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Published: March 15, 2001.


Artifact as Inspiration: Using existing collections and management systems to inform and create new narrative structures

Diane Andolsek, Experience Music Project, Michael Freedman, Plumb Design, Inc, USA


Experience Music Project (EMP), which opened in Seattle, Washington, in June 2000, is an interactive, experiential museum dedicated to exploring creativity and innovation in American popular music. The museum features a broad range of exhibits of rock 'n' roll memorabilia, such as lyrics, photographs, and musical equipment, and a variety of immersive, multimedia experiences. Part of EMP's mandate is to capture the energy and excitement of music through patron participation, including hands-on activities such as "Sound Lab" and "On Stage" and to use the latest interactive technology to improve the patron's experience. EMP's Online Development team chose Plumb Design, an interactive services and software firm in New York City experienced in standalone and complementary digital exhibits, to collaborate on both the museum's main site,, and its companion virtual exhibit, the EMP Digital Collection. This paper will focus on the latter.

About the EMP Digital Collection

The EMP Digital Collection (EDC) is a browser-based exhibit of artifacts that is accessible through two outlets: within the museum, through workstations in the Digital Lab, and on the Web, through These dual modes of access extend the museum experience onsite and through any PC's Web-browser. The Digital Collection lets EMP share more artifacts than there is room for within the building at one time and provides additional information about, and rich media related to, individual artifacts that are currently on display. Both museum patrons and Web users benefit from the Digital Collection's interface, which, through Thinkmap® data animation and visualization software, shows the network of relationships amongst artifacts and provides the essential context that helps users place each item in the larger history of American popular music. Any artifact selected by the user can serve as the conceptual center of a diagram that represents the relationships amongst the items in the Digital Collection. As the user moves from artifact to artifact, the display of relationships changes instantly, positioning the chosen artifact as the nexus from which a new unique set of relationships stems.

The Thinkmap solution takes the form of floating blue tiles--each representing a single artifact--that align themselves along a navigable timeline; when the user moves the mouse over a tile, a brief description of that artifact appears in a small word-balloon. The combination of the timeline and the rollover functionality lets users choose an era or artifact that interests them and allows them to see and traverse the connections between both obviously related and seemingly disparate items. Within the same screen there is also a column of thumbnail images, each representing an artifact in the timeline, which provides visual context for moving through the Collection.

The EMP Digital Collection interface, featuring Martin 00-17, 1949: formerly owned by Bob Dylan
Fig 1: The EMP Digital Collection interface, featuring Martin 00-17, 1949: formerly owned by Bob Dylan


In searching for an appropriate solution for bringing artifacts from its collection online, EMP had a number of requirements, the definition of which was essential in helping it pick both an outside vendor and a development platform. First, the Digital Collection needed to be expandable after the initial launch, and that growth needed to be possible independent of the vendor. (At launch, the Digital Collection comprised 1,100 artifacts, as of January 2001, it comprises 1,600.) To reduce maintenance costs, staffing needs, and time to launch, the solution needed to work with EMP's existing collections software, which was not an off-the-shelf solution but a system created in-house. Because one of the goals was to increase the size of the potential viewing audience, the Digital Collection had to offer both on- and offsite access. To help new users get started, its interface had to be more conducive to browsing than to searching, and it had to provide a variety of entries into the information. The final result had to offer diverse information about each piece in the Digital Collection, including the main artifact text, audio clips, and links to related information. To that end, EMP and Plumb Design developed a digital experience that lets visitors to the EMP museum and Web site shape their own journey through the Digital Collection.

The Digital Collection uses an intuitive and dynamic interface that integrates the various EMP databases and interactive experiences to present an overview of the collection and the museum. The system works by linking the database from which Thinkmap pulls its data to EMP's existing collections management software. To add items to the Digital Collection, EMP simply marks them, within the collections management software, as available to the Web or to the onsite access points. Each artifact is automatically placed in the correct location within the interface. EMP can then check the display of information within a staging environment. When it is ready for the public, it simply pushes the staging environment to the live environments.

Because of this high degree of integration, there is no sense that an artifact was merely tacked on as an afterthought; each new entry is cataloged and categorized to ensure that it is completely connected to related artifacts. Through this simple process, the Digital Collection is kept fresh and can expand as needed. The process also allows for a streamlined workflow; EMP doesn't need a separate staff to painstakingly reenter information into a discrete database for the Digital Collection, it simply designates artifacts and their collective descriptive information as publishable.

Reenvisioning Artifacts

The flexibility of the EMP Digital Collection granted the team a remarkable amount of freedom in conceiving possibilities for the formation of narrative. Release from the constraints of the purely physical exhibit allowed us to take a different approach to the artifacts; we saw them not as ends, but as means. For example, all artifacts in the Digital Collection are "clickable," and selecting an artifact brings up not only information about that item (e.g., its date and location of manufacture, its story), but also links to Associated Names and Related Keywords. These text links are placed at the end of each artifact's story to suggest paths for exploration, but there are also two visual methods through which the artifacts serve as navigation elements: the interactive timeline, which puts related information in a temporal context, and the thumbnail photos of related artifacts, a more emotive and spontaneous way for users to continue their navigation. This diversity of entry points opens up the Digital Collection to use by an audience with different learning styles and different levels of familiarity and comfort with computers and the Web.

Artifacts also become an important element in storytelling, but not in the traditional sense. Typically, a curator has a story to tell and he/she uses artifacts to help illustrate that story. These stories tend to be presented in a linear, directed fashion in the museum setting. In the majority of the Digital Collection, however, there is no imposed narrative, only suggestions; users are empowered to follow their own interests and pursue the stories that most interest them. For the museum, this laissez-faire approach--putting the artifacts in the patrons' control--enables users to discover the breadth and depth of the Digital Collection in a way that traditional, curated exhibits might not permit. Traditional Web environments, of course, also offer this type of exploration, but the fluidity of the Digital Collection interface allows users to follow a whimsical path with little effort. (This capacity for constant movement and change reinforces the museum's mission and message: rock 'n' roll is never stagnant; it is marked by constant change and relentless energy.) In addition, the history graph, a scrolling bar of text at the bottom of the display, lets users retrace their steps easily and eliminates the usual penalties (confusion, endless clicking backwards) that users suffer for changing their minds while browsing. The Digital Collection also differs from a traditional exhibit in that its contents need not be tangible objects; the multimedia nature of the Digital Collection easily allows for the inclusion of audio clips, including music, narrative descriptions, and first-person accounts.

For those users who prefer greater structure, and to acclimate new users to the functions of the different sections of the interface, EMP also provides a number of more traditional online exhibits that explore a particular aspect of rock 'n' roll history. But even the terminology used to describe these exhibits--"EMP Suggests"--underscores the importance the museum as an institution places on the patrons' individual interests and natural curiosity. These exhibits can be deleted, archived, and replaced with new exhibits, allowing the curator to take an active role in keeping the Digital Collection fresh and ensuring that it continues to be a valuable educational resource for EMP.

The Digital Collection's storytelling capabilities are facilitated by the symbiotic relationship between the museum's cataloging system and the EDC database--because the cataloging system allows for multiple categorizations, the interface is able to take advantage of and expose the connections amongst multiple artifacts. For example, an award given to the musician Little Richard is, predictably, categorized as an award. However, it is also associated with Little Richard himself, vocalists, and rhythm-and-blues musicians, among other links.

Artifact Record for the Cash Box Award to Little Richard Displayed in the EDC
Fig. 2: Artifact Record for the Cash Box Award to Little Richard Displayed in the EDC

Users can see these associations, decide which aspect of the award is most interesting to them, and pursue that line of inquiry. For example, selecting the Related Keyword "rhythm-and-blues musicians" brings up a wide variety of artifacts spanning media and eras, from a poster promoting a 1995 James Brown concert to a 1964 photograph of Jimi Hendrix performing with the Isley Brothers at a New Jersey country club.

EDC display of the Cash Box Award to Little Richard
Fig. 3: EDC display of the Cash Box Award to Little Richard

There is a caveat to this arrangement; as with any database-driven system, the information that is extracted is only as good as the information that is entered into the individual artifact record. Therefore, the fields included in the record may need to be reevaluated. The typical museum catalog is designed for people to find artifacts. It is not designed to illuminate relationships. EMP went through and systematically wrote editorial content for each of the artifacts in order to ensure that the Digital Collection displayed as much contextual information as it had at its disposal. The catalog has descriptions such as vinyl record, scratch on inner lining. This material is what makes the whole experience so pleasurable and rewarding for the user. Most museums may feel that they don't have the time or resources to do this and therefore may only release a limited amount of their material to the public. EMP had a team of six people working for three months to ensure that 1,000 artifacts would be fully cataloged by opening for this purpose. In addition, the EMP catalogers actually inputted information into existing fields that ultimately were not included in the Thinkmap display, but it was important to enter the information to keep the options for connections open. These are the fields that are selected for an artifact when it is displayed: ArtifactID, ArtifactNumber, ArtifactName, ArtifactClass, FullTitle, Edition, ScopeContentNotes, Materials, HistoryRemarks, CollectionStatus, ExhibitName, GalleryTitle, GalleryUniqueID, StmtofResponsibility, Exhibited, ArtifactCreditLine, AcquisitionCreditLine, and ExhibitCreditLine. The significant fields that actually relate artifacts to each other are ArtifactClass, ArtifactName (not the title), and StmtofResponsiblity (singer, photographer, etc.).

How/ where the EDC is used

There are three opportunities for users to expand, enrich, and personalize their experience of EMP by creating their own narratives from the wealth of information in the Digital Collection. The first is the Museum Exhibit Guide (MEG), handheld technology that provides a customized museum tour to patrons. Using audio compression technology and the Microsoft Windows CE operating system, it delivers 20 hours of on-demand audio content. This supplementary content enhances the EMP experience by giving visitors instant access to in-depth information about a gallery, exhibit, or artifact and by allowing them to bookmark interesting items for further investigation in the Digital Lab or at home via the Web.

To use the MEG, patrons simply carry it with them throughout their visit to the museum; artifacts that have related audio are marked with a numbered guitar pick label. Users simply enter the number corresponding to the artifact of interest via the keypad or via the hotlink on the MEG display to hear the related audio. Visitors push a different button, indicated with an image of an actual bookmark, to bookmark artifacts for future investigation. Full integration is the key to the MEG's success as an engaging learning tool; using the unique visitor ticket ID issued to them upon entrance to the museum, patrons can pull up their bookmarks via the Digital Collection in the Digital Lab or at home on the Web. This capability gives users additional time to absorb the impact of what they've learned at the museum and lets them spend more time exploring. And it gives people who were pulled away from the kiosks by their sore-footed family and friends another opportunity to immerse themselves in the EDC.

EMP chose to use the MEG, and integrate it with the Digital Collection, for a number of reasons. The MEG embodies EMP's commitment to technology, interactivity, and participation, and it helps EMP and the user make the most of the multimedia artifacts within the museum--how effective could a museum about music be if patrons could not hear the music? The MEG also adds another level of interactivity to the museum experience; patrons are not simply passive recipients of information--they are active participants in learning. It reinforces the element of freedom; in contrast to a standard museum audio tour, users can choose which artifacts they will hear more about. By being active participants, patrons feel greater control and ownership of the museum experience. Finally, the MEG appeals to a diverse audience by increasing the number of avenues through which users can receive information.

Another opportunity for users to experiment with creating narrative is the onsite Compaq Digital Lab, a quiet room with 24 networked workstations that give patrons the chance to continue their museum experience through the Digital Collection. In this setting, the Digital Collection gives patrons access to additional information on artifacts they've seen in the museum exhibits and shows artifacts that might not be on view within EMP. The workstations also give users the opportunity to start a completely new search and follow an idea sparked by an item that is shown in the interface but wasn't available for viewing within the museum.

For home users who either have not visited or cannot visit Seattle, the Digital Collection on the Web offers a taste of the EMP experience, extending the museum's reach outside of its Seattle home. The Digital Collection offers users an experience unlike anything on the Web, a deep well of multimedia information on the history of American popular music presented in a uniquely fun and educational format. The Web version also allows museum patrons who wish to continue their exploration after they leave the Seattle building to gain access to their bookmarks (using their ticket ID) and continue their EMP experience at home. In this setting, freedom from time constraints allows for an in-depth exploration that might not have been possible during the user's visit to EMP.

Relationships: the museum, the artifact, and the patron

By freeing artifacts from traditional narrative structures, a new mode of interaction between visitors and the museum is formed, both the museum as an entity and the museum's artifacts. The perception of the museum as an institution changes from a withholder or controller of information and stories to an open container. Rather than seeing this as a threat, as the ceding of curatorial authority, museums should consider the possibilities inherent in granting greater autonomy to the patron. The narrative becomes a living, limber thing, not a static or fixed entity.