Layered learning: developing and utilizing integrated systems through mobile platforms to enrich and expand interpretation

Jennifer Talbott, Spencer Museum of Art, USA, Ryan Waggoner, Spencer Museum of Art, USA, Robert Hickerson, Spencer Museum of Art, USA, Kristina Walker, Spencer Museum of Art, USA


Over the past two years, the Spencer Museum of Art has embarked on several technology projects aimed at providing its audiences more robust and multi-faceted interpretations of its collection. The end goal was to create a unified, nimble, and adaptive mobile platform that would allow the museum to share interpretive content with visitors. With the mobile app and iBeacon technology, the Museum enhanced the gallery experience for visitors by increasing the accessibility of existing content, such as short videos and podcasts that feature perspectives ranging from eighth-grade students to accomplished art historians. The resulting product has allowed the museum to respond more directly to the needs of its audiences, engage a wider range of visitors, and offer an enhanced museum experience. In this paper the Spencer will share lessons learned and knowledge gained throughout the app development process with the hopes that other small to mid-sized museums will also have the opportunity to leverage existing systems within a single platform. We share the following points of significance: working under the constraints of a small staff, the Spencer, with the help of University of Kansas technology staff, capitalized on its strengths by linking resources; aggregating scattered interpretive information into one location for visitors improves discoverability of rich content and leverages existing interpretations to afford greater exposure to research and enhance content development; connecting the app to collection databases (which are already employed by a majority of museums) to deliver content directly to the app offers an efficient, scalable, and affordable way to enhance all visitors’ experiences by avoiding the necessity of redundant data entry; integrating activities, academic unit assignments and curriculum, and a variety of documents in the gallery experience; and creating diverse opportunities for collaboration with other campus units and organizations.

Keywords: mobile, app, interpretation, platform, systems, connecting


The Spencer Museum of Art (SMA) is an academic art museum on the main campus of the University of Kansas (KU), established by a founding gift donated to KU in 1917. With a global collection of more than 45,000 works of art, the SMA is the only comprehensive art museum in Kansas. Annual attendance exceeds 100,000 visitors, and primary audiences include KU students, faculty, and staff; local K-12 students and teachers; general visitors from the Midwest region; and scholars and artists worldwide.

Major approaches to sharing the collection include thematic permanent exhibitions that remain on view for multiple years, special exhibitions open for three to six months, short-term installations in our Center for Learning gallery that complement KU curriculum and change roughly every two weeks, and a robust online collection database. Over the past two years, we have embarked on several technology projects to provide our audiences with more dynamic interpretations of the collection. Foremost among these initiatives is the Spencer Museum mobile app.

A driving force behind the Spencer Museum mobile app was a desire to encourage deeper engagement with the collection. We had well-managed data and multimedia resources in our internal database, MuseumPlus, but we needed a way to present this wealth of content to visitors in the galleries in a single platform. Our aim was to develop a system for unified sharing of content produced by an array of stakeholders over the past decade in order to further engage audiences in conversations and discovery of and about the collection. A mobile app was the optimal approach for us, as it allowed us to build a nimble and adaptive platform for sharing interpretive content with visitors inside the galleries and beyond. Additionally, as an academic art museum, the majority of our audience are university students who are digital natives and would readily adopt and use an interactive mobile app.

With the recent launch of the Spencer Museum Mobile App on iOS and Android, and through the use of iBeacon technology, we have enhanced the gallery experience for visitors by increasing the accessibility of existing content. The app merges audio tours, video content, and podcasts into one seamless interface. It also offers a simplified platform for learning more about objects displayed and a means for interacting with our social media sites. User feedback collected through the app will inform its future development to further enrich the visitor experience. Initial data, use, and staff and visitor feedback have already afforded us the ability to respond more directly to the needs of our audiences, engage a wider range of visitors, and offer an enhanced museum experience.

A number of converging factors were crucial to the successful development of the SMA Mobile App: existing well-researched and executed interpretive content, the expertise and time of KU’s central information technology department, and a dynamic and fully catalogued collection database. The combination of these factors helped define our goal to consolidate varied interpretive content into a single mobile platform that is responsive, sustainable, and scalable. Additionally, we aimed to minimize additional workload on our staff by integrating the app with MuseumPlus, our collections database. This paper details lessons learned throughout the app development process and beyond, with the hope that other small to mid-sized museums will also have the opportunity to optimize existing systems and content within a single platform.

Alignment with institutional goals

The key objective of creating a mobile app was to deliver interpretive content that had not been previously available to visitors in our galleries. Although rich interpretive content existed in our database, it resided in a variety of public platforms that were difficult for visitors to quickly access while in the museum. With the mobile app project we aggregated a large volume of excellent interpretive information, while keeping the structure of the app nimble enough to add new content in the future. The project’s goals also align with those articulated in our strategic and interpretive plans.

In 2016, the SMA developed a new strategic plan to take effect in 2017. The plan centers around art being at the core of all we do, with a priority focus on exploring art in ways that advance teaching, learning, and programming while stimulating research and creative work. The four strategic directions outlined in the plan—activate art, inspire inquiry, stimulate engagement, and enhance adaptability—closely informed the mobile app project. In conjunction with the path set forth in the strategic plan, the SMA convened a cross-departmental team in early 2016 to undertake a rigorous year-long process of crafting a comprehensive interpretive plan. It was developed in response to a pivotal moment in the life of the museum, following a major building renovation and the drafting of a new strategic plan. The multistep interpretive planning process included inventorying and analyzing our existing interpretive ventures and available resources, as well as a review of interpretive plans from peer institutions. The resulting plan is rooted in our mission, strategic goals, and educational philosophy.

The guiding principal in our interpretive plan that is most relevant to the mobile app is the assertion that art and ideas should be physically, virtually, and intellectually accessible. The SMA prioritizes situating works of art in historical, cultural, geographic, and contemporary social contexts by providing basic facts and pertinent information about a work and its creator. The close relationship between the SMA’s MuseumPlus database and the app allows users immediate access to such information. Facilitating experiences for visitors with varying needs and abilities is another priority. By continuing to explore and create platforms to share interpretation and facilitate engagement, we are better equipped to meet those needs. Including multiple perspectives and voices from our audiences allows us to celebrate diversity and practice inclusivity toward fostering shared understanding.

While many of our regular interpretive approaches will advance the goals of both plans, we designed the mobile app to be a platform for layered interpretation for visitors with varied interests and backgrounds. The app is not meant to replace tried and true forms of interpretation, such as physical labels and wall panels, but instead to complement these formats. The mobile app offers more opportunities to deliver dynamic interpretation in the form of rich media such as audio clips, video content, and additional images of collection objects—including details and multiple views.

Enhancing discoverability of existing interpretive content

With the mobile app, we are both simplifying access to existing content and increasing discoverability. Over the past decade, several projects at the SMA have produced interpretive content in the form of audio clips. One such project is the Spencer Museum Art Minute, created in collaboration with our local public radio station between 2004 and 2010. During its run, we produced 274 audio clips focused on works in the SMA collection. We retained the audio files and transcripts, but before the mobile app, there was little opportunity for gallery visitors to access this content. A similar audio project, Ear for Art, commenced in 2010. The content for this program was developed and researched by a team of museum educators and visual art education faculty. The resulting audio files were available to SMA and campus visitors through a proprietary, third-party vendor, Guide-by-Cell, which required users to dial a phone number and input codes to access interpretive content. While this was a successful delivery method in that it provided the content to visitors while they were in the galleries, it created a labor-intensive system of updating content and maintaining physical labels with access information.

A third audio program started in 2008 that continues to develop new content is our Southwest Middle School Podcast project. SMA education staff developed the collaborative project with students in an eighth grade advanced placement communications class and their teachers, who created podcasts about works in the SMA collection. Unlike the other audio programs we have developed, these feature the voices and interpretations of one of our primary audiences—K-12 students. We hope future programs will continue to share voices beyond SMA staff to foster deeper relationships with our audiences. Although successful in the regard of sharing broader perspectives, the program’s resulting podcasts were not easily discovered by SMA audiences. Like the Ear for Art audio files, unless a visitor possessed previous knowledge of the project, they were unlikely to discover it while in the galleries. Now, visitors can access the podcasts and other audio programs through the mobile app while they are in the galleries, viewing the works of art being interpreted. The new mobile app is a much-improved platform for dissemination of this rich content.

Among these three projects, we already had a solid amount of interpretive audio content; but because they all ran on distinct and independent platforms, it made them impractical for visitors to experience, with no singular way for visitors to access all of the content at once. Recognizing this, it became clear that the mobile app could be that single source we needed to deliver this content to our visitors. By putting all of this content in the mobile app, we enhanced the user’s experience and created a more meaningful art interaction while visiting the SMA. Figure 1 below illustrates how we are able to provide visitors efficient access to content about a single object within the mobile app:

Figure 1: sample object page

Another interpretive program fueled our exploration into development of a mobile app. In 2014, we began developing a new video project featuring renowned art historian Marilyn Stokstad, director emerita of the SMA and author of the seminal Art History textbook used by thousands of students annually in art survey courses. Fortuitously, as we were researching how to go about developing a mobile app to share this new video series, we learned that KU’s Chief Information Officer was seeking collaborators for a mobile app initiative.

Staff expertise and costs

As a state-funded, medium-sized university art museum, we are ever vigilant regarding opportunities for collaboration to stretch our limited staff and monetary resources. Supported by the University’s mission of enhancing interdepartmental relationships and research, we turned to the KU Information Technology Department (KUIT) to help realize the mobile app project. We provided managed data and high-quality interpretive materials, and KUIT contributed the expertise of mobile app developers. Working under the constraints of a small staff, we each capitalized on our strengths by combining resources.

When we approached KUIT in late 2014, they were seeking a campus department for whom they could develop an app as a test case to demonstrate what they could offer other campus entities. Because the SMA app was their pilot project, they offered the first phase of development to us at no cost. The approximate SMA savings for the first phase of development range from $75,000 to $100,000. This includes SMA staff time (Director of Internal Operations, Photographer, Database Manager, and Director of Education) and KUIT staff time (Project Manager, Business Analyst, Web Developer, Technology Service Center Manager, SQL Database Administrator, Web Development & Interface Design Manager, and Workstation Support Specialists). The only actual expenses for the SMA were iPads and stands for check-out, and in-gallery displays and iBeacons. Once the first phase of the app was completed, KUIT agreed to continue supporting maintenance of the app, and offered a nominal hourly fee for developer time for new enhancements.

The collaboration with KUIT functioned more as a partnership than as a service provider and client relationship. By listening to the SMA’s needs and taking on a more proactive, entrepreneurial role, KUIT was able to offer a broader and deeper set of solutions than merely managing workstations, servers, and networks. The project activities helped develop face-to-face working relationships that fostered better communication, and as a result, better outcomes.

We met as a group regularly for the first six months of the project to do research, define deliverables, and outline and write the project charter specifying scope, goals, stakeholders, and timeframe. A majority of initial meetings focused on listening to each other. For us, we needed to understand the parameters of mobile app development, while KUIT listened and learned about SMA audiences and our desire to deliver rich media content in meaningful and memorable ways. As time progressed and we gained a stronger grasp of each other’s needs, we were able to shape the project into a deliverable product. The primary focus and creative problem solving revolved around the heart of what would become the supporting structure for our app—MuseumPlus, the SMA collections database.

MuseumPlus database/technical details

Armed with a wealth of content and the technical staff to carry out the mobile app development, we turned to our relational collection database to house all the scattered content data and to be the pivot point, and ultimately the key, to an efficiently managed app. Instead of developing a completely new content management system specific to the app, we built table views that extracted data directly from MuseumPlus. The MuseumPlus database already housed the majority of information needed for the app, including complete collection record information and photographs of all objects on display, relevant exhibitions information, all audio and video files, and object location codes. This integration saves invaluable time by eliminating redundant data entry and greatly reducing the chance for human error in data presented in the app. Figures 2 and 3 below show a side-by-side comparison of the backend data in MuseumPlus and how it is presented on the front-end of the mobile app.


Figure 2: on the left, the MuseumPlus database record for A Picture Gallery by Gillis van Tilborgh (SMA 1954.0157). All highlighted fields and multimedia elements are displayed in the app, seen on the right

Figure 3: on the left, the MuseumPlus record for the exhibition Empire of Things. The “Mobile App” field highlighted on the right side of the MuseumPlus record controls which exhibition records display in the app, while the checklist controls which objects are displayed in the exhibition. On the right, the exhibition Empire of Things as it is displayed in the app

To prevent MuseumPlus from being overloaded and to better curate the user experience, our KUIT team engineered a plan to synchronize the required data (current objects on view and the related content) to an intermediate server: the Tiny CMS (TCMS). The TCMS is a custom API and data management server built in PHP with a SQL backend. It runs a nightly task which directly communicates with the SQL backend of MuseumPlus to pull the required data. With a little investigation, it was relatively easy to craft the database queries to pull only the needed information. The data gathered from MuseumPlus is then inserted into the TCMS’s own SQL server. With this process completed, any additional information needed for the mobile app to function can be added via the Web interface of the TCMS. Also, by syncing to content rather than downloading it as part of the app, the size of the app stays relatively small (about 12 MB), a fraction of most art museum mobile apps.

During the app development we discovered we could use several MuseumPlus data fields to manage the app. One such example is the “Current Location” field. Using this field, we were able to find a solution for what happens when an object is removed from view in the galleries. As part of our standard workflow, when an object is moved, its current location in MuseumPlus is immediately updated by our collection managers to reflect the change. In developing the app, we designed a location filter to display objects in the app that contain the “gallery” subset of locations, thus efficiently eliminating the other roughly 45,000 objects in the collections database that are not on-view. This way, if an object is moved from a gallery to storage (not part of the subset of locations that displays), the object will automatically disappear from the app without any additional work required of our staff. The subset of locations is also controllable by SMA staff in the Tiny CMS of the app. The active column shows which locations have been enabled (galleries) and which have been disabled (storage), as seen in figure 4.

Figure 4: the Location Codes page in the TCMS

We use another field in the MuseumPlus exhibition module as the “Mobile App” field, which controls which exhibition records display in the app and whether the record displayed is an exhibition, tour, or virtual exhibition. Figure 5 shows the “Mobile App” field in use, and table 1 explains what each option in that field corresponds to in the app.

Figure 5: an exhibition record in MuseumPlus; the highlighted “Mobile App” field controls if and how content is displayed in the app

Table 1: Mobile App field options and how those options display in the app

Another advantage to using MuseumPlus and the exhibition module to manage content in the app is the “didactic label” field, which is unique to each object in the exhibition record. Each mobile app exhibition or tour gets its own unique exhibition record in MuseumPlus simply by copying the existing exhibition record. This allows unique, app-specific label content about each object in that exhibition or tour to be displayed in the app. This means curators can write labels specifically to be displayed in the mobile app, tailoring them to the app-specific content. We also made adjustments to our online collection to include these mobile app specific labels to ensure our didactic content is accessible across platforms.

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the SMA mobile app is how data is managed using the collection management database. The constant updating of catalog information, frequent movement of objects, and ongoing research on our collection requires synchronized updating of content in the app to avoid the presentation of inaccurate data. By avoiding redundant data entry into a separate system, the standard workflow of updating location codes and exhibition records as objects are moved will also update the app. This efficiency assures sustainability and scalability of the app by not requiring additional labor resources to manage content. A nightly synchronization with the MuseumPlus database ensures that the most up-to-date information is presented on the app. Additionally, the app can be manually refreshed for immediate updating at any time should gallery changes occur mid-day.

Another advantage to using MuseumPlus as the data source for the app is the ability to create virtual exhibitions. Like most museums, we often find ourselves restricted by the amount of physical space we have to display the vast number of objects in our collection. The mobile app has provided a new platform to present objects without the limitations of physically displaying objects in the galleries. Once a virtual exhibition is conceived it only needs a MuseumPlus exhibition record to go live in the app. Our first digital-only exhibition, Mobile Memory, was created by our graduate student interns. They were able to leverage the app to curate a group of objects that would not have been possible to display in the galleries,and pair these objects with thematic interpretive content.

Figure 6: the MuseumPlus record for the virtual exhibition Mobile Memory; the entry in the “Mobile App” field of “yes, virtual exhibition” overrides the current location filter and displays all objects, even if they are in storage

Figure 7: the virtual exhibition Mobile Memory; on the left, the exhibition description, and on the right, the object list

This idea of using the mobile app as a presentation and delivery system for all of our existing interpretive content is how we overcame the limitation of a lack of funding and staff time for creating new content. Through years of work and many different projects, we already had the interpretive content; we just needed a platform that would allow visitors to access all of this content in one place. There are currently 538 images of objects available in the mobile app. All objects currently in the galleries, including some loans, are displayed in the app. All multimedia is managed in our internal database and is also available on our website through our online collection.

The second system component of our app is iBeacon technology. By using small Bluetooth trigger devices placed strategically throughout the galleries, the app will alert visitors that they are approaching items and topics of interest with a simple pop-up message. Currently iBeacons can be linked to individual objects, exhibitions, gallery maps, or a mobile app tour. The low-profile Bluetooth beacons are discreetly installed in galleries near the object, exhibition, map, or tour to which they correspond. The iBeacons are managed on the TCMS to tailor the content that we want to push out to the visitors. By utilizing this new technology, we can provide the most applicable and useful content directly to visitors as they move throughout the museum. Figure 8 shows the options for creating a new iBeacon Link.

Figure 8: the iBeacon controls in the TCMS allow us to configure each beacon with the exact content we wish to push out to users

All of the user data from the app is accessible for evaluation purposes. The standard analytics are available via Google Analytics to help us to continue developing the app in ways that will entice the end user. These data sets include number of pages viewed, time spent watching single videos, repeat use, number of unique users, and platforms for viewing, as seen in figure 9.

Figure 9: The Google Analytics dashboard for the SMA mobile app

 The metrics of collection use, along with our collection website use and internal MuseumPlus database use, serve as an invaluable dataset when presenting our relevancy to our parent University, State legislature, and potential funders. The quantitative data is balanced with a qualitative survey triggered by iBeacon upon leaving the building. The questions are managed through the TCMS and can be changed depending on current exhibition needs. Figure 10 shows a sample result from a survey question.

Figure 10: example of qualitative survey question and results, accessible in the TCMS

Our end goal was taking disparate existing content and finding a collective home for all of it; we also sought a single presentation layer to guide visitors to this content, which we were only able to achieve with the technical expertise of our campus IT partner. We are proud to offer an app that presents 100% of the objects on view in our galleries and across campus, along with accompanying interpretive multimedia content, all ad-free and free of charge.

 Lessons learned

The strengths of our mobile app development included the technical collaboration with our campus IT team; that the application works as designed and allows for adaptation and nimbleness; and the increased exposure and access to Spencer interpretive content to end-users. However, there are a number of pitfalls that should be considered by other institutions when embarking on such a project.

Although working with our campus partner afforded us resources and expertise that would not otherwise be available, we had to work within the confines of their limited time. As the first mobile app developed at the University of Kansas, KUIT staff learned the programming nuances and intricacies of our proposed design along with us, which resulted in more hours of development than originally anticipated. Under our first charter we anticipated that development time to beta launch would be eight months; in reality, it was closer to 18 months.

Working with relatively new iBeacon technology also provided several challenges. The beacons are customizable in terms of their broadcast strength and broadcast interval (how frequently the signal is sent). These two settings are crucial to the effectiveness of the beacons and also have significant impact on their battery life. Through several rounds of in-gallery testing, we determined the broadcast interval (940ms) and strength (Strong, 4dBm); both needed to be relatively high to ensure content would be pushed to users’ devices at the appropriate time and to account for signal interference. However, these settings greatly reduce the battery life of the beacons. We are currently deliberating the cost-benefit analysis of using proximity versus sticker iBeacons. While the stickers are more affordable for one-time purchase, the batteries are not replaceable and thus the iBeacons have to be purchased more frequently. The desired range in interval settings also causes some undesirable crossover of signals for objects that are located near each other in the galleries. While we have not found a perfect solution, we find the technology acceptable as we continue to experiment with iBeacon technology.

Testing and end-user input could have been more comprehensive. Due to limited time between beta testing and going live, we were not able to fully test and get feedback improvements before the official launch. We did give our internal staff the opportunity to submit feedback and gave them all specific tasks to complete, such as the ease of finding a certain object video in the app. We continue to adapt and integrate feedback, but need to develop a more focused test environment. We also beta tested with our Friends of the Art Museum Board members. While they provided some feedback, we realized they were not our primary intended audience, and most of their feedback was positive and did not offer much criticism to build the app further. In the future, we need to seek more critical audiences for both functionality and design.

Based on what we have learned from metrics, we continue to develop strategies to encourage the use of the app. At the point of writing this paper, users have demonstrated little interest in participating in the in-app exit survey. We hope to work on refining the questions and pairing it with an active visitor services team to promote taking the survey and collecting anecdotal, qualitative data to continue to improve the app. General comments informally collected over the past six months have been extremely positive. Users most frequently comment on having easy access to multiple images for each object and the cleverness the Cabinet of Curiosities map.

Although we have not implemented a full marketing campaign, as we continue to develop app-specific content for established and new programs and initiatives, we intend to develop a strategic marketing plan. One approach we are exploring is ensuring our app is fully integrated into our programs. As you will see below, we have found that when tours and exhibitions are meeting the needs of a specific audience, the use of the app increases dramatically.

Future horizons

While we were developing the app, the SMA was closed to the public for a major renovation of over 30,000 square feet of gallery and storage spaces. The foremost renovation goal was to open up the museum by expanding our entry and adding windows to let natural light into the galleries. This sense of openness and access are also principle tenants for the app development. We have just begun to observe the mobile app in use in our new spaces, but we have already started to plan the next steps for functionality, new features, and more succinct management of data. To display the versatility of the SMA mobile app and provide further examples for others to consider, we share with you a few of our emerging ideas.

One anticipated addition to the app aims to meet the needs of our university community. In spring 2017 we plan to implement a new app feature related to campus course assignments. With over 6,000 students passing through the SMA annually for class visits and assignments related to our collections and exhibitions, we plan to employ the same methodology that we use for the “Exhibition” section of the app to create the ability to deliver a class assignment and gallery exercise. For each assignment we will create an art object list, complete with all tombstone, image, and additional didactic, audio, and video content. Like the exhibition description that displays upon entering into a specific exhibition, the course assignment description will appear when selecting the assignment or class name from the home screen. Additionally, students will be able to access their specific assignment in PDF form from this page. This will allow students access to object content and to return to the assignment and refresh the visual information from home when completing the exercise. While this fills a very specific need in a university setting, the concept of incorporating any variety of documents in the gallery experience could be applied at any institution.

Other features we would like to develop further relate to way-finding. The proof of concept for an additional mapping feature already exists in the way we have managed a map for our Cabinet of Curiosities exhibition (see figure 11).

Figure 11: tapping any shelf on the map on the left will display a list of all objects on that shelf, as seen in the screenshot on the right

We were able to develop this map to the shelf-level by adding more granular locations codes for the objects in the MuseumPlus database. Similarly we would like to provide users with the ability to create their own custom tour complete with personalized maps.  Building on our already existing keyword project, and creating even more granular location codes, we will be able to offer visitors the ability to enter a keyword and get a personalized tour of objects currently on display with a map showing the path to take to visit each object.

Extending our app to other community and campus partners by incorporating like-minded projects will also be a part of our next steps to bring relevant content to our patrons. For example, our campus Audio Reader program is interested in creating programs for the visually impaired using our collection and other collections throughout campus. The University School of Business has an extensive art collection as well. Such a partnership would give visitors an enriched campus experience.

Building on the strategy of utilizing managed data to drive content to multiple presentation platforms, we have begun another campus collaboration with a data visualization expert to integrate our data with more computational presentation formats. Instead of a search result with a list of objects, a query in this type of application would return results more like a timeline-driven, geographical information system. It is not enough to merely deliver content, but instead, the new horizon is to facilitate interdisciplinary collaborative research through data visualization.

 Connecting the app to a collection database is an efficient, scalable, and affordable way to enhance all visitors’ experiences while avoiding redundant data entry. Our hope is that the lessons learned and knowledge gained throughout our app development process will encourage others to seek cost-efficient and time-efficient means to leverage existing systems into a single platform, and to create a scalable and affordable way to enhance visitor experiences. The Spencer Museum of Art’s location in a university environment created both the academic rigor and the creative talent to make this project possible.


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Cite as:
Talbott, Jennifer, Ryan Waggoner, Robert Hickerson and Kristina Walker. "Layered learning: developing and utilizing integrated systems through mobile platforms to enrich and expand interpretation." MW17: MW 2017. Published February 9, 2017. Consulted .

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