Category Archives: Culture

Inter-app-tive: Chicago museums integrate tech to draw visitors

Photo credit: Farah Mohammed

(To get into the mood of this article, I highly recommend hitting the play button below and play some Debussy. Who doesn’t like Debussy? Or click through and find something else you like! Courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.)

“Kids can’t find anything to learn when they are in a situation that is not conducive for learning. And a museum falls into this category for 90% of kids.” -Penelope Trunk

Trunk, a career advisor from Wisconsin and homeschooling mother, is not an expert on museums or childhood development. But her post on the dwindling relevance of museums was noticed by Reach Advisors, a museum consultancy company. They used it to highlight public perception for cultural institutions nationwide and the reason they need to re-brand themselves to attract new visitors.

Sadly, Reach Advisors and Trunk are not wrong. Museums, and cultural centers in general, are not gaining more visitors as the U.S. population balloons. Adults in the U.S. who have attended a “benchmark activity” – museums, concerts, art galleries, plays and musicals – has stagnated over the past 20 years according to the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts conducted every four years by The National Endowment for the Arts. The good news is, museums are working from a position of strength — they just have to do a better job keeping up with the times, a Smithsonian presentation suggests. By putting information about exhibits online, 57% of people are more interested in visiting in person. People put more trust in information coming from museums and established cultural institutions, and they’re eager to see the exhibits in person if they feel it will add to the experience.

Chicago’s organizations have taken this message to heart. They are evolving with their audience and are providing new experiences for visitors and patrons who have grown up in the digital age.

Area museums are releasing self-guided tour apps and educational games alongside exhibits, orchestras are adding to their traditional schedule to include events aimed at new audiences and fans of cross-genre music, and the efforts seem to be working. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new programs have been filling more seats and museums’ total visitor numbers are growing.

Here are just a few examples of what Chicago institutions are putting out:

The Field Museum Tour App

Earlier this year, the Field Museum released an app which gives highlight tours of various exhibits throughout the building. Still being rolled out, the app doesn’t cover the entire museum yet but the staff hopes to add more tours later this year. Currently, the app has tours for the Stanley Field Hall, museum highlights, and the taxidermy exhibit.

The Field Museum app is available outside of the museum, but being in the museum allows visitors access to extra information, from articles to videos and panoramic pictures, like the one shown here.

Visitors may also create their own tours and share it with others.

Public Relations Manager Emily Waldron said the app has 20,000 downloads so far, and it’s usage is currently being studied to find ways of making it better and easier to use.

However, reports on past years show that The Field’s efforts at attracting new visitors is greatly successful, with successes like the three million YoutTube views on a series of videos in only six months, so it will be little surprise if the tour app catches on.

Art Institute of Chicago Tour App

Similar to the Field Museum, the Art Institute provides guided tours through their app, offering significantly more information to visitors who use it. It also boasts a mapping feature, which can tell you where you are if you’re connected to the building’s wi-fi.

Launched a year before the Field Museum’s, the Art Institute’s app already has all of its collections programmed. Visitors can choose highlight tours by collection or theme.

Once visitors are directed to key pieces of the collection, it offers detailed information about the piece and a link to even more information for the extra-curious.

The app makes it hard to get lost (which is usually quite easy in the Art Institute) by providing step-by-step directions from wherever you are to wherever you want to be.

The Art Institute was able to boast an increase in both admissions and membership dues in 2013, but these figures do not cover the period since the app was released and it’s impact cannot be measured. Yet, it’s hard to believe the app will not play favorably in visitors’ hands, creating a more enjoyable experience they will want to repeat.

Museum of Science and Industry

goREACT gives suggestions to users on how to make chemicals. It also explains the history, use or fun facts about each element. Photo credits: Luke Rague
goREACT gives suggestions to users on how to make chemicals. It also explains the history, use or fun facts about each element. Photo credits: Luke Rague

Focused on educating children (and the young at heart), the Museum of Science and Industry has created a handful of games and apps that tie in with exhibits to provide visitors with a more hands-on learning experience. Here are a few of the latest:

Chew or Die offers a handful of challenges to promote healthy eating. Photo credits: Luke Rague
Chew or Die offers a handful of challenges to promote healthy eating. Photo credits: Luke Rague


Half game and half chemistry lesson, goREACT presents users with a periodic table of elements and encourages them to start throwing elements together until they start reacting. It also provides helpful hints about possible concoctions, facts about the elements, and information about the chemicals users eventually make. goREACT does not go with any standing exhibit at the museum.

Chew or Die allows other users to vote on your pictures to see if you've completed the challenge or not. Photo credits: Luke Rague
Chew or Die allows other users to vote on your pictures to see if you’ve completed the challenge or not. Photo credits: Luke Rague

Chew or Die

Designed to get kids (or adults, don’t judge) to be more open about what they eat, Chew or Die tricks users into thinking they are in a competition with their friends and other users to fuel healthy competition. They earn ‘badges’ by completing eating challenges, such as replacing white bread with a tortilla or rice, and uploading a picture of the food. Again, this app is not paired with any physical exhibit at the museum.

Virtual Heart

Available only on iPad, Virtual Heart is a tour of the human heart in all its glory. Designed as an interactive tour, it is designed to add to the museum’s exhibit “YOU! The Experience” on the human body and healthy living.

The Museum of Science and Industry is usually among the most visited museums in the city because its exhibits attract many school groups and children, and for the past few years it has topped the list. The museum says its popularity comes from the high level of interactivity provided by exhibits, apps and games, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in learning.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

The CSO is conscious of and, according to Director of Marketing Liz Madeja, committed to changing with the times to reach new and evolving audiences. From less traditional concerts to educational resources, the CSO has a handful of programs designed with this mission in mind. Besides these programs, the CSO also made the decision to change one very simple practice: the time some concerts are held. Some Friday concerts for Beyond the Score (discussed below) are now being held in the evening instead of an afternoon matinee to open them up to a larger number of people.


If you followed the suggestion at the very beginning of the article (thank you), you’re already enjoying the CSO’s SoundCloud account. Used to distribute concert recordings, interviews, and radio programs for free, the account is an effort by the CSO to give the public previews to upcoming shows, more information about setlists, and easy access to traditional classical music, in the hopes of drawing larger audiences.

If you chose not to play the song provided at the top (it’s okay, I won’t take it personally), you can find their full public library on their SoundCloud account here:

musicNOW showcases DJs before and after the main show in cocktail hours where guests can meet the musicians, composers and special guests. Courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
musicNOW showcases DJs before and after the main show in cocktail hours where guests can meet the musicians, composers and special guests. Courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra


Around for over 15 years, musicNOW showcases cross-genre and more modern chamber music written by the CSO’s resident composers, currently Mason Bates and Anna Clyne, and other living composers around the world. Madeja said the CSO also treats this program as a testing ground for new ways to distribute information during concerts, from replacing printed programs with video introductions and text message alerts to pre- and post-concert mixers with the musicians and composers, featuring DJs to set the mood. Madeja says the program is here to stay, but the direction it takes will change every four to five years when the CSO changes resident composers.

Madeja said musicNOW is growing in popularity, especially in the past half decade, and it is beginning to come close to selling out the Harris Theater where the concerts are held, which holds 800 to 1000 audience members.

musicNOW replaces traditional concert programs with videos and messages projected on stage and through text message alerts. Courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
musicNOW replaces traditional concert programs with videos and messages projected on stage and through text message alerts. Courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Sounds & Stories

Madeja said one of the most frequently made comment the public shared with the CSO is “I loved the concert, but I wish I knew more about it.” To meet this need, the CSO created the “Sounds & Stories” section of their website. Offering articles, videos, and previews, the program attempts to give more depth to the audience’s experience whether they visit the page before or after an event. The program is only in its second year, but Madeja said it is already being well used and its usage metrics are allowing the CSO to better define what the public wants out of their experience.

Beyond the Score

Another way to address the desire by audience members to know more about the music, Beyond the Score is a CSO production that mixes the music, live theater, and video presentations to tell the music’s story and history. Some shows focus on a single work and others on a composer, giving background to the music. The CSO has found that this program is so successful that they have begun licensing it out to other orchestras throughout the country.

For example, here is a full recording of the story behind German composer Hector Berlioz and his work Symphonie fantastique:

Individually these efforts seem to be helping the CSO gain new patrons and visitors, and, according to the 2013 Annual Report, together they are helping the organization lift out of deficit. With increases in sales and donations, the CSO is still operating at a slight deficit, but not nearly as deeply as recent years.

Adler Planetarium

Citizen Science

Many research initiatives by NASA and other space research organizations are finding a problem new to the world of science: there is too much data for researchers to parse through. The Hubble has collected images of billions of galaxies that need to be categorized, the surface of Mars is imaged in crazy minute detail, and, once thought rare, extra-system planets are popping up like distant cousins after you win the lottery.

The Adler sees this as an opportunity, not a problem. As part of the Citizen Science Alliance, members of the public can come to Adler to learn about on-going research projects as well as how the research is conducted, all while actually participating in it.

Grainger Sky Theater

Completed in 2012 with a price tag of 14 million dollars, the Grainger Sky Theater is one of the most advanced domed theaters in the country, offering live presentations of the cloak of stars that surrounds Earth, the digital exploration of the solar system up close, and deep dives into the universe at large in greater definition than was previously possible.

Adler’s Public Relations and New Media Manager Nicholas Glenn said they do not track how each exhibit attracts visitors, but the latest Annual Report highlights steadily growing attendance over the past five years, especially since the Grainger Theater was finished.

The first rule of hipsterdom is…

Photo Credits: Joel Bedford

Despite their reluctance to talk about themselves, hipsters have become iconic. It’s a subculture re-emerging across the country, and one some argue has been a way of life well before the label. Hipsters are the restless and counter-culture young people who’ve decided to live however they want.

Chicago’s Logan Square, which is lined with bars and coffee shops, represents a mecca of young people with a flair of independence. It’s a stark contrast from ritzy neighborhoods like Lincoln Park, glossy magazines and mainstream music, and it’s something they embrace with pride.

At the Logan Square Blue Line stop, a group of friends originally from Minneapolis all paused and shrugged when asked why they choose to be hipsters. Simon, Rosa and Preston said they like to dress in what’s available to them, without being judged. “We just like it,” Simon said. “Chicago is segregated but tolerant.”

Logan Square’s aged The Whirlaway Lounge, a staple in the area, is increasingly catering to the hipster crowd. According to baristas, New Wave Coffee has been around since 2009, and drawing younger crowds was the owner’s motive.

Perhaps the most noticeable trend when it comes to hipsters is their twenty-something demographic, and their standoff-ish friendliness.

At Logan Square’s Uncharted Books, the common scene is to dress like you care little about what people think.

Uncharted Books is a haven for readers who follow little-known authors and special interests. Alternative writer Nathan Rabin, who writes books with titles like, “You Don’t Know Me but You Don’t Like Me” and “The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You By Pop Culture,” had a signing July 20.

The bookstore was packed with tattooed and boho-chic twenty-somethings, ready to get a signed book and picture. “Here’s your book and thank you for coming,” Rabin would say as he’d hand out signed copies amid enthusiasts sitting in tattered, assorted chairs.

Storeowners like Tanner McSwain have their own theories when it comes to hipsters. The Logan Square enthusiast lived in the area for 6 years before deciding to open Uncharted Books on North Milwaukee Avenue a year-and-a-half ago. His bookstore is so “hip”, it has no working telephone or Wi-Fi, and pet dog Ramona greets visitors.

“I’d say hipsters are people ten years or less out of college, and artistically or tech inclined,” McSwain said. McSwain said hipsters don’t like to talk about themselves or why their interests deviate from the mainstream.

Most hipsters were friendly, but didn’t want to delve into why they chose to dress in used clothing or openly portray thrift.

Responses like “I dress to be comfortable” or “their books just resonate with me” were as much as they revealed about themselves. “We have a lot of an intellectual and artistic crowd, and we don’t have a lot of bestsellers [books],” he said. “We’re trying to stake a reputation in books and have a point of view.”

Indeed, many of the books in McSwain’s store have titles like “Ladies of the Night” and generic titles like “Poems.” Others, like Allison Barinholtz, manager of Reno Restaurant on Kedzie Avenue say it’s the hipster crowd that has revitalized Logan Square. “It’s a tight-knit neighborhood, and people are moving in so there’s a lot of gentrification,” she said. “I feel like hipsters belong in Wicker Park, but it’s interesting they’ve spilled over.”

Whatever the cause of Chicago’s resonating hipster scene, one thing is for sure: hipsters are here to stay. How they describe themselves, on the other hand, is surely subject to change.

Chicagoans cutting the cable cord

Photo credit: Megan Dawson

The wait is over.

This fall, you can share your living room with Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa when all 522 episodes of The Simpsons are released online for your endless viewing pleasures. D’oh!

Subscribers will be able to watch all 207 hours of the uproarious cartoon family on a streamable new website called Simpsons World, set to launch in October.

That’s one more show to add to the growing list of reasons Chicago residents are “cutting the cord,” or discontinuing their traditional cable service to rely on Internet TV. Simpsons network FXX will join HBO, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant and Apple TV in offering traditional cable programs to consumers on-demand online, allowing them to move outside the confines of appointment-based TV and start watching shows where they want, when they want.

“People don’t necessarily build their schedule — their busy lives with lots of moving pieces of friends, family and work — around being home at 8 o’clock in the evening like they used to,” said Stephanie Edgerly, an assistant professor in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.

“Internet TV is far more flexible,” said Steph Charaska, a 27-year-old freelance artist and Arbonne consultant from Chicago. “My schedule puts me out of the house more often than not and I am able to catch up on my shows on my own time versus the cable company’s schedule.”

Nearly a third of Chicago residents surveyed have switched from traditional cable service to Internet TV since 2007. Among residents who have not made the switch, a whopping 80 percent use an Internet TV service in addition to their traditional cable service.

Charaska uses Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and Amazon Instant instead of traditional cable TV. In fact, she never had traditional cable to begin with because of the schedule of programming and the price. “I don’t want to pay for a service that I don’t regularly use,” Charaska said. “The prices are far too high for the amount I would use it.”

In addition to flexible viewing, the switch from traditional cable to Internet TV offers consumers a cost incentive. Survey respondents who swapped said they saved $20 to $100 per month by switching to Internet TV. Popular Internet TV providers Netflix and Hulu Plus offer service for $10 and under per month, while Comcast offers basic cable service (without the addition of premium channels) for about $45 per month.

“The extra cash goes toward living expenses like rent, bills, insurance and perhaps to occasionally fund a night out,” said Charaska, who estimates she saves about $100 per month.

Cable packages are becoming more expensive because the average number of channels has increased, Edgerly said. “You’re paying more because you’re getting more channels, but the kicker is that we know that people haven’t increased the amount of channels they use.”

With Internet TV, viewers get to choose what to consume, how much to consume and at what price, Edgerly said. “I think that makes people feel like they’re spending their money more wisely because they have more choice,” she said.

The high availability of programs offered by Internet TV services allows people to watch TV liberally. Unlike traditional cable service, which airs episodes daily or weekly, Internet TV allows viewers to watch entire series at once. Binge-watching — watching two to six episodes of one show in a single sitting — has become a popular practice. One hundred percent of survey respondents said they have binge-watched Internet TV.

“This past winter, being as awful as it was, I had many binge sessions,” Charaska said. “The longest probably about 10 to 12 episodes long. House of Cards, West Wing, Charmed, and Avatar the Last Airbender are some [shows] of note.”

According to Edgerly, people like to immerse themselves deeply by binge-watching. “DVDs started to let people do that, but now you’re just seeing it on steroids with these online content producers that can say, ‘Here’s the latest thing. Here’s twelve episodes. Go,’” she said. “You just don’t see that business model in cable.”

While the low price and convenience of Internet TV has proven attractive to Chicago consumers, there are some drawbacks. For Charaska, not having the latest episodes of her favorite shows is one.

“My dissatisfaction would be the lag time between when a season is over and when it shows up on Netflix, or when the licensing runs out and one of my favorite shows gets pulled from Netflix,” Charaska said.

Like traditional cable service, sometimes you have to pay more to get more.

“When watching network TV online, there are some episodes that you have to pay extra for,” Charaska said. “I understand why, but if I had my druthers, I would love full access to all episodes from the current season.”

If traditional cable service is to survive the onslaught of competition from Internet TV providers in the future, it needs to change its approach, according to Edgerly.

“I think the way the cable industry has reacted has not necessarily been ‘let’s rethink these packages, let’s rethink how we license.’ Instead the movement has been to consolidate – to merge with other cable providers. I think financially that is making cable companies a little more stable, but I don’t think that it addresses the fundamental issue about the problem cable is facing,” Edgerly said.

“They need to be planning a different model of different packages that can speak to people who want to watch TV right away and don’t want to feel like they’re paying $100 a month for stuff they don’t watch.”

“Cable just isn’t the only game in town anymore, and they need to know that.”