APPiness Comes to Those Who Wait

Through our pursuit of ultimate app-iness, we found some common themes:

First, (even though this seems a little silly to have to say) the app needs to WORK. Visitors have to be able to download it, access its content in a timely manner, and follow through on the advertised features.

Next, we need to know it’s available. It is not necessarily assumed yet that every museum has an app, so the institution needs to make sure they are getting the word out there. Along that same point, it is important that the advertising matches the content of the app. It was no problem that the National Mall app did not create anything new and flashy because it never claimed that it would. However, it was pretty frustrating that Natural History’s did not follow through on creating a Neanderthal image.

Finally, there needs to be a point to the app. Apps are trendy but not always substantive. When our mentors came to our seminar a few weeks ago, Elissa Frankle (Social Media Strategst at USHMM) made a point to say that the Holocaust Museum didn’t want an app for the sake of having an app. It needed to add to the museum experience and it was only after careful consideration and research that they created an app. And as we can see from Madeline’s overall 4 rating, it succeeds!

As a whole, it was definitely interesting to take a close look into these apps from a consumer perspective. While our rating rubric was not grounded in “authoritative” research, we based it on exactly what we, as informed and dedicated museum visitors, look for in an app. We might be slightly more biased than a typical tourist, but hopefully our comprehensive look into these five apps provides a good foundation for what kind of apps are already out there, and what features are truly standing out.

Keep pursuing!


The Pursuit of APPiness: National Zoo

   The National Zoo’s app is by far the most comprehensive museum app I’ve ever encountered. It has EVERYTHING I ever thought I wanted in a museum app, and several things I didn’t know I wanted until I saw them! There are far too many features for me to go through them all, but I’ll provide some of the highlights here. I highly encourage anyone interested in visiting the zoo – virtually or in-person – to download this amazing app!

The app is beautifully designed with large, easy-to-read text, colorful backgrounds, and intuitive navigation features. Since the majority of zoo exhibits are outdoors, internet speed does not tend to be an issue. Some of the app’s features, such as live-stream animal cams and “Zooify Yourself” (discussed later) could potentially use a lot of data and/or battery power, so I would encourage users (and parents of little users) to bear this in mind. The app did crash twice while I was using it, but it re-opened quickly and this didn’t pose too much of a problem for me.


The app includes all important zoo information, including daily schedules, parking information, public transportation information and an interactive zoo map. The “Today at the Zoo” section includes the schedule for feedings, viewings, and zookeeper chats, and links each event to its location on the map.

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The interactive zoo map and the tour routes are perhaps the most useful in-zoo features. The map itself leaves something to be desired (not all animals are pictured and none are named in the main view of the map), however it is very helpful in finding amenities such as food, restrooms, and gift shops. There are four tours provided with the app: a highlights tour, upper and lower zoo tours, and “new to the zoo.” Each tour has a short description with an approximate length- they range from 1-2.5 hours. The best feature on the tours menu in “Create a Tour,” in which visitors can view a list of all zoo animals and select those they’d like to see. The app then uses these inputs to create a customized tour for the visitor! I absolutely love this feature, as it can help each individual visitor get the most out of his or her visit. It’s also great for families to plan their route through the zoo in order to hit everyone’s favorite animals!


The app is also extremely useful for distance users as it has many features that do not require users to actually visit the zoo. It definitely takes advantage of all the hype over Bao Bao, the newest addition to their Panda family. Bao Bao has an entire menu to herself, with items such as press, photo gallery, and a live-stream of the extremely popular panda cam!

All animals at the zoo have their own page featuring a description of the species as well as information about conservation efforts. Many of these pages also include audio of animal sounds. Although these descriptions do not include a high level of detail, they are a good starting place for all levels of learners. However, I think the app could be improved by providing links to websites where users who want to know more about a particular kind of animal could find more detailed information. Perhaps the app could even point users in the direction of books sold in the zoo’s gift shops!

Perhaps my favorite feature of this app is “Zooify Yourself.” This feature is purely for fun and doesn’t include any educational content, but what I love about it is the personalized, memory-making activity it provides. With “Zooify Yourself,” users can take a photo of themselves using their device’s built-in camera and add features of different zoo animals over the photo (see my example below). Although the user isn’t necessarily learning anything about zoo animals or conservation from this feature, it really is quite fun and provides a unique virtual artifact for zoo local visitors and distance learners alike!IMG_0571

All in all, the National Zoo app is an excellent example of what museums can and, in my opinion, should be doing with mobile digital technology. This app runs the gamut of functions- it has everything from important planning and travel information to a silly, boredom-busting game to play on the way home, during a lunch break at the zoo, or at home!

Pursuit of Appiness: Natural History

The Smithsonian is a bear when it comes to Apps… Smithsonian Institution has its own confusing suite of apps, while also having one all encompassing app. Instead, I took a different route. I looked at an app for the NMNH developed by the Smithsonian Institution that generates unique content.

“MEAnderthal” has sadly been removed from the app store, so for those of you dying to see it, your only chance will be to look at the below screenshots. (Also, I still have it downloaded, just like I have the original Flappy Bird, so if anyone wants to play some deleted games, let me know). Before the app was removed, I went to NMNH and looked at the MEAnderthal app, which is designed to be used in the Human Origins exhibit. With this app, you can take or upload a photo of yourself and “neanderthal-ize” yourself: think protruding brow, too much facial hair, wide set eyes… all that attractive stuff.

It is advertised on the Human Origins page of the SI website, as well as on the general website for the Smithsonian and the NMNH. Unfortunately, since the app is no longer available (literally as of 2 weeks ago), there is no advertisement within the Human Origins hall. I cannot remember if there was an advertisement when I first looked a couple weeks ago, but when I revisited earlier this week, I looked, to no avail.

I think I know why it is not being advertised in the exhibit and has since been removed from the App store… and that is because it simply doesn’t work. I have an iPhone 5s with Verizon, and even when connected to SI wifi and my own wifi connection at home, the following screenshots detail how far I was able to connect with this app:

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this last screenshot is my favorite:


Nice brown screen!

So whether or not it is truly ethical to use this app in my evaluation since it didn’t work, I did anyway based on my belief that an SI developed app should at least be able to do one of its duties, regardless of how well it accomplishes that duty. But this app couldn’t even take a photo. I like it when really well designed, beautiful apps crash, because at least I can blame it on the intense graphics or coding–but this app isn’t even that aesthetically pleasing.

I like the concept behind it, which is why I rated it highly on its content value inside and outside of the museum. It doesn’t rely on the exhibit, but at the same time, it enhances the exhibit. It may seem like just a silly game, but I think that a child might be able to more easily connect their identity to his or her neanderthal ancestors if they can “neanderthal-ize” themselves. Also it is decently advertised, save having big signs in the hall. It apparently works on Android, as well, but since I don’t have one, I cannot speak to that. You can download it for iPad, but I always think it’s so silly when people take selfies with their big ol’ iPads 🙂

Despite those half-hearted compliments, I unfortunately have to give it a 2.

App Eval 2

The Pursuit of APPiness- The National Mall

This is my new go-to app for DC tourists. Whether you are from out of town and just visiting the area, or a local who wants to take an afternoon for some cultural enrichment, this app provides practical and interesting information. Don’t get me wrong, this app is not flashy, not particularly interactive, and relatively text heavy. However, I think the centralized information about the history and significance of each memorial on the National Mall, along with the various options for self-guided tours, make this app extremely worth it. Plus, it’s free! So might as well give it a shot.


I think some of the best aspects of this app are the wayfinding instructions and maps. The app provides five unique tours to follow, as well as the option to select your own sites and the app generates your best route. There is also a full list of all the sites, just in case you stumble upon an unexpected site and want to look up some information about it. In general, the app seems geared towards tourists, but options like the “Off the Beaten Path Tour” are great for people familiar with the area as well. The only issue might be learning about the app in the first place. There is a whole page advertising the app on the National Park Service website about the National Mall, but I think it could benefit from some additional advertising around the sites themselves.

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The most unexpected feature of the app is the “Park Lens” camera. To use it, you simply hold up your phone to your surroundings and the app superimposes labels of the nearby sites and museums, as well as their relative locations and distances to your location. The lens took awhile to load, but I can see how this could be pretty helpful to a tourist who is trying to get their bearings.

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Overall, the in-depth history about the different memorials and monuments add value to a self-guided tour, while the Parking, Transportation, and Hours information provide practical and necessary preparation for your trip. So, while the National Mall and Memorial Parks app is not necessarily on the cutting edge of interactivity and generating unique content, it is undoubtedly useful for tourists who are trying to find their way and learn some of the basics about “DC’s front yard”.

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The Pursuit of Appiness- USHMM


This app reflects the museum in many ways: well thought out, eye catching design, and a space for reflection and discussion. This app works well as a stand alone (if you cannot make it to the museum), as a pre-visit planner, or as a post-visit reflection and connection device.

No matter what type of device you have, there is a version out there for you.

From the Home Page you have three options- Plan Your Visit, Witness, and Reflect. Each section offers something different, but complimentary.


Plan Your Visit:

Under this section you can choose the date that you are planning to visit. Every exhibit that will be open is listed and includes how long it takes to walk through and a brief description; If you tap on the exhibit you are interested in, a photo is included. From this point, you can also link right into the exhibit and look at a few objects or labels.

One really nice feature it that you can add the exhibit you are interested in to the “My Visit” section and build a plan for your whole trip based on how long you want to spend there.

There is also a map you can zoom into, as needed.



This section allows you to interact with ID Cards. A brief explanation tells the user that the ID cards allow you to be a “witness to one person’s experience of the Holocaust.” You can choose a card that reflects you (like age, gender), by name, or have one randomly chosen for you. You can choose as many as you like and share them. While the museum does offer a paper version of this while going through the exhibit, this app version is a bit more individualized and at your finger tips.



Want a way to think about your visit? This is the section will provides photos and descriptions of the actual exhibits. Each photo has a caption and a way to share it with others. You can revisit each exhibit and look at a few objects from each. The whole collection, however, is not available on this app.

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While the user cannot generate any new material or see all parts of the museum collection, this is a very user friendly and helpful app to have.  The fact that you can share with friends and family through various forms of social media is a great options. It allows the app user to share and discuss different themes and objects from the museum.

Overall, I would give this app a 4 and would highly recommend it!

The Pursuit of APPiness-NGA

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First off: this thing was huge (280+ MB) and took forever to load. Almost 45 minutes. Once in the museum and fully loaded things moved a little faster, but the speed waivered as I traveled further into the cavernous galleries. Could have something to do with the massive amounts of marble all around.


I stared into Ginevra’s icy gaze for way too long waiting for the download.

The app consists of simple blurbs about current exhibits and select artwork in the collection. There is a map of the museum with blue pinpoints that demonstrate where there are works with app entries. The entries have information not included on the wall label, and audio recordings with additional information to that. The audio features were pretty interesting, but I forgot my headphones, so playing the track out loud in the gallery was a little embarrassing.

There are only 123 pieces highlighted on the app, another 44 with simpler language aimed towards kids (this is miniscule compared to the thousands upon thousands of works in the collection). You can search by Artist, Theme, Nationality, and Time Period. There are also numbers that you can key in if you see a prompt on the wall. Unfortunately, the chances of you finding a wall prompt are pretty slim since there are so few works highlighted, and the prompts don’t even mention the presence of an app, they are instead labeled “Director’s Tour.”


I checked out my namesake. Looking good, Di!

It looks like the app was only created last year, so its shortcomings are likely a product of its novice status. It’s classy looking (loved the serifed font) and has great features to zoom in on paintings or text, but overall I think it’s best use would be planning purposes before a visit. There was very little synergy between the app and the artwork in person. In fact, a guard even asked me to put my phone away because he thought I was taking pictures. Nope—just trying to explore your museum!

Overall Rating: 3

The Pursuit of APPiness

Welcome to The Pursuit of APPiness, our blog’s spot for reviewing and assessing museums’ mobile apps.

In today’s tech-reliant society, people, including museum visitors, have become accustomed to having information at their fingertips. So, how are museums keeping up? We want to explore this question by delving into the new frontier of museum apps.

In order to analyze the apps in a uniform way, we created an evaluation tool that we will use for each app. This tool looks at four main categories for each app: General, Content/Interactivity, Accessibility, and Design.

In the General category, we identified four main purposes that museum apps can aim to achieve:

  • Bring content to audiences not visiting the museum (distance learning)
  • Link visitors to more in-depth information and/or interpretation on objects of interest
  • Mobile information desk (provide general information also available in other locations)
  • Provide enrichment activities related to museum/exhibit content

For each app, we will examine which purposes the museum intended for the app and how well the app serves these purposes.

In the Content/Interactivity category, we seek to answer the following questions:

  • Is the app intended for use within or outside of the museum?
  • Is the app designed for use with a particular exhibit or the entire museum?
  • Does the app give users access to content beyond what is available/on view at the museum?
  • Does the app enhance the user’s (visitor or distance learner) museum experience? In what ways?
  • Is the app interactive? Does it generate new content unique to its user?

The Accessibility category examines how easy it is for users to discover, download, and use the mobile app.

The Design category includes the aesthetic appeal and ease of use of the app’s user interface, as well as how well any other forms of media (including audio, video, photos, etc..) are integrated into the app.

Here’s a copy of the evaluation tool we’ll be using: museum apps eval-page-001

In the coming weeks, we will be reviewing 5 apps at different DC museums and parks using this evaluation tool, along with narrative assessments and commentary in relation of these four categories. Join us as we explore and analyze the new and exciting world of museum apps!