Diversity & Inclusion
Apps / Arts / Knight Arts Challenge

Barnes Foundation’s ‘Keys to the Collection’ app balances play, learning

Built with Drexel education professors, the Barnes Foundation has released an iOS app aimed at improving youth engagement with the museum's art collection. It took a while to develop, but the final product performs well.

Disclosure: The Knight Foundation, which funded the Barnes project, has sponsored Technical.ly Philly initiatives in the past. This report is unrelated to that relationship.
Ask a game developer about the education gamification movement, and you might get a sigh.

For gaming purists, the co-opting of gaming culture by institutions and an edtech sector hoping to leverage a $100 billion industry’s access to the young has created a sea of low-quality products that swing too far to education, compromising game play.

So when you learn that the Barnes Foundation has launched “Keys to the Collection,” a three-years-in-the-making mobile app aimed at engaging those between the ages of 7 and 14, you might view it with suspicion.

Art is an illusion. Let's use that illusion as a way for kids to explore the museum with the help of a familiar screen.

But think about Zoe, said Lynn Berkowitz, the Barnes’ manager of family programming. She’s a six-year-old who was among the first young people to use the app when it launched in August. She discovered the museum’s post-impressionist art collection on her screen, then cheerfully sought out and pointed to some of her favorites on the museum’s real walls.

“Art is an illusion,” said Berkowitz, near gleeful on a recent tour. “Let’s use that illusion as a way for kids to explore the museum with the help of a familiar screen.”

In this way, the app is touted as an early success by Barnes staff.

Download the app (iOS only)

In the game, a player’s avatar is guided by Fidele, billed as the dog of collection founder Albert Barnes. Fidele guides you through the museum to restore the order of various paintings in the building by completing simple games, which are found by jumping through paintings.

But what about museum purists who might poo-poo tablet-toting children putting a screen between them and one of the world’s great art collections?

With an app like this, there’s real engagement, unlike so many other screen obstacles, said Berkowitz. Go to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which allows photos in some exhibits, and you better expect to navigate a sea of guests taking selfies. When you go to the Louvre in Paris, your sight line of the undersized Mona Lisa will almost surely be blocked by tourists taking pictures of tourists.

“That is when the screen gets in the way,” said Berkowitz. “With ‘Keys to the Collection,’ we’re getting kids to experience the art.”


The game serves as a novel, albeit involved, map of the building. Berkowitz recounted the story of a fourth-grader named Mitch who led his grandmother through the museum while using the app.

The in-game challenges aren’t advanced, most are just simple geometric alignments (one is a more playful obstacle course), so though the hope is for a wider audience, the focus is mostly on those under 10. (This reporter admits failing to quickly enough pick out the still-life painting during the obstacle game.)

Berkowitz worked with two academics on the projects, Aroutis Foster and Jen Katz-Buonincontro, two professors of education and gaming at Drexel. They led the development with the Barnes serving as the client and collaborator.

Deep engagement is a primary element to the game-based learning model we’ve instituted.

Like with any project, wider success can only be determined with real goal-setting. Is the app seeking wide adoption rates by child attendees or deeper engagement for those who do download?

“Deep engagement is a primary element to the game-based learning model we’ve instituted from the start-up of our family and community programs,” said Berkowitz in a followup email. “We are working mightily to promote and track the ‘stickiness’ of the app as it relates to the time spent in the rooms (real and virtual) and other markers of engagement with the collections and family educational resources.”

In short, they don’t expect every child to play the game, but those who do should get a far more enriched museum experience. While Berkowitz said she hopes and expects the game to be played off-site as well, “Keys to the Collection” seems more likely to win youth attention in the museum than in the fuller, competitive gaming marketplace at home. To get there, the app will still need downloads.

The Barnes team isn’t releasing download numbers, in part because many kids will use on-site tablets that the Barnes will loan to visitors that have the game pre-loaded, she said.

Many families prepare for their tour with a visit to the Barnes website, where they can otherwise discover the app and download it ahead of time, said Berkowitz. There will also be information upon entry.


So what of the lengthy turn-around time in the getting app out the door? Is there a valuable lesson for large institutions taking on new projects together?

In March 2011, the Barnes was named one of 63 grantees in the inaugural Philadelphia Knight Arts Challenge. The Barnes was awarded $120,000 to create an app “to expand the reach of the foundation’s art collection,” in addition to a printed guide, according to the Knight Foundation release. Barnes and Drexel had been in talks about such a project as early as 2010. Why did it take more than four years to get the project done?

Despite the fact that the primary goals for the project had been addressed by fall 2011, Berkowitz said, the actual build didn’t start until later, due to aligning the schedules of the two teams, grant timing and other factors.

“Persona analysis, design, building and testing occurred between April 2013 and April 2014,” she said. “The formalized development and build was actually quite fast thanks to the support of our funders.”

Barnes has shown an interest in cultivating its digital savvy, promoting its fully-accessible website earlier this year.

For photos and additional coverage of the app, check out this NewsWorks story.

Companies: Barnes Foundation / Drexel University / Knight Foundation

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