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Remember the days when you’d go to a museum and they’d ask you to turn off your cell phone? That still happens, of course, but more and more museums are giving you something to do with your cell phone while you visit. Art museums were the first to begin offering their audio tours through visitors’ own technology. History museums and historic sites have been somewhat slower to get on board, but we’re getting there. Personally, I don’t see technology ever replacing the experience of a really good guided tour. But the reality is that we have fewer guides, and you can’t offer a guided tour of every inch of a large historic site anyway. Not to mention the fact that some research shows that many people who visit historic sites prefer to tour on their own.

So far, three Trails of History sites have experimented with cell phone tours. The Railroad Museum of PA, during a pilot project several years ago, found that while the people who used the tour were very pleased with it, not enough visitors took advantage of the opportunity to make it worth pursuing at that time. (Metal buildings also tend to interfere with cell phone reception, making it a less than smooth experience for some users.) The museum staff focused their technology efforts on developing interactive kiosks, a locomotive simulator, and more visual displays within their exhibits.

PHMC/Pennsbury Manor

Pennsbury Manor developed a cell phone tour last summer and has been offering that for visitors as a great enhancement for self-guided tours of the grounds (except for special events, only guided tours get to see the interior of the Manor House). Tour stops introduce visitors to many of the people who lived and worked at Pennsbury during William Penn’s time and shed light on the (re)construction of the Manor House and other buildings in the early 20th century. Staff at Pennsbury are very pleased with the amount of listen time the tours receive (2.5 hours—a minute at a time—in the past 2 weeks) and feel that the tours are well worth the effort.

PHMC/Ephrata Cloister

The most recent addition to our stock of cell phone tours is at Ephrata Cloister, where tours were launched at the end of May. The audio tour includes information on individuals who may not be highlighted in a guided tour or the interpretive brochure, adding yet another layer of insight for visitors. Several of the tour stops feature character voices instead of straight narrative, which gives listeners some audio variety and a taste of what makes Ephrata’s special programs special. On top of providing a new way to serve the site’s visitors, the launch garnered some welcome local publicity, both in the media and at the local convention and visitors bureau. During the first 2 weeks of July, listen time for the tours was just shy of 6.5 hours (again, one minute at a time).

As you can guess, we’re pretty excited about the possibilities for using what has become a ubiquitous technology to further enliven our visitors’ time with us. Trailheads will keep you posted as additional sites develop cell phone tours and more.

Oh, and for those of you who have moved on to smartphones, here’s a secret message:


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