Cell Phone Tours: The Elephant Shrew's Voicemail

Zoo call-in

The National Zoo encourages visitors to call-in with their cell phone to hear more information on an animal exhibits like this one on the giant elephant shrew. /Ryan Kellett hide caption

itoggle caption /Ryan Kellett

When I was little, I went to the San Francisco Zoo and proudly waved around my animal Zoo Key, which "unlocked" audio stories at locations around the Zoo. You insert the plastic key into the box and an audio story about the animal exhibit plays on nearby speakers. The key was a low-tech yet fun solution for kids in comparison to the awkwardly-sized, telephone-esque handsets commonly seen at museums.

This weekend, I visited the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington D.C. to find neither old-school animal keys nor museum handsets. Instead, I found a cell phone tour.

Cell phone tours require you to dial-in to a local telephone number and then navigate a self-guided tour as you would navigate voicemail. You punch in the exhibit number and a recording about the animal plays for you. Need the recording in Spanish? Just enter the alternate exhibit code. One recording even prompted me to press star for a text-messaged photo of the animal. Another prompt asked me to press "17#" to learn more about the Zoo's "enrichment program," code for a call to donate money.

Cell phone tours may just be making it mainstream, but the reasoning behind the shift in audio tours remains the same. In a 2007 paper, Kate Haley Goldman writes,

Personal technology devices (PDAs, iPods, cell phones/smart phones) solve several problems by shifting the burden of maintenance to the user and eliminating distribution and collection of museum-loaned devices.

Plus, the tours can be promoted as "free," even though there may be costs to the users from the minutes used on a cellphone plan. Audio tour providers such as Museum 411 say "Most plans are free for evenings and weekends when the majority of museum visits take place."

The future of audio tours might be more interactive than a standard cellphone. Jessica LoMonaco writes about the upcoming opening of the Keeping History Center at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which will use Apple iPod Touch devices:

We're going to have 'zones' of information centering around some pillars and other areas in the room so as you reach a station on a pillar, the iTouch will open new information and give you new options and will start testimony.

It's all very cool, but is it just a fad? Loic Talon, a museum designer and researcher, explains:

I know that 'sexy' technologies like multimedia tours, and IPodTouches/IPhones currently act as deal clinchers, but like an I-Max, after a couple of experiences, I'm sure the novelty will wear off. And then what? Find a new sexy technology in which to package the audio guide? Or give visitors the information that will help them see beyond the technology, and so make an informed decision on whether its offering the type of experience they'll enjoy?

For the curious, here are some major attractions that use cell phone tours in some way. Try giving them a call, even if you're not on site.

  • Washington D.C.
  • Smithsonian National Zoo:(202) 747-3408
  • Library of Congress: (202) 595-1854
  • Smithsonian Air and Space Museum: (202) 747-3405
  • Minneapolis, MN
  • Walker Art Center: (612) 374-8200
  • San Francisco, CA
  • SF Museum of Modern Art: (415) 294-3609
  • California Academy of Sciences: (415) 294-3602
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Getty Research Institute: (310) 499-9207
  • Japanese American National Museum: (213) 455-2924
  • New York, NY
  • Whitney Museum of Art: (347) 487-3805
  • Museum of Modern Art NY: (646) 205-7614

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