I’m from Auckland, New Zealand, which as we can see from this painting was already a bustling metropolis in 1870. This image also happens to be part of Auckland Art Gallery’s online collection and is one of many images they have marked as having no copyright restrictions.
New Zealand is also the home of birds that think they’re mammals. This is a result page from DigitalNZ, a national site to make it easier to find, share and use New Zealand’s digital content. DigitalNZ has 120 partners and 29 million records. It is fast becoming our digital commons with a large portion marked for re-use by others.
I work for Vernon Systems developing software for museums to manage and share their collections. We’re responsible for NZMuseums, a website representing the country’s 400 museums. Collection records on NZMuseums are automatically harvested, or copied, into DigitalNZ.
Doing a Google image search gives you popular representations for a particular phrase. So, here I have searched for the word ‘museum’. Unsurprisingly we find images of impressive public buildings. We’ve got a good reputation for somewhat imposing temples of knowledge.
If I search for ‘my collection’ I find collectors at the heart of their collections. Here is one image that we hope for with online museum collections. Visitors are at the centre of the collection, everything is within their reach and they feel a personal connection with the items. You may never have as many slingshots as this guy, but you have your own amazing collections to share.
I’m going to cover some key points that we want from online collectionsAt its base is the content. We want to share it for people to re-use and we want to measure this use to decide whether we’re making the right choices.
Museums collections are Internet gold. At its best, collection content is unique and interesting and has emotional connections with people and places and time.
Museum collections represent knowledge about the world we live in. Collection records describe objects with special significance. If they aren’t significant then why to we have them. Collection records are data and as such provide an opportunity for a 10,000’ view of the collection that is difficult to achieve onsite. As one example, Cooper Hewitt in USA provide multiple high-level snapshots of their collection information as one entry point into their online collection.
There will always be further detail that can be added to the catalogue records. New information comes to light. Old views become outdated. However, even basic catalogue records provide a discovery and discussion point for each collection object. Brooklyn Museum of Art publish their entire collection but acknowledge there is work still be to be done, including adding images, proofing existing data and creating more detailed significance statements.
Owaka Museum is a typical tiny local history museum. They’re in a remote village of only 300 people. To help promote the museum’s holdings they decided to publish all of their records.
In the last year they had 75,000 page views for their collection. It’s given them enormous exposure, attracting new visitors to the physical museum and many useful online comments. We want people to discover our collections.
Where do we want our collections to appear? Your own museum website is the obvious starting point as you can fit the collection pages in with general information about the museum, including onsite and offsite opportunities for the visitor to continue their contact. However, your website is no longer the end of the publishing process – it’s just one channel that your content could go to. We increasingly need to think about creating collection information that can be shared through multiple channels.
There are now a host of new channels or platforms for online collections, each with its own audience. You might, for example, publish a selection of images to Pinterest for people scrap-booking for their wedding.
… or to Tumblr, another social media darling, which is for people scrap-booking because they’re insane. Here we see Wellcome Trust’s wonderful call to action: Submit Your Brain! If we want to engage with a wider audience we must put the content where the people are. If your website doesn’t support mobile devices then at least consider putting content on a platform that has mobile built in.
We should share the collection love. The content we publish doesn’t always answer a user’s query. On NZMuseums we present the results of a user’s search, but always show related results on the right from DigitalNZ’s larger dataset. We don’t want to lead visitors into a dead-end just for the sake of keeping them on our website.
Our collections have stories to tell. We need to think about how our visitors will engage with online collections and help continue to shape these stories. We need a culture within our organisations that encourages interaction with our audiences. That interaction could be as simple as allowing comments on collection pages. We want to learn more about our collections.
We have to give to receive. Reply to comments when people ask a question. Create projects that give something back for community. The Your Paintings tagger helps others to find content. Crowd-sourcing projects like this only work when the users feel they are valued.
There are many channels through which you can share your collections, with Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook being some examples. You may not want a visitor responding to an artwork by posting an animated gif on your website. However, online audiences are continuing to develop new ways to communicate with each other and you can choose to share some content to these channels to support this.
Most museums are publicly funded and should be making content as usable as possible for the public. We want to see our collection content live on beyond our walls, so we should consider licensing that enables this.
Powerhouse Museum uploaded their Tyrell photography collection to Flickr with a Creative Commons licence to allow non-commercial re-use. The collection now has increased exposure, is used for education purposes and has more commercial sales.
Many collection items have a digital catalogue record but no image or an image that does not have copyright clearance. It’s still worth publishing this as it helps others discover the objects in your collection. Be pragmatic. For example, you could mark the images you’ve taken of a social history collection with a licence for re-use while working through copyright clearance for other departments.
Programming interfaces can provide a way for your collection information to automatically flow through to approved partner websites can applications. Putting content into larger sites like Culture Grid can extend access.
Museums practises are a strange and mystical beast for most everyday visitors. Your online presence provides new opportunities for transparency in museum procedures. Why do you have hundreds of skulls of the same animal? Why is only 3% of your collection on display? What are your new acquisitions and why were they chosen?
Indianapolis Museum of Art publish the details of their deaccessioned works.
By publishing their deaccession details their funders and visitors know why museum objects were removed from the collection. All money earned from deaccessioning goes back into their acquisition fund.
Creating a page that summarises key activities in the museum, including collection details, is way to have greater transparency.
Above all of this we need to measure what we are doing. It’s not just about counting heads. We need ways to measure the different things that happen to collections online.
We can see here that we have a small but steady number of searches each month for ‘whale’ and ‘whaling’, but suddenly in February there is a huge spike in searches for ‘whale’. We can use website analytics to track down why.
The rare shepherd’s beaked whale had been captured on film for the first time. News readers were then searching in Google for information about the whale and were discovering the collection record for the type specimen in the museum’s collection. Metrics like this can help you respond to events. You could choose to spend an hour writing a blog post about how the specimen came into the collection.
We want our online collections to help us understand who our audience is and what they are interested in. No single tool gives us a complete picture, but we can make use of a variety of tools: web visitor tracking like Google Analytics, social media software like Hootsuite, and survey tools for more in depth studies.
The V&A have detailed subject pages covering key areas of their collection. Gathering better statistics about online collection use can help you decide which areas to prioritise when creating better content.
The last point I want to introduce, for want of a better word, is wonder. We need ways to bring the interesting items to the surface. We need new ways to start conversations with our audience. It could be through a mobile app. The Tate Ball shows works from the collection based on conditions like the weather where you are.
It could be as simple as a button to show random items from the collection, like on the Museum of New Zealand collection home page.
… or it could be through more significant partnerships, like the commemoration of the 100 th anniversary of World War I.
DigitalNZ lets users create their own sets to illustrate a topic. The best sets get selected to appear on the DigitalNZ home page. We want our users to help highlight the wonderful things in our collections.
I want to close by saying that we want online collections to improve the museum experience, to increase the value of having museums. We want to make things, share them, make discoveries through sharing and then take another step forward.
1. What do we Paul Rowe want from online CEO, Vernon Systems collections? UK Museums on the Web 2012 30th Nov 2012, London My officeSouth Auckland c. 1870http://www.aucklandartgallery.com/the-collection/browse-artwork/7268/south-auckland-landscape
3. Collections aren’t just objects, they represent knowledgehttp://collection.cooperhewitt.org/media/
4. Catalogue records will never be perfecthttp://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/103443
5. Share what you haveOwaka Museum in NewZealand publishes all oftheir 6,800 records andimages online
6. Owaka Museum: 75,000 page views per yearhttp://www.nzmuseums.co.nz/account/3021
10. EngagementWow, the lady in the back row inthe middle is my great, great, greatgrandma!! This is Jeremiah Callaghan from Boherbue, Cork, Ireland. Buried in the Southern Cemetery, Dunedin (Callahan). Married to Jemima McLeod from Wick, Scotland. Lived 4km south of Owaka on the lake with his sonStriatic on Flickr John and Jeremiah.