Welsh Museums Deliver Extra Content Via Bluetooth Beacons

By Claire Swedberg

National Museum Wales has developed the Culture Beacon app that will be used at numerous museums, castles and schools to present more information to visitors, based on their location.


Visitors to the National Slate Museum and the National Roman Legion Museum, both in Wales, walk around exhibits that might be difficult to interpret without some help. Photographs and artifacts are often hard to put into context (such as a Roman device that was a valuable tool at one time, but appears to be merely a small gray stone today). Printed material posted on exhibits and on walls do not do the exhibits justice, the museums’ curators say, since there generally is insufficient space for the volume of content, and it is difficult to tailor information for each specific type of visitor—such as a child versus an adult.

The solution is an app known as Culture Beacon that works in conjunction with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons and uses a software platform called Locly. from Welsh company Bookry Ltd.. With the app, a user can receive transmissions on his or her smartphone or tablet upon approaching an exhibit, and thus view pictures, textual content specific to that person’s indicated interests and video that provides some explanation of the particular item on display.

Installed on a Slate Museum visitor’s smartphone, the Culture Beacon app will display exhibit-specific information each time the phone comes within range of one of the site’s 25 Bluetooth beacons.

The Culture Beacon app is slated to be used at many more facilities than just the few museums at which the technology is currently installed. National Museum Wales oversees seven museums throughout Wales, including the Slate and Roman museums. National Museum Wales is a member of the People’s Collection, Wales, a group aimed at exploring innovation at museums, schools and other public entities through technology for distributing data regarding the nation’s history and heritage. Other members of the People’s Collection include the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales , the National Library of Wales and the BBC. Rheinallt Ffoster-Jones, a program manager at National Museum Wales and a member of the People’s Collection, has been helping to drive the deployment of the Culture Beacon app, which will be used at museums, monuments and castles around the country, as well as at schools, libraries and various outdoor destinations.

The Culture Beacon app was taken live at the Slate Museum in July 2014, and last week at the National Roman Legion Museum. It is presently being adopted by the National Museum Wales Cathays Park and the National Waterfront Museum. According to Ffoster-Jones, National Museum Wales is also working with approximately 30 other sites at which the BLE system app is being requested, many of which are managed by the Welsh Museums Federation.

The system began as a way to bring content to Slate Museum visitors. “The main challenges for us at the National Slate Museum,” Ffoster-Jones explains, “was to investigate how we can add value for our end users, and interact with digital content during their visit onsite.”

The beacon technology enables app users to receive a transmission about each exhibit with minimal input of their own. For instance, a user is alerted as soon as he or she comes within range of a beacon, and can then simply view information about an exhibit or select more specialized data. “This would be above and beyond what could be achieved with QR codes and Near Field Communication (NFC) technology,” Ffoster-Jones says. “We also needed a solution that could work without the need for constant Wi-Fi connection.” But rather than simply employ beacon technology, he notes, the app utilizes a combination of URLs, NFC, QR codes and BLE, and he is evaluating which technology is the most popular. To date, he reports, a majority of users are opting for BLE. The app is currently only available for iOS devices, he adds, but will be released as an Android version in several weeks.

National Museum Wales’ Rheinallt Ffoster-Jones

At the Slate Museum, which covers the history of slate production in the area, as well as life for 19th-century quarry operators, workers have installed 25 beacons throughout the site. Each beacon comes with a “card” on the app—a landing page on which audio, video, links and text can be perused. Five beacons are located in an outdoor area where additional exhibits are on display. Not all beacons are at exhibits, however. At the museum’s café, for instance, visitors can view the menu and any specials, and the store offers targeted promotions.

At the end of a visit, a user approaches the museum exit. At that time, a beacon at that location causes the app on his or her device to receive an invitation to comment on that day’s museum experience, as well as make a donation via a PayPal account.

The Culture Beacon app is built on Bookry’s content-management system (CMS), explains Rhys Jones, Bookry’s co-founder. The museum installed battery-powered beacons on walls, or on the exhibits themselves, and then used the CMS to enable the inputting of the museum’s own data for each specific beacon into the Culture Beacon app. Bookry’s beacons come from a variety of vendors, including Estimote, Kocakt.io and Radius Networks, Jones explains, and are selected based on their size and robustness (in outdoor environments, in some cases). The company also deploys beacons made for it by a third-party manufacturer in Asia, he notes.

To use the Culture Beacon app, visitors first download the free app on their iPhones or iPads, and select their own viewing preferences (for example, material geared toward children, or for those with specific technical interests). They can select various topics of interest, such as “steam power,” as well as indicate their age and the level of technical information they seek. Once they arrive at a museum, the users pass a beacon at the entrance, and the app, based on their personal preferences and profile, downloads cards—a webpage, audio, visual, text or video, or some other piece of information—specific to each beacon-enabled exhibit. The visitors can then walk through the museum, and as they come within range of a beacon-enabled exhibit, they will hear a tone on their smartphone, as well as feel a vibration indicating they have received a message specific to the location or exhibit associated with that beacon. They can then listen to a tour guide’s voice describing the exhibit, and view related pictures and video.

What’s more, attendees can scroll through the content and, in some cases, select prompts specific to their interests, or indicate how they would like the content displayed—such as material appropriate for young children, or designed for those desiring more technical information. Individuals can also select the language in which they would prefer the data be presented.

National Museum Wales is also installing beacons at the Llŷn Maritime Museum, in Nefyn, and the Nefyl Heritage Trail, and is inputting related content in the Culture Beacon app. Additional museums are expected to join the system in the future. The single app will operate at all participating sites, so users need not download multiple apps.

The museum can use the data collected from the system for analytical purposes as well. At each museum, the venue’s managers will collect statistics indicating how many people interact with the system, and for how long, and thereby determine which exhibits are popular and which might need to be changed or moved in order to generate greater interest.

The museum consortium is still evaluating the financial gains that it is receiving from the technology, Ffoster-Jones says. The Slate Museum alone spends £6,000 ($9,400) annually on paper leaflets, he says, though he expects to distribute fewer leaflets thanks to the app. In addition, he reports, the average donation left by visitors when cash was placed in a collection box was less than £1 ($1.57), while the PayPal-based system has thus far collected an average of £4 ($6.28) from each visitor.