Should we ban phones from art museums? Insights from my thesis project


Nowadays, using our smartphone to document a visit at the museum is quite common. What does it mean for the museum experience? And what about the social aspect of sharing the visit through social media? This thesis project is a small investigation into the impact of smartphone use within an art exhibition.

Users and audience

For the 'pilot' version of my prototype, I recruited 5 users within SMK museum in Copenhagen during an afternoon.

On the other hand for the actual research study I had slightly stricter recruitment conditions. The participants had to be:

  • Ages 18 to 35
  • Smartphone users

As the recruitment occurred on social media advertising a free visit to MART museum, it is also important to assume that the participants were people who are interested in modern art and art museums in general.

Scope and constraints

  • I worked on the project after work in a span of 11 months, with the deadline for graduation in March 2019. Also because of being a full time worker, I was able to cut only 4 days for the final user test.
  • The technical constraints were the trickiest part of the project, as I needed to prototype an application in which users could leave comments and likes that seemed realistic enough for the experience.

Roles & responsibilities:

I worked almost autonomously through all of the phases of the project. My mentors were my colleagues at Topp for the first prototype, and then my thesis advisor for the research-related aspects. One part of the prototype was made interactive with React code by my programmer friend.

The problem

While doing my internship abroad at Topp Malmoe (Sweden), I would often go to museums and other cultural sites on weekends. Also as a way to share the experience with my friends and family back home, I would end up posting pictures and stories on my Instagram. And as I discovered, lots of my IG friends were doing the same! Nowadays, it is not uncommon to spot a famous work of art in our newsfeed every now and then.

My HCI studies however pushed me to investigate further. While this phenomenon is growing among museum visitors, the art institutions appear divided: some condemn the use of smartphones inside the galleries by placing photo bans, others encourage the practice by creating selfie-friendly areas or asking visitors to use their official hashtags.

So I asked myself: is using smartphones in museums really bad? How does it affect a visit? Or better put,

How is technology reshaping the museum experience?

I therefore decided to focus on this topic for my personal internship project at Topp. The project then later developed into my master thesis.

The first phase


Project focus

When looking into the topic of museums and technology, I started by exploring a problem I had faced as a museum visitor: engagement.

When looking at artworks, in particular ones of contemporary art, I noticed how it can often feel like being in a place that is for "experts only". In my local art museum, some works of art have no explanation at all, while others are provided with little text with many technical terms.

Wanting to bridge this gap between "lost" visitors and the artworks, I brainstormed several ideas on paper. As a medium I decided to use the smartphone, as I thought it would be the most accessible and convenient medium for visitors.

As I wanted to make the art's information easier to digest, I got inspired by the Stories format for its immediacy and predominantly visual nature. Then, wanting to encourage a dialogue between the visitor and the piece of art, I looked into user feedback systems: star ratings, claps, likes and emojis.

The prototype


After a few iterations, the first prototype resulted like this:

  • The user scans the artwork to access the information page
  • When clicking on the "Discover" button, the user would be presented with key, bitesize information about the artwork in a story format
  • At the end of the Discovery section, the user would be presented with a "Social" page where they could leave an emoji reaction and see how many other visitors (in percentage) had given that same rating. The page also presented a comment section and a view of the latest tweets related to the artwork

Guerrilla Testing

When my prototype was up and running, I went to the entrance hall of SMK museum and asked 5 random visitors there to participate in a quick user test. I was able to recruit 5 participants (5 males, 1 female) in a 20s-50s age range. The results were the following:

  • The participants were more likely to scroll than to tap on the right side of the image to progress with the stories
  • The "discovery" label proved to be unclear
  • The stories and trivia related to the painting were appreciated
  • Most users were unsure which emoji to attribute to the painting

The second phase


Keen to gather more insights on this topic, I later decided to expand on this internship project for my Master thesis. When discussing with my thesis supervisor, I was asked to focus on one specific aspect of the application in order to develop a good research question. Not sure whether to further investigate the story format or the social part of the app, we eventually decided that I should focus on the latter: while the literature on museums and learning is quite vast, the topic of social media within art institutions hadn't yet been explored in depth by researchers.

Online survey

In the following phase of the project, I wished to get more information from visitors about particular aspects of the overall museum experience. In particular, I was interested in knowing more about two major topics: the visitors’ opinions about multimedia guides used within the museum, and the role of social media before and after the visit.

I therefore created a survey which included 18 questions, 5 related to the demographics of the respondents, 6 to their museum visiting habits (e.g. visit frequency, reasons for visit, social media use within the museum), and the remaining 7 to different aspects of their last museum visit (e.g. thoughts on the written museum labels, multimedia guide use). The survey was shared on different outlets (Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, WhatsApp) in June 2018 and was filled by a total of 167 respondents, 74.1% of which were of Italian nationality and the remaining 25.9% predominantly American.

Technology seems to play a big part in the decision of visiting a particular museum or gallery: the high majority of visitors discover exhibitions and museums to visit thanks to the internet and social media apart from friends or relatives’ recommendations. When inside the exhibition, around 30% of the respondents (48% in the 18-24 age range) reported sharing their museum experience on social media, indicating a growing trend in social media use during the exhibitions. Another 43.6% of respondents didn’t use social media but took pictures of the artworks instead.

Benchmark analysis and desk research

At the beginning of this research project, I started by looking at some of the main competitors: the app by Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Second Canvas Prado for Prado Museum in Madrid, The Met app and Smartify (for several museums). While the focus of this apps was the multimedia guide for their collection, all of them had a certain degree of social sharing, such as enabling users to participate in a discussion about each artwork or to share the artwork on SNs like Facebook and Instagram.

At the same time, I dug deeper into the academic research on the topic: the categorisation of museum visitors, how people use multimedia guides on smartphones in museums, the institutions' take on smartphone use inside the exhibitions. In particular, I looked at a similar phenomenon, the one of Smart TV, which consists in sharing opinions about a television programme live on social media (mainly Twitter).

The resulting hypothesis I wanted to test was:

The use of social media elements within an online visitor community can increase perceived engagement of the museum visit

Collaboration with MART museum

To test my hypothesis, this time I needed to have users in a real museum envirnoment. I thus contacted my local museum MART in Rovereto, where the curators agreed to have me test my app for two weekends with my participants in exchange for sharing my resarch results with them.

The new prototype

Compared to the first prototype, the new one prototype focused mainly on the social aspect I had previously tested. At first, the users were presented with a quick skippable tutorial which was meant as an additional explanation before the beginning of the on-site testing.


The home page then contained a total of 14 artworks to choose from. When clicking on the artwork, they could both read its description (provided by MART) and leave an emoji reaction and/or comment.


Interaction wise, I exploited the scrolling for accessing the description and for the social aspect I aimed to create an experience that was similar to social media posts so that it would be more familiar and intuitive for the users.

The experiment

A user looking at the emojis during the visit
A user looking at the emojis during the visit

In order to prove my hypothesis, this time I went beyond the standard usability test. I recruited around 40 participants (smartphone users, ages 18-35) and divided them into a control group (no liked and comments) and experimental group. I had them use the app for 1h inside MART's exhibition, with the people in the experimental group having to like/comment at least 10 of the artworks.

At the end of the tour, the participants were provided with two questionnaires, the Museum Experience Scale (to measure how much they liked the visit) and the General Social Media usage Questionnaire.

The results

When analyzing the questionnaire results, the first thing I discovered is that the experience at the museum was overall quite positive:

  • Smartphone use within the exhibition did not have a negative impact on the visit. When looking at the reactions and comments, love was the most popular emoji
  • Most of the users wrote sentences with an argumentative or descriptive tones: they were trying to make sense of the artwork in front of them through the discussion within the app.

On the other hand, the navigation with the slider proved cumbersome to use for the participants in the long run, especially when looking for the last artworks in the list. This would definitively be one of the aspects to improve for a future version.