iBeacons give visitors to the Palmer Museum of Art a customized experience

Katie Jacobs
October 24, 2014

Walking into Penn State’s Palmer Museum of Art, the air is cool and quiet as you move through the glass doors into the first-floor galleries. Here, richly colored Baroque paintings line the walls before giving way to a room of pristine-looking ceramics, some dating back thousands of years. Up the stairs are more contemporary pieces, along with the latest special exhibitions.

Soon, there will be new, high-tech additions to the Palmer Museum’s galleries — small electronic devices that will be stuck to walls behind paintings, hidden under shelves or concealed in corners. You won’t be able to see them, but your mobile devices will.

The devices ares iBeacons, small transmitters created by Apple that communicate with nearby smartphones. If a visitor has the correct mobile app installed, content will be automatically sent to the phone with more information about the nearby artwork.

The system works similarly to a GPS, but is much more accurate.

“GPS is very useful, but it doesn’t work indoors,” says Chris Millet, assistant director of Education Technology Services. “We can decide at exactly which point in the exhibit the app will pick up the signal for each iBeacon. It’s very precise.”

After successfully piloting the iBeacons this summer in the “Window on the West” exhibition, Dana Carlisle Kletchka, curator of education at the Palmer Museum, is now in the process of writing content for new iBeacons that will be installed throughout most of the museum’s galleries. She hopes the iBeacons will allow visitors to better understand the way the museum is organized and have more context about both the special exhibitions and the permanent collections.

“Sometimes I’ll lead tours with visitors and focus on the works of art I think are particularly fascinating,” says Kletchka. “I thought it would be wonderful if everyone could have that experience here — they can learn more about the objects they are interested in on their own terms.”

Once the iBeacons are installed, visitors will be prompted at the museum entrance to download the campus-wide app, which works with the iBeacons and helps visitors explore the galleries.

When visitors approach an iBeacon, they may not know it until their smartphones start coming alive. If the visitor comes to the Pincus Gallery of Contemporary Art, for example, the phone will pick up the signal sent by the iBeacon and the app will begin playing related content.

Visitors can experience the content in different ways. By placing your phone in your pocket and using headphones, you’ll hear music related to the galleries as well as a narration of the text. Watch your phone’s screen instead, and you’ll  be able to see related images and read the text instead of listen.

“It’s like a docent is guiding you, but you can see what you want to see and go at your own pace,” says Kletchka. “Also, some people are just more comfortable with technology or exploring the museum alone instead of in a group. With iBeacons, you are the curator of your own experience.”

The iBeacons are also easy to install, and Kletchka can adhere them to whichever galleries she wants to highlight. The devices are wireless and run off a battery, so they’re ready to transmit their signals almost immediately. The hard part is developing the related app and creating the content.

Because iBeacons are relatively new technology, Millet had to create an app from scratch, in addition to all the content that would be displayed once the app was running and picking up signals.

“This technology really captured my attention,” says Millet. “But since it’s so new, it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, if you run into a snag, there’s no one to help you out. But we’re one of the first institutions to do this, so it’s good to break new ground.”

The app works with a content management system that allows content to be created and assigned to each iBeacon. The app isn’t limited to the Palmer Museum — if another facility on campus wants to install their own system of iBeacons, the person responsible for the facility will be able to create and manage their own content and visitor experience.

“We’re hoping to use iBeacons across the University, for example, in the classroom,” says Millet. “Beacons could be set up to alert students to new resources or facilitate an in-class group project.”

Millet also says he’s already been contacted by people from museums and higher educations around the world wanting to use the innovative technology at their own institutions. But for now, they’re safe and sound in the quiet galleries of the Palmer Museum.

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit http://news.it.psu.edu.

  • Close-up of iBeacon

    Close-up of an iBeacon

    IMAGE: Tom Flach
  • Screen shot of the Penn State Places app

    Screen shot of the Penn State Places app

    IMAGE: Tom Flach
(1 of 2)

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 24, 2014