I'm David Little, a user experience researcher and designer

The innovative museum

Posted: December 1, 2011

I attended my first UK Museums on the Web conference last week at the Imperial War Museum and have to say was very impressed with the kinds of digital projects that were being undertaken and the user-centric methodologies underpinning the design and delivery of them.

The presentations covered a wide range of topics relating to digital museums, from planning a realistic digital strategy to refining your metadata but those I found of particular interest related to engaging and involving users in building and using digital resources, a topic I’ve been finding myself more and more interested in of late–addressing those nagging questions about exactly why and for whom we in the digital cultural heritage and humanities sectors are building these resources in the first place.

Museums and galleries arguably have a head start when it comes to involving users in projects: direct access to them as visitors to their institutions. This is something that the Social Interpretation project at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) is making the most of: a project to record visitors’ interpretations of exhibits, bringing them the same ability to share and discuss found on the social web to the museum space, via in-museum devices, the web and mobile apps.

This project is putting the user at the centre of the design process, both directly via testing of prototypes and observation of user behaviour in the galleries.  Interestingly, it’s also been run entirely according to an agile methodology–not just the development but the design and management, so I’m really looking forward to hearing more about this.

Another participatory IWM project being developed is Lives of the Great War–a crowdsourced project to create stories of those who served and died in the First World War. This is being done principally by enabling access to the various appropriate information sources distributed across the Web, some of which are behind paywalls, via a single access point. The plan is to archive the resource permanently and also to release the data under a “CCO” licence (the most permissive Creative Commons licence); making the data available for reuse in a number of contexts.

The Outside In project, run by the Pallant House Gallery is a slightly different participatory project–providing a space for artists traditionally unable to engage with the artistic mainstream due to disability or social circumstance to display their work. The interface for doing this was developed iteratively, including in workshops with the artists themselves. The next stage is a mobile app–not for the sake of developing one but because interaction via a mobile device involves fewer cognitive steps, e.g. the need to understand concepts such as file structures when uploading content from your computer’s file storage. With a mobile app, the device which records the art work can also be used to upload it directly.

I was fortunate enough to be elected to the committee of the conference’s organising body, the Museums Computer Group–something I’m very excited about. The levels of innovation and creativity in the sector are very impressive and I’m looking forward to learning and sharing more with all involved.

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