The Big ASK: Experiencing the Brooklyn Museum’s ASK App

“With a culture of questioning, there is always more possibility.” – Debra France & W. L. Gore

“Without a good question, the answer has no place to go.” – Clayton Christensen

“We live in the world our questions create.” – David Cooperrider

Much ink (and many pixels) has been spilled over thinking about the use of questions in museums.  I, myself, have given considerable thought to not only how we as educators employ questions in our own inquiry-based teaching, but also how we might get museum visitors and learners to ask more questions – to wonder more about the objects, collections, stories, and experiences brought forward by museums.  I owe a great deal to the thinking of other educators and cultural leaders like Rika Burnham, Elliott Kai-Kee, Nina Simon, Philip Yenawine, and many of the folks at Harvard’s Project Zero, to name a few.  In countless docent trainings, teacher workshops, school tours, lifelong learning classes, etc., I’ve worked to help cultivate a culture of questioning in the space of the museum – exploring creative questions, structured questions, participatory questions, visitor-centered questions, and questions that take a critical look at the very institutions of museums themselves. So when I visited the Brooklyn Museum last month, I was intrigued and excited to be able to test out their new ASK app as well as chat with some of the Audience Engagement staff about the intiative.

What is the ASK app?

photoASK is the newest iOS app developed by the Brooklyn Museum to allow visitors to ask questions during their museum visit, and have Audience Engagement staff on the other end answering their questions live via the text-messaging feature of the app.  As visitors ask questions, a member of the Audience Engagement staff not only responds to the question, but they know where the visitor is located based on iBeacons that the museum has installed throughout the galleries.  In addition to texting in a question, visitors can also send a photo along with their question.

As the Audience Engagement staff receive visitor questions, they have access to a growing wiki that contains information about artworks, related artworks, historical information, and other questions that have been asked by visitors.  These staff are constantly building this database of content and context, allowing them to more easily answer subsequent visitor questions. The app works in real-time, but only functions while on site at the Brooklyn Museum (if you want to take any of the experience with you, you need to take screen shots or notes, like I did).

In a recent interview with Nina Simon, the Brooklyn Museum’s Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology, Shelley Bernstein, spoke more about the new ASK app and experience:

“ASK is part of an overall effort to rethink the museum visitor experience. We began with a series of internal meetings to evaluate our current visitor experience and set a goal for the project. We spent a year pilot-testing directly with visitors to develop the ASK project concept. The pilots showed us visitors were looking for a personal connection with our staff, wanted to talk about the art on view, and wanted that dialogue to be dynamic and speak to their needs directly. We started to look to technology to solve the equation. In pilot testing, we found that enabling visitors to ASK via mobile provided the personal connection they were looking for while responding to their individual interests.”

The Brooklyn Museum has been testing the ASK app during the past couple of months (summer 2015), and making changes and prototyping new approaches throughout (which is awesome to see!).

My ASK Experience

As I walked along Prospect Park on my way to the Brooklyn Museum, I began downloading my ASK app (yes, I am a super museum nerd – I’m sure very few visitors have their app ready-to-go when they enter the Brooklyn Museum).  Entering the museum, I was prepped to ask questions.

Rather than try to ‘stump’ the app experience and try to ask a series of outrageous or challenging questions, I wanted to really see when I would have the natural inclination to ask a question.  I even wondered how often I have my own questions while I stroll the galleries of a museum (we think so much about questions as part of the museum experience of others, but perhaps rarely think about our own process of questioning as learners/visitors in the galleries). Not having visited the Brooklyn Museum for quite some time, I immediately found myself wandering around trying to find my way without a map.  So question #1 for me was about way-finding:  “Where can I find a map?” An immediate response via the app had me even more excited about my visit (now with map in hand).

ASK experienceI only ended up asking about 4 additional questions during a 2-3 hour visit, but the exchange with the Audience Engagement team member on the other end was enjoyable and surprisingly engaging.  To give you a sense of how natural and conversational it felt, I am pasting a collage of screenshots from a part of our exchange at the right (click on the small image here to access a larger view of the exchange).  The ‘responder’ texted me about twice as many times as I messaged them, which shows a really nice level of engagement.   The conversation basically occurred in real time, without any awkward silences or wait times.

While I was testing the app, the person on the other end was nameless (but I think they’re now testing it with the person’s name included to add more personal connection, which is a fantastic idea).  Towards the end of my visit, the staff member invited me to stop by the kiosk on my way out and say “hi.”  So I did, and ended up meeting Megan Mastobattista, who has been a part of the Audience Engagement Team since March.  We chatted about the project, and I was able to connect a real person to my digital experience (hooray!).

ASK team stationed at a kiosk in the entrance pavilion, which is how I experience it.  Photo from BKM Tech blog.
ASK team stationed at a kiosk in the entrance pavilion, which is how I experience it. Photo from BKM Tech blog.

Overall, I felt that the ASK app experience really succeeded in one area that I know the Brooklyn Museum’s is aiming for with this project: personal connection.  I was highly skeptical of this app when I arrived (to be honest), since I tend to have reservations about anything that creates a culture in museums of asking questions and getting answers – assuming that there is some correct answer to every question, and preventing visitors from simply wondering about art without someone texting them the answers.  From the outside, the ASK app seemed to be trying to digitally replicate the older and outdated model of docents, who try to “know everything” and answer any questions visitors have about works of art, history, artist bios, etc.  But in experiencing the app myself, I felt connected to the answerer, and I also felt that the goal of the Audience Engagement team was not to specifically answer my questions, but truly to engage in dialogue and prompt more thinking or looking on my part.  I could also bring my own knowledge to the exchange, and it was valued and became a building block for further dialogue.

After my visit, I connected with my colleague Monica Marino, Audience Engagement Lead there at the Brooklyn Museum, to get some of her thoughts on some of my questions and experiences:

“Users are consistently surprised when they realize it’s a real person speaking with them.  It’s interesting, even when they go into the app experience knowing that it is a person responding (and even when they meet us beforehand) they have an “ah-ha” moment after about the 3rd exchange.  That’s a prime moment for us to provoke a more in-depth dialogue about what the visitor is looking at.”

One part of the experience I was pleasantly surprised with was the app’s ability to connect me with the same Audience Engagement staff person each time.  While I understand that this must be more challenging when the museum is more crowded, I asked Monica about their thinking about this aspect:

“From our end (the Team responding) it is nice when we can sustain the conversation with one person, however, it has its logistical challenges – for example if we have multiple people sending us messages, we want to be able to respond to everyone quickly which makes it challenging sometimes to stay with the same person.  In addition, it happens that one of our team members has more of a background on a particular object/collection so it’s best when they’re able to respond to the visitor. Having said all of that we try as much as possible to stay with a visitor as they use it.”

Monica also writes more about the thinking behind the opening prompt and the first response to the visitor in this text messaging environment, and how to best spark the conversation I’ve been talking about.

As the Audience Engagement Team at the Brooklyn Museum continues to test and adapt the ASK experience, you can keep in touch via their BKM Tech blog, which is also a great place to learn more about the evolution of this initiative.  Also check out Nina Simon’s interview with the project’s lead thinker, Shelley Bernstein.

As the team at the Brooklyn Museum collects data on visitor questions and behavior, I’m also very interested to see how it shapes the internal decisions being made about collection installations, exhibitions, interpretive strategies, and gallery design.  To play off of the quote as the start of this post by David Cooperrider, are we heading toward a moment in which visitor questions will be shaping the museums of tomorrow.  Will we ever be living in the museums our questions create?

What’s Your ASK Experience?

I’d love to hear from others who have experienced the ASK app.  What can you share with us about your process of questioning and exchange with the Audience Engagement team?  What do you think about this type of museum experience – should we instead be focusing more on human, face-to-face engagement rather than the digital?  Please share and keep the dialogue going.

ASK-signage

7 thoughts on “The Big ASK: Experiencing the Brooklyn Museum’s ASK App”

  1. Great Post Mike.!..yes!, the personal contact IS important ,however, the numbers trade off is something that’s probably inherent (short of an implant a’ la’ Wm Gibson Neuromancer tech LOL),
    As a denison of Terra Australis Espiritu Sancti, I wonder does the BRKLN M have a walk through App WITH this Facility For International E Visitors who can’t BETHERE in REALTIME??? does any other W W Museum have this Tech ??? YMHS Ian

  2. Why does this experience require a separate mobile app to offer the service? Couldn’t there just be a dedicated number for visitors to text from their own device? Could this also be done through an existing service like Skype or something similar?

    1. Scott, great questions. The Brooklyn Museum has developed their own app for this, and does not use existing texting services available on people’s mobile devices. I have been to other museums that have you text a question to a certain number, and it felt a bit clunky (it also means that the museum now has your cell phone number, and you have a text conversation going on between you and some entity at the museum). The app made it feel a bit more separate from my personal texting (which probably has good and bad aspects). I am SO interested in how museums can begin to use live streaming video apps, like Skype and Periscope, so stay tuned on that one. The British Museum is doing some tours using Periscope, and I think there are other museums playing with it now, as well.

      1. I’m curious, does the ASK app offer other content in addition to the texting feature? Seems like a good opportunity to engage visitors away from the museum as well as on-site. I’m also curious as to the adoption and engagement rate for the app vs. the expense. I’m definitely a proponent of innovative engagement for museums; I’ve just seen several museums develop custom apps only to struggle to get users.

        However, using a platform like Periscope offers an engagement opportunity that doesn’t require an in-person visit. That could be somewhat similar to the Tate’s “After Dark” program. Except in this case the museum could have a live docent giving a guided tour.

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