Saturday, 19 April 2008

Museums and Clayton's audience participation

A comment Seb left on Nate's blog post about "master" metadata got me thinking about cognitive dissonance and whether museums who say they're open to public participation and content really act as if they are. Are we providing a Clayton's call for audience participation?

If what you do - raise the barrier to participation so high that hardly anyone is going to bother commenting or tagging - speaks louder than what you say - 'sure, we'd love to hear what you have to say' - which one do you think wins?

To pick an example I've seen recently (and this is not meant to be a criticism of them or their team because I have no idea what the reasons were) the London Transport Museum have put 'all Museum objects and stories on display in the new Museum' on their collections website, which is fantastic. If you look at a collection item, the page says, "Share a story with us - comment on this image", which sounds really open and inviting.

, if you want to comment, they ask for a lot of information about you first - check this random example.

So, ok. There are lots of possible reasons for this. UK museums have to deal with the Data Protection Act, which might complicate things, and their interpretation of the DPA might mean they ask for more information rather than less and add that scary tick box.

Or maybe they think the requirement to give this information won't deter their audience. I'd imagine that London Transport Museum's specialist audiences won't be put off by a registration form - some of their users are literally trainspotters and at risk of believing a stereotype, if they can bear the kind of weather that requires anoraks, they're probably not put off by a form.

Or maybe they're trying to control spam (though email addresses are no barrier to spam, and it's easy to use Akismet or moderation to trap spam); or maybe it's a halfway house between letting go and keeping control; or maybe they're tweaking the form in response to usage and will lower the barriers if they're not getting many comments.

Or maybe it's because the user-generated content captured this way goes directly into their collection management system and they want to record some idea of the provenance of the data. From a post to the UK Museums Computer Group list:
We have just launched the London Transport Online Museum. Users can view
every object, gallery and label text on display in our new museum in Covent Garden.

Following on from the current discussion thread we have incorporated into this new site, the facility for users to leave us memories / stories on all objects on display. Rather than a Wiki submission these stories are made directly on the website and will be fed back into our collection management system. These submissions can be viewed by all users as soon as they have passed through moderation process.

We will closely monitor how many responses we get and feedback to the group.

Please have a look, and maybe even leave us a memory?
[My emphasis in bold]

Moving on from the example of the London Transport Museum...

Whether the gap between their stated intentions and the apparent barriers to accepting user-generated content is the result of internal ambivalence about or resistance to user-generated content, concern about spam or 'bad data', or a belief that their specialist audiences will persist despite the barriers doesn't really make a difference; ultimately the intentionality matters less than the effect.

By raising the barrier to participation, aren't they ensuring that the casual audience remains exactly that - interested, but not fully engaged?

And as Seb pointed out, "Remembering that even tagging on the PHM collection - 15million views in 2007, 5 thousand tags . . . - and that is without requiring ANY form of login."

It also reminds me of what Peter Samis said at Museums and the Web in Montreal about engaging with museum visitors digitally: "We opened the door to let visitors in... then we left the room".

(If you're curious, the title is a reference to an Australian saying: Clayton's was "the drink you have when you're not having a drink", as as Wikipedia has it 'a compromise which satisfies no-one'. 'Ersatz' might be another word for it.)


  1. Hi Mia

    'Clayton's participation' is a good phrase. My whole 'Planning social media in museums' workshop discusses these matters in detail . . . . and you are right, museums are not prepared for participatory engagement online. The problem with online is that the volume can be enormous and museums in the age of funding cuts 'don't scale well'.

    At the Powerhouse we might have had only a fraction of user tags but we have had a deluge of public enquiries. So many in fact that we've had to implement a helpdesk system to manage the curatorial enquiries.

    Likewise, museums are used to an 'exhibition model' wherein key staff work their guts out in the lead up to an exhibition, then it opens and they take several months leave. Problem is, online, you launch and they resources need to stick around . . . . for a long time. I'm sure you're familiar with that.

    So 'Clayton's participation' is a fact of life - and perhaps we should just acknowledge that rather than get caught up in chasing an unrealistic ideal of 'open participation'. On a side note, I think the UK museums realised that not everyone wants to come to a museum even when they are free entry . . .


  2. I'm starting to wonder much along the same lines. Is the current push to allow tagging really anything much more than opening up tp public grafiti, of limited meaning to many others? Real engagement is at a deeper level and requires a step beyond just allowing tagging. I suspect our users and visitors will soon become bored with us if that is all we offer.
    I disagree with Seb's point re curating exhibitions - at least in my experience. The current special exhibitikn we have is on T.E. Lawrence and the Australian Light Horse. As the curator I've spent a lot of energy actually engaging with those interested via our long running blog, curator led tours (probably now amounting to a total of 1,200 people), seminars, writing essays for a catalogue or sorts, media, and doing many public talks outside the museum. Real engagement and participation at the curatorial level does happen and it is well beyond tagging and folksonomies. Sometimes those of us obsessed with the new web forget the real stuff.

  3. We see an increase in enquiries whenever we put a new collection or exhibition microsite online, but it actually helps because the number of enquiries answered can be a meaningful metric for UK museums. It might even have an effect on funding, I'd need to check and confirm.

    Now that we're starting to see forms of faceted browsing and search I think the benefits of tagging will become more apparent. Simple tags lack the context needed for clever presentation - is 'brown' a colour, the Australian politician Bob Brown, the UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown or a sauce? - but general tags might help cover gaps in our descriptions (a la that make our collections more discoverable to a general audience.

    It's also important to differentiate between various audiences that are going to tag or add content to records. It actually helps museums get better catalogues if people with specialist or local knowledge add data to our records. So some tagging helps us, some helps our audiences.

    Maybe it's partly about managing expectations and defining the boundaries or interactions we're prepared to have with our audiences.

  4. Hi Mia

    I felt that I had to reply to your post, as I am one of the people who worked as part of a very small team to deliver the London Transport Online Museum project.

    Firstly I’d like to give you a little background to the user generated content (UGC) part of the project. Our overall aim was to develop and test a tool for enabling user memories to be captured, displayed along side museum content and fed back into our collection management system. Post ‘going live’ we knew that we would have a limited staff resource to maintain the project, that we wanted to moderate submissions pre publish, and that we had to devise a system that would enable us to receive a submission and almost ‘instantly’ publish the moderated submission live on the site as quickly as possible.

    The UGC tool was essentially a pilot project, and was to be delivered as part of the Online Museum, (to time and within budget) alongside another strand of our community curators work for Re-visiting Collections. The developed tool would be used on the website, in our public gallery space and at open weekends etc. This is a classic example of a Museum trying to provide a solution with multiple benefits to several projects from one stream of funding (sound familiar?)

    You raised a lot of interesting issues and I thought I would answer some of them to provide reasons for our decisions.

    You wrote:
    “Share a story with us – comment on this image, which sounds really open and inviting. But, if you want to comment, they ask for a lot of information about you first…”

    I feel this is a slight exaggeration, we ask for: First name, surname, city and email address. Of these only first name and email are required fields. There are two reasons for this. Firstly we feel that a story without this basic information almost removes the personal nature of the story or memory. Showing such personal information (particularly where the person if from) along side the object, a museum label and interpretation etc. gives the story more credence and brings the object alive. During some pre launch evaluation sessions we specifically asked small focus groups if they did have stories to share with the Museum would submitting this type of personal information deter them. The answer was universal ‘no’.

    Secondly, without getting into the ‘behind the scenes’ politics of our set up here we were obligated to consult with Transport for London regarding this UGC feature. As is the case with many local authority Museums, we were obligated to act on their recommendations, and made great efforts to ensure that we complied. There was a lot of talk about ‘transparency’ - in other words making it explicitly clear to our audience what their personal information would be used for and how it would be displayed. I do agree however, that the addition of the Privacy Policy and DPA info perhaps makes the submission form look and feel over formal; it’s something that we will evaluate over the next few months.
    Regarding the requirement of a user to provide us with an email address this serves two purposes. As you suggested it is indeed an attempt to limit spam. Yes, we admit its crude, and that it won’t deter the persistent spammer, however it was a measure suggested to us by our UGC feedback tool developer.

    At the start of the project we visited a Museum who already had a feedback mechanism in place. They were inundated by email spam and as a result the task of weeding out any useful comments from amongst the spam was proving detrimental. Admittedly, this may have sent alarm bells ringing in our heads especially as we knew we would have a limited staff resource to moderate submissions. Seb hit the nail on the head in his response, ultimately this was going to be a huge ‘unknown’ for us, we were unsure if we would be able to cope with a sudden inundation of submissions or responses, therefore this was a precautionary measure.

    The second purpose served by the users email address again comes back down to the point regarding the UGC being fed back into our collection management system. If a really interesting story came to light, the email address could be used to follow up on this story, maybe even lead to a follow up oral history interview. (We have a tick box asking if we may contact them in this instance and only this instance). Ultimately one the best possible outcomes for this project will lead to the enhancement and development of our collections.

    Over the last year our major priority was getting our entire Museum galleries onto the web (Believe me even this concept met with much resistance at its inception). User Generated Content is a fairly new arena for us, and is proving to be quite a learning experience.

    We plan to continue tweaking and testing the UGC feedback tool over the next few months. It’s not there yet but at least we have dipped our toes in the water. The concept of ‘open participation’ proved to be too much of an unrealistic ideal in this case and we had to make a few compromises or else decide not to go down this route at all. Now that would be a real shame.

    Apologies for the long post!
    Anna Creedon
    Digital Collections Developer, London Transport Museum

  5. Hey Anna - many thanks for your reply. (I was going to remind Bryan that he'd said reply but you've saved me that trouble.)

    I really hope it didn't sound like I was picking on your site by using you as an example and a focus for my thoughts. You guys have done a fantastic job in getting everything from your Covent Garden site into an online collections site; and that fact that you're piloting an user-generated content project is impressive.

    I suspect the visitor experience of the comment form is partly about expectation management - compared to a general purpose website asking for 'comments', the form asks for more information than most; but in the context of information provided - your 'story' - becoming part of your collections management system, it's perfectly reasonable. I guess it's not immediately clear because the language varies slightly in different sections - are you asking for casual comments (YouTube style: 'Nice train! LOL!!!!1!') or stories (a considered and personal response or experience related to your collection)?

    It's a balancing act, and I can imagine that working with so many unknowns while also dealing with the policies of a parent institution, the DPA and internal attitudes to user-generated content must have been difficult.

    Will you be writing about your experiences - the tweaking, evaluation, responses, lessons - anywhere beyond the MCG list? I think we could all learn from your experience on the project.

    cheers, Mia

  6. Anna CreedonApril 25, 2008

    Hi Mia

    No worries, as I said this is very much a learning process for us. All feedback is welcome and provides a valuable insight into what our users think of the UGC aspect of the site.

    I completely take on board your comments on expectation management
    “'s not immediately clear because the language varies slightly in different sections” - this is a very valid point. We had many discussions regarding the terminology e.g. should we ask for ‘memories’, ‘comments’ or ‘stories’. We definitely need to go back and check that these terms have been applied consistently throughout the site. I fear that one or two changes may have slipped through the net in the mad rush to get the project delivered to the timescale!

    Re: writing about our experiences, this is definitely our intention. I think we want to let the project settle for a while and see what happens in terms of submissions etc. Our fears about being inundated with submissions were somewhat unfounded. There is a trickle of comments slowly coming through now. Interestingly enough, most memories seem to be from those people who have worked for London Transport over the years. We shall keep you posted!