Research Summary

Connecting with New Audiences: Exploring the Impact of Mobile Communication Devices on the Experiences of Young Adults in Museums

The Directed Use of Personal Mobile Communication Devices in Museums

Visitor Studies

Digital technologies are becoming increasingly common in museums: as part of the interpretive signage, included in the exhibitions, and brought in by visitors themselves. However, many museums oppose or discourage the use of personal mobile communication devices (MCDs), like cell phones or smartphones, concerned that such devices distract visitors from the museum experience.

Guided by mindfulness theory—which offers a framework for exploring attention and engagement in informal learning contexts—researchers in this study set out to investigate the potential impacts of MCDs on visitor attentiveness in museums. The authors describe mindfulness as bringing one’s complete attention to the present moment and immediate surroundings. Through mindfulness, they hypothesize, visitors can develop a greater sensitivity to the environment, are more open to new information, are more perceptive, and have a greater sense of awareness.

Participants in this study included 58 young adults who engaged with and responded to a museum exhibition with and without MCDs, and with and without guidance on how to use their MCDs. The researchers randomly divided the 58 participants into three groups: (1) a control group with MCDs and no instructions; (2) a group who surrendered their MCDs on entry (“no-MCD group”); and (3) a group with MCDs who were instructed on how to use those devices (including taking photographs), with the intended purpose of describing the exhibition to their social networks (“directed-MCD group”). All participants recorded the total time they spent at the exhibition and completed a questionnaire upon exiting.

Researchers supplemented the questionnaire data with onsite observations and post-visit discussions. The survey questions, which were open- and closed-ended, focused on attention paid to the exhibits (measured by overall visit duration and at which exhibits visitors spent time); exhibition evaluations; levels of mindfulness; perceived learning; and satisfaction with the overall exhibition experience. The survey also assessed previous experiences at the study site and other museums; patterns of usual social media access and use; and affective responses to the exhibition. Four additional questions were added for the no-MCD group to capture their responses to not having their MCDs, while the control group and directed-MCD groups were asked to provide details of the photographs 29 they took at the exhibition. The researchers analyzed the data to see how the three groups differed, including qualitatively coding the open-ended survey items.

The researchers found differences in patterns of attention between the three groups. The directed-MCD group spent the longest time in the exhibition space; the control and the no-MCD groups spent similar amounts of time in the exhibition space. The no-MCD group was more likely to stop at exhibits with audiovisual elements. The control group, without direction, was primarily attracted to the interactive game exhibit, while the directed-MCD group tended to stop at text-heavy exhibits. The groups also differed in relation to mindfulness and perceived learning. The directed-MCD group had the highest scores on mindfulness and perceived learning, while the no-MCD group had the lowest scores. Visitors who were frequent users of social media were also significantly more likely to report perceived learning than those who were not.

Findings indicated that participants in the directed-MCD group took more and different photographs of the exhibitions than those in the control group did. Participants in the directed-MCD group primarily took photographs featuring specific exhibition sections or pieces of text they thought were important for communicating key messages to their peers. The control group, without directions, mostly took photographs of items they found interesting or fun rather than photographs in service of recalling specific information.

Overall, the results indicated that using or not using MCDs, as well as guidance on how to use the devices, impacted engagement with and responses to the exhibition. The no-MCD group paid less attention to the exhibition and were less likely to learn new things. And the control group, which engaged with the exhibition without instruction on how to use their MCDs, did so in a more superficial way. The directed-MCD group was able to use their devices to mindfully connect with the exhibits and create meaning for both personal learning and social sharing. The researchers concluded that providing young-adult visitors with guidance on how to use their personal MCDs at the start of a museum visit may give greater control and, in the process, enhance their experiences.

The Bottom Line

Teens and young adults are avid users of mobile communication devices (MCDs) in a variety of contexts. Informal learning environments, such as museums, which leverage mobile device technologies and practices, are therefore well-positioned to attract young adults. Providing instructions on how to use personal MCDs to engage with exhibitions, including through activities such as taking and sharing photographs, may give young-adult visitors greater control over their experiences and facilitate mindfulness; in the process, such visitors may experience more positive outcomes. Instructions could include inviting young adults, at the start of their visit, to share their museum experiences, thoughts, and images on social media, for example. This approach may also benefit other museum visitors. For museums and other informal learning environments, directing the use of personal MCDs requires developing strategies and exhibitions with these devices in mind.