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published: March 2004
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October 28, 2010

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Museums and the Web 2003 Papers


Using the Web for Participation and Interactivity

Gail Durbin, Victoria and Albert Museum, United Kingdom



People developing museum websites need to avoid replicating traditional museums and creating sites that take little account of how people learn. In developing the British Galleries, the Victoria and Albert Museum identified eight audience types and their needs and four learning styles and used these to audit ideas for interpretation. 'Variety' became a key to ensuring people with a wide range of backgrounds, needs and preferred learning styles found something they could relate to in the new galleries. We now wish to apply some of the lessons learnt in developing the British Galleries to the development of the V&A website, although lack of research in the way people use museum websites to learn about objects is an obstacle.

The V&A website needs more than simply collections information on the site. Using interactivity (where visitors have the power to influence outcome) and participation (where visitors can feel involved) can broaden the base of people who feel that the website has something for them that fits in with their own needs and learning styles. One means of creating variety and balance within the interactivity on the site is to provide a range of activity relating to a continuum that runs from the museum as expert through to putting the visitor in the role of expert.

Examples are taken from the V&A website showing how different part of the site work. Some activities occur solely on the website and others have been generated as a combination of gallery activity and web activity. Some of the most successful events have been those where both museum and visitor have offered expertise. Other seemingly frivolous events have generated levels of creativity, commitment and enthusiasm entirely appropriate to the aims of the museum. We need to do more research and welcome collaboration with others to increase the variety of activity on our site.

Keywords: Museum Websites, Victoria and Albert Museum, Education, Interactivity, Participation, Activity, learning styles, exhibition development, web audiences


One of our tasks as people running websites is to stop new media being used to replicate traditional museums. Even when traditional museums move on and find new ways of communicating with their audiences the website can retain a conservative air. There are various characteristics that I associate with traditional museums.

Traditional Museums   Traditional' Websites
Large numbers of objects Large databases
Minimal information Minimal or huge amounts of information
Let the objects speak for themselves Focus on individual objects. Lack of contextual information
Displays pitched at museum peers  Use of specialist or internal collections information systems to generate text
One-way dissemination of information One-way dissemination of information
Little consideration of audience needs Absence of understanding about how people learn

Table 1

Take, for example, the Ceramic Galleries on the top floor of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Due for an update shortly, these galleries are classic traditional displays. They cover over 3000 square metres and are filled from floor to ceiling with thousands of examples of Asian and European ceramics arranged in rows. 95% of the collection is on display. Every object has a label naming the manufacturer and date. There are very few panels providing contextual information. Visitors would be pressed to find the difference between pottery and porcelain, would not find any help distinguishing between factories and would certainly not be told the purpose or significance of any of the objects. This is a gallery that requires the objects to speak for themselves. I find the galleries breathtaking, exciting and stimulating but only because I speak some of the language. Many of our visitors do not and the galleries are often empty.

The web equivalent of these galleries is one with a large database of images of objects from the collection. There may be limited text so that it simply forms captions or there may have been a data dump from a collection information system that was originally designed for internal use in the museum. This is fine for the specialist but not so for casual museum users who have a general interest but do not know what to do after looking at the fifteenth teapot. Sometimes the inclusion of specialist vocabulary is ameliorated by allowing visitors to click through to a glossary. But from the visitors' point of view it would be better if the terms were explained within the text, as looking up terms is disruptive to the train of thought and especially so to poor readers or visitors with sore feet.

I am very conscious that, unlike gallery developments, there is a woeful amount of research available on the use of museum websites and or about learning about objects from websites. This is something we plan to start to address at the V&A in the next financial year. I welcome the attempts by some of the people at this conference to start to fill these gaps and feel a lot more work is needed. In the mean time I am reduced to assertions based on empirical evidence.

Many traditional displays are planned round what museums know and want to tell others. They might be defended as educational but they do not come out of understanding of educational theory and how people learn. One of my tasks is to encourage curatorial colleagues to generate web content. At the V&A great emphasis is placed on expertise and there is a long and strong tradition of sharing that expertise through lectures and the publication of books and catalogues. All staff are committed to the idea that the museum serves an important educational purpose but the teaching model is one of telling people things. With the web, a broader range of possibilities is easily and rapidly available. Staff sometimes find it difficult to start to think about communicating their knowledge and understanding differently. They are reluctant to start a dialogue with visitors (partly because of the workload they think it might generate) and find it hard to think up approaches that use the web's capacity to generate participation. Instead the web is seen as another kind of book. Clearly it is my job to encourage new ways of thinking.

My route to becoming the Head of the On-Line Museum at the Victoria and Albert Museum has been via teaching and museum education.‘ From 1996 to 2001 I was a member of the concept team for the British Galleries 1500 - 1900. I wrote the interpretative plan for the galleries and managed the educators on the gallery teams. I was also directly involved with the development of the computer interactivity in those galleries. It is my contention that galleries (and websites) fail to be as effective as they could when little account is taken of the needs of museum audiences and the way in which people use and learn from museums and museum objects. We attempted to deal with these issues in the British Galleries and I am keen to apply some of the methodologies and lessons of those galleries to our website.

(I do not intend to go into great detail here about the British Galleries. People who would like an overview of the development of the British Galleries may like to look at Morris (2002). For more depth on the computer interactives see Durbin (2002). This article has an appendix that shows an analysis of audience needs which was used as a working document for the galleries. For a discussion of the process of producing the digital items in the galleries see Brod (2002).)

In the British Galleries project 'variety' became the watchword of our interpretation.‘ We identified eight audiences (schools, further and higher education, local visitors, independent learners, ethnic minority groups, specialists amateur and professional, families and visitors from abroad) and four learning styles (analytical, common sense, experiential and imaginative). (For further information about learning styles see McCarthy and Pitman-Gelles (1999).) We planned the galleries so that visitors in any of the audience categories or who favoured a particular learning style could come to the galleries and find material that appealed to them.‘ So, for example, families or people with an experiential learning style could assemble a replica eighteenth-century chair, from components stored in racks in the discovery areas, and learn about its structure.‘ Alternatively analytical learners could use the British Galleries Online database to study, for example, glass or costume of a particular period.‘ Imaginative learners could choose to contribute a story, about a painting on display, to a file of typed examples left in the galleries. Schools, on the other hand, might opt to watch a video about the Great Exhibition, in a film room large enough to seat a whole class. Study of the Great Exhibition is part of the national curriculum, and the video helps pull together the many objects from the displays, and look at the historical evidence that they provide.

The British Galleries have been well received because they look beautiful but also because there is something for everyone. We used an analysis of different learning styles and the needs of different visitor types to audit our interpretative ideas and come up with galleries that appeal to many at different levels. People are not excluded because their learning style differs from the norm in the institution or their needs are different to the next person or, worse, the mythical 'average visitor'.

I wish to apply some of the same principles to our website so that we provide a site with approaches to the collections suited to all needs and learning styles. We want variety. Just as people who prefer to use an analytical learning style may be comfortable in traditional museums so they will happily find their way round web information databases. But people with other learning styles may need different approaches, including interactivity and participation, so that the wonders of the content of the museum are open to them.‘

Like 'access', the word interactivity is used loosely. For some it means anything in a museum context making use of new media. To me it is any use of new media where the user can influence the outcome, although the degree of interactivity may be limited by the programme. Participation in a web context is a particular kind of interactivity which encourages a sense of involvement. Here outcome is dependent on the opportunities individuals have to exercise their imagination and creativity.

For museums, interactivity and participation throw up problems related to expertise. Some kinds of interaction allow museums to retain control and to limit people to the 'right' answers. Other kinds are much more open-ended and sometimes allow visitors to become the expert in areas where the museum has no expertise. Interaction and participation allow visitors to express opinions and even make wrong statements of fact. This is problematic to museums especially those that place a very high value on collections expertise. As 'seekers after truth' can they allow inaccuracies to appear? Educators might not be entirely comfortable with inaccuracy but might argue that the learning experience derives from process not output. In addition observation shows that the ability to express an opinion in such public spaces generates very high levels of motivation and commitment in visitors, which is a highly desirable learning outcome. Because we are working in a new field there is little research to show what is going on.

It is useful in developing our website to think of interactivity and participation as falling somewhere along a continuum that runs from the museum as expert to the visitor as expert. It is inevitable and appropriate that the majority of content on the site of a great national museum will fall at the museum as expert end of the spectrum. But we need to check that we incorporate some material from the other end of that line because it is here that we create opportunities for people with less specialist interest to become actively involved with the content of the museum. The V&A website already has a range of sites that fall at different points on this line but it still needs more variety and the model will help us audit proposals, check the balance of our site and suggest future developments.

Figure 1

It is worth looking at the detail of some of these sites to understand the different ways in which they function and what the outcomes might be. There are three series of videos from the British Galleries on the site (http://www.vam.ac.uk). Object in Focus concentrates on details that cannot be seen in a conventional museum display, such as the insides of objects. How Things Were Made looks, for example, at the processes in water gilding or wallpaper production in the nineteenth century and a miscellaneous series introduces more general topics such as Taking Tea or the history of a pleasure garden.‘ They provide information through text and images and give a context to the individual object records in the database. They offer no interaction and the only choice for the user is whether to turn them on or off. They are therefore high in the museum acting as expert and very low in participation.

Opinions on Line is another video programme. Here curators concentrate on sharing the techniques they have for analysing objects; our first example focuses on oriental carpets. They show visitors what to look for in their own objects.‘ Visitors are offered only a few choices of routes through the material but the aim is to provide them with skills and ways of looking that they can apply to their own objects at home. This is an activity very slightly higher than the last one on participation and although it has a very practical intention it still places the museum in the role of expert.

Explore a Painting uses more intriguing options. One programme focuses on a small portrait of the family of Thomas More. Visitors can choose to scan the image or to zoom in on it or they can select themes such as costume or architecture and ask for more detail.‘ Unlike the videos, with this programme visitors have control over their route through the information and can make selections suited to their needs but the museum controls content. This activity is high on the museum acting as expert but offers increased levels of participation.

Style Quizzes offer visitors a greater degree of interactivity. There are twenty-one different quizzes, each related to styles that appear in the British Galleries. The theme might be Neo-Classicism and ten questions flash up in random order. Where possible the quiz is presented visually so visitors are asked to select three from six objects to place in a neo-classical room or to choose one out of three motifs that is the odd one out. There is feedback. Visitors can return and see if their understanding has improved. The programme is fun and the quizzes are surprisingly the most used screens in the British Galleries. We have yet to track their use on the web. The programme has been set up as a template so we can add to the list of styles and we are starting with a quiz on Art Deco to complement the major exhibition that opens this Spring. The museum remains the expert and the visitor can learn what the museum knows. The degree of participation, however, is quite high. The score is the result of the visitors' knowledge but the questions are closed and there is only one right answer.

Increased degrees of participation have been made possible where gallery events have been developed in combination with a web element. Festive Footage was a gallery event that turned into the beginning of a series of activities with a web element. A photography exhibition called Imperfect Beauty: The Making of Contemporary Fashion Photographs was run in the Canon Photography Gallery. As an experiment visitors were invited to photograph their feet using a video camera set up for the purpose within the exhibition. These shots were displayed on a monitor outside the gallery and an archive of 2001 shoe fashion was created.‘ We were amazed that in the three weeks of the event over 3000 people took part and we observed that visitors approached the task with humour and creativity.‘ We saw this as a hugely successful museum event even though at first sight it may appear a little insignificant and frivolous. It is part of the mission of the V&A that visitors should derive enjoyment from the collections and should be encouraged to develop their own creativity. Observation shows people who involve themselves and make a commitment are more likely to return or follow up their interests later.

The next year we built in a web element from the outset.‘ This time the exhibition was‘ Seeing Things: Photographing Objects 1850 - 2001.‘ Part of the motivation for the exhibition was the acquisition by the V&A of the chair that featured in the iconic photograph of Christine Keeler by Lewis Morley. For those too young or too distant to remember the events, Christine Keeler was the 1960s British professional equivalent of Monica Lewinski. Many people have subsequently appeared in a similar pose including Bart Simpson and Dame Edna Everage. This was too good an opportunity to miss. Our event was called Things and You. Using a replica chair we invited visitors to choose their own pose and record themselves. We now have about 5500 of these images on our website.

This is the kind of activity where visitors have to go through the same process that an artist goes through. Given a chair and a person (or a whole family in some cases), how can they be arranged to bring out some of the character of the participant/s? Lewis Morley's contact prints from his photographic session were included in the exhibition and together with some discussion about how he arrived at the final image.‘

The results are wonderful.‘ Some people really entered into the spirit of things and display huge enthusiasm and creativity. A first time visitor to the V&A returned twice to take further pictures.‘ On the second occasion she came without a bra intending to replicate the original pose but felt intimidated by the proximity of a warder on duty and had second thoughts.‘ So she came back on the last day of the exhibition with props to create a variant.‘ Another young girl took 150 images of herself! Perhaps she was set on a modelling career and was using the opportunity to develop her portfolio. The chance to see their images displayed in public was highly motivating for many people and some very conventional looking V&A visitors were seen rushing out of the gallery to stand and wait for their pictures to appear on the monitor outside.‘ We know that people were pleased to be appearing on the web because they phoned us up when the site moved on the web from Current Exhibitions to Past Exhibitions and they couldn't find their images. They may have lacked the technical skills to display their own pictures in cyberspace and they liked the idea of their photographs being validated on a museum site and they wanted to e-mail their friends with the site address to share their work. They were animated about the experience and talked and joked about what they might have done. The event had made an impact. In this activity the control of the outcome lay with the visitors but within the constraints of the set task. Expertise is shared, the museum providing information about the original picture whilst the visitors were the experts on the character they wanted to project.

Going Graphic was our first major digital activity. It was run as a drop-in acivity to coincide with an exhibition called The Power of the Poster. Visitors were lent digital cameras and asked to create a poster for the V&A to be put on our website. Having visited the exhibition and then taken their shots elsewhere in the museum they were encouraged to manipulate their images and add text. It is interesting to see how many people chose to put themselves in the picture. Tutoring on this occasion focused on how to use the software whereas now we have learnt to use simpler technology in order to spend more time on the central task. A subsequent similar activity was based on the nineteenth-century photography of Clementina, Lady Harwarden. In Wish You Were Here we asked visitors firstly to observe specific aspects of her work, such as the use of light and reflections and the relationship between the sitters, and then to try to include these in their own creative interpretations which were to be designed as e-postcards. These were uploaded to the web and sent to friends and family. It was very clear from the work people produced that the activity had made them to look closely and critically at the exhibition. It was also an ideal drop-in event because people could join in at their own level. It appealed to adults as much as to children and the web element was motivating and encouraged people to complete the task. I believe that these kinds of activities broaden the appeal of the Museum. They give people with experiential or problem solving learning styles ways into understanding the collections that gallery panels or website databases do not offer and so contribute broadening access. This type of activity is not an alternative to collection databases. It is an example of the way that providing variety opens up our museums.

There is another benefit from participatory web activities that should not be overlooked. It is very easy for those of us who work in museums to forget or to find it hard to get at what motivates our visitors. Images from open-ended activities help us see the diversity of motivations that drive visitors and sometimes they show aims and intentions very different to the one the museum anticipated when a facility was first set up. When people put themselves in the picture they are demonstrating a desire for personal connection with the collections. Whole families wanted to record the occasion and share it with others. The girl who took 150 pictures of herself used the museum for her own career development. The museum experience occurs at the point where the agenda of the museum meets the agenda of the visitor. The experience may be an aesthetic one or an intellectual insight but our website allows us little glimpses of the variety of other experiences that occur or reasons people may be stimulated by a museum.

Sometimes the web is used simply as a reward for effort.‘ We have a project where Young People create a museum newsletter. For the participants it is a hugely important activity and they are highly motivated by the idea of their work going on line. Educationally the process is more important than the outcome and the final work may not be very exciting for people browsing the web to look at.‘ I believe there should be a place for such activity on the web.

Some participatory events occur only on the web. Storytelling takes a museum object as the starting point but is not reliant on museum expertise as it moves rapidly into the realms of fantasy. It may benefit from curatorial information but, because it is not dependent on it, storytelling is one of those activities that can be done at any level. A 5-year-old will be able to do and enjoy it at their level whereas an adult student of creative writing will be able to do it at theirs.‘ Here is an example, probably from a schoolchild, with a strangely modern ending, from our Sikh site:‘‘‘‘‘‘‘‘

Once Maharaja Gulab Singh was at home counting all his money. Then he thought that was boring so he went out in the street. While he was out he forgot to shut the door. So the men who were wandering around saw the door open. They went inside and saw all the money. They went back home and got bags and came back and stole all the money and took it back to their house. When Maharaja Gulab Singh came back he was astonished. He said, surprised, 'Where is all my money?' He called the police but they said they can't do anything about it.

We have on the V&A website some sites where the visitor is the expert and is also in complete control of the outcome.‘ In our History Project we are currently inviting visitors to tell us about the last piece of furniture they bought. What was it? Where did they buy it? What the experience was like? What will the next piece of furniture be? This is building a museum archive for future use.‘ We plan to change the topic to eating and fashion in future. Apart from removing anything abusive, incomplete or irrelevant there is no museum intervention. The activity is open-ended and no one other than the person responding knows better about the subject than they do.

One of our most successful events and related websites where again the role of expert lies with the visitor not the museum is our Day of Record: Tattoos. The event was run as part of the Contemporary Programme that aims to introduce new ways of working as well as to change the image of the museum. We have strong collections of fashion and accessories and developing information about body arts was planned as an extension to this. On the day 1500 people came to the museum to have their tattoos recorded and we now have a highly visited site, well known in the tattooing world. A subsequent event and website focused on black hair and nail fashions.


At the V&A we aim to create a site that has the same shimmering inspirational quality of the museum itself and that offers to a multitude of ways into understanding the collections for people of all backgrounds, learning styles and needs. Variety is the key to a site that encourages visitors, real and virtual, in their own creative development and including activities where the visitor takes on the role of expert is an important means of maintaining variety. We need more information about the collections but we also want to create excellence in interactivity and participation. Web development in general is handicapped by lack of research into the way people use museum websites and how they learn from objects through them. We would welcome collaboration with other museums or educational institutions to further this work.


Brod, N. (2002) Diving in at the deep end: the British Galleries at the V&A. Consulted January 14, 2003. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2002/papers/brod/brod.html

Durbin, G. (2002) Interactive learning in the British Galleries. Consulted January 14, 2003. http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/acrobat_pdf/research/gail_durbin.pdf

McCarthy, B.N.D. and B. Pitman-Gelles, (1999). The 4MAT system: teaching to learning styles with right/left mode technique. In The sourcebook 1998, American Association of Museums.

Morris, J. (2002). Style and substance. In Museum Practice 20 (Vol 7, No 2), 18-23.