Interpreting our heritage with smartphones and apps.

Paper presented at the XV Conference of the Association for Heritage Interpretation held in Barcelona from 10 to 13 March 2016 «Heritage interpretation in the digital age. Looking complicities with technology».

Interpreting our heritage with smartphones and apps. Manel Miró.

Tilden wrote  There will never be a device of telecommunication as satisfactory as the direct contact not merely with the voice, but with the hand, the eye, the casual and meaningful ad lib, and with that something which flows out of the very constitution of the individual in his physical self .

Certainly, good interpretation at first hand is one of the best heritage experiences one can live, but it is also true that poor interpretation at first hand by a person  is one of the most uncomfortable experiences one can live.

Too often, in the real world good personal interpretation is an unattainable ideal that can be partly compensated for with good use of technology.

Mobility as a target, mobile electronic devices as instruments of interpretation

As interpretation is closely linked to communication and is an art that combines many arts, it was to be expected that advances in the world of telecommunications would be reflected in that of interpretation.

Communicating over long distances, communicating to thousands of people at once in distant places. In our highly developed world we have perhaps lost the memory of the great revolution caused by the invention of radio, the greatest turning point in the media since the invention of printing. Alongside the radio revolution another one took place involving the development of sound recording technology. Both these ingredients together made possible the development of the first experiments in portable interpretation.


Frances Densmore in 1916 during a recording of a Blackfoot chief on a phonograph cylinder for the Bureau of American Ethnology


In 1952, the same year as Tilden received the commission that would lead to the classic “Interpreting our heritage”, the Dutch multinational Phillips developed a revolutionary prototype audio guide for a temporary exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The technology used was a closed-circuit shortwave radio system.

The audio output from an analogue tape player served as a broadcasting device and transmission was via a loop aerial.

The audio reached visitors through a portable radio receiver with earphones when they entered the range of the radio signal. This meant visitors could not choose their routes but when they entered a room they received whatever the room transmitter was sending at that moment.

The Philips prototype was not developed further, but in 1979 a device came along to revolutionise the way people listened to music: the Sony Walkman made it possible to listen to music while strolling in the street, jogging or sitting on the bus, metro or train. The Walkman broke the barrier to listening to music individually in public. The possibilities of the device as an interpretation tool were considered by the US National Park Service. In 1987 the NPS commissioned the stage actor and director Chris Hardman to create a tour to be followed with a Walkman for Alcatraz prison, which had recently become a site open to visitors.

This guide was made entirely using interviews with guards and prisoners who had worked or served time at Alcatraz. No other narrators’ or actors’ voices were added, making it a convincing experience due to the authentic voices telling their stories in their own words. The interesting thing about this audio guide is that it is a whole interpretative experience that cannot be provided by any human guide. This placed in question Tilden’s idea that telecommunications devices would never be as effective as guides. In reality it opened up a world of new interpretative possibilities that a guided tour could never offer.

The appearance of digital audio devices and sound file compression systems in the late 80s made possible a substantial improvement in portable audio devices, especially as regards selecting audio tracks and their sound quality. As interpretation tools, audio guides generally reproduce the classic guided tour model with a voiceover that explains, often in a pedagogical way, different objects or parts of a museum of heritage site. Audio guides became the first profitable business directly linked to the basic services provided by a museum.

The early years of the 21st century saw the appearance of portable multimedia devices that, as well as audio, featured screens for graphics and video, wireless Internet connectivity and GPS guidance. For the first time there was a device able to perform all the tasks involved in a guided tour or discovery trail. The capacity for interaction of portable communication devices increased exponentially and the possibilities for interpretative experiences multiplied.

With the arrival in 2007 of the Apple iPhone and in 2010 of the Google Nexus One the use of smartphones became widespread and with it that of a product closely linked to them, the app. While the Internet enabled us to access all the knowledge in the world from home or at work, smartphones enabled us to access the world from anywhere, providing the places have a signal and the roaming costs are not prohibitive. Smartphones made it possible to pack all the technical advances of recent decades in the field of telecommunications into a single device, and at the same time their immense popularity allowed the development of the world of apps.

What apps and smartphones have brought to the art of interpretation

Between 2009 and 2013 a research group called Museums & Mobile ( conducted an annual survey on the use of mobile technology at their institutions. In the 2013 survey, the last one, a consolidation was observed of the trend to run mobile projects for three main reasons:

  • To offer additional interpretative content.
  • To promote dialogue between institution and visitor.
  • To experiment with way of building loyalty, i.e. explore the potential of social networks.

The lack of interest in the language issue is surprising, while the potential for people with special needs was becoming clear.

They have opened up access to content creation. Apps are part of a completely standardised system for creating and distributing content that consists of a programming package and online “stores” open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Producing an app is infinitely less costly than publishing a book, creating a marked route or setting up a visitor centre. To a certain extent heritage institutions have lost their monopoly on content creation, though in general their brands continue to come first when users come to choose content.


The app of MoMA

They have made it easier to publish content. As software (content) has become divorced from hardware (audio guide device), the number of professionals dedicated to creating audio guides has increased. The spread of smartphones means it is no longer necessary to have specific devices to deliver content in museums. The simplification apps have brought to the process of creating, distributing and using audio guides means that places that would never have been able to offer audio guides can now do so, and places that did have them have been able to diversify their service.

05_Park Guell

«Interpretar el Park Güell» was published beacause at this moment any interpretation exists in the Park Güell

They have enriched the creation of discovery trails. A classic interpretative experience, the discovery trail, was one of the areas in which the usefulness of mobile technology and geolocation was first exploited. In our first experiments we were obsessed with giving directions so that users wouldn’t get lost and we were worried about the poor visibility of screens. Time has given rise to products as sophisticated as this tour of Charles Dickens’s London.

06_Dark London

“Dark London”, Museum of London app featuring texts by Dickens

They have made possible the use of “in situ” multimedia content. Another of the novel features provided by smartphone apps in the world of heritage interpretation is the possibility of playing multimedia content anywhere. For example, showing different phases in an archaeological site, showing 3D reconstructions of vanished buildings, viewing old photographs in the exact place where they were taken or using augmented reality to superimpose layers of virtual information over the real image.


Multimedia guide to the Rijks Museum

They have fostered the development of gamification. One of the main uses of mobile devices is as a games platform. This has not gone unnoticed by heritage interpreters, who have used their imagination to create some innovative experiences. The interactivity inherent in mobile electronic devices has encouraged the creation of interpretative experiences in which the game component predominates. As tools for learning and to awaken curiosity these gamification experiences are generally highly effective and stimulating.

10_Faking It

Gamification not only serves for children’s apps, as shown by this app developed by the MET to supplement their temporary exhibition “Faking it”

They have popularised the use of augmented reality and virtual reality. The combination of GPS with the development of increasingly powerful graphics engines, the gradual increase in the speed of data exchange and the rapid evolution of three-dimensional data capture (in particular 3D scanning techniques and digital photometry) have enabled smartphones to provide augmented reality experiences that just ten years ago required equipment that was inconvenient to carry, costly and highly complex.


Olympia. One of the firsts experiments in augmented reality

We can now stroll through the ruins of the abbey of Cluny and see the intact building reappear before our eyes, or walk round London and discover scenes from everyday life in Roman times thanks to the Museum of London app “Londinium”.


Reconstruction in augmented reality of the abbey of Cluny.

They have made possible the use of image recognition technology in educational experiences. Image recognition technology is beginning to be used in museums to experiment with artistic forms or as a tool to activate content in a multimedia guide.

13_Cleveland Art Museum

Cleveland Art Museum

They have added to the resources of leaders of guided tours. Smartphones and in particular tablets are very useful tools for an interpretative guide because they make it possible to conveniently carry large amounts of documentation and display it at high quality: videos with testimony by people who have died, old photographs that illustrate vanished heritage, plans, maps, sound files and more. The possibilities are endless.

They have made it possible to socialise experiences through social networks. The appearance of heritage institutions on social networks is one of the most innovative aspects made possible and popularised by apps and smartphones. Ten years ago it was very hard to join a guided your of the Prado led by one of its curators or researchers. Today the Prado has 250 tours posted on the Storify portal, documenting visit experiences commented on via Twitter. This interaction between heritage institutions and their audiences reflects both a change in attitude towards the public and the existence of the technology to allow it.

Guided tours on Twitter of the Prado museum

14_Storify Prado

The curators of the Museo del Prado lead Guided Tours in Twitter

They have helped to make museums more accessible. Smartphones have programming systems to allow people with visual difficulties to handle the mobile devices easily (Voice Over in iOS and TalkBack in Android). This, together with the development of visual description techniques (also known as audio description), has made it easier to provide specific content for people with impaired vision.


Multimedia guide to the Museum of World Cultures in Barcelona

The effect of apps and smartphones on Tilden’s six principles

Any interpretation not linked to the visitor’s experience will be sterile.

The flexible content smartphones allow makes them especially effective in situations where a discourse at different levels is needed to meet the needs of different users. For example, for a museum house or a historic home in which tours are in small groups of people of different origins and different ages, an app can be designed with content suited to these different origins and ages. In this way a range of interpretative products can be combined in a single device.

Information is not interpretation,  interpretation is revelation based on information.

Mobile devices and apps are particularly useful to improve interpretation in institutions or heritage sites (especially art galleries or archaeological museums) that propose a conventional exposition/presentation model with information but no interpretation.

Interpretation is an art that combines many other arts.

The multimedia nature of smartphones is particularly effective for providing interpretative experiences that combine different media: literary texts, photographs, music, works of art, voiceovers, etc.


19_Bosco VR

“Bosch V.I.» app, a virtual reality tour of bosch’s landscapes

The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

Of tilden’s principles, this may be the most significant. Above and beyond informing or teaching, the primary mission of heritage centres with their visitors is to be able to provoke their curiosity and passion for knowledge, the first step in training responsible, critical citizens. Apps have proved especially effective in archaeological interpretation, like this app from cástulo, which researchers use to share with visitors their hypotheses about the remains dug up.


«Castulo virtual» an app for Android tablets

Interpretation must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.

Interpretation should avoid sectarianism and treat heritage from a holistic point of view. If we apply this principle to the regional dimension of heritage we find this interesting example of an app devoted to explaining the germanic “limes” in the roman empire.

20_Main Limes

App «Main Limes» World Heritage site

Interpretation addressed to children should follow a fundamentally different approach.

Apps, smartphones, touch screens or an internet connection form part of the everyday world of children and this means that any interpretation using these media will be welcomed by them. Audiovisual language increasingly bears more weight than written language with the younger generations, who are more accustomed to using multimedia resources.


«Exploring Rock Art» Chufin Cave (Cantabria, Spain) World Heritage Site

By way of a conclusion: the human factor continues to be the cornerstone

The importance of planning interpretation – why? Who for?

Of course the development of technology in the 21st century enables us to offer experiences that were unimaginable in the 1950s, but it is also true that for the technology to work for heritage there must be people able to imagine and make sense of these experiences, and this is only possible with more, improved training in interpretation and also, naturally, if there are institutions willing to pay for this interpretation. For the moment, technology does not act alone but follows the approach of those who plan it, which is why interpretation will be effective to the extent that it is designed using both head and heart.

The importance of heritage institutions taking interpretation on board

The concept of interpretation has not really penetrated spain. On the other hand, “interpretation centres” have sprung up like mushrooms. At many of these centres, the interpretation is only in the name, because they are generally places, in the best of cases, with didactic aims.

We currently confuse interpretation with didactic narration and this has made “interpretative spaces” into didactic spaces, as if they were an extension of school classrooms. I believe this detracts from the principal role of heritage spaces, which is to teach or help or make it easier for visitors to enjoy heritage.

The importance of training in interpretation.

Despite various initiatives, many of them of high quality, training in interpretation remains inadequate in spain, and above all it is a training that comes from conventional academic circuits.

If master’s degrees in heritage subjects deal with it at all, at most they devote a module to interpretation or, in the majority of cases, a few hours. This is surprising because heritage interpretation, as well as being a communication tool, is also the discipline that forms the basis for the exploitation (activation) of heritage. Ignorance of this discipline leads to the proposal of projects that are simply wrong in terms of visitor experience.


First course on creating apps for museums and heritage sites organized in Spain by the Instituto Andaluz del Patrimonio Histórico (Sevilla)

Interpretation is a tool for the future

If one day heritage in spain becomes a sector of activity able to boost development in the areas where it exists and the communities that have inherited it, it will be because interpretation, good interpretation, has managed to blaze a trail and take its place among the teams of experts responsible for planning, designing and managing the activation (exploitation) of heritage.

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