Mobile Public History

Many public history projects are grounded deeply in a place, whether by strict geographical borders or by the cultural construction of place that transcends locality. Histories of the National Mall interprets the changing physical space upon which the National Mall has been built, while also tackling the cultural, political, and social meanings that shape the cultural memory of “the Mall” as a local public park, center of civic life in Washington, and as a national place of meaning making.

With little interpretation in the space itself, we believed that to adequately interpret the Mall for visitors walking along its paths, individuals needed a freely-accessible website designed optimally to work with a phone or tablet that visitors carried with them. The number of individuals, worldwide, who rely on cell phones to access the web continues to grow. In the US, the Pew Internet Project finds that 90% of American adults own a cellphone and that 63% of adult cell phone owners go online via their phones.

Our decision to design for the mobile web was based in research begun by Leon and Brennan in 2009 when the Samuel H. Kress Foundation awarded RRCHNM a grant to research and experiment with mobile formats pertinent for art and cultural heritage collections. This research led to the Mobile for Museums project and report. We published an overview of how museums were using mobile technology at the time to engage with users, then offered suggestions, based on this research, as best practices for cultural heritage institutions developing with mobile technology. We also developed a prototype for a mobile-optimized cultural heritage website called Art in the City, and a set of Omeka plugins as a proof-of-concept.

We concluded that because of the rapidly-changing landscape of mobile devices, building for the mobile web is more cost-effective and sustainable, rather than developing native applications for specific platforms. Given the scarcity of resources and staff, we also recommended that mobile content be drawn from a central content management system to let museum staff to more easily re- purpose, update, and serve visitors a variety of information. While the scope of the Kress project was limited to research, it shaped the team’s approach for designing and developing Histories of the National Mall.

Because we were committed to reaching the largest percentage of potential visitors to the Mall, and committed to building a sustainable project, we designed for the mobile web using the Omeka content management system. Most mobile devices come with a mobile web browser that works on cellular and WiFi networks, enabling users to easily find and browse the site anywhere. By designing for the mobile web, rather than developing an  app, the site and its development would not be constrained by the quickly evolving world of mobile application development protocols.

Free wireless access on the Mall and inside the Smithsonian museums also made this type of mobile public history project feasible. The signal strength, however, is strained by thousands of people simultaneously using it, making mobile web browsing more reliable than applications (apps) that require more bandwidth to function well. Many mobile apps built by cultural heritage institutions require an individual user to download megabytes worth of content before they can begin their experiences. We did not want to require users to download material, and we wanted all of the content discoverable and accessible through common web browsers. Even when a visitor does not know about, she will likely find content from the site if she queries the web about the Mall’s history.

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