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Posted on August 28, 2017
by Eric Holter

Preparing Your Museum for Technological Breakthrough

It’s time for museums to start thinking hard about how they will take advantage of the rich media and layered storytelling possibilities that current technological breakthroughs are creating. These breakthroughs are bringing what used to be very expensive and complicated techniques and systems into reach of the budgets of even small to mid-sized museums. Recent changes in low-cost web platforms like WordPress, significant upgrades in Collection Management Systems like Gallery System’s TMS and eMuseum, and new imaging formats like IIIF are dulling the bleeding-edge of digital presentation technologies so that standard museum operating budgets can begin to implement them.

Soon, expensive grant-funded website projects, like the Met’s amazing Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, will be able to be emulated by all museums.

However, overcoming the technical barriers, and making advanced tool sets available, is actually the easier part. Using them well will become the next challenge.

So Much Content–Where Will You Start?

Museums are by definition storehouses of cultural treasures – so many treasures that rarely can a museum put more than 5-10% of its collection on display at one time. One of the benefits of putting your collections online is that so many more objects can be viewed online than can be experienced at the museum. Getting the collection online accomplishes a great deal. On the other hand, simply getting all your objects accessible, while a necessary first step, does not come close to presenting your treasures in ways that make experiencing them most meaningful. In fact, exposing thousands of objects to site visitors, while a wonderful benefit, can actually stymie a visitor’s experience. There can be just too much to take in!

Mariana Alley Van Rensselaer wrote in the North American Review back in 1917,

“The larger our museums become the oftener it is asked whether, because of the fatigue of body and confusion of mind which result from seeing too many things at once, [emphasis mine] a number of smaller buildings in various parts of a city would not be better than a single one of great size housing a great variety of collections.”Apparently, exhaustion from information overload is not just a modern problem! Now consider that this observation, from 1917, referred just to the part of the collection on display. How much more overload do website visitors experience when ten to twenty times as many objects from the entire collection are accessible? Where is the visitor to begin? How deep can they go? How long will they spend before “the fatigue of body and confusion of mind” set in?

Of course, this problem flows from our having an “embarrassment of riches” in collection access–but it is a real problem nonetheless. It’s a problem not of access but of orientation, elucidation, and framing of experience. Again, Mariana’s 100 year old insight is helpful, “The museum should do more than offer instruction, more than get fine things and arrange them well. It should make the looking at them as easy and attractive as possible.” Mariana’s observation is just as true for online presentations as on the gallery walls. Maximizing the effectiveness of presentation is hard work in the physical museum where only 5% is being arranged and presented in attractive and explanatory ways. What about the other 95% of the collection? What of the thousands of browsable and searchable objects now available on your websites?

Until now you haven’t had to worry about this issue since the technical barriers made it moot. But soon it won’t be a technical problem, it will revert to a content problem. Until recently technology kept collection data self-contained in database-driven displays. The most orientation possible was limited to a list of browsable categories and faceted search tools. Doing anything more with your online collections was pretty much technology and cost prohibitive. But this is rapidly changing with technological breakthroughs. Soon the only barrier between your collection’s treasures and their stories will be your time and effort in telling them. This, while not a technical limitation, is still a real limitation since your time is always a strictly limited resource.

The Massive Effort of Content Creation

That’s why I say that now is the time for museums to start thinking hard about which treasures from among your digital collections to focus on first. Because the sooner you start this work, the sooner you’ll have content ready to go when all the technical tools are in place. As someone who has been involved in website development since the rise of the World Wide Web in 1995, I can affirm that one aspect of every web design and development project that takes clients by surprise is how much time it takes to create, edit, and populate their content. This is true for most all web projects, but museum sites, all the more! As museum sites begin to implement new technical capabilities that allow for enriched content, expanded object accessibility across the whole site, robust database relationships between works, artists, events, objects, and articles, as timelines, maps, and high-zoom image exploration become standard capabilities–just imagine the possibilities for collection enrichment! Possibilities only limited by the time involved in curating, creating, organizing, and collecting enriched presentations like those in the Heilbrunn Timeline.

That’s why planning should start now. Which objects will you invest time in first? Whose time will be allocated to begin building robust content and collect assets for those presentations? Content creation and production, more than technological investment, is the real next frontier. Even if your museum is still a year or two away from truly integrating your Collection Management System with your web platform, once that technology arrives, it will be your turn.

Designers and developers have been making great strides to bring the vision of expanded reach and impact of museum collections to life. But for the vision to be fully realized, museum professionals are going to need to roll up their sleeves and begin shaping stories that enrich object presentation. Making your online collections more than just a series of images on the screen, but experiences where the full meaning of these works are elucidated.

As Mariana further said,

“But in this essential work of self-instruction, books and teachers can guide and help. A certain amount of historical and technical knowledge is necessary, indeed, for the right and full understanding of what the eye shall eventually teach itself to see and to love. Only with this kind of aid can we relate the works that we are looking at to the men who produced them, and contrast them with other developments similarly understood … Moreover, no man’s eye can be as sensitive as it might become, his judgments as trustworthy, even his emotions as susceptible, if they are not stimulated and clarified by a knowledge of what other men have seen and thought and felt.”
The expertise resident in your staff, and the hidden treasures in your collection, are all about to be invited into an expanded world of possibilities through your website. The vision is exciting, and the potential is great. But the work is also daunting.

My suggestion is to start talking and planning for this today, as if all the tools were already available. Start working now on content strategies, story prioritization, wish lists for augmented media like audio and video, and contextual object relationships. Wouldn’t it be great, if by the time your site has all these tools available, that you already had several online-curated features ready to showcase? Content creation is, and always has been, a challenging part of website development. With the new expansion of possibilities in front of museums, that challenge will be greater than ever.

Best start now.

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