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Exploring culture – new app is redefining museum experiences for visitors

24 March 2016

The article at a glance

Have you ever found museum visits dry or unengaging? New app Cultrex, launched by two Cambridge MBA graduates, uses the latest mobile …

Have you ever found museum visits dry or unengaging? New app Cultrex, launched by two Cambridge MBA graduates, uses the latest mobile technology to revolutionise your cultural experiences.

Brandon O’Dell and Can Turkseven © Photograph by Frits Schroeder

“Imagine you’re standing in the middle of a historical site, looking at all the paintings, the sculpture, the architecture,” says Can Turkseven, founder of Cultrex. “Then you look at our app on your phone and you’re immediately transported back to what was happening there 3,000 years ago. It’s like a documentary, but you’re living in it. That’s a phenomenally powerful sensation.”

It’s little wonder Turkseven is so enthusiastic. The app he created with fellow Cambridge MBA graduate Brandon O’Dell, offers fellow culture-lovers a museum experience like never before – thanks to skills they learned at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Cultrex (short for “cultural explorer”) was borne of Turkseven’s frustration at the restrictive nature of information at museums and art galleries. “I spent the summer before my MBA travelling round European art galleries, which are obviously absolutely wonderful, with so many beautiful sculptures and paintings,” he says. “Many offer booklets or audio guides, but I realised an app would do so much more. I came to Cambridge with the seed of an idea – although at the time it wasn’t much more than that.”

That all changed a few weeks into the programme when Dr Shai Vyakarnam, the then Director of the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning, realised American student Brandon O’Dell, who was in the same cohort, had a similar idea. “We knew each other,” says O’Dell, “but we were in different streams for innovation. Dr Vyakarnam put us together and then that seed started to germinate.”

Both students had a love of culture but had come through different routes to Cambridge Judge. Turkish-born Turkseven had worked in the US as a consultant with McKinsey, while O’Dell had taken the rather less conventional career path of deciding to do an MBA after retiring as a professional ballet dancer. “I had no preconceived ideas of what I wanted to achieve,” says O’Dell. “This was a step on the journey. I wasn’t exactly sure where it would take me.”

Where it has taken them is a successful application for a grant from the Turkish government’s department of culture to create a unique, successful product enhancing visitors’ experience to the world-renowned Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. By “telling the story of artwork”, as the pair describe it, their app offers still images, video, professional narration and even a 3D model tracing the site’s 1,500-year history through the Byzantine and Ottoman eras.

“It can do so many things that a guidebook or audio tour cannot,” says Turkseven. “There are great art works to compare but they are in different parts of the museum so you can’t physically see them together – but you can on a phone screen, with an engaging and interesting narration explaining the differences. In most museums, you are not allowed to take pictures of the real art to share on social media but you can do that with our images. And you download the guide so you can keep it forever.

“I chose to start with Hagia Sophia because, as a native of Istanbul, I am very proud of it and I feel it is a little overlooked – I suppose I felt sorry for it. But now other museums in Europe have now approached us to do similar work for them, and we are applying to the EU for similar grants to create guides for world heritage sites.”

But none of this, say the entrepreneurs, would have been possible without the business knowledge and specific practical skills they learned during their MBA studies at Cambridge Judge Business School – particularly on the MBA programme’s Culture, Arts & Media Management (CAM) concentration.

“Without the knowledge we learned there, we simply could not have created Cultrex,” says O’Dell. “For a start, the culture of the School itself is unique – so diverse, so different, and not just in its mix of gender, age and nationalities. It’s refreshing that not every student there wants to be a financier or a venture capitalist. There is such a huge range of experience and aspiration.

“And the CAM concentration was outstanding. Experts from Tate Britain came to talk to us and we were able to get their feedback and learn the very specific sort of challenges they face. The concentration gave us knowledge of cultural institutions, looking at complex issues around their financing and exploring creative ways of achieving sustainable funding.”

“That seed of an idea became a reality at Cambridge,” adds Turkseven. “The skills we acquired, the networks, the contacts, all came through the MBA programme. In practical terms it made us courageous and gave us tangible next steps.”

He also cites the individual entrepreneurship courses as invaluable. “The focus is on innovation – not just the ideas but the practical solutions about getting a viable product to market,” he says. “We learned not to try to do everything all at once, but to get a smaller product and test that. The incubation of Cultrex took place during our MBA studies but it didn’t even have a name – we were playing with the idea, learning the fundamental lessons to help us make it a success.”

So how far could they take this idea? “Wherever there’s a museum or culturally important site, Cultrex could bring the experience alive,” says O’Dell. “It doesn’t have to be ancient civilisations – we could, for instance, do a walking tour of street art in London. We are one of the main sponsors of the most important museum and technology conference globally (Museums and the Web 2016); and are now getting ready for the event in Los Angeles.

“Museums want to engage people like this but some don’t know where to start. They have all this information to get across but we can give them the visuals, the narration, the presentation to make it an experience. We not only provide a robust app, but we also work in close partnership with the museums to develop the “the story of their exhibition” for the mobile tours. And we can, where appropriate, do it with humour, too – museums can sometimes seem very dry places. Our app engages people, it puts them right in the heart of it.”

And of course, their cultural surroundings in Cambridge and beyond has also inspired them. “I’d love to do something with the Fitzwilliam Museum,” says Turkseven. “And if Boris wants us to do a ‘top 10 cultural sites in London’ we’d be up for that too!”