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published: April, 2002

© Archives & Museum Informatics, 2002.
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   ribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  License

MW2002: Papers

Diving in at the Deep End - The British Galleries at the V&A

Nick Brod, The Victoria & Albert Museum, UK



The Victoria & Albert Museum in London is the world's largest museum of the decorative arts and is home to 145 galleries, including national collections of sculpture, furniture, fashion and photographs. In November 2001, the V&A opened the British Galleries, its largest gallery project in over 50 years.

Covering 15 rooms the galleries offer a chronological survey of the history of design in Britain from 1500 to 1900 covering British design and art from the reign of Henry VIII to that of Queen Victoria. Virtually every major name in the history of British design is included, including designers such as William Morris and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, manufacturers such as Wedgwood and Liberty’s, and national treasures such as Henry VIII's writing desk, Queen Elizabeth I's virginals, and James II's wedding suit.

From the beginning of the 7 year project, the galleries were designed around the inclusion of multiple forms of interpretation aimed at the full range of visitors that the Museum plays host to.†† Amongst some 200 interactives are 18 individual web-based applications served to 40 kiosks, 20 short films, 3 cinema films, 21 spoken audio points and 8 music points.

So how does a Museum previously criticised for being "dull" and† "dusty" turn around visitor perception and handle the complicated interaction of screen with art, both in a physical space and on-screen? How do you weave a cross- museum team exceeding 100 people, and multiple outside contractors to deliver a usable, coherent, and maintainable system? And how do you do it with a museum budget?

This session will look at the people, processes and the pitfalls that came together to deliver the largest art gallery interactive development in the UK in recent years: a development that has seen visitor figures rise by 300%, unprecedented compliments from visitors, a BAFTA nomination for best use of new media, and the basis for the future of interactive developments at the V&A.

In depth, we will follow the 18-month prototyping and testing phase that led to the development of the detailed functional specifications that allowed the system to be developed and delivered in the final 9 months of the project. In particular, we will focus on the challenges of kiosk usability and the role of user-trials in raising usability to the level of all our audiences, and the critical question of maintaining such a large-scale, high profile development.

Keywords: V&A, kiosks, multimedia, usability, project management


The Victoria & Albert Museum in London is the world's largest museum of the decorative arts and is home to 145 galleries, including national collections of sculpture, furniture, fashion and photographs. In November 2001, the V&A opened the British Galleries, its largest gallery project in over 50 years.

The transformation of 1 of the 15 rooms of the British Galleries pre-1995.

Covering 15 rooms the galleries offer a chronological survey of the history of design in Britain from 1500 to 1900 covering British design and art from the reign of Henry VIII to that of Queen Victoria. Virtually every major name in the history of British design is included, including designers such as William Morris and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, manufacturers such as Wedgwood and Liberty's, and national treasures such as Henry VIII's writing desk, Queen Elizabeth I's virginals, and James II's wedding suit.

Objects on Display in the British Galleries

From the beginning of the 7 year project, the galleries were designed around the inclusion of multiple forms of interpretation aimed at the full range of visitors that the Museum plays host to. Amongst some 200 interactives are 18 individual web-based applications served to 40 kiosks, 20 short films, 3 cinema films, 21 spoken audio points and 8 music points.

Computer Interactives in use in the British Galleries

Setting up the project

In 1999, the British Galleries Project had been going on for about 4 years. A core team of curators and educators had been working on the overall concept of the galleries working on the four themes that would tell the story of British art and design. Additionally, an external consultant had been hired to develop some of the ideas that might make up the computer interactives and these had been worked on by the Museum team for some while.


Under the guidance of the then head of IT, a decision was taken to employ a Multimedia Manager who would serve as the conduit between all the internal workings and provisions of the V&A and 1 external agency who would develop the required applications. The role would help manage the internal expectations of the V&A while also managing the external commercial workings of the development agency. The first three months of this contract were spent unpicking the Museum’s internal concept work to develop a brief for tender that was realistic and achievable, and clearly defined the goals of usability and technical delivery of the whole project. The ensuing ICT Report served as the basis for a European Design Contest that was held April-July 1999.

Originally Conceived Role of Multimedia Manager
(detailed image)

Actual Role of Multimedia Manager
(detailed image)


In selecting partners to work on the British Galleries, the principle aim was to find an agency capable of the technical aspects of the project while recognising the difficult requirements of working with a Museum. After dropping an interested party list of 30 to a shortlist of 5, we selected Oyster Partners based on their proven work with the Oracle database platform, their widespread capabilities in interface design, and their tacit understanding of our needs. We also decided to tender the audio-visual portion of the project again as it was felt that no single agency had demonstrated sufficient competence to deliver this segment of the project. The Edge Picture Company were selected September 1999, although their work is not covered in this paper.

Summary Schedule for IT/AV and Infrastructure for the British Galleries Project
(detailed image)

Contract development phase

A three-year new-media project is inherently risky. My own experience from the development end is of a tendency to over exploit design and technology in expectation of the next version of an application, this is after all how most agencies make their money. The need to lock down a contract with the developers was both a requirement of the Museum, the Heritage Lottery Fund who were funding most of this part of the British Galleries, and my own need to avoid contractual disputes later down the project life cycle. Unable to start work without a signed contract, both the V&A and Oyster agreed to sign the contract based on a 1 month contractual development stage that would provide the base documentation of the project.

Contract Exploration

Following on from the signing of the contract, the principal project documents were generated through lengthy discussion between both parties. Most of the discussion here was over timescales and resource allocation as well as budgets. An initial scoping of the project yielded a budget of £1.8m, which was of course some way from our available £450K. By the end of the explorations, the main project documents were in place as follows:

Evaluation Strategy: Offering criteria in usability, technical performance, and audience relevance that would ensure consistency and delivering overall project objectives from the outset to the end. Each device was assigned a number of audience objectives (e.g. allow the visitor to contribute to debates about aspects of the British Galleries in the Visitors Online Programme). Each objective would then be assessed informally throughout the prototyping phase against the usability, technical and audience criteria. At the end of prototyping and at the end of the project, all devices would be formally assessed for delivering their original objectives.

Creative Prototyping Process and timescales: To allow the Museum to understand the process that we were about to go through. No one in the museum or project team had worked on anything like this before and it was vital to get expectations right from the outset. The project was effectively broken into three main phases, which held true until the end: Prototyping, Full development, Acceptance/Commissioning.

Deliverables: Listing the deliverables, in written reports and in software that would be tied to each phase of the project (and also to a payment schedule for Oyster)

Quality Plan: From the outset, DSDM (Dynamic Systems Development Method) was the chosen method for developing the systems. Roughly this is a clear life-cycle based approach to delivering interactive systems allowing iteration at each stage of the project but also iteration throughout the life-cycle all tied back to the original audience/business objectives. The quality plan defines means of communication, documentation standards, issue and risk escalation procedures, and sign-off authorities for each aspect of the project.


Beginning the Creative Prototyping Process, the V&A assigned British Galleries team members to each of the seven proposed prototypes, each representing the scope of all the final applications. The team member would be responsible for explaining and iterating the concept and content for each device, then delivering content for that device, and finally assisting others who would develop content for the final build of that device and its variants.

The prototyping process was planned to have 7 distinct stages (Global Design, Concept, Design 1, Build, Test, Design 2, Design 3, and Evaluation). In the end, an additional phase of design was included after the first design phase as the Museum could not agree on screen designs across the devices. An additional Build phase replaced design 3 and this was followed by a second round of public tests. We will see the effect this had on timescales later on.

Global Design Phase

This innovative part of the project was included to begin the long working relationship between team members and developers. It involved a series of some twenty lectures, seminars, workshops and presentations conducted and attended by Oysters’ design and technical teams, as well as V&A staff and external advisers. The phase was also included to open up the project and its internalised situation to new ideas and new expression. By allowing team members on both sides of the project to think freely about existing ideas, it opened up all the interactives for greater possibilities than had been considered until that time.

Concurrently, the IS department worked with technological team to consider underlying architecture explaining the V&A’s complicated technical architecture and myriad systems. This allowed the formation of a technical strategy that was carried through right until final delivery of the project.

Delivering: Global Design Report: listing all the possibilities for interactive features that might enhance and augment the gallery experience.

Outline System Architecture Definition: proposed architecture in detail explaining the database/application/presentation layer structure via use of expressions and packets (sets of reusable components that could together.

Concept and Content Phase

A single V&A team member was assigned to each of seven prototypes that would in turn represent all 18 devices. Each team member then explained the background to that device in terms of its physical gallery presence, its surrounding Museum objects and the subject to which it was assigned. Oyster’s design team then began to work these up into navigational and creative concepts. These were realised with paper prototypes which were assessed with each team member. The combined team also used the phase to start developing a consistent language for content and navigation across devices.

Delivering: Concept and Content Report showing paper versions of each prototype and the first iteration of usability criteria

Examples of Paper Prototypes for several interactives

Design 1 Phase:

With the first iteration of concepts from the previous phase, Oyster began to work up screen designs for each of the prototypes. The goal of the phase was to develop a design framework working up to a Style Guide to define look-and-feel across all devices. Several variations of designs were made with in some cases three variations of† “approved” designs during the phase. The duration of the phase was increased to allow these variations to be encompassed and also allow the Multimedia Manager to work up detailed navigational paths for each devices aimed at getting approval and understanding from the project authorities.

Deliverables: Agreed screen designs for several screens from each prototype.

Examples of Iterated Screen Designs for Design a Bookplate

Device Maps defining the full structural navigational path of each prototype.

Example of a Device Map (for Design a Bookplate)
(detailed image)

First version of Overall Style & Consistency Guide

Build 1 Phase:

Combining the 2nd variation of concepts from the previous phase with the agreed screen designs, working prototypes were built according to the device maps. These were built on the architecture defined in the System Architecture Definition Report. The working prototypes were installed to a testing rig also matching the proposed technical architecture and readied for public testing.

Public Testing 1:

An external evaluator worked with the projects internal Evaluation Manager and the Multimedia Manager to develop a testing methodology involving observations, interviews and in some cases structured tasks. Each device was tested in a public gallery being used to test other design and display ideas for the British Galleries, thereby approximating the closest environment of the final space for test purposes. Samples of 50-100 people were taken for each device with attempts being made to get as much of the sample from the target audience defined in the original Evaluation Strategy. The devices were also tested in this environment with V&A staff to get their buy-in and reaction to the then current ideas.

Concurrently, to the V&A’s public tests, Oyster conducted their own informal evaluation of devices according to the Evaluation Strategy.

Each set of public tests was then analysed by the external evaluator. Internal V&A tests were analysed and combined with specific comments of team members to develop a combined evaluation. Each evaluation was then discussed jointly with the project authorities and Oyster, taking into account Oyster’s own evaluations, to develop a clear brief for the next phase. It was at this point, that it was decided to include another round of design as well as a second build and a further set of public tests.

Deliverables:††† Seven evaluation reports each with a specific brief for design and functionality changes to each of the prototype devices.

Design Phase 2

The public tests yielded the requirement to redesign many elements of the prototypes. These were on the whole specific problems of usability on one or more screens related to actual aspects of functionality for that screen. In one case, a device was redesigned from scratch with an entirely new structure. New designs were made for all these design problems, iterated and agreed once more with the V&A team.

Deliverables: ††

  • New screen designs

Revised Screen Designs from BGO showing Home Page and Object Screen

  • Revised Device Maps
  • Second version of Overall Style & Consistency Guide

Build Phase 2

Building on the 1st working prototype combined with the new agreed screen designs, the second variation of the prototypes was built and re-installed to the testing rig where they were readied for public testing.

Public Testing 2:

The second round of public tests were handled internally with the methodology remaining the same as for the first tests. Once again observation was combined with interviews although in this set of tests, very few usability problems were being analysed for each device. Only five devices required retesting and in some cases, only one aspect of usability was being tested and so for this set of tests, samples of 20 or less were used.

The evaluations were again discussed jointly with the project authorities and Oyster to develop a clear brief for the final phase of prototyping.

Deliverables:††† Five evaluation reports each with a specific brief for design and functionality changes to each of the prototype devices.

Prototype Evaluation Phase:

Gathering all the knowledge gained during prototyping phase, the Multimedia Manager developed final specifications for ALL gallery devices. Those that had not been prototyped were worked into final concept form, allowing the definition of all content to be prepared internally by the V&A, and the definition of the detailed schedule for the final development phase.

Oyster, meanwhile, completed their formal evaluation of the prototypes to enable them to develop the final version of the Overall Style & Consistency Guide (defining all common design elements, fonts, colours, image sizes..etc) as well as their final version of the requirements. They also prepared the technical architecture report into its near final version. Jointly with Oyster, final specifications were made for client hardware and infrastructure technology so that this could be in place for the development phase ahead.

The V&A by now had begun preparation of all final content. This was a not inconsiderable task involving some 13,000 internal images for the interactives, some 25,000 images for the database of the collection and all associated textual content. Strict deadlines were set for completion of most of this content (with the exception of the British Galleries Database which was on a much longer content development phase).

Production of Images Process Diagram
(detailed image)

A break period of two months was taken between Oyster and the V&A to allow the V&A to get on an write and edit text content, complete photography and digitisation, and to allow the Oyster team a break from the intensive 15 months that had now ended.


  • Final OSCG Report
  • Detailed Briefs for 18 devices
  • Hardware and Infrastructure Specifications

Summary of Prototyping Phase

Short iterative development phases aimed towards a goal of:

1. Functional specifications for device types delivering agreed audience objectives for each.

Delivered by

2. A high-standard of interactive design with a common level of design consistency and navigational frameworks.

3. A technical architecture capable of delivering the functional specifications while maintaining the Museum’s IT strategy.

All proved by:

4. A continuing series of informal and formal evaluations against agreed criteria of usability, audience relevance and technical performance


5. The complete development and delivery of content, software, hardware and infrastructure in a 9 month period before opening of the galleries.

Development Phase 2

Following a two month break period with Oyster, Oyster commenced with the full-build of all gallery devices around March 2002. Prior to this commencement, minor changes were made to the concepts of those devices that had not been prototyped. Principally, these changes were removing functionality deemed too hard to deliver and clarifying details of content and functionality. Nonetheless, the build of all programmes was begun on a schedule of phased delivery with devices being delivered in time for content to be entered into them.

Schematic of all gallery computer interactives
(detailed image)

Style Guides

Located on 9 kiosks throughout the 15 rooms within the British Galleries, these kiosks help people to recognise the styles of decorative arts from the Renaissance through to the Scottish School. Each one teaches people to recognise the terminology and forms that make up that style supported by the people and buildings related to that style, while allowing visitors to test their knowledge with a quiz. There is one style guide for each of the 21 styles dealt with in gallery based subjects.

Screens from the 9 Style Guide kiosks

Explore Devices

Centred on 2 paintings in the galleries, these use the paintings in the galleries to help people understand the social and political history of the time that the paintings were created. Each painting is divided into 5 categories. Visitors can explore each category for “Items” either by “SCAN”, a visual exploration of the painting, or by “INDEX”, a textual exploration of the painting. Each “Item” is itself related to many “Themes” that offer broader information than the more basic “Item pages”.

Screens from the 2 Explore a Programmes

Design Programmes

The 4 Design A applications, allow people to create their own designs using things from the V&A collection. Each one is tailored to the period where the kiosks are located.

Design a Coat of Arms in the Tudor and Stuart Discovery Area allows visitors to create 1 of about 6 million coat of arms designs based on the rules of heraldry. The finished design can be printed or e-mailed home. The design can also be saved to later be included as a centrepiece in the Design a Bookplate Activity.

Screens from Design a Coat of Arms

Design a Monogram in the Hanoverian Discovery Area allows visitors to create a monogram based on their own initials either by manipulating typefaces by font, size, colour, position, or by using one from a database of about 5,000 monograms from the V&A collections. The finished design can be printed† (as 1 large or 12 small copies) and/or e-mailed home. The design can also be saved to later be included as part of a border in the Design a Bookplate Activity.

Screens from Design a Monogram

Design a Bookplate in the Victorian Discovery Area allows visitors to create a bookplate by combining elements from many bookplates in the V&A collections. Visitors can also include their coat of arms designed in the T&S Discovery Area and/or the Monogram designed in the Hanoverian Discovery Area. The finished design can be printed (1 large or 4 small copies) or e-mailed home.

Screens from Design a Bookplate

Design a Textile in the Spitalfield Silks display allows visitors to create a textile design by combining elements from many textile designs in the V&A collections. Visitors can then see their design as a colouring-in sheet or as a repeating pattern. The finished design can be printed or e-mailed home.

Screens from Design a Textile

Date a Design

Helps visitors understand the Victorian process of using diamond marks and registrations numbers to protect designs. Allows visitors to date objects on display and see related design protection samples and registers as well as enter information for their own objects, which helps them continue researching these objects.

Screens from Date a Design

Study Area Interface

Located in 2 study rooms on each of the 2 floors of the galleries, study area kiosks give 16 screens of access to the full wealth of interactive programmes throughout the galleries.† Here visitors will have access to the British Galleries Online, Visitors Online, both Explore programmes, all Style Guides and all video programmes.

Screems from the Study Area Interface

Visitors Online

Encourages debate between visitors and between staff and visitors. Also allows visitors to sign an electronic visitors book and contribute to a changing series of online history projects and debates.

Screens from Visitors Online

British Galleries Online

The British Galleries Online Database is a database of the collection of objects that will be contained in the British Galleries.

It has been designed and structured to offer a number of different routes for visitors to access objects according to their own interests or preferences. It can be described as a top-down system, in that the visitor makes successive choices through the routes to narrow down their selections before arriving at the principal screen for a single object.

Every object has a principal screen that includes an image of the object, the label that is used for the object in its gallery setting and a specially written record to provide further information on the object.

The system has been designed to provide visual and textual navigation throughout. Visitors can make their choices by image or by text and this has proved to be extremely effective in tests on the system with members of the public.

British Galleries Online Homepage

The main routes into the system are as follows:

  • Who Led Taste, Style, What Was New? Fashionable Living: These mirror the layout of themes used in the galleries. Each Subject Screen offers all the objects on display in that subject in the gallery.
  • Timeline: Allowing visitors to see objects by the dates with which they are associated.
  • Places: Allowing visitors to select objects associated with countries, UK counties, and London locations via an interactive map
  • People: Allowing visitors to select objects associated with people either by categories (types) of people, or via an A-Z index.
  • Object Types: Allowing visitors to select objects by categorisations of their type.
  • Did You Know?…Allowing visitors a series of pages dealing with broad subjects across the period 1500-1900.
  • Search: Allowing simple and advanced text based searches of the collection.

Screens from the British Galleries Online

Interactives Management System

The Interactives Management System is an underlying application content and kiosk management system that allowed and still allows the V&A to create new applications and update existing ones from scratch. It also allows the chain of editorial systems to control the Visitors Online programme allowing the V&A to change and manage debates and online history projects. The IMS also contains the BGO validator which periodically extracts data from the V&A’s own collection database into the database that drives the public system. This allows us to keep check on our own data and grow the BGO over the coming years without relying on further cost to Oyster.

The main function of the IMS is to manage the day to day operation of kiosks throughout the galleries. Kiosks can be assigned new applications, printers, and shut-down or restarted in the event of any software failures. This allows relatively untrained gallery staff to handle all of the 1st line support of technology in the gallery spaces and this is a process that is proving to work well.

(detailed image)

Commissioning & Installation

Despite a smooth end to the software development, the commissioning stages of the project were frantic. The construction side of the project was late compressing a planned six month installation of equipment into just 6 weeks. This meant that Acceptance testing which was carried out in three waves was begun before the final completion of software. Since some applications were completed before others, these were tested for content and functionality over the internet by various people at the V&A. Three tests were run against each acceptance script by the Multimedia Manager, a volunteer student and in some cases, device managers. The last wave of testing was completed once the system had been commissioned to the galleries. An agreed project closure process ensure that at least the contractual close of the project happened on time just 8 days prior to public opening. The main problems came from an inability to test printing (one of the riskiest parts of the operational system) due to the network having not been adequately completed in printing areas.

Despite the end of the project, the galleries opened to the public on 21st November and have seen a rise of 200% in visitor numbers to the V&A. A daily walk through the galleries will find almost continuous use of many of the interactives. Comments made in the Visitors Online programme testify to the success and level of visitor satisfcation. Initial webstat analysis on the site has shown over 13million hits on some 4 million page impressions to the collective system. There have been 3 system failures due to poor server maintenance but the system has been fully operational and stable since the beginning of February.

Interactives in use in the British Galleries

The Future

The British Galleries project served a number of purposes to the V&A. Aside from helping the repositioning of the Museum in the public eye as an interesting and educational experience, it has proved to the Museum that there is a significant role for interactives in physical gallery spaces. The underlying architecture and operational running of these has offered the V&A a basis on which to proliferate future interactives in other galleries as well as provide a model for how these projects can be achieved. The methodology behind this prospect consists of the development of further “types” of interactive to provide a common framework throughout the Museum’s physical space. The types of interactive will be developed to provide for the whole range of V&A audiences with experiences focussed around supporting the ability to understand the objects on display and the subjects around them. It is expected that underpinning most of these types of interactives will be further instances of collection database offering access to the wealth of the Museum’s knowledge about its objects and the subjects that surround them.

Architecture of future V&A interactive application delivery
(detailed image)

In this architecture, the V&A will maintain its variety of collection information systems as the core source of content for interactives. An asset management system allows the V&A to tailor content in these core systems for delivery in individual projects be they gallery or web-based. This involves importing and configuring the data for delivery in a future application. Using an overarching Applications Management System, the content in the asset management system is then assigned/linked and stored for delivery to both gallery and web modules. The realities of conflicting bandwidth availability to these two principal channels requires us to consider separate instances of the same types of applications for gallery and web delivery. The Applications Management System also allows the development of new types of interactives as they arise in future years. Interactives are then delivered to their respective channels via deployment modules equatable to separate delivery systems. In the long term, gallery interactives while requiring high-bandwidth, have low load requirements due to the limited number of users allowable in a Museum space. The web, while requiring lo-bandwidth, has high load requirements and consequently, the architecture allows for separate deployments to both to allow stability for both channels. Finally, ensuring operation stability, the Applications Management System allows for operation control and editorial interaction for all interactives, a critical part of maintaining any developed system.