The British Museum has released a decent app that showcases the current ‘Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’ exhibition.

Hopes are that people who can’t get to the museum will download the app and experience the exhibition at home.

I discuss the app (made by Apadmi) below in the context of the British Museum’s digital stock.

Testing the market and getting experience with an exhibition app build is undoubtedly a smart move, and a tricky undertaking.

Great websites raise the bar for apps?

It wasn’t long ago (way after 79AD) when a museum with a decent website was a rarity. Further still, a museum with a website and a navigable online collection was one in a thousand.

Now, there are some incredible websites out there – see my review of for a case in point. But, adding content to these great websites doesn’t drive extra revenue in such a neatly attributable way as successful apps might.

Museum boards may be getting tired of some of their main revenue streams; exhibition ticket sales, corporate sponsorship, government grants, sales of merchandise, venue hire. The idea of building something like an app and releasing it into the world, then sitting back and watching the £1.99s (£3.99 for iPad) roll in, must be appealing indeed.

However, there is then a challenge to make an app that justifies its price, particularly when compared to the customer’s free alternative of browsing a museum website (albeit one that may not alway be tablet-optimised).

The British Museum website isn’t yet up to the same standard as Tate’s (perhaps it’s unfair to compare them), and so I think at this stage in its digital transformation, the museum can get away with an app that is fun, visually engaging, informative, but maybe not quite up there in terms of uniting academic rigour with seamless usability and surprise (which represents the standards we are entitled to expect in this market).

At the moment the app feels a little tilted towards high school education, and that’s fair enough but isn’t going to suit the Über fan in the same way an academic text would.

Step changes in digital strategy: is British Museum testing the app market?

It’s interesting to debate whether the British Museum would be better investing long-term in its website, or a more ambitious museum-wide app, instead of using an exhibition app (Pompeii) as a stepping stone in their digital journey.

This app is perhaps a good way to test the market, but with such a strong brand, does this represent a risk for the British Museum (I’m not sure I have the answer).

There’s no doubt that plenty of people will download the Pompeii app, but how many people would download a museum-wide app? To me, this would be more sustainable. One app that can be updated, and be freshly bannered when new exhibitions are released and content is added.

It’s undoubtedly a lot more work, and maybe the museum wanted to learn the lessons from a smaller project, before going for the app jugular.

The allure of the British Museum is such that they could still tap into exhibition peaks and attract far more downloads, with a broader, more visual app; one of the disappointing thing about the Pompeii app is that although the images are stunning (dotted through this post), they can’t be accessed in a slideshow and made to be the main browsing event.

A broader app could cater for education and the coffee table, and would represent good value at £3.99 if photos and rich content were crammed in. It could also serve as a companion upon visiting the museum.

This is all mightily ambitious, I know, but I’m simply thinking of the end goal for massively popular heritage sites.

There are already broader apps available, albeit fairly measly, available from other publishers such as Way2Go (effectively a £4.99 ten-highlight audio guide) and, in the spirit of free advancement, Vusiem (available free, in versions for the Natural History Museum and the British Museum).

Vusiem can be a bit clunky, but it contains edifying content taken from Wikipedia, as well as images, maps of the museum etc.

Will apps become the new audio guides? Or RFID?

An app is an obvious replacement for an audio guide – and Vusiem and Way2Go are intended as such.

However, there is an issue with speed of access. Having to download a hypothetical app on arrival is obviously impractical – one would have to be prepared and maybe download ahead of a visit. 4G might change this eventually, but for now I think RFID tags and aggregator apps (for the museum or sight-seeing buff) might be easier approaches for the on-site guide info.

With the experience of building Pompeii, a concise and free guide app might be a good next step.


This Pompeii app is an experiment and has been built to break even, ahead of potential addition of the app prong to the British Museum’s exhibition strategy. I think it’s a good start, and contains some stunning high definition imagery, but some of the content is dumbed down and a broader and bolder app (think Boudicca) would surely bring in more money.

Tablets are great for education and imagery, bringing the brilliant work of the British Museum to a wider audience. I expect future forays will be slicker, more in-depth, and a great addition to the museum’s digital stock.

Review of ‘Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’ exhibition app

Good stuff

  • The images are stunning and arguably priceless – you can probably view some objects in greater detail through the app than visiting the exhibition. It’s a shame one can’t run a slideshow of the images, with some blurb for each pic. The coffee table is crying out for these pics.
  • There’s a handy ‘about the exhibition’ section that contains recommendations for further reading.
  • A decent amount of video content is included and can be found in each category – urban context, commerce, wealth & status, religion & beliefs, grooming & adornment.

Not-as-good stuff

  • Most video is presented by Paul Roberts, the exhibition curator, who is no Tacitus or, indeed, Mary Beard (I couldn’t find the video with Mary Beard presenting, which is advertised in the app info on the British Museum website).
  • The app I found to be a little buggy, occasionally throwing me out when moving between larger sections. Getting back to the right page wasn’t always a quick journey.
  • Orientation around some of the maps is a little misleading. It’s click-to-zoom-indiscriminately, rather than pinch-and-control. However, once I figured that out, it worked well.
  • I did however find the maps, as central to the menus, a bit misleading. They didn’t add much, and I felt they distracted from the more educational words and pictures.

I welcome comments below on the future of tech at tourist attractions.