Enabling art as social objects: Designing the mobile app to place art in the center of conversations

Elaine Ee, National Gallery Singapore, Singapore, Kevin Lim, National Gallery Singapore, Singapore


National Gallery Singapore has created dozens of stories about our collections and installed them in our mobile app, the Gallery Explorer, as audio tours. To give users greater autonomy over the audio tours, we allow visitors to skip stops, or explore works based on nearby tour stops. This required an indoor navigation system. Since GPS does not work indoors, and as Wi-Fi triangulation lacked precision at the time we were making this, an alternative location trigger was sought. We turned to iBeacons, which are essentially Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) emitters. Using a scaleable and unique adaptation of iBeacons, we set up full indoor turn-by-turn navigation across 64,000 sqm of building space. Much like mini-GPS satellites, the gallery deployed iBeacons in a grid-like format across walls and ceilings, allowing at least three iBeacons to triangulate the position of a user in any a given part of our buildings, a method called “trilateration.” In addition to indoor navigation, this network of iBeacons can also gives us data on visitor traffic and movement. We can track the natural routes they take, see where they choose to dwell, for how long, and possibly determine which artworks they prefer. Using iBeacons in this way is ambitious and challenging—we took the plunge and would like to share this unique experience with others in the museum field.

Keywords: participatory, storytelling, i-beacons, indoor navigation, audio guide


When the National Gallery Singapore officially opened on November 24, 2015, it did so to much public fanfare, drawing approximately 170,000 visitors in the first two opening weeks (“National Gallery Singapore sees” 2015). While curiosity drove many Singaporeans to visit initially, the challenge now, as with most establishing arts institutions, is finding ways to sustain and grow public interest.

Our current reality poses the following challenges:

  1. While the gallery pursues the “Blue Ocean Strategy” (Kim & Mauborgne, 2005) of exhibiting modern art from Southeast Asia, most locals are uninitiated first-time visitors, making the gallery’s relevance for the general public a challenge through art alone (63%, n=250) (University of St Gallen, 2016). In The Participatory Museum (2010), Nina Simon writes that this sentiment was one of the top reasons why citizens avoid visiting museums, feeling that “[c]ultural institutions are irrelevant to my life.”
  2. In addition, competition for visitors’ attention now goes beyond the museum industry, and into the increasing disruptive media landscape of online apps such as Netflix, YouTube, and Coursera, offering new means of entertainment and education on demand. This instant gratification, coupled with micro-payment subscriptions, makes for unprecedented access to alternative lifestyle choices.

The gallery’s strategic focus spans a creative tension between artistic excellence (i.e., thought leadership in visual arts) and national contribution (i.e., accessibility to the Singaporean citizens) (National Gallery Singapore, 2016a). While artistic excellence is addressed through the quality of our curatorial research, publications, and exhibitions, the national contribution in terms of public accessibility and engagement is a challenge that most museums similarly face.

Rise of the gallery explorer

As a new institution, we have the opportunity to build things from scratch, the most critical of which is the Gallery Explorer mobile application. Undoubtedly, one of the best ways to experience a museum is through a docent tour. The mobile application’s key intent is to help fill the gap in docent tours for our visitors by offering self-serve audio tours to explain exhibitions and to illustrate what is happening around the gallery. Beyond serving visitors passively, the gallery also aimed to establish a sense of ownership among visitors by developing a dynamic participatory experience, visible through increased visitor engagement with the gallery’s artwork collection.

We had to start planning and developing the app before the gallery opened—without any real visitor demographics or numbers, without any art on the walls, and without knowing how people would behave in our spaces or respond to our offerings. As such, focus groups were conducted across visitor profiles to establish a raw sense of visitor traits and preferences.

Summarised Learning Points

from Gallery’s Focus Group Discussion (5th July 2011, n = 40)

Feedback Motivation
Seeks WOW Factor

Youth & Young Adults, Students, PMETs, Tourists

to share with friends

for bragging rights

Better artwork explanations

Youth & Young Adults, PMETs, Families with Young Children, Tourists, Active Agers

most artwork captions feel insufficient

shows artist, year, medium, size

Recommendations on what to do

Tourists, Active Agers, PMETs

to ease visitors into museums, which most locals consider an intimidating place
Better way to know what’s where

Youth & Young Adults, PMETs, Families with Young Children, Tourists, Active Agers

to easily locate art highlights, activities, amenities and commercial offerings
Museum guide as mobile app

Youth & Young Adults, Students, PMETs,

Tourists, Active Agers

seeks convenience for looking up relevant information while visiting the museum
Table 1. the gallery invited 40 participants representing six key visitor groups, comprising of graduate students, parents, retirees, teachers, business owners, as well as tourism industry leaders (July 5, 2011)

From the findings above, it was clear in 2011 that it was time to transition from an era of audio guide devices which generally provided a linear museum experience, to one where such experiences ought to respond dynamically to the interests and duration of our increasingly networked visitors. Indeed, a salient behavior and consumption pattern of our local audience was that they are increasingly connected online; Singapore’s mobile phone penetration rate is at 149% as of April 2016 (Infocomm Media Development Authority, 6th Feb 2017). They consume a growing proportion of their content online, and that they spend a significant portion of their daily lives on social media. They are accustomed to and expect to express their own views while consuming content, and this allows them to develop a sense of connection or even ownership over the content they come across—a rising vernacular the gallery affirmed through observation of social norms and focus group discussions.

To help guide our interactive design roadmap, the gallery adopted key concepts from Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum (2010). Currently practicing her craft as executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, Simon’s holistic framework on how museum interactives and data gathering could be cohesively developed is based on three fundamental humanistic theories:

  1. The idea of an audience-centered institution that is as relevant, functional, and accessible as a shopping mall or train station (Dana, 1917; Gurian, 2006; & Lamb, 2005)
  1. The idea that visitors construct their own meaning from cultural experiences (Hein, 1995, 21-22; & Falk, 2009)
  2. The idea that users’ voices can inform and invigorate both project design and public-facing programs (McLean and Pollock 2007)

The Participatory Museum’s approach is illustrated through the stages at which visitors and museums could be mutually developed, thus turning the table from “me” to “we” in terms of the overall museum visit experience as shown in figure 1:

Figure 1. “We to Me Design: Five Stages of Social Participation,” from N. Simon’s The Participatory Museum, Santa Cruz, 2010

From stages one and two in developing the gallery’s interactive touchpoints, while the primary function was to produce and present relevant content to support exhibitions, pre-planning in terms of modular design was already needed so as not to simply utilize interactives as one-way devices to passively educate or entertain visitors. Most establishing museums are at this early phase, and can look to scale up to establish a dialogue between visitor and museum, in order reap higher return of investment in terms of visitor intelligence and shared content generation.

To realize stages three and four, the gallery had to develop interactives not in silo, but as part of a larger network of communicative interfaces, allowing us to learn from the digital activities of their visitors, either through direct feedback (e.g., preferences via visitor services’ feedback kiosks), or through actions committed via these digital platforms (e.g., behavioral traits via liked artworks on mobile app, selecting e-postcards via interactive table). Part of this involves a feedback loop, where visitors in turn get to see the results of their collective impression of the artworks on display. A gallery example for this is the display of the “most liked” artworks on the home page of the Gallery Explorer app. A more potent example is the Detour app, which allows visitors to group sync their mobile apps together, to synchronize the self-guided audio tour they are about to embark on (www.detour.com).

Stage five represents the epitome of participatory museum design where we are exploring visitor-to-visitor interactions, thus transforming the gallery into a facilitator of artistic discourse and enabling a more sustainable content development outlook. A metaphor for this can be seen in how Facebook does not primarily produce content on its own, but facilitates sharing of user-generated content and packages it in an ecosystem of users and their community groups. Aside from the economic benefit of crowdsourced content production, the socialization of visitors around artistic discourse also promotes constructivist learning of visual art, in which visitors construct meaning and knowledge for themselves as he or she learns (Hein, 1991). This intent of inspiring and enlightening our visitors, particularly through self-realization, is the essence of what art museums such as the gallery aspire to embody.

Charting invisible paths

“Your museum is beautiful … but where’s the art?” This line was scribbled onto a visitor feedback card a few months after the gallery opened for business. After the gallery had actual visitors come flowing through our doors, we realized that our buildings were proving to be more complicated for visitors to navigate than we thought, with many visitors who relied on physical signage getting lost.

While the public art institution displays around 1,000 artworks at any point in time, the sheer size of around 64,000 sqm in gross floor area (GFA) across the repurposed City Hall and former Supreme Court does pose a navigational challenge to visitors. Furthermore, gallery spaces are extremely interesting and historically significant, with unique fixtures from the original courthouse such as holding cells and the Chief Justice’s office, most of which naturally impact visitor flow. The building entrances and ticketing counters also do not naturally lead to the exhibition spaces, as the public spaces are sprawling and the building is porous. Often, visitors end up having the dilemma of where to go; most are inclined to use their time effectively, hence the question, “Where’s the art?”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The MET) faced a similar issue and tried to address this through a mobile app with maps, physical room markers, and shortest path generation algorithms (The MET, July 2015). Their concept came before the advent of iBeacons, which the gallery perceived as a viable future into developing a physical yet connected museum.

In 2013, Apple introduced iBeacons (example shown in figure 2), a system of low-energy Bluetooth transmitters and application protocols to geo-locate visitors with smartphones indoors and outdoors, and allow for the triggering of specific actions such as push notifications upon entering specific areas. This technology enabled retailers to explore new realms of the shopping experience, by allowing them to track customer movement in a given space, and if systematically linked, could be correlated to deliver specific offers based on customers’ demographic data. Learning from the retail sector, iBeacons have been deployed in the arts, where established institutions such as the Met and the Louvre have explored this tool to enrich the viewing experience and gather visitor analytics (Chun, 2016).

Figure 2. iBeacons offer potential of indoor navigation and trigger-based interaction. Image courtesy of Accenture

While an easy, safe bet would have been to locate a technology development vendor with an existing iBeacon-ready application framework to produce the gallery’s mobile app, the gutsy decision was made to develop the application from the ground-up, implementing new interactive technology as we saw appropriate based on our innovation and engagement values, rather than to be locked down by what external vendors were willing to provide. Such interactive technology has always been an ever dynamic playing field, which made it prudent to invest in the short run to evolve eventually to something truly stable and unique for the benefit of our gallery visitors and staff alike.

A sustainable approach came in the form of a partnership with Accenture, where a shared vision of developing innovative experiences and organizational excellence allowed us to forge new ground through the Gallery Explorer app (see figure 3). Learning from the mobile app development experience with Accenture Mobility, the constant challenge has been in delivering hygiene factor needs (e.g., app usability, stability), while balancing innovations the gallery sought as game-changers in a bid to be a thought-leader in this field (e.g., iBeacons, non-linear audio guide, AR, VR). To this end, the cross-institutional team is constantly learning and evolving our development practice.

Figure 3. from the Accenture partnership, the illustration above quantifies the development effort for the Gallery Explorer app, which leverages iBeacon technology (Nov 2015). Image courtesy of Accenture

Art as a social object

The investment into the iBeacon network forms the foundation for a dynamic experience with art at the gallery. When a visitor opens the mobile app, it senses where they are in the museum and indicates their location with an iconic blue dot. The blue dot remains on a map when a visitor selects an artwork in the app, showing where they are in relation to the artwork. A visitor can select an artwork by either searching for it or referring to a list of nearby artworks that the app compiles based on their proximity. The visitor can then choose to activate turn-by-turn navigation that will take them to the work.

As mentioned earlier, while docent tours are arguably one of the best ways to experience a museum, there can never be enough guided tours for visitors. To resolve this, the iBeacon network enables visitors to take self-guided audio tours. Along with this feature, visitors could enjoy extended features such as the ability to like, comment, and share artworks on social media (as shown in figure 4). The tours and artworks in them can be commented on, liked, and shared, encouraging  social conversations around art.

Figure 4. left to right: Gallery Explorer’s Trending Homescreen, Building History Audioguide, Artwork Sharing on Social Media. Images courtesy of Accenture

Following Simon’s Participatory Museum stages, the ability to like, comment, and share artworks allows visitors to interact with content (stage two), get recommendations by looking at which artworks are most and least “liked” (stage three), take different perspectives by reading and responding to comments left by other visitors (stage four), and share artworks on their own Facebook walls with their own narratives, such as self-generated tours (stage five).

To further promote the idea of a personal co-created experience with art, audio tours were intentionally designed to be non-linear, with visitors able to skip stops and even construct shareable tours of their own based on works they liked. While visitors are not encouraged to touch artworks in museums, the app tries to provide a level of tangibility to art by allowing visitors to socially engage one another with art.

Beyond visitor to museum interaction, the gallery recently started exploring if visitors could also get closer to the art through immersive digital experiences created by the artists themselves. With this in mind, a new type of art exhibition was developed merging the physical with the virtual, which curators cleverly named the unrealized exhibition. With three commissioned local artists, the concept involved artists working alongside developers to produce videographic or textual content relating to their chosen gallery spaces, which are then “unlocked” on the Gallery Explorer app once visitors enter these spaces. This represents the gallery’s first foray into interactive art forms, and hopefully opens the door for deeper exploration into creating mediated intimacy between artist and visitor. Future unrealized exhibitions have the potential to explore deeper social interactions, such as having several visitors working together in order to unlock specific experiences in the app.

Future of the gallery experience

While the Gallery Explorer enhances the on-site museum visiting experience, the pre and post-visit experience would typically be experienced online, particularly through the gallery’s website. Focusing on being visitor-centric, the gallery’s aim is to create an omni-channel experience for our visitors across digital platforms (Flaherty, 2016) by developing single sign-on functionality where visitors can be recognized with the same user account in both mobile app and website. With this, the user’s favorite artwork and the comments in the app will sync with our website, making it easier to share the artwork on various social media networks, namely Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest.

Figure 5. National Gallery Singapore’s website with artwork details complete with liking, commenting, and social network sharing features (Feb 2017)

While the mobile application is designed to enhance the visitor’s on-site experience, the Gallery Explorer also serves as a behavioral feedback system because the way visitors use the mobile app is tracked via Google Analytics. The gallery is able to capture a flow of data points, such as the most liked artworks, most popular tours, and where users pick up and stop using the app. Google Analytics allows the team to see the general user journey, determine problem areas, and improve the UX (User eXperience) design as we release new versions of the Gallery Explorer app.

Aside from Google Analytics, the network of iBeacons and Wi-Fi access points can also give us data on visitors’ physical movements. The gallery is able to track the natural routes they take, see where and how long they choose to dwell, and possibly validate which artworks they prefer. While the gallery’s current development effort has been focused on the front-facing visitor experience before investing in data gathering, work has started on the analytics back end to paint a clearer picture of our visitor traits and preferences. Aside from improving the mobile app experience, this consequently helps the gallery’s overall visiting experience as well.

Conclusion: the significance of socializing the gallery’s artworks

Singapore is known for being a number of things; being a cultural destination is not one of them. Singapore is in a nascent stage of building its cultural ecology in all its aspects, from education, to skills development, to platforms for practicing and showing the arts, including visual art and museums. The museum sector in Singapore is young. Our larger museums in their current incarnations date back less than 50 years. Going to museums and appreciating art is arguably not yet winning a big share of people’s free time, which is fiercely competed for by other attractions as well as by shopping malls, eateries, events, other leisure and entertainment opportunitie,s and in the Internet era, anything online. In fact, when thinking about who an attraction’s biggest competitor is, one could say “Netflix.”

The aspect of visual art that National Gallery Singapore focuses on, namely Modern Southeast Asian Art, is hardly well known globally, or even locally. Art history is not taught in schools and is now just being introduced as a minor module at university level. But it is a key part of our history and heritage, and it is safe to say that society would be better off knowing about and appreciating it. Singapore is constructed as a nation, and one of the gallery’s goals is to contribute to the nation by making art accessible. In fact, as part of our corporate key performance indicators (KPIs), one of the gallery’s measures of  success in this area is getting Singaporeans to be able to name at least two Singaporean artists after visiting the gallery’s exhibitions.

Having visitors respond to visual art through a social media vernacular (i.e. liking, sharing, commenting) goes beyond familiarity, but seeks to express the gallery’s position of pushing artworks into our citizen’s everyday conversations. Mobile technology opens the door for a new kind of learning called “here and now learning” that occurs when learners have access to information anytime and anywhere to perform authentic activities in the context of their learning (Martin, Florence, & Ertzberger, 2013). Furthermore, enrichment of context-aware technologies has enabled people to learn in an environment that integrates learning resources from both the real world and the digital world (Chen & Huang, 2012)

By building self-guiding features on the Gallery Explorer app, and with artworks and customized tours made sharable, the gallery has opened itself up beyond its four physical walls and allowed itself into people’s lives through their mobile phones. An in-person visit can meld into a virtual experience; one can even “visit” the gallery in the app and get a rich overview of what the gallery has to offer. The team continues to enhance the gallery through greater accessibility, which is instrumental in reaching our developing audience.

To extend the scope of this paper, the gallery is open to learning what the museum industry would be keen to deep dive in. Two distinct options exist, including more comprehensive coverage of the gallery’s large scale iBeacon deployment, or to conduct user evaluations to test experience satisfaction and user effectiveness of Gallery Explorer app among visitors.



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Cite as:
. "Enabling art as social objects: Designing the mobile app to place art in the center of conversations." MW17: MW 2017. Published March 31, 2017. Consulted .

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