Making contact: Experiments with digital donations at National Museums Scotland

Rob Cawston, National Museums Scotland, UK


With the rise of contactless payment technology, charities and cultural institutions are exploring new opportunities to raise funds from visitor donations. Coin donation boxes have long been accepted as part of the fabric of museum and gallery spaces, but are there easier ways to support institutions? Can digital technology create new types of giving experiences? Focussing on three key examples run at the National Museum of Scotland in 2017, this paper outlines the core challenges of creating donation experiences using contactless technology. It will examine the projects' failures and success, sharing key insights about visitor behavior and exploring how lessons can be applied across the sector as museums look to embrace new ways to generate in-venue support. Revealing both visitor feedback and the financial results of the trials, a range of key questions will be investigated: How does the positioning of the contactless terminal within the museum space affect the frequency of visitor donations? What types of experience and core messaging can best attract attention and prompt interaction? How does the use of contactless technology for donations differ from commercial transactions—and how can organizations build visitor confidence in new technology, facilitating new ways of giving? Although supported by one specific technical setup (using terminals supplied by the Dutch company Payter), other types of contactless setups will be considered alongside shifting patterns of consumer behavior and the supporting financial infrastructures across different countries. The trials by National Museums Scotland will also be placed in the context of the cultures of giving in the charity and GLAM sectors, asking how important contactless giving will become to museums and galleries under increasing financial pressure.  

Keywords: Digital, Donations, Fundraising, Visitor experience, Commerce, Technology

With the continual rise of contactless payment technology, charities and cultural institutions are starting to explore new ways to facilitate small-scale financial transactions—from payments for goods and services in shops and cafes, to enabling visitors to donate as part of in-venue general giving or targeted fundraising campaigns.  

Coin donation boxes have long been accepted as part of the fabric of museum and gallery spaces, and “text-to-donate” services or online giving via mobile have been the go-to mechanisms for cashless donations from visitors. But can contactless payment technology create new types of donation experiences—ones that make in-venue giving easier and also increase the total amount of money raised? This paper will focus on a number of trials of contactless payment technology for facilitating visitor donations run at the National Museum of Scotland ( in 2017.

  • Use of contactless technology as part of a bespoke kiosk, creating a multimedia experience linked to a digital donation point (referred to here as the “interactive experience”);    
  • A contactless terminal within an exhibition setting as part of a specific fundraising campaign (referred to here as “the campaign” terminal);
  • A contactless terminal in an entrance hall setting to facilitate nonspecific, or general, visitor donations (referred to here as “the stand-alone” terminal).
Two contactless donation experiences at National Museum of Scotland
Figure 1: two contactless donation experiences at National Museum of Scotland (left: the interactive kiosk; right: the campaign terminal)

The paper will examine each project’s failures and success, sharing key insights about visitor behavior and exploring how lessons can be applied across the sector as museums look to embrace new ways to generate in-venue support. The following key questions will be investigated: How does the positioning of the contactless terminal within the museum space affect the frequency of visitor donations? What types of experience and core messaging can best attract attention and prompt interaction? How does the use of contactless technology for donations differ from commercial transactions—and how can organizations build visitor confidence in new technology, facilitating new ways of giving? Although supported by one specific technical setup (using terminals supplied by the Dutch company Payter (, the paper will widen out to consider the alternative setups used to date across the charity and cultural sectors as well as pointing to future developments.

Note: This paper is based on a previous blog post written by the author (Cawston, 2017). It has been expanded here to include two further trials of contactless donations at the National Museum of Scotland as well as providing a wider perspective on the use and potential application of contactless donation technology across different countries.

Global contexts

While this study is focused on contactless giving in the context of a National Museum based in the UK, it is recogniszd that there are a number of key differentials when considering similar setups globally. Across contexts, there are substantial differences in three key areas, all interrelated when it comes to charitable giving in a museum setting:

  • Institutional setup and financial structures: Does the museum/gallery charge admissions fees? How reliant is the organization on regular giving from visitors?
  • Cultures of giving: Is there a culture of requesting financial help and campaigning in the sector? How pre-inclined are visitors to being asked for donations and giving as a naturalized part of their visit?
  • Technology and infrastructure: Does the financial infrastructure of the location support the adoption and use of contactless technology? How prevalent in everyday culture is the use of contactless payments?

It is also acknowledged that the National Museum of Scotland represents a comparatively large museum in the UK context, and that cultures of giving and financial structures vary widely across the country.

Digital giving

Although charitable donating using digital means has shown a steady year-on-year rise,  there is also a recognized need for the not-for-profit sector (including charities, galleries, and museums) to catch up on consumer trends for online activity. In the US the average age of a charitable donor in 2016 was 62. Similarly, in the UK, a surprisingly low 7.2% of overall fundraising was through online giving, and 17% of online donations in 2016 were made on a mobile device (IMRG, 2016). In comparison, mobile penetration in the retail sector has seen much higher increase in the last two to three years. The percentage of UK online retail sales made through mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) exceeded 50% for the first time in the last quarter of 2015/16 (Blackbaud, 2016).

A traditional coin donation box at the National Museum of Scotland
Figure 2: a traditional coin donation box at the National Museum of Scotland used outside a recent exhibition

Growth and adoption of contactless payment technology

For the purposes of this paper, contactless payment can be defined as the use of credit cards, debit cards, or digital wallet services on mobile phones (e.g. Apple Pay or Android) to make secure payments. For clarity, contactless cards use radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to allow card data to be read across short distances following the so-called EMV (Europay Mastercard Visa) standard. Mobile payments use similar near field communication (NFC) technology that allows two devices —in this case, a phone and a payment terminal—to communicate when close together and process a payment. NFC payments are dynamically encrypted, meaning that they are one of the most secure methods of electronic payment, although, interestingly, security is often cited as one of the reasons consumers are reluctant to adopt mobile as their prime means of regular payment (Bajarin, 2016).

The retail sector is leading innovation and uptake of contactless payment technology, and over the last few years, contactless in the UK has seen huge growth in everyday usage. Because no signature or PIN verification is required, contactless purchases are limited to a set maximum amount per transaction (the “floor limit”). In the UK this floor limit is typically set at £30/$40, and contactless is becoming normalized as the default mechanism—by both retailers and consumers—for conducting small-scale everyday transactions. With the average contactless transaction around £9.40 (c$12.75), two in ten card payments in the UK are now made via contactless. The last year has seen a 21% rise in the number of contactless cards in circulation (both debit and credit cards), and a 147% increase in total spend (figures from April 2017, The UK Cards Association,

Interestingly, the pattern is significantly different in the US with 80% of Americans never having used contactless payments. This compares to roughly 80% of the British and Australian populations who have (Bajarin, 2016). Canada is another market where contactless uptake has substantially increased in a short period: Seventy-five percent of Canadian retailers accept contactless payments, and close to ten percent of all domestic transactions are conducted via contactless technology.

Why does this disparity exist? In the UK, large-scale infrastructure projects, like the London transport system adopting contactless payment cards (Oyster) in 2003 and, more recently, accepting mobile payments and contactless debit/credit cards (from 2015), have transformed consumer behavior and expectation. A mandate to make every single POS terminal in the UK contactless by 2020 has also driven uptake across the retail sector. Similarly, Australia and Canada have all the basic ingredients in place to support the holistic uptake of contactless payments. These include “Well-defined geography. Manageable number of consumers living in that well-defined geography. Concentrated merchant segment with a few large merchants that drive a disproportionate swath of spend. The ability to more directly control contactless card issuance and contactless merchant POS deployment” (Webster, 2016).

In the US, contactless card payments have fallen flat, with nowhere near the same penetration levels as across the UK, Australia, and Canada, where “the consumer is able to use the same form factor everywhere she shops” (Webster, 2016).  In other words, contactless cards can also be used as chip and pin cards at outlets where merchants have yet to install contactless-enabled card readers. Hence the constant questioning from retailers in the UK: “Is contactless, ok?”. Rather than paying with their phone, it perhaps feels very comfortable for UK consumers to simply tap the same card they are used to using and simply speed up an existing process. In contrast, in the US, consumers have to download or enable mobile wallets, but only if they have the right phone and find the right retailer.  

It is noted, however, that the numbers are starting to shift upwards. While contactless-enabled cards and payment terminals haven’t taken hold to the same extent in the US, mobile payments using mechanisms like Apple Pay are seeing steady increases. In 2016 in the US, 16.5 % of the 232 million smartphones in use were used to make contactless payments (Juniper Research quoted in Shanley, 2016) and use of so-called “mobile wallets” are expected to surpass credit and debit cards by 2020 (WorldPay Global Payment Report, 2017). Similarly, the worldwide penetration rate for NFC enabled smartphones shows a similar rapid and continued rise, with a 58% penetration rate seen in 2017 predicted to rise to 81% by 2019 (see

As an interesting side note, China is even further ahead with the almost omnipresent use of integrated apps like WeChat, enabling frictionless mobile payments for most small-scale transactions (Mozur, 2016). In fact, mobile payment activity in 2016 was 50 times greater than that of the US and is expected to continue to rise over the next three years (Wildau/Hook, 2017).

Contactless for charities

What does this mean for charities seeking to use contactless payments to drive new donations? In the UK context, at least, there is growing consumer acclimatization to contactless payment technology, and raised expectations around the ease and speed of in-store payments. It is also important to note that most contactless payment terminals will accept both contactless debit/credit cards and mobile-enabled payment, thus widening the scope of their potential use across in different countries.

In theory then, contactless payments make perfect sense for facilitating the types of low value, high-frequency transactions traditionally sought via donation buckets or boxes, and charities have recognized the potential for using contactless technology to drive new donations for several years (Press Statement by Charities Aid Foundation, 2016). In general, people are also carrying less loose change (often the excuse used to avoid donation buckets on the street), although the picture is arguably more complex when considering the behavior of overseas visitors with a preference to pay in cash and avoid possible card transaction charges.

The Digital Media team at National Museums Scotland had been thinking about digital visitor donations since 2015. On a visit to London, the team visited the Cancer Research shop on Kensington High Street featuring their “Tap to Beat Cancer” campaign. A screen displayed a scientist at work, and passersby could donate from outside the shop with a simple tap of their card on a contactless terminal. It seemed like an innovative use of tech, allowing you to do something in the simplest way possible, even when the shop itself was closed (a video overview is available here:

The National Gallery’s Mosaic Masterpiece project
Figure 3: The National Gallery’s Mosaic Masterpiece project (Image courtesy of National Gallery)

Despite the ease of contactless payments, the act of donating is a different type of transaction compared to the retail environment. Here, the payment process is an integral part of the transaction where you receive a direct benefit as a result (receiving a coffee or accessing a station platform for example). In contrast, with donations, there is much more emphasis on the giver to voluntarily take action. There are numerous examples of charities, and some cultural organizations, trialing contactless giving (see the growing list below), but both the tech and the act of giving in this way has arguably yet to become accepted or “normalised” in these environments.

The novelty factor of finding a different way to donate is always a great incentive, but in our initial investigations we quickly noted an important difference between the physicality of dropping coins into a donation box compared to just an instant “tap” and “beep.” It can seem strange that something so frictionless can facilitate a transaction which should be both meaningful and emotional for the giver. Our aim at the start of the project was to address these issues and create a contactless donation experience that was 1) integrated into a visitor experience which is already very visual and interactive, and 2) felt both frictionless in its operation and worthwhile in its delivery.

Who is using contactless donations?

Alongside the Cancer Research “Tap to Beat Cancer” campaign, a range of organizations have experimented with some form of contactless donation facility over the last year or so. The following list is by no means comprehensive, but contains examples from a range of organizations setting up different types of experiences with a variety of technology providers.

Charity sector

Contactless terminal raising funds for the new World Gallery at the Horniman Museum, London
Figure 4: a contactless terminal raising funds for the forthcoming World Gallery at the Horniman Museum, London














Cultural sector

  • The Barbican installed a single Payter terminal outside The Curve gallery back in autumn 2016 (;  
  • The National Gallery’s Mosaic Masterpiece project allows visitors to select between three donation amounts (£5, £10 and £20) before taking an image of themselves to be included on large screen display of a masterpiece. Donations are made via a WorldPay terminal (;
  • The Horniman Museum in London used a simple Payter terminal to request £1 donations to support the re-display of their World Gallery (;
  • More recently, the Natural History Museum and Tate Modern in London have experimented with totem-style interactive kiosks using payment terminals from the UK-based company GoodBox (, who were also behind the Teenage Cancer Trust trials mentioned above.
Contactless donation kiosks at the National History Museum, London
Figure 5: contactless donation kiosks at the National History Museum, London (image courtesy of Goodbox)

Trial 1: Creating a contactless experience

Our own explorations of contactless giving started off with a workshop at the digital agency Earnest ( Their “innovation lab” had previously worked with Mary’s Meals to enable lunch-goers to make a small (30p) donation to the charity via transportable “Lunchbox” contactless terminals (see This gave us lots of ideas about the types of experiences we could create for different spaces and audiences —from visitors choosing their favorite museum object by tapping to vote, to more traditional fundraising totalizers supporting a public appeal. We were also given some great pointers on the tech setup used by Mary’s Meals, and started investigating how to get set up with the terminal provider, Payter.

It is important here to acknowledge the efforts of James Hairsnape, formerly of the Barbican Centre, who provided invaluable background information about the setup process, as well as reflections on the Barbican’s own trial of contactless donations.

Designs for the totem-style contactless kiosk
Figure 6: specifications for the totem-style contactless kiosk, designed by BlackCat Displays (

Below is a summary of the basic technical setup required to go live with a Payter terminal:

  • Payter  (  suppliers of the contactless terminals with a choice of integrated terminals or stand-alone boxes. These only need a plug socket; they communicate with the payment gateway over a multi-network 2G/3G connection via an internal SIM card. They can also be battery powered, making them portable. Payments can be set between 3p and £30, although to offer a choice of donation amounts, you would probably need a terminal per amount.
  • CreditCall  ( This is the payment gateway the Payter terminal communicates with to approve and process payments. With your account, you get access to a simple dashboard to view all transactions, generate reports, and provide refunds.
  • Elavon  ( The merchant bank which processes the payments sent via CreditCall deducting the amount from the donor’s account (the “Issuing Bank”), and paying it into an Elavon merchant account. It’s worth noting here that setting up your merchant account with Elavon can take some time, and, as a charity, it can require either a trustee or a director to provide signed approval and personal ID documents. You can purchase and set up terminals through Elavon, but we ended up buying them directly from Payter, as we had to first secure access to their Software Development Kit (SDK) and purchase a test terminal (which was later switched to the live terminal used in our kiosk).

Designing the user experience

We had a small budget (>£5k) to work with an agency to design an attractive and simple user experience around the core action of tapping to donate. The project tender was won by a London-based agency called Wiedemann Lampe (, and we quickly came up with some guiding principles for the project stating that the contactless experience must do the following:

  • Attract attention : We instinctively felt that a stand-alone box wouldn’t be enough to attract people, or convey an emotive enough ask. Something other than the box itself had to draw visitors in.
  • Be as frictionless as possible :  We wanted to make donating as easy as dropping a coin in a bucket, keeping the “one-tap-and-your-done” philosophy that makes contactless so great to begin with. This meant discarding any thoughts of capturing visitor data or asking for user generated content.
  • Create a natural ask :  Placing the terminal outside a forthcoming exhibition on Ancient Egypt immediately made sense, as it was predicted to be popular and had free entry, which provided a natural moment in the visitor experience to ask for donations. This also meant designing something for an adult visitors in the first instance, as this was the target audience for the exhibition.
  • Provide an experience: Rather than an isolated tap and beep, we felt that the museum space offered the opportunity to integrate the act of giving into the visitor experience, providing something both visual and interactive. Our aim was to create the digital equivalent of a simple coin spinner, where your donation is rewarded with a short but satisfying experience —and one that you (or your child) will want to repeat.
The coin "Vortex" spinner at the Museum’s Tower Entrance
Figure 7: the very popular coin “Vortex” spinner at the Museum’s Tower Entrance

What we created

The final experience displays a video of the lead curator of “The Tomb” exhibition, Dr. Margaret Maitland, and her colleague, Assistant Curator Dr. Daniel Potter, on a portrait-oriented 42” screen. They stand looking out at visitors, making eye contact, carrying objects across the frame and waving or beckoning to attract people over to the kiosk. We shot this very simply against a black backdrop, in portrait mode and in 4K, so we could crop into the frame (thanks here Edinburgh Film Company,

The "user-flow" of the contactless experience
Figure 8: the “user-flow” of the contactless experience








Donations were set initially at £3 ($4) and the main display contains simple “call-out” text overlaid on the video footage, as well as some Egyptian-themed graphics and a big blue call-to-action button making it as clear as possible to visitors what they are being asked to do. Upon tapping your card or phone on the terminal, a thank you message appears, before your chosen curator reveals their favorite object from the exhibition in close-up detail.

Because card payments are processed so quickly and signaled with just a single “beep,” we ended up adding some friction back into the process. A rotating “processing payment” stage was added into the flow, making it seem like something more definite was going on behind the scenes. There’s also a totalizer screen that can tally up total donations made against a set target, although we decided to exclude this from this initial test as we were asking for general contributions rather than running a fundraising campaign. It is worth noting that, compared to contactless cards, using a mobile-payment-enabled phone involved a slight delay (between four and eight seconds) in processing a payment on the contactless terminal. This resulted in slight confusion among our visitors and multiple attempts at achieving a valid donation.

Donations were set at £3 ($4) to align the ask with the standard donation request across the whole museum via the 21 coin donation boxes positioned around the venue. Although the system allowed the donation amount on the Payter terminal to be changed, the amount was fixed for the full length of the trial and other elements like call-out text were altered to test the effect on visitors.

The video sequences displayed on the kiosk, from “attractor” scene to thank you “reveal”
Figure 9: the video sequences displayed on the kiosk, from “attractor” scene, to thank you “reveal”

The technical setup

To run the system behind-the-scenes, Wiedemann Lampe built us a compact self-contained content management system (CMS). Sitting on a mini PC housed in the kiosk, the system talks to the Payter terminal and changes the video display at the point of recognizing an approved donation. The contactless terminal is connected to a Linux machine, which runs a Docker platform (see with two containers for the Rails and Payter Apps. The responses from the Payter terminal are transmitted to Rails via a socket connection, which handles the requests and content in the CMS to display the relevant responses.

In essence, this means that the system is very flexible, and can be changed or re-purposed with minimal effort and, importantly, at minimal cost. For example, any of the text displayed on screen can be edited on the CMS, the totalizer amount can be changed, and the video files can be swapped out for a completely new look and feel. By accessing the Ubuntu desktop on the PC, we are able to download software updates via GitHub, stop and restart the application, and also change the fixed donation amount on the Payter terminal which would normally be done by contacting Payter and requesting they reset the amount externally. Purchasing a simple wireless keyboard has allowed us to access the mini-PC within the housing without having to remove covers or shut everything down  – a small thing but it’s proved invaluable to make quick changes.

Technical set-up diagram of the contactless experience
Figure 10: the technical setup of the contactless experience


In terms of costs, the breakdown of setup and ongoing fees includes the following:

  • A one-off Merchant ID setup fee (£50/$70) and a setup fee from CreditCall per Merchant ID (circa £150/$210);
  • The contactless terminals from Payter are around £400/$550 each depending on the model selected;
  • A monthly support fee from Payter (£2/$3) and a monthly SIM card fee (£4/$5.50)
  • A monthly charge for payment processing (£5/$7);
  • Transaction fees are set at 1% for Debit or Credit cards (so, 3p per £3 donation).

Trial 2: Campaign

During the run of “The Tomb,” another exhibition opened in the museum, showcasing key items from a recently discovered viking-age hoard. Found in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland in 2014 by a metal detectorist, the Galloway Hoard comprises more than 100 objects, some of which have never before been discovered in a find of this type (see In 2017, National Museums Scotland had the opportunity to acquire the Hoard for the national collections and, to do so, had to raise close to £2 million in the space of six months. The Hoard exhibition showcased key items from the discovery in a free-to-enter gallery space, which included coordinating fundraising messaging throughout—from totem-style displays drawing people into the space, to wall panels telling the story of the discovery, and a video presenting a direct appeal to visitors from the lead curator, Dr. Martin Goldberg.

The Galloway Hoard Exhibition in the Grand Gallery at the National Museum of Scotland
Figure 11: The “Galloway Hoard” Exhibition in the Grand Gallery at the National Museum of Scotland

The exhibition presented an overt fundraising moment within the museum space targeted at all visitors including locals and tourists. It was quickly seen as an ideal opportunity to run another trial of contactless technology, enabling visitors to donate to the campaign alongside the other methods employed in the space—coin boxes, text to donate, and promotion of online giving options. Rather than recreating the interactive kiosk, the team recognized that the space was already very busy, and, with the overt fundraising messages throughout, visitors were simply looking for a way to donate after viewing the displays. There was less need here to engage visitors through screen-based content or create a separate experience around their donation. Much like in a retail environment, the contactless terminal could serve as the end process in a transaction: a payment after an experience. The simple act of giving one “tap” was the key mechanism to provide.

In design terms, this translated into a table-top version of the Payter terminal being placed on top of a small wooden plinth. The unit was painted to match the exhibition cases and sized in proportion to the coin donation boxes being used in the space. The donation amount was set at £5—again matching the main ask across text, cash, and online giving—and promoted through very simple wording (“tap your contactless card to donate £5”) alongside the logos for Contactless payments, Apple Pay, and Android Pay. The terminal was positioned next to the most popular coin donation box in the exhibition—the box directly next to the video screen running the direct appeal for funds. Although the terminal could be run from an embedded battery pack, the exhibition space had numerous power outlets available and, with the space close to the front of the building, the 2G/3G signal strength was more reliable than the location of “The Tomb.”  

The contactless terminal was in place in the Hoard exhibition for a run of six weeks, and proved an incredibly simple and effective way to collect visitor donations (see the Results section below). The reasons for the increased uptake compared to the interactive terminal are touched on at the end of this paper (see the Learning section), but a key factor was that the powerful fundraising messaging throughout the exhibition space meant that the contactless terminal itself only had to provide a means of payment, rather than also communicating a need and call to action within one experience.  

The Contactless donation station in the Galloway Hoard exhibition space
Figure 12: the Contactless donation station in the “Galloway Hoard” exhibition space      

Trial 3: General donations

When “The Tomb” exhibition came to an end in September 2017 and the Hoard exhibition also concluded at the end of October, a decision had to be made about how to redeploy the two contactless terminals in the museum space. The main entrance hall on the ground floor was viewed as the best space to run a third trial, as it is the highest traffic area of the museum, with visitors often gathering in the space before entering the Grand Gallery upstairs. An ask here for a general contribution to the ongoing work of the museum seemed like the most natural location as people begin or end their visit, especially among tourists who are often surprised that the museum is free and are used to paying for entry to cultural institutions. It is worth noting here that the current request for donations around the National Museum of Scotland is very light-touch, facilitated through the positioning of simple coin donation boxes requesting a small donation with the following messaging:

Admission is free
Please support our work by making a donation
Suggested donation £3 $5 €5
Thank you

There are parallels here to the Natural History Museum’s recent trials of two “Tap to Give” screen-based terminals in partnership with Goodbox ( Located in the main entrance space beyond the ticket desks (the Hintze Hall), they request a £5 contribution to support the museum’s ongoing work with the following message: “Your support will help us inspire all generations to learn about science and the natural world.”    

To explore ways in which the contactless terminals could be repositioned and repurposed with new messaging and visual content, a design workshop was run with staff members from the Marketing, Development, Learning and Visitor Experience teams—key staff members who observed visitor behavior on a daily basis in the different areas of the museum, or who brought expertise in creating the right messaging for specific audiences. The group was asked to consider five key areas that would affect the final design: audience (who is it for?); message (what is said? what is the ask?); content (what is shown?); tone (how is it said or presented?); and style (what formats and treatments should be used?).  

Design workshop themes
Figure 13: areas of focus and combined responses from the design workshop

Although a range of creative options were presented at the end of the session, it was decided to first run a trial of a stand-alone contactless terminal in the Entrance Hall to test the effectiveness of the payment method in a high-traffic area, and see if visitors understood both the ask and how to use the terminal. In essence, this meant moving the terminal used in the Hoard exhibition so it would be next to one of the most popular coin donation boxes, and next to one of two main entrances/exits. Coin boxes are emptied on a regular basis and the amounts logged so that the team could work out which location yielded the most contributions on a regular basis (although we were again restricted by the positioning of an accessible power outlet in the wall or floor to run the terminal).

For this trial, the donation amount was again set to £3 ($4) to match the ask on the coin boxes throughout the venue, and not create any confusion among visitors by setting up two conflicting asks sitting next to each other.   

The advantage of placing the contactless unit directly next to a coin donation box was setting up a basic A/B test. The team can monitor performance of the two donation methods and interrogate key questions: Do visitors prefer to donate with coins/notes, or via contactless? And, do contactless donations simply replace cash donations, or provide an additional source of revenue? The test went live in the Entrance Hall at the start of December 2017, and initial results demonstrated regular use of the contactless terminal as well as suggesting donations were in addition to, rather than replacing cash donations (see the Results section below).

The contactless donation terminal close to the main entrance to the National Museum of Scotland
Figure 14: the contactless donation terminal close to the main entrance to the National Museum of Scotland


Data for each live terminal is easy to access via an online dashboard provided by Creditcall. This provides basic information on each transaction, displaying the date and time, the terminal used, the status of the payment, and the payment method used. Individual transactions can be identified by the visible last four digits of the card or account, and the system allows you to print receipts or refund individual transactions, as well as download reports over a specified date range.

A Creditcall report on received donations
Figure 15: the Creditcall online dashboard used to report on received donations

Directly comparing the results of the three trials is complicated by the fact that they ran for different periods of time, with a different ask, in a different location. However, each trial points to specific patterns of visitor behavior, as well as key learning about the effectiveness of different contactless experiences.

Trial 1: Interactive experience

Set donation amount £3.00
Days live 115*
Number of donations 155

*During this run the terminal had several periods where it went offline, either because the 2G/3G signal dropped out and the terminal needed to be restarted, or the team were running tests and updates to the setup.

In terms of reliability, the chosen setup performed very well over a long period. Occasional drops in signal strength caused the Payter terminals to need a restart, although they ran well on a limited 2G signal in spaces known for having poor reception within the museum building. Only one refund was actioned through the Creditcall dashboard after a visitor queried whether a duplicate payment had been taken. This had been an issue flagged early on as a potential risk, but it only occurred when a visitor hadn’t realized the first payment had gone through by not hearing the confirmation beep or seeing the “Thank you” display (rather than two payments being taken in quick succession on one “tap”). In fact there were several examples of visitors tapping multiple times in order to deliberately donate a higher amount.

With the upfront investment in hardware and software, as well as the bespoke casing to house the screen and terminal, this trial cannot be viewed as a financial success in and of itself. However, the project was a rare opportunity for the Digital Media team to have some space for experimentation, testing the waters with a new technology to provide both organization- and sector-wide learning. It is also worth noting that the initial investment in the hardware and technical setup will be offset over a longer period as the kiosk is repurposed and positioned in new locations around the museum.

Trial 2: Campaign

Set donation amount £5.00
Days live 38
Number of donations 486

These figures are considered to be particularly strong, with total revenue almost reaching  £2500, average donations per day at close to 13, and an average daily revenue of £64. The high conversion rate here reflects the generosity of our museum visitors and the momentum that the Galloway Hoard fundraising campaign had gathered by the time the contactless unit was installed in the exhibition space. As discussed below in the Learning section, the donation call-to-action was very strongly supported by a range of fundraising messaging in the space, and the terminal offered visitors a simple method to complete their transaction, rather than also trying to incentivize them to give like “The Tomb” kiosk in Trial 1.  

Trial 3: General donations

Set donation amount £3.00
Days live (29 Nov 2017 – 30 Jan 2018)  63
Number of donations  288

At the time of writing, nine weeks of data was available, and some interesting patterns have emerged already. The level of donations has remained steady, and has also risen in line with busier periods. For example, the highest weekly total was in the period between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when the museum receives a large upswing in visitor numbers, especially among local visitors. During this time the contactless unit took more donations than the coin donation box immediately next to it, perhaps suggesting that local visitors are more likely to want to donate via this method compared to tourists. Although amounts for specific coin boxes have not been reported for certain weeks, initial results suggest that the contactless terminal is not taking donations away from the coin boxes but supplementing it, creating an additional revenue stream.

Chart showing weekly totals of the Entrance Hall contactless terminal and nearby coin donation boxes
Figure 16: chart showing weekly totals of the Entrance Hall contactless terminal and nearby coin donation boxes

To put the results of the contactless trials in context, the National Museum of Scotland currently has 21 static coin donation boxes throughout the venue (although other boxes will be brought on site for specific activities or campaigns like the Galloway Hoard). The museum is free to enter and is visited by over two million people each year (National Museums Scotland, 2017). In total, donation boxes generate over £10,000 per month for the organization, which equates to an average of roughly £0.07 per visitor across the year.

With the existing usage patterns demonstrating regular daily and weekly donations, there is a clear opportunity to generate a stable revenue stream if the contactless points were extended across the venue to provide a simple alternative to coin boxes. Although charges are levied against contactless donations and there is an initial cost to setup, contactless has the advantage of avoiding the often time-consuming task of coin handling as well as streamlining the accounting and reporting processes. More data and evaluation is clearly required over a longer time period to determine whether the collected revenue from contactless was simply in place of coin donations or additional revenue.  


Across the three trials of contactless payment technology at the National Museum of Scotland, some key lessons can be learned:

Getting set up takes time

A substantial amount of time is required to get set up in terms of the technical and the financial side. A merchant account often needs direct correspondence and approval from a director or a trustee. Talking to Payter directly was very helpful, and we ended up signing an agreement with them, rather than through Creditcall, partly to get early access to their SDK.

Working horizontally is hard

 Establishing new donation points using digital interfaces involved lots of different teams across the organization, including Exhibitions, Commercial, Visitor Experience, Development, and Technical Services. The Digital team is used to pulling together project groups like this, but it is always harder in organizations with vertical structures and a tendency towards silo working. Who owns and drives forward projects of this kind is crucial to their continued development and, for the three trials detailed here, leaders from both the Digital Media and Development team dedicated specific time and resources between other prioritized projects and ongoing workloads.   

Positioning is really important

The interactive contactless experience was originally designed to greet visitors upon entrance to the free Tomb exhibition. However, a lack of accessible power source and having to tether the kiosk to a wall (rather than drill into the museum’s limestone floors) meant that it had to be repositioned outside the exhibition exit. From our observations of visitors exiting the exhibition space, many walked straight past the interactive and had their attention captured by the gift shop displays which shared the space. The screen wasn’t directly facing visitors on exit, and this positioning had a direct effect on the total number of donations. There was also a lack of visitors being attracted to the kiosk as others were using it—one of the anticipated behaviors at the start of the project and a key driver in using a large screen with video content. Overtly capturing attention by placing the kiosk in the direct line of visitors before entering the exhibition would have increased visibility and usage. Alternatively, integrating the experience into the exhibition itself would have made the ask seem more natural and captured visitors’ attention before they had both mentally and physically checked out of the exhibition.

In contrast, we were able to easily establish the ideal location for the stand-alone terminals in both the Hoard exhibition and the Entrance Hall by looking at the data for the multiple coin donation boxes. Placing the contactless units by the most popular coin boxes has helped to bring in more donations at these key points in visitor journeys. The key role that location plays in attracting donations is reinforced by looking at the revenue collected by the existing coin boxes across the campus: one third of the total amount collected by the 21 coin boxes is currently generated by just two boxes located in the main Entrance Hall; and two thirds of the total is collected by just six boxes in prominent positions, including the “Vortex” coin spinner by the Tower Entrance.    

Context is key

The contactless terminal used in the Hoard exhibition proved to be the most successful of the three trials run at the National Museum of Scotland. In large part this is due to the surrounding context in which it was positioned. The Hoard exhibition was specifically aimed at generating donations from visitors, and this core message was communicated in multiple ways, including printed promotions, text panels, and video content. The contactless terminal did not have to sell the idea of donating but was merely providing a service for visitors who were looking for a means to donate. At this stage in the transaction, tapping a card or phone on a terminal is almost as easy as dropping coins or notes in a box, and it is interesting to note that contactless vastly outperformed the “text to donate” facility offered.      

It is worth acknowledging here the different institutional contexts and cultures of giving that exist across the museum sector and in different countries. Charging an entry fee or actively suggesting a set donation amount on entry inevitably impacts on the fundraising opportunities open to organizations. With the Met recently announcing changes to its admissions policy (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018) and a general trend towards increased revenue, generating visitor donations will arguably be harder at entry points. Opportunities for the use of mobile/contactless payments could become limited to targeted fundraising campaigns where visitors are being asked to back a causeeither for the institution itself, or an external charitable cause.  

Be flexible

The ability to test things out and run various trials at the National Museum Scotland has been crucial in learning more about the potential application of contactless technology in the museum space. Although working across multiple teams has often slowed the project down, iterating as quickly as possible and changing key parameters (including positioning, messaging, and donation amounts) has been really valuable to test what works in different contexts for different audiences. Rather than invest large amounts in devices and solutions up front, the three trials have allowed the team to gather data and identify key areas of improvement for the next iteration of the project.

Active fundraising will always win out

Following on from the point above, while it is undoubtedly true that more visitors will equate to more donations (the use of the contactless terminals at National Museum of Scotland has always increased during busier periods), there is a risk of simply leaving donation points alone once they are in the space to “run themselves.” However, this “static” fundraising model will always lose out compared to an “active” model where staff are playing a dynamic role in promoting and changing the offer in response to user data or simple observation of visitor behavior. This could mean identifying the right positions for donation points in the space in response to data, actively changing the offer through messaging or donation amounts, or changing the ask altogether in response to external events. One idea being considered at National Museums Scotland is to insert human interaction back into the donation process by equipping key staff members with portable contactless donation units to carry around the museum space.

Visitors still like contact

This concept comes back to both users’ expectations of where and when they encounter contactless payments, and the nature of the transactions themselves. Voluntarily donating your own money to support a cause is fundamentally different from paying for a product or service at the end of a transaction process. A really simple option for facilitating donation payment will usually only make sense if it is built into a wider contextual framework where visitors are actively seeking an easy way to give–either pushed towards the act of giving by targeted messaging, or where they were going to give anyway as part of a general donation at the start or end of a visit. As contactless payments via cards or mobile become increasingly normalized among both local communities and tourists, we expect to see a rise in giving via contactless as opposed to, or in addition to, more traditional methods.     

Similarly, the physical interaction of dropping a coin into a box brings a certain sense of “weighted” accomplishment and satisfaction. Rewarding people in an impactful way for a contactless donation beyond a simple “beep” still seems like a crucial part of the process. Working out how to incentivize visitors in an engaging way and provide a “reward” that makes an emotional connection to the organization and its cause could be the core challenge of contactless experience in museums that drive donations above the baseline of general giving.  

Next steps

The aim at the start of this project was to utilize the core strengths of contactless payment technology in a museum setting to facilitate new ways for visitors to donate money and increase the total amount of donations received. Through the three trials run over the course of the last eight to nine months at the National Museums of Scotland, key lessons have been learned about the key factors influencing the success of contactless donation points. A successful contactless experience must do the following:

  • persuade people to engage in a transactional process;
  • make the act of donation as quick and easy as possible; and,
  • reward them for their time, effort and contribution.

The foundations have now been laid for further iterations and experiments with contactless payments, and the next stage of the project will involve repurposing the interactive kiosk with new messaging and visual content for the forthcoming public fundraising appeal around the launch of Ancient Egypt and East Asia galleries. The existing Entrance Hall trial will also continue to run, and more data will be gathered to look at key questions, including whether contactless donation points are competing against coin donations or creating additional income. A proven regular stream of donations in a known popular location does not necessarily lead into rolling out contactless terminal across the whole venue. For this to happen, a more detailed case for support is required, and there is an expectation that the cost of the individual units will reduce in price as the technology becomes more widespread and is offered by an increased range of suppliers.

While different technological and organizational contexts need to be recognized when considering the use of contactless payments in museum and gallery spaces, it is difficult to envisage a slow down in the use of contactless tech—whether card-led or mobile-enabled payments. Indeed, the growth of small, low-cost payment terminals like SumUp ( or Squareup ( will make contactless options more ubiquitous in the sector, both for collecting donations and for facilitating payments for basic visitor actions like cloakrooms, general entry, ticketing, or retail services. Museums must keep pace with these changes but also recognize that any deployment of new technology should always make existing services easier (for both customer and the organization itself), and/or create new experiences enriching the visitor experience.  


Thank you to everyone who contributed to the project at the National Museum of Scotland including my many wonderful and committed colleagues and a range of  external contributors providing exceptional design talent and technical advice. Thanks also to everyone who has contacted me from a range of museums and galleries across the world since the launch of our first trial—your advice, views, and encouragement have all contributed to the creation of this paper and the continuing project.


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Cite as:
Cawston, Rob. "Making contact: Experiments with digital donations at National Museums Scotland." MW18: MW 2018. Published January 8, 2018. Consulted .