As part of my experience here at the Australian Museum, I've done some research about how tablets and especially iPads have been used in the museum field so far.
Due to their specific characteristics, tablets show a lot of potential for enhancing learning, social interaction and entertainment in museums. Moreover, given that they can be personal devices, they could also help museums extend their connection with visitors, potential visitors and people in general further and beyond the onsite visit.

In order to get some data on this topic, I've accessed online resources and I've interviewed museum professionals to learn about their experiences with iPads&tablets in the museum context.
According to my research, the multiple ways in which iPads are used in the museum field are the following:

A) iPads integrated in the galleries & in the exhibition environment: the devices provide a free-choice opportunity to engage with collections and temporary exhibitions. They can take the form of:

- partially handheld devices available in specific sections of the exhibition: the devices can be fully handheld by visitors, but their use is limited to a specific area of the exhibition for security reasons. Devices are generally secured to a surface through cables (Brooklyn Museum, NYC, USA);

- kiosk-like devices available in specific sections of the exhibition: iPads are secured into a kiosk and they look like touch-screens (The New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, Albuquerque, USA).

Some museums have also adopted iPads and tablets to replace and/or integrate printed labels (digital labels); they've also been used to allow visitors to leave messages about objects on display (Grant Museum of Zoology, University College London, UK).

Recently, iPads have been used as devices that provide a platform to display digital works of art created using iPads (Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada).

B) iPads as fully hand-held devices used in the galleries by visitors: the devices are generally hired/borrowed at the information desk, before entering the exhibits; security measures may apply (New Plymouth Museum, Puke Ariki, New Zealand). If the museum has developed an app that can be downloaded on site or online, visitors can handle and use their personal tablet devices, too; in this event, visitors must be aware that applications compatible with only one operative system (Apple or Android) may have been developed by the museum.

C) iPads as interpretative tools used by docents during group tours: the devices are mainly used by museum educators and docents in order to provide visitors with additional multimedia content that may facilitate fun, engagement and understanding (Museo Monte Verità, Ascona, Switzerland).
Multimedia resources are managed by docents, and a continuous physical interaction with the device is not provided to visitors; however, a temporary physical contact with the device is usually encouraged. Applications specifically developed by museums are not generally used in this context; software already available on the market is used instead.
Generally speaking, visitors seem to be very engaged by this educational approach, even though it must be noted that the ability of the docent to use the content appropriately during the tour influences visitors' feedback and satisfaction. This method is deemed appropriate for groups of 10-15 people, but audio can represent a weakness, as it can be less than effective.

D) iPads used during structured educational experiences: the devices are used during workshops, e.g. as tools facilitating the drawing process for children (San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio, USA). They've also been used as tools enabling students to take photos and record interviews during educational activities aimed at facilitating a significant personal meaning-making process.

In other instances, iPads & tablets have also represented the focus of professional development courses addressed by museums to teachers (Smithsonian's National Postal Museum, Washington DC, USA).

I'm sure these devices have been used in other contexts as well, but finding information is not that easy, due to the current scarcity of relevant literature; in addition, the use of tablets is probably underestimated due to the lack of information on the web and a limited sharing of case-studies among museum professionals.

For those of you who are interested in iPads and their use in museums, I'm happy to share my full report.
The report is intended as a working document, so feel free to contribute adding your comments on this blogspace.

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If you prefer, you can follow me on Twitter @IreRubino

Given the untapped potential of iPads, it will be interesting to see how these devices will be integrated in museum educational programs and in the exhibition development in the future!