Drexel Helps Launch New Tool that Creates Free Audio Tours for Museums

CultureSpots helps museum staffs to create and manage their own mobile audio tours that patrons can use before, during and after their museum or gallery experience.
CultureSpots helps museum staffs to create and manage their own mobile audio tours that patrons can use before, during and after their museum or gallery experience.

Many modern museums now incorporate audio tours for tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices to enhance visitors’ experiences. But that technology can be expensive and complicated, especially for smaller organizations.

CultureSpots, a new mobile tool, eliminates barriers for small to mid-size museums and galleries that want to provide their visitors with a mobile audio tour experience. The free audio tour platform was created by Cliff Stevens, a local technology entrepreneur, whose goal was to make art and culture more engaging and accessible. The CultureSpots.com website will be live on Oct. 1, with an official launch event and demonstration on Oct. 22 held at Drexel University.

Neville Vakharia, assistant professor and research director of arts administration in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, whose research focuses on projects that leverage the role of technology, innovation and entrepreneurship in the arts, worked with Stevens to put together a business model and plan for CultureSpots. The two connected in early 2013 at a monthly T3 tech event at Drexel’s ExCITe Center.

CultureSpots helps museum staffs to create and manage their own mobile audio tours that patrons can use before, during and after their museum or gallery experience. The tool does not require the museum to acquire any hardware or software – the mobile Web solution is hosted online. Visitors use their own smartphones to access the mobile audio tours, so the museum or gallery does not have to purchase, administer or maintain any equipment. CultureSpots also offers the capability to create and host multilingual mobile audio tours in a wide range of languages.

“For the first time, CultureSpots makes it financially feasible for any museum or gallery to provide their visitors with high-quality mobile audio tours,” said Stevens.  “To do so with absolutely no hardware or software is a game-changer. We believe that mobile audio tours are a basic, uniquely effective and expected part of the visitor experience and that they should be an option available to and at every museum and gallery in the world. We’re working to make that possible.”

Any museum or gallery can subscribe to CultureSpots and create and host their own mobile audio tour containing up to 10 exhibits (one audio tour per exhibit) cost-free. Beyond 10 exhibits, CultureSpots offers a subscription for purchase.

“There is a critical issue of visitor engagement facing museums across the country,” said Vakharia. “Visitors to museums don’t want a static experience. They want to engage with the museum and hear its stories. They want to be able to interact through mobile technology and share their experience. If museums don’t have an easy and efficient way to engage their visitors and tell their stories, they face significant challenges to their sustainability and relevance.”

Vakharia also set up a pilot program to test the new technology at Drexel’s Leonard Pearlstein Gallery. Stevens and Vakharia worked with the Pearlstein Gallery staff to beta-test CultureSpots for the opening of an exhibit during the summer of 2013 called “Spatial Translations,” which featured a variety of abstract pieces from multiple artists. They created an audio tour for the exhibit that featured each artist describing their work and approach. They also gathered survey and usage data.

“Overwhelmingly, the pilot was successful,” said Vakharia. “Most people at the opening event were using their mobile phones to learn about the exhibit, and survey responses showed that they found the audio tour useful. We have since used the technology with several other exhibits.”

The Leonard Pearlstein Gallery was one of 15 museums and galleries selected to pilot CultureSpots. Other organizations that piloted the platform, when it was formerly known as Lokadot, included the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania's Arthur Ross Gallery, The Franklin Institute, the Library Company of Philadelphia and the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

Vakharia also connected Stevens with Drexel’s graduate-level “Audience Development” course, which requires students to work with arts, cultural and creative sector organizations to develop strategic marketing plans. The class used CultureSpots as one of their experiential learning opportunities. A group of four graduate students put together a strategic marketing plan for the organization, including the upcoming launch event.

Stevens ended up hiring arts administration graduate students Christina Wallace and Marnie Lersch from that course to continue to work with him and implement the launch event and other marketing efforts. Their work has involved thorough research of museums and galleries located in the greater Philadelphia region that would most benefit from a low-cost, multilingual, multi-platform audio tour. Their research included historical and visual arts organizations and university galleries with annual budgets less than $1 million.

“The intensive collaboration we launched last year with Drexel University Professor Neville Vakharia and his colleagues and students in the Westphal College’s graduate arts administration program continues to this day, and will into the foreseeable future,” said Stevens. “Through their boundless hands-on contributions, judicious guidance and community connectedness, we’ve finally been able to construct a solid, comprehensive business plan and a whole host of business development activities and initiatives that will help ensure our sustainable success.”

A launch event for CultureSpots will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 22 from 9 – 11 a.m. in the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery (3401 Filbert Street, URBN Annex). Refreshments will be provided. RSVP here.

At the event, Vakharia will share preliminary research findings on the reach and scope of museums and historic sites in the region as part of his work with the Institute of Museum and Library Science. Sara B. Stewart, gallery coordinator of the Arthur Ross Gallery of the University of Pennsylvania, will speak about her experience with CultureSpots. Stevens will then speak about the product’s capabilities and allow attendees to participate in a live demonstration of the Pearlstein Gallery's CultureSpots audio tour created by the gallery for their current exhibition of works by Philadelphia artist Bill Walton. A question-and-answer session will follow.