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What Can Near-Field Communications Do For Museums?

In museums today, there are all sorts of technologies that are able to merge the real-world experience of visitors with enhanced information from the virtual world. Systems like QR codes and Augmented Reality where visitors can access additional content in the virtual realm via their smart device are now not uncommon in many of the world’s leading museums.

Near-Field Communication is another technology that is worth talking about from a visitor perspective.

What is NFC?

When data passes back and forth wirelessly, there are a number of different protocols that could be used. Some like WIFI or Bluetooth are well known. NFC is another form of this technology which was developed from radio-frequency identification, a microchip identification system which is used in retail for scanning items. The technology relies on relatively modest electro-magnetic fields which can be detected only when the scanning equipment is close to the item which has the chip within it.

near field communication museums

Nokia, Phillips and Sony led the way with the development of NFC, installing early versions of it on their old mobile handsets. These days, nearly all of the big smartphone manufacturers offer NFC capability with their products. Around five years ago, something akin to a two-factor identification system was developed for NFC to allow for greater security. This meant that commercial applications could be developed using it. Since then, NFC has started to be used for tap and pay transactions which have allowed users to make payments directly from their phone, either from their bank account, their virtual wallet or from their PayPal account.

Near-Field Communications Today

These days, NFC uses a set of different short-range wireless systems depending on the exact version that is installed on the particular equipment being used. It functions on a frequency of 13.56 MHz which means that it will only work when the devices concerned are within about 10 centimetres of one another. The data communications that occur will only work when the devices are close enough and as soon as they move out of range, then the data flow will stop. In terms of data flow rates, anything from 106 to 424 kilobytes per second is possible. Passive targets, such as tags and key fobs can be used with NFC. However, peer-to-peer NFC is also common nowadays, where both devices talking to one another are powered. A typical example of this would be a payment terminal and smartphone, of course.

As mentioned, NFC has a well-established application as a tap and go payment system today. It is also used as an alternative to Bluetooth, that is for two devices to share information with one another, such as sending contact information from one phone to another. It can also be used for certain social media applications and for multiplayer gaming when players are close enough to one another. In addition, so-called NFC tags, which are sometimes nothing more than stickers, can be used to create an interaction with an NFC-enabled device via an app. A tag could launch an app, alter the device’s settings, or produce text. Anyone can produce apps for such tags independent of the device’s manufacturer. It is in this regard that NFC starts to be of interest to museum professionals.

NFC and Museums

Because NFC is more convenient to use than scanning a QR code or making a Bluetooth pairing, it is ideal for applications in public spaces, such as museums. Here visitors can tap their smart device close to the NRC tag or chip to access virtual content. This could be placed on a sign next to an exhibit or even put within the artefact itself, so long as it is robust enough. When this is done, it is open to the imagination of the museum concerned as to what might follow.

mobile phone nfc

In a gallery, NFC could offer more information about the work of art a visitor is looking at. You could use it to produce a biography of the artist or to provide additional context for the piece, such as more historical information. There again, you could use NFC to show visitors the location of other works by the same artist within your collection. However, it is important to note that providing text information is only one way that museums can take advantage of NFC. It is just as likely that a museum might choose to provide a video or audio when an NFC chip and a phone are brought together, for instance.

In fact, many museums provide multi-lingual audio guides for visitors and NFC can also be used to prompt audio playback when a smart device is tapped near to an NFC tag. Crucially, all of this can also be linked to social media which means that the institution’s online presence is raised every time a user taps onto an NFC experience. Let’s look at a few examples so that you get a clearer idea of how some museums are already exploiting this enabling technology.

The Museum of London and NFC

As an institution that is well-known for its uptake of the latest technologies, it should come as no surprise that the Museum of London has deployed NFC systems throughout its exhibitions. What may not be so universally appreciated is just how many aspects of the museum’s activities are now NFC-enabled, however. Firstly, the Museum of London has gone about deploying NFC technology in the ways outlined above, that is to enhance the visitor experience with respect to particular exhibits. Anyone with an NFC-enabled smart device who attends the museum can access more information about the Lord Mayor’s Coach and some of the medieval jewellery on display there. Among the other exhibits which have NFC technology dedicated to them is a painting of the notorious gangster Ronnie Kray.

According to Vicky Lee, the Museum of London’s marketing manager, NFC tags have been rolled-out throughout both the museum’s venues, allowing visitors to delve deeper into London’s story in what she refers to as, “an immediate and engaging way.” Lee said that the powers-that-be at the museum recognised how NFC technology had the potential to change how the institution interacted with its visitors whether they were present or not. As such, NFC technology has not been just deployed in the museum merely to augment the information about the various exhibits the establishment has as a part of its permanent display. It is also there to help the public to keep in touch with the museum online.

In fact, the technology has allowed the public to follow, like and even check-in at the museum via social media after they have tapped in via NFC. This means that they can continue to experience the museum’s posts on Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare without even being present, boosting the social media marketing strategy of the museum by making the process of online following so simple and without any annoying downloads or requirement to log-on.

Furthermore, the Museum of London – which opted to deploy Nokia’s NFC system, known as NFC Hub – also uses the technology for commercial purposes at its two sites in the capital. It is possible for visitors to access vouchers for the establishment’s cafés, for example, by simply tapping in. The same goes for the museum’s shops, whether they are in Docklands or the main site in the square mile of London. The process of booking tickets for the museum’s temporary exhibitions is also made easier because tapping into an NFC tag takes visitors to the booking portal immediately. The museum’s ‘Soundtrack to London’ can also be downloaded without typing in any information thanks to the NFC Hub that is in use, too. Finally, membership of the museum’s friends scheme has received a boost because the wireless technology has been deployed to make it child’s play for people to join it.

The Museum In a Box Model

As you can see from the extensive way that the Museum of London has used NFC technology, there are many, many ways that such systems can boost the activities of museums and galleries whether visitors are physically present or experiencing them at a later date via social media. However, these are not the only ways that NFC systems can be utilised by museum professionals as the Museum in a Box model demonstrates. What is it?

The Museum in a Box is an interactive exhibit that is designed to allow people to experience certain aspects of an institution from elsewhere. The idea is, therefore, primarily designed to appeal to schools and other organisations which will add to their educational offering without the benefit of an in-person museum visit. As such, it could easily serve as a part of an institution’s community outreach programme. When a Museum in a Box is sent out, it comes with a miniature PC, a speaker, a small amplifier and an NFC reader.

When the box is put together, cultural institutions can add whatever they like to make the device their own. As such, the recipients are not simply learning about the technology itself but of the subject matter of the museum concerned. Typically, museums include 3D-printed versions of some of their artefacts but it is equally possible to add puzzles or information sheets – or, indeed, anything else that might work – to the kit. All that is needed is an NFC tag with these items so that when they are placed on the NFC reader, a recording will start to play via the computer’s speaker. These are pre-recorded and held on the PC’s memory. The NFC technology acts as a trigger for greater educational context about the objects concerned. They tell their own story. As such, anyone using it gets something like a museum-like experience even if they are not present at the institution itself.

Horniman Museum and Gardens

According to museum professionals at the Horniman Museum, situated in south-east London, both QR and NFC technologies have been deployed there in order to compare their relative strengths and weaknesses. One of the applications that they wanted to use these wireless communications systems for was to allow visitors to experience more of the books they had on display. After all, as the museum pointed out, behind a display cabinet only one page of a book can be presented at any one time. Initially, the museum used QR codes for visitors to scan. When they had done so, further pages could be read on their smart device.

nfc tag museum

Having put this in place, the museum wanted to do the same for another of the books in its collection, this time using NFC technology instead. In terms of the two technologies, it is fair to say that they both functioned well and did what the museum wanted – to provide a better user experience of the books concerned. What the team at the Horniman Museum found was that NFC tags were cheap, easy to put in place and simple to operate. That said, they did not work on all of the smart devices visitors took to the museum.

In Summary

To conclude, NFC offers museum professionals a wide range of possibilities, whether they want to add context and extra information to visitors’ experiences or they are seeking a nifty way of reaching out to communities who may never come to their establishment. The technology is extremely powerful despite offering great value for money. It is only really limited by the creativity of museum professionals in the ways in which it can be deployed to enhance the offering of modern public-facing institutions.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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