Mobile Modalities: Place-Based and Computer-In-My-Pocket Apps

Earlier this year the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) debuted our first two mobile apps. Changing America: To Be Free is a digital component to the exhibition Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963 presented by the National Museum of African American History and Culture in collaboration with the National Museum of American History. Through To Be Free, users go beyond the well-known stories of Emancipation and gain insight into this profound moment by reading personal responses to the Emancipation Proclamation across the north, south and border states from men, women and children.

Garland White

Our other new app, See NMAAHC, allows users to view the upcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture building before it opens in 2015. While on the National Mall in Washington D.C., users can view a model of the NMAAHC building at the construction site. Outside of Washington, D.C., users can see a 360-degree view from iconic locations on the National Mall with a rendering of the museum building.


Though released close together, these two mobile projects are about as different as can be. They serve different needs and are used and targeted to different audiences. They also employ two very different modalities of using mobile technology, which I’m going to call “place-based” and “computer‐in‐my-pocket.” See NMAAHC embodies the “place‐based” potential of mobile technology by requiring the user to be in a specific location for full functionality. It relies upon GPS signals and the gyroscope in your phone in order to give you the best experience.

To Be Free, on the other hand, takes advantage of mobile technology in a very different way-‐as a handheld computer that a growing majority of people have and use on a daily basis. Where you’re using it doesn’t matter. In fact, when it works well this app actually disassociates the user with their location in order to make an empathetic connection with someone who lived in a different place and time.

I’ve read and participated in many discussions about the increased use of “place-based” mobile, and the need to move “computer-in-my-pocket” mobile applications back to the web. The reasoned argument is that we can optimize use of our creative digital projects over a variety of platforms by using responsive design, HTML5 and other technologies. Since the two NMAAHC projects have been released, I’ve been contemplating our decision to use a mobile platform for both. On the one hand, See NMAAHC wouldn’t be able to fully exist on a desktop computer; its functionality is inherently tied to the mode of delivery. But is there still a place for “computer-in-my-pocket” mobile projects like To Be Free?

A lot of factors influence the selection of a platform for a project, and the ultimate decision isn’t always driven purely by audience needs. In the case of To Be Free, the lack of reliable Wi-­‐Fi in our gallery space and the ease of maintaining iPads as kiosks within our IT infrastructure drove our decision. Unfortunately, the cost of converting a mobile app to a web platform limited our options. While widest distribution should always be a goal, practical considerations play a role too. Understanding not just the uses but also the relationships users have with different platforms is key to making an informed decision when resources are limited.

To Be Free Cart

As I read reviews and watch people using To Be Free, my thoughts keep returning to the ways in which mobile phones and tablets host the application. These devices are not just a blank slate, but a venue that comes with its own associations, baggage and patterns of use.

There is an intimacy to the ways in which we use our handheld devices. We keep them in our bags, purses and pockets. We carry them with us and rely upon them in moments of uncertainty. They give us directions, confirm appointments and store our Candy Crush Saga progress. We use them to connect with people and share our lives, our joys and our heartbreaks. Does this platform, then, hold any special resonance when we use it to understand the lives, joys and sorrows of people who lived in the past?

Woman on Phone

Do you think the level of intimacy we have with our mobile devices can increase the intimacy of an interpretive experience like To Be Free? Surely more research is needed, but I suggest that the “computer-in-my-pocket” modality can enhance the experience of some mobile projects. Of course, there are many other factors such as accessibility, publicity, download time, etc. that play into the ultimate emotional reception of an app. Given the need for widest distribution of museum experiences and the drive to scale our projects, do you think there is still a place for “computer-in‐my-pocket” mobile experiences?

Download To Be Free

Download See NMAAHC

Marcella L. Florence is the Digital Engagement Manager at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).  Prior to her tenure at NMAAHC, she taught art history in physical and virtual classrooms, managed information technology divisions, and developed interactive websites and new media initiatives.  Marcella is currently curating digital learning spaces and managing the digital presence for NMAAHC.  She has an M.A. from George Mason University in art history.

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