Phones in Museums

So, is it just me, but when was the last time you took a NO CELL PHONES ALLOWED sign seriously? I mean, that just means you put it in your pocket on silent, right? Society’s relationship with phones has been drastically changing as our phones slowly replace all of our other material trappings via the increase in their capabilities. Not only is there a struggle between the real and the virtual, but also between different generations who have different ideals about how and how often technology should be utilized. Institutions such as museums have found themselves in the midst of these debates for several years now.

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I recently found a fascinating article written by Sophie Gilbert for The Atlantic titled Please Turn on your Phone in the Museum. Gilbert does an amazing job of outlining the revolutionary, and not so revolutionary ways in which museums have been countering this subject matter. Her ultimate points were that art will adapt to the viewer, and that having a museum in your pocket will benefit yourself and the museum. Tremendous points, these are; with Gilbert, I agree (as Yoda would say).

I would like to come at this from a less holistically millennial viewpoint (which I often write from) and a more critical overarching view: what makes an engaging museum? I initially turned to some oldies but goodies on my bookshelf when thinking about this post. Graham Black stated that, “The challenge that museums have… [is] breaking through that screen and persuading people to notice the existence of museums.” When I read this, it sounds like a personal challenge to me! Let’s get out and do this! But like I have mentioned in other blog posts regarding photography in museums, phones create issues- copyright, flash damaging objects, museum loan agreements, the sanctity of the space, respect for content, and the element of surprise, all of which play into this discussion. There are two sides to every coin, sometimes even three! You know what I mean…

Reducing Phone Use

Let’s not pretend that phones play no part, because we all know the reason most young people go to museums now is because of something they saw on their phone. But, in this story, there is still a desire to see it in person, to physically engage. So how can we first lower phone usage in museums- we will again return to the concept of what is an an engaging museum? Do you know what I do with my phone when I am physically engaged with both hands? It goes in my pocket- what a delightful concept! This is one of the many reasons why I have such an affinity for the concept of touch in museums- it engages on such an engrossing level, that phones become a secondary to a touchstone to what is actually in the room that can provide a teaching moment. Let’s engage the visitor, let’s inspire them and keep them enthralled… at least for a few minutes!We are about more than just visual culture, so let us engage with something that is not just visual- schools do not teach with this outdated methodology anymore, so why should museums?


Millennials are talking more and more about going ‘tech free’ for a few hours out of the day- why not make those hours at a museum? I would love to go on a ‘tech free tour’, where I put my phone in a basket and enjoy a tour where I have to listen and watch, not document. Let’s face it, we are often not even documenting for ourselves on Snapchat anymore, but for others! How far we have come.

Appropriate Phone Use

The second one attempts to write an up to date work on technology, it is out of date. We can speculate with Gilbert on future apps and ideas that will rise and fall with the tides of the future, but these too are doomed. Returning to the holistic millennial viewpoint though, we can say that phones are indeed here to stay, and that museums are currently and will plan to take advantage of this fact. Having a designated app, a game, a data base, a virtual tour, this offers a catered use for the visitors phone that the museum itself has direct influence over by offering a designated activity. Major perk.

The idea of social networking for free museum publicity is so heavily discussed, I do not feel the need to go over it here in detail. But like we see our phones as being used for more than just social networking, museums should also incorporate this multidisciplinary viewpoint when considering how visitors use phones in museums.

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The overarching issue of phones in museums is not as simple as letting them into museums or not- it is about the context, and what people are doing with these phones. Okay, so no I do not expect gallery attendants to be a police force in regards to phones. In fact, I strongly discourage this, as I have encountered aggressive scolding and stalking during museum visits just for having my phone and texting in an exhibition that does not allow photography. Just like we are all negotiating how advancing technology fits into our daily lives, we also need to define and make a conscious effort to do that same with phones in museums. There is a time and place for a selfie, and a time and place for retrospective thought and consideration of the past.


So what about those special exhibitions where there is no way around the issue- phones are just a hard and fast no go? Language is a huge key here. Instead of NO PHONES ALLOWED, how about, Please respect the sanctity of our exhibition and refrain from using pones. Most millennials fixated on their screens understand the difference between right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. And lets face it, there will always be those people who escaped these early life lessons. Some museum visitors will violate the rules multiple times even after being spoken with, but not every visitor is like that. Gallery attendants and visitors alike need to be more understanding of each other, especially since they are both supposed to be where they are- both of their own free will. So if exceptions need to be made, let us do so in good faith of one another.

As I draw this to a close, I wanted to mention that I believe a virtual museum on a phone should not be a suitable substitute for what is actually in the room. Museums still need to provide engaging exhibits that physically exist and will work in conjunction with a virtual tech element. This should not be an exception. Phones are a way to ‘get the people there’ as my husband would say, but we need to give visitors a tangible reason to want to stay. To come back. To photograph, and to remember. Let us help people get in touch with the past, the present, and the future for cryin’ out loud!


In Conclusion

I love how Gilbert asks us to please turn on our phones, because it is unexpected. Why cannot museums be unexpected? We should be surprising visitors on so many levels, and we are missing the mark here. They should be surprised at what they learn, by what they see, by how much fun they have, by how little they need to use their phone, an by what cool things they can use their phone for. Phones are not the biggest enemy of museums any more than they are of society’s future- museums are museums biggest enemy! Or Khan from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan- he was also a pretty bad guy.


Peace and long life.



Black, Graham. (2005). The Engaging Museum: Developing Museums for Visitor Involvement. London: Routledge.

Gilbert, S. (2016). Please turn on your phone in the museum. The Atlantic, [online] October Issue. Available at: [Accessed on 14/9/2017].

Howells, R. and Negreiros, J. (2012). Visual Culture. Cambridge: Polity Press.


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