Closing Comments

Throughout this module we have discussed the complexities of the online/digital museum.

We have covered topics including:

Museum Websites
Games and apps
Online learning/digital learning
Social media/strategies/copyright

Whilst discussing and reading about these ideas, a number of key challenges and themes have stood out to me in regards to digital/online museums in the contemporary climate.



As I referred to in my post on e-books and digital collections, there isn’t yet a foundational language with which to discuss digital issues. Even things as seemingly simple as defining ‘digital’ or ‘online’ can become confusing, as we have noted in our classes. Not only are the simple terms often unclear, but the digital/online experience does not have a linguistic framework with which it can be discussed. This can lead to much confusion when discussing physicality of objects and physical interaction with objects. These are 2 very distinct ideas but without clarity, ideas and discussions can become confused and unclear.

Physicality of Objects vs Physical Interaction

It is important to be clear when discussing digital/online that there is a distinction between the physicality of objects and physical interaction with objects. People physically experience the world around them, and this is also true when they experience digital/online objects: people have to act physically, be it by using a mouse or holding a tablet, there is always some sort of physical experience. It is not a physical experience that is lost, however, physical qualities of an object may be lost in digitisation. When an object is digitised, the object is reproduced and presented as something new, something other than the original; it no longer has a physical presence but is virtual and untouchable. An interesting point Chiara raised in response to my blog post is that this is not all that different from the experience of an object in a museum, as museums do not approach their work with a hands-on attitude, how much is lost from the experience?

When should we go digital/online?

Another challenge museums need to be aware of is the desire to go digital or use digital tools when it doesn’t actually enhance the experience in anyway. In many of our classes we have discussed the importance of being aware of the constant changes and developments in new technologies online. However,  we have also agreed that it is important to know when to partake in such technologies and when not to. It is not about embracing every new technological advancement but ensuring that the ones you choose to use are used strategically and in line with the museums mission.

As demonstrated in my posts exploring digital learning, sometimes it is important to develop learning tools for the purpose of education and not for the sake of using a new digital tool.


In light of this, we can discuss the notion of scaffolding tools for participation as discussed by Nina Simon in The Participatory Museum. For participatory activities such as games and apps to be successful, the tools needs to be scaffolded. They should be shaped for purpose. The users should be given goals and targets and be made to feel valued with rewards.

Copyright/strategy/social media


Social media, like any other digital tool, must be thought through and considered. It should be scaffolded and tailored to suit the needs and mission of the museum. In order to do this, it is now common practice in museums to develop social media strategies and policies.

As social media and online activities are such an integral feature of contemporary western culture, it is an obvious way for museums to engage a wider audience and to share their knowledge. However, through distributing content online in spaces designed to allow the user to be more active in commenting, copying, remixing and sharing, the museum must carefully consider the type of content they share and the platforms upon which they do so. If this content and the chosen platforms fits the mission of the museum, I think it is an excellent way to engage audiences, challenge them to think about information and to encourage dialogue around museums.


Social Media: Strategies, Policies and Copyright

For a tool that is used daily across the world by so many people, museums certainly to have a lot to consider when thinking about engaging in social media.

As this picture demonstrates


there so many social media platforms to choose from. Each platform engages a different audiences and allows the users to present information in different ways. Museums face the challenge of deciding what channel of social media they intend to use and why from the word go. Its not just a case of making a Facebook group and expecting ‘likes’. In this decision, the museum must consider:

  • what kind of audience it wants to reach
  • what story it wants to tell
  • what level of authority does it want to convey
  • what kind of tone it wants to use

They must also consider what kind of communication model they wish to use (Russo, Watkins, Kelly, Chan, 2006:1)

  • one to one
  • one to many
  • many to many

To make these decisions, museums must consider ‘Why’ they have chosen to engage in social media. Predominantly, social media is used as a marketing tool and if this is the case, the museum must consider that ‘Every time a museum presents an object, it brands itself’ (Wallace, 2006:9). The museum must carefully consider the choices of objects it presents and how it presents them.

Another reason for engaging in social media may be to engage new audiences or to encourage participation. This participation is not necessarily just from the audience but also between museums for example ‘instaswap‘ or #museumweek.

Social media, like any other digital tool, must be thought through and considered. It should be scaffolded and tailored to suit the needs and mission of the museum. In order to do this, it is now common practice in museums to develop social media strategies and policies.

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Strategies tends to be very comprehensive documents whereas policies are more personable and consider how people as users engage with social media. They may consider employees personal accounts as well as museum accounts.

The benefits of engaging with social media are difficult to track and therefore defending the use of museums using social media is also difficult. Museums cannot predict how many people will engage with the tool, nor can they predict how they will participate and the time/duration this engagement and participation will last. In addition to this the evaluative tools for investigating social media struggle to give a true representation of how people are engaging. As with all digital/online tools, google analytics can be used in addition to considering the number of ‘likes’ or ‘follows’, ‘retweets’ or ‘hashtags’ however these can never give a truly accurate representation of the success of social media.

“There is often still not a direct link to the type of customer behaviour we want to measure, such as ticket sales. What’s the value of a Facebook like, or a re-tweet, or a blog comment? There is no magic formula we have for linking this type of digital activity to the actual sale.” (Avery in Blanding, 2015) Or, in this case, to museum visitors.

With the speed at which digital platforms change and evolve, museums cannot predict how services will change and develop their structures and sharing mechanisms. They can also not predict the changing interests in the audience and the popularity of certain content forms and modes of social media.

As social media is such an integral feature of contemporary western culture, it is an obvious way for museums to engage a wider audience and to share their knowledge. However, through distributing content online in spaces designed to allow the user to be more active in commenting, copying, remixing and sharing, the museum must carefully consider the type of content they share and the platforms upon which they do so. If this content and the chosen platforms fits the mission of the museum, I think it is an excellent way to engage audiences, challenge them to think about information and to encourage dialogue around museums. However, as with any participatory tool, as Nina Simon suggests in The Participatory Museum, social media posts and engagements must be scaffolded to encourage positive, active engagement from the audience.



Crowdsourcing: Is it a waste of time?

In our last session with Ally Davies, Online Learning Manager at Museum of London we discussed the concept of crowdsourcing and its role within the museum. We discussed the potential benefits of crowdsourcing to museums such as extending audience reach, enabling museums to tailor experience for intersection between specific audiences and their collections and enabling small museums to appear as more dominant. Through encouraging participation, crowdsourcing also potentially provides benefits for the participants such as extending allowing participants to develop new skills and providing participants with a forum where they can discuss the historical or scientific questions. All of these benefits are discussed by Mia Ridge here. However, I can’t help but ask…is crowdsourcing a waste of time? Allow me to expand.

During the session with Ally, we discussed one particular example: Tag London. This was a ‘game’ created by the Museum of London learning team in order to combat a need they had within their collections database (to tag objects to make them more ‘searchable’)  and a need to fulfil their museum strategy (to engage every schoolchild). Already alarm bells ring as it seems the focus here is not on creating an engaging learning platform of exciting participatory opportunity but on the museums needs. When discussed with teachers, the idea of creating a ‘game’ in which the students were presented with objects from the collection that were required to be categorised from a selection of categories. The main problem with this ‘game’ was that once an item was categorised 6 additional users needed to agree on this category before it was verified and  the initial user could be rewarded. This lack of immediate response or reward meant that users quickly lost motivation and interest in completing the task. In addition to these 7 users agreeing on the category the object fit in, the information then had to be agreed by a curator from the Museum of London before the information could be fed back into the database. In this specific case, when a curator is required to approve the information anyway, surely it would make have made more sense for the time spent developing the game and the time spent checking the data to have been spent completing the task internally? Perhaps this is not the case for all crowdsourcing activities, however, these activities do also raise the issue of authority and false democratisation.

Can participation through crowdsourcing ever really be free from false democratisation and is the authority ever fully handed over to the participants. In the case of Tag London, I would argue that the answer is no. Although the game task seemed to allow the participants to select and categorise the objects, this was by no means on their own terms. The lists of categories were authored by the museum in the making of the game and further to this (as mentioned above) the data had to be verified and then approved by a curator. Hardly empowerment of the participant!

This begs the question then, how often when participating in certain tasks or crowdsourcing projects online is our data checked or verified by museums professionals? For those whose motivation is to get some feeling of empowerment or a sense that they are helping the cultural institution in some way, could they have been misled? Furthermore, is it wrong to do so? Do museums simply use crowdsourcing as a tool to extend their audience reach and engage new audiences – does it matter if this tool is misleading?

Perhaps those who engage in crowdsourcing activities might not mind if their work is checked/approved by the professionals. After all, they have still engaged in the task and potentially learned a new skill and some sense of achievement. But, is it right for  museums to mislead users in this way (if indeed they are misleading them)? Crowdsourcing, is it a waste of the users time and the professionals developing the projects time?

Some resources/interesting reads

The difference between e-books and digital collections

Some thoughts on ebooks and digitised collections following a listen to  Little Atoms podcast 319 with James Bridle, recorded at FutureEverything 2014.


Writer, artist, publisher and technologist, James Bridle’s work covers the intersection of technology, literature, culture and the ‘network’. In 2011, Bridle coined the term ‘new aesthetic’ and his studies into this topic are fascinating to me. In this podcast recorded at FutureEverything in 2014, Bridle discusses the initial reaction from publishers to E-Books and I would like to draw some comparisons between this reaction to the introduction of E-Books and the museum professionals’ reaction to the introduction of digital collections.

Bridle suggests that initially publishers and writers were generally horrified by the thought of e-books. He talks about the response of publishers being one of fear; fear of losing grip on the physical embodiment of the experience of reading a book. Bridle suggests that publishers feared that the experience of reading (i.e. time spent with a book, the mental process of reading and the re-animation of stories and characters) would be lost with the introduction of e-books. However, he argues that this is not the case and those fears came from a misunderstanding of the experience of reading: people had embedded the experience into the physical object when in fact the experience is a temporal one.


We can draw similarities between this reaction to e-books and the way in which museum professionals feared that digitising collections would replace the temporal experience of viewing and interpreting object. There was a fear when digital collections started to become accessible online that people would no longer engage with the physical objects as they would be able to achieve everything they needed/wanted to online. However, this has not been the case, museum visitor numbers have not dropped but instead, the digital objects have simply become more accessible to a much wider, global audience: those who might not otherwise be able to access the physical objects can still engage with and interpret the objects online.

Admittedly, the physical object (a book) has qualities such as texture, smell and shape and with the introduction of e-books these individual characteristics would be lost. However, Bridle implies that the experience of reading is not valuable or unique because of these physical attributes but because of the unique ways in which our minds interpret and respond to texts. A book is made our own, not because we have touched or smelt it but because we have used our minds to interpret and understand it. Bridle also implies that the experience of reading digitally is not in fact completely immaterial. The illusion of ‘the cloud’ and invisible data is in fact just that, an illusions; the cloud is in fact a huge warehouse filled with computers and technology that is very much physical and present; e-books cannot simply be translated to our minds, they have to be read on some sort of device that we physically interact with. The physical quality of reading is not lost be simply changed. Bridle argues that it is a lack of framework and language for describing the digital that has led to this misunderstanding of the physicality of technology.

If we draw comparisons to the museum object, indeed, the physical attributes may be lost when the object becomes digitised. However, the opportunity for unique interpretation and individual engagement is still the same.

Bridle argues that publishers were wrong about their own responses. Unable to see the future (which he argues is always the present not yet visible to the masses) publishers would happily carry around PDFs of books to meetings but could not make the connection between this and the notion of e-books. Bridle argues that this error in judgement is due to a lack of framework for critically describing digital experience and a lack of method for conceptualising digital experience.

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In this sense, it is the same for museum professionals. For many years, museums have been cataloguing their objects on computerised databases as a way of accessing information about the collection in a practical and convenient way. Making these databases (or parts of them) available to people online simply diversifies the audience and allows others to access and interpret the information in them.

There is however a significant difference between digitising books and digitising museum collections and that is the uniqueness of museum objects in particular artworks. Again we can refer to Walter Benjamin and his discussion of authenticity and aura (please see previous blog post). Digitising a collection object makes it visible to many across the world at any one time, it is reproduced and there is no longer only one copy of the digitised object. However, there is still only one authentic, original object and museum professionals argue that nothing can replace the experience of an encounter with an authentic museum object and its ‘aura’; with the experience of a digitised museum object the authentic experience of the object and it’s aura is lost. The same cannot be said of books, as they are not unique one-off items. It is in their nature to be reproduced and multiples and therefore there is no authentic aura to be lost in the digitisation of books.


Benjamin, W., (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Bridle, J., (2006 – present) BookTwo [online blog]

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Dutch art director Christian Borstlap created this film for the  Rijksstudio. The film includes 211 artworks from the museum’s online collection.

The notion of Digital Collections continues to raise a number of concerns and challenges for museum professionals. In addition to legal copyright concerns, there is also a culture of fear around the idea of allowing public access to images and information: fear of abuse, corruption, loss of integrity, context, control and authenticity…are these fears reasonable? Can museum professionals argue a case for keeping museum collections well within the  walls of the museum?

Copyright is a complex and murky topic within museums and as a legal issue, in this post I will accept that it is a reasonable argument against restricting collections online. However, the fears of abuse, corruption and the loss of integrity, context, control and authenticity, I will argue are not reasonable. This is predominantly for one reason: in the age of social media, networking and Google, everything is already out there; sneaky selfies with the Mona Lisa on Flickr, interpretations of the The Birth of Venus on Wikipedia, over-filtered snapshots of Tate Modern on Instagram…the visitor has already taken the collection online, if this means a loss of integrity, context, control and authenticity then all is already lost. HOWEVER, if museums take the step to take their collections online and embrace the online community, there is potential for some of these losses to be regained.

By creating digital collections and establishing social media platforms controlled by the staff of their own institution, museums have the potential to create a dominant space in which users can engage with the museum digitally. Editing and reversioning of images is inevitable, however, if museums create their own sites on which people can access accurate images and information, a digital space for the curator/historian’s voice to be heard is created. This space will inevitably allow for other voices and narratives to be heard also, but in a culture where participation and interaction is becoming increasingly important to audiences, surely this is no bad thing?

Creating digital spaces in which users can generate content (i.e. comment, share, blog, re-blog) can empower the user, making the collection/content  more accessible as well as allowing the user to engage on a deeper level with the content. As a network that spans the globe, sharing content online is also a great way to broaden audience reach.

The digital realm is a feature of everyday life (in the Western world) and museums have the opportunity to embed themselves in the everyday lives of many potential visitors. Putting their collections online and embracing the digital realm, museums can take their content to audiences that otherwise might not have access to the museum. To remain relevant, museums must challenge, explore and keep pace with how they culturally fit in to everyday life.

Thinking innovatively and creatively, some cultural institutes have devised ways of establishing themselves in the digital realm, broadening audience reach and deepening engagement whilst still remaining largely in control of the content.

Some examples: (see video at start of post)

There may be fears around the loss of integrity, context, control and authenticity if museums are to ‘go digital’ but in my eyes it is too late to fear something which has already happened. It is time for museums to take back control and some level of authority through engaging with the digital and its users.

Resources not directly mentioned

The challenges facing museums on-site and online in the 21st century and Future forecasting : the challenges facing museums and cultural institutions : proceedings of the roundtable and symposium.


Digital Learning in Museums

Our class on Thursday 19th November was taught with help from Rhiannon Loosely, from the Museum of London. In the class, Rhiannon presented and discussed examples of online learning programs in museums. We were given an insight to the opportunities and strengths of online learning sessions, and how they can support the work of museums and galleries.

Digital learning has become such a broad concept that it can cover a great number of learning options. Generally speaking, we came to the conclusion as a class that Digital Learning means active engagement with a subject through the use of any kind of digital technology. This learning can take many forms from apps and games to online seminars, forums, blogs, digital collections, videos or simply online teacher resources.

There are a number of benefits to digital learning, primarily that through going online museums can broaden their reach and deepen audience engagement. Providing access to learning opportunities online enables an audience who otherwise could not visit the museum to engage with the collection and access the knowledge within the museum. These learning opportunities and resources can also be specifically tailored to engage target audience groups: when thinking about museums learning, this can present quite a challenge in the physical museum as it would be foolish to target (for example) only a Key Stage 1 audience in an exhibition as this would isolate a huge audience but in an online resource this Key Stage 1 audience can be targeted directly without neglecting other audiences.

By conforming to the current trend to embrace digital and online technologies, museums can engage a younger audience. They can also compete with other cultural experiences such as theatres, cinemas and sporting events.

Like all developments within museums and galleries, online learning comes with its own set of challenges. How do museums balance the priorities of teachers (i.e. the curriculum, accessible and easy to understand resources) and the priorities of the museum (i.e. experimentation, creativity, pushing the boundaries of learning, utilising resources across departments)? How do museums make audiences aware of online learning opportunities? How do museums navigate copyright laws?

In the class we were given the exercise to develop the Museum of London’s digital learning strategy considering limited budget, staff capacity, intellectual property, what teachers and students want, museum priorities and existing content. We were asked to think strategically about using digital tools to support the museums mission, what the criteria is  for a good online resource, an approach to replace obsolete technology, how to plan for events using technology, how to approach new digital opportunities and how to create online resources within budget.

Whilst considering these challenges, it became clear that when engaging with digital learning, it is vital that museums start with the basics. That is to say, if planning on using an app, the museum must have strong wifi; if the museum is planning on leading classes using digital devices, these devices must be charged and support the correct software; if presenting teachers with online resources, these resources must be easily downloadable and visible to those who need them. During the class  discussion we considered how digital learning is used and came to the conclusion that it should only be used if it adds to the learning experience. Learning should not be initiated by technology but technology should be used when it can enhances and improve the educational benefits of an activity. When creating online resources and digital learning experiences, museums should utilise their strengths as an institution to create a unique learning experience.

Planning for the future when thinking strategically about a museums digital future is indeed a difficult task as the digital world evolves so quickly it is hard to predict what opportunities lie on the horizon. It is important for museums to remain informed on the latest technologies and developments but their primary focus is not as leaders in the technological field and it is important that they remember this. However, as much as digital technology evolves, it also becomes quickly obsolete. Considering these two opposing challenges it seems a wise move for museums to collaborate with technology companies. One example of this is in the British Museum where their digital learning centre is sponsored by Samsung. Although this may provide some limitations in the equipment museums can use, more beneficially, it allows the museum to remain current and engage with the latest technologies with the support of a substantial technology company. It also prevents the possibility of the museums equipment becoming quickly out of date and obsolete.

Digital learning in museums can be extremely beneficial; it broadens audience reach, allows for deeper engagement with collections, allows museums to compete with other cultural institutions, provides unique learning experiences. However, digital learning can present many challenges such as basic technical issues (wi-fi), promoting online resources, navigating copyright laws and remaining current. It is vital that museums stay on the pulse of developing technologies but also that they remain true to their missions and only embrace these digital technologies when it enhances their goals. Digital technologies should be used to create unique learning experiences that draw on the strengths of a museum’s knowledge and collection, not used for the sake of using them!


Baron Ferdinand vs Athena: Apps at the British Museum

Following an afternoon of ‘educational fun’ at the British Museum for our Current Issues module I have had the chance to experience two current museums apps. I would like to make some comparisons between Baron Ferdinand’s Challenge and A Gift for Athena.


Screenshot of Baron Ferdinand’s Challenge

Initially we began in the gallery that houses the Waddesdon Bequest. Using the Baron Ferdinand’s Challenge app, we were directed to find objects within the collection and ‘collect’ them using our devices. The game was initially fun and directed me towards certain objects in the collection, however I quickly lost interest as the objects in the collection are so magnificent that I was more interested in looking at the real thing! Perhaps in this sense the app fulfilled it’s role to encourage engagement with the objects as it acted as a gateway to the other objects in the collection, however I have to ask in this scenario if the app is really necessary. The objects are unique and the intricate details are so stunning that the objects are extremely visually engaging. As a 24year old, I don’t feel that the app is necessary to engage with the collection as it does not seem to add anything to the experience (i.e. you cannot view the objects in greater detail and there is not additional information).

In the ‘explore the collection’ section of the app, in which the user can simply select objects they see and read about them in simpler text than in the physical gallery. For a younger audience, the details/text that accompanies the objects on the app is much more accessible and one can see how this would engage a younger audience and also make it easier for parents/teachers to explain to younger children what the objects are. Within this feature of the app, the user is also asked questions. One particularly engaging (and amusing) question accompanied The Ghisi Shield: the user is asked ‘Can you make out one satyr (half-man, half-goat) farting into the face of another?’…Well, I must say this challenge both amused and engaged a group of 24-30year olds for at least 5minutes while we looked at the object in great detail and noticed many more details than we had done previously! Success!


The Ghisi Shield, Waddesdon Bequest, British Museum

In the Waddesdon Bequest gallery the curators have made excellent use of digital interpretation tools. The cases containing some of the smaller, fine objects were accompanied by screens displaying films of the objects from all angles. These films allowed the visitor to get a closer view of the minute detail in the pieces (which in many cases was truly spectacular). The films also translated inscriptions/text on the items into English. As a digital tool designed to enhance the experience the visitor has with the object, I felt that this was more successful than the app as it brought something new to the experience. Rather than simply presenting the text supporting the objects in a different way, the object was made accessible from all angles and the details were enhanced. In this gallery, the objects are treated as art objects and therefore the experience is designed to be about looking. For me, an app is not needed to do this, however, I do appreciate that for a younger audience, asking questions and selecting specific objects enables them to practice looking in great detail without being overwhelmed by the number of objects on display.

The second app we were given the opportunity to use was A Gift for Athena which is designed for use in the gallery displaying the Parthenon Sculptures. In groups of 3 we used tablets provided by the BM and worked together to complete four challenges. The challenges had us moving through the gallery in search of different symbols and imagery used in the sculptures whilst giving us facts about these symbols and an understanding of their role in greek mythology.

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Screenshot of A Gift for Athena gameplay

This app felt like a very different experience as it brought the objects to life. We were given additional information about the sculptures and not simply a translation of the text already in the museum. There was more of a story within the app which gave us as users more incentive to complete the challenges set (unlike the other app using from which we were quickly  distracted). It was clear that this app had been designed along with the learning team in order to provide a fun and educational experience of the museum. In this gallery, in addition to ‘looking’ there is also a narrative to be told and understood. It is this narrative that is explored in the app and really engages the user but also encourages them to look in detail at the sculptures. Unlike in the Waddesdon Bequest gallery, where the items are in pristine condition, the Parthenon Sculptures have been damaged. The app enabled the user to visualise them as they would have been, again adding another dimension to the experience of the object.

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Screenshot of promo video for A Gift for Athena

In a discussion following our ‘research’ with the apps, we were informed that Baron Ferdinand’s Challenge was designed to be used both internally in the gallery and externally. With this in mind, it becomes evident that the app was intended to be a gateway tool to intrigue users and incite them to view the objects in the gallery. I feel it was successful in achieving this goal as it did encourage my peers and I to look more closely at some of the objects in the collection. However, as a way of making museums more accessible to younger audiences by making them more fun and engaging, I feel that the app is not as successful as A Gift for Athena which was challenging and gripping for a longer amount of time due to the inclusion of a narrative and a variety of challenges and rewards.