The Textile Museum of Canada (TMC) is a public art museum nestled in the heart of Toronto with an international collection of textiles including traditional fabrics, garments, carpets and related artefacts, as well as a dynamic contemporary art program. TMC won the Best Small Museum Project for their app TXTilecity in the Best of the Web awards at the Museums and the Web conference this year. I decided that I wanted to find out how the museum made an awesome app so I approached Shauna McCabe, Executive Director of the Textile Museum of Canada, and she kindly answered my questions.
Big Idea First
Shauna explainsIt all started with a big idea. It did not start with an app (yep you’ve heard this before). When Shauna joined the TMC in 2010 as the Executive Director she began with a big idea and broader vision that would guide all activities – to show the relevance of the museum to the urban environment and communities it resides in.
I believe museums need to think beyond programs within their spaces. If we argue “culture matters” as we do in the cultural and heritage sector, museums need to make the case for that social impact daily in people’s lives. Creating a rich and agile mobile platform that operates in public space, extending the museum beyond our walls, made so much sense. The Textile Museum of Canada is a social space, and one that is not limited to our built architecture.
Once the big idea was established it became clear that an app would be the best way to achieve the strategic goal. When toying with the idea of creating an app Shauna and her team asked themselves some questions.
What could it contribute? was the main question. Which means knowing the field and precedents as well as complementary projects in terms of mobile, virtual or archival initiatives – local to international. As well, TXTilecity ‘s “DNA” emerged not simply from existing mobile projects or museum technologies, rather it was inspired by innovation in art, fiction, film, performance, and history, for example.
What we wanted to do was to think about the museum and what it does in a new way, enriching people’s understanding of the connection between textiles and their surroundings. And while educational tools are virtually infinite, the particular combination of mobile, interactive, and narrative dimensions at the heart of TXTilecity really allowed us to ‘augment reality’ – to take what is intangible and make it real by inscribing an archive of stories into everyday life. From the responses TXTilecity has received, we know that has been successful.
An app was chosen as a method of delivering the content because of what it can do that other mediums can’t. In addition, there are strong theoretical underpinnings at play in how the content is presented.
Phenomenology, psychogeography, narrative inquiry are all at play, but I think TXTilecity ultimately avoids that risk of “spectacular boredom”…because it is also investigative, allowing each user to encounter a hidden history of the city.
One of the comments on my blog post asking if museum apps are boring defends boring apps saying some museums can’t afford to make interesting apps. So how did the TMC afford it?
If its a strategic initiative, you identify strategic investment to support that. We secured funding for the website/mobile app in the first run of a program called the Canada Interactive Fund of the Department of Canadian Heritage (no longer active) that evolved from the Canada Culture Online Program, allowing us to build both web and app platforms.
As the project developed, the significance of TXTilecity in building knowledge became clear and we then secured support for three years of TXTilecity educational programs – specifically access to tours for schools in priority neighbourhoods facilitated by trained TXTilecity guides with museum tablets – from the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
With programs like the Canada Interactive Fund, there is no funding beyond the year investment is received. I have no doubt however that we will find means to evolve TXTilecity when the right opportunity arises.
Both form and content play a role in creating awesome vs boring apps. The TMC approached making TXTilecity as a partnership based on shared vision as opposed to simply tech development.
TXTilecity was produced by the Textile Museum of Canada in partnership with two artist collectives - Year Zero One and [murmur] – both were fundamentally key to content and the overall architecture of the platforms.
In producing the project, the TMC aimed to ensure maximum access to a valuable archive of intangible cultural heritage. The TMC’s creative partners were selected because they are leaders in their approach to creative research and their approaches ensured “low tech” to “high tech” interactivity. Audio content produced by [murmur] can be accessed by cellphones, simply by calling the numbers identified on TXTilecity signage on city streets. The website and the downloadable apps for smart phones developed by Year Zero One integrate both the audio as well as rich media content in the form of short documentaries created by YZO, all pushed to users’ devices as they walk through the city.
Like all museum work it is important to evaluate what we do. The TMC has been looking at the usage of the app to understand how it is doing.
We are using analytics and can see how many hits the website received, how many videos are viewed in full. For example, metrics for the TXTilecity website show over 20,000 hits in its first year, from around the world although the majority of users were based in Canada. TXTilecity videos were fully viewed approximately 10,000 times representing 55,000 total minutes of content watched. The most watched video – that featuring the history and politics of the Hudson’s Bay Blanket – was viewed 2000 times. Among our other top stories are those related to the history of Eaton’s Department Store and Factory, the Great Fire of 1904, Club Monaco’s founder Joe Mimran, and the historic Balfour Building. Among mobile users, 87% accessed through Apple IOS, compared to 10% for Android and 3% for Blackberry systems, indicating the iPhone and iPad have been the preferred devices for encountering TXTilecity.
So what advice would the TMC give other small museums looking to create a new app that is anything but boring?
The responsiveness of any museum project – whether an app, exhibition, program – is ultimately integral to its relevance as well as its impact. Creating an app should be undertaken to respond to a specific challenge, where the app is the ideal and perfect choice. If not, the result is redundancy. A solid investment of time is required to develop the concept and refine that vision, then the concrete decisions like what platform, how it will work, what it will look like, will follow from that. The process has been quite seamless for the Textile Museum of Canada and TXTilecity – with the outcomes clearly following from objectives.