The charm of small museums is a visitor's ability to apprehend a total, if limited, picture of, say the history of dolls, or the life of the town of Brownsville. The charm of large museums is in the branching multiplicity of their offerings, the ability to enter a metropolis of knowledge. The risk in the latter environment, however, is the visitor walking out having had an Experience but without having gained much understanding.

One of the world's largest museums, the American Museum of Natural History, has introduced Explorer, an iPhone app that uses augmented reality to give its visitors more control of their experience.

Explorer is offered as an alternative to audio tours, which some have found limiting. If you've found them useful, though, the app allows you to engage in what the museum calls a "pre-loaded tour" But there are many more options that traditional single-media tours can't offer.

Bookmark Reality

Among the most fascinating to me is the ability to "bookmark" not a page but an experience. Say you're traveling through the Silk Road exhibit and encounter mention of the Taklamakan Desert. You want to read more about this forbidding place but not on the fly, as it would turn you off your course. Bookmark it and the museum sends you a link to information on the desert which you can read at your leisure.

Another lovely idea is the ability, while walking through the collection, to access extensive digital information about an item in the collection. You come across the museum's gorgeous opal collection and want to know more about the forces that produce the gems and the differences in types. Access that information through the app.

Additional Features

  • Personal GPS: Find your current location within the Museum and navigate using the digital floor plan

  • Turn-by-turn directions: Get to your next exhibit, a café, or anywhere else in the Museum using the quickest route possible

  • Custom tours: Plan your own tour before you arrive or on the spot. Explorer comes pre-loaded with over 100 Museum exhibits for you to choose from

  • Fossil treasure hunt: Use clues to find specimens and exhibits in the Museum's fossil halls

  • Sharing: Share an interesting exhibit through email, Facebook, or Twitter

A Window or a Screen?

Large institutions are rarely bellwethers, even well-regarded ones like the AMNH. Their power is proof of concept on a large scale. Down the road, will even small museums find a way to use augmented reality to extend their appeal and make limited exhibits more robust? Or will augmented reality in such an environment create even more mediation between the exhibits and the visitors than they already get with signage, video displays, audio tours, their own cameras and video recorders, not to mention the ubiquitous mobile phone?

I think the latter is a distinct possibility for those who seek a museum environment to directly engage. Perhaps museums might consider a day completely free of any reality requiring a transistor.