent both on- and off-site.
  5. Brief front-of-house staff, and encourage their feedback.


Korean Air has generously sponsored the British Museum multimedia guide since 2009, and the renewal of their sponsorship in 2014 made it possible to carry out this project. Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia was sponsored by BP and organised with the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria was supported by BP with the logistics partner IAG Cargo.

Special thanks to Chu-Shao Tsai and Isabella Giorgio for conducting user interviews with us in Mandarin and Italian, and for helping us assess the data. Our gratitude also goes to our colleague Felicia Loykowski for reviewing multiple drafts of this paper.


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Cite as:
Hudelson, Natalia and Austin-Gonzalez, Carlos. "Innovation on a Shoestring: Testing BYOD Concepts Without Building Anything." MW19: MW 2019. Published January 15, 2019. Consulted .