New mobile technology is helping guide one museum’s patrons through history.

The Brooklyn Museum’s recently launched Ask app puts an art historian in a visitor’s pocket. The free Ask app allows visitors to ask questions or chat about the art they are viewing with the museum’s audience engagement staff, a team of six art historians, researchers and educators. The Android app launched this week. The iOS version soft launched in spring 2015. The museum only just recently began marketing the app..

The 560,000-square-foot museum has 150 beacons throughout it, which is how the museum staff knows which gallery the visitor is in. Beacons are small wireless transmitters that can sense a smartphone’s location via Bluetooth low energy.

“When a visitor sends a message via the app, the nearest beacon fires and the team’s dashboard— which is the interface they use to answer incoming questions—populates with the works of art associated with that beacon,” says Sara Devine, manager of audience engagement and interpretive materials at the Brooklyn Museum.

Since the museum released the iPhone version of Ask, visitors have asked about 4,000 questions, says Shelley Bernstein, vice director of digital engagement and technology at the Brooklyn Museum. On average, visitors send 13 messages within a single conversation and 20% of Ask app users ask questions in six galleries or more, Bernstein says. The museum’s audience engagement staff answers a question in 45 seconds on average, Devine says.


“Visitor-driven conversation is working to deliver a better visitor experience overall and will continue to in the years to come,” Bernstein says.

The museum’s iOS app has more than 9,700 downloads, and about 1% of visitors to the museum use the app, Devine says. The museum considers this a healthy pick up rate considering it did not market it, she says.

Here is an example of a real conversation between a visitor and staff member in the Ask app.
Why do all these old portraits feature guys posing with their hands in their shirts?

The hand-in-the-waistcoat pose was actually very popular in 18th/19th century painting for many reasons. It was associated with Napoleon because he was often shown in that pose so some colonial American figures wanted to be associated with that sort of power as they were building the American nation. The pose was thought to look “stately” and refined so many American painters and sitters copied it.
As the mobile app knows where the visitor is, the museum’s audience engagement staff can also initiate a conversation. Here is an example of a real interaction:


Hi there, thank you for using our app. I see that you are looking at the “Christ Child with Passion Symbols.” What do you think about it?

It’s very striking in a way that it stands out from the other works on this wall. I can’t say why. In painting religious icons, did artists generally use the faces of their models or were they more inclined to base faces on previously established works?

Great question! Artists would often paint the faces based on previously established works. If you look at the Christ Child’s face you will notice the blush cheeks, fair skin, and pink lips. These were common characteristics used for painting Christ as an infant/child.

The museum also uses the Ask app
to gather feedback. After each shift, the audience engagement team records the questions and answers and hands them over to the museum’s curators, Devine says.


“Ask uses a very simple mechanism of asking a question and leveraging engagement, so we can learn more about how visitors are experiencing the museum,” Bernstein says. “This is helping our curators see what’s working and where we could be making refinements for better clarity.”

The feedback has helped inform decisions about the museum’s installations and exhibition design, Devine says. For example, the museum’s Egyptian art curator Ed Bleigberg noticed a large number of questions coming in via the app about the brightly painted celling in the Egypt Reborn gallery. However, the ceiling was just an interior design element and not a work of art in the collection, and Bleiberg decided to eliminate it from the area.

“It was distracting people, who were spending precious attention and time looking at a work of fiction, not a work of art,” Devine says. “So as part of the reinstallation of that space, the ceiling was painted over we hope, therefore, to redirect attention to the stellar collection.”

The museum does not offer an audio guide and the app is not meant to replace a guided tour, Devine says.


The museum built the iOS app in-house over the course of the year. Mobile app developers HappyFunCorp built the Android version. The app is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies through its Bloomberg Connects program, which aims to help cultural institutions around the world innovate and engage audiences through digital platforms. The museum would not disclose the cost of the app.