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published: March 2004
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Museums and the Web 2003 Papers

Learning from Amazon and eBay: User-generated Material for Museum Web Sites

Gail Durbin, Victoria & Albert Museum, United Kingdom



Museums have a way to go in understanding what has long been apparent to commercial sites: you don't have to sweat it out over all your content if you are prepared to allow visitors to generate it for you. eBay and Friends Reunited have sites entirely built on user-generated content, and Amazon is increasingly leaning on users to develop content that adds depth and vitality. Museums can learn lessons from this approach.

At the V&A we aim to be the Number One museum Web site for art and design, and our curators are world experts in their fields. In these circumstances it would be easy for the site to communicate in one direction only, but we are keen to ensure the site works in both directions and that we draw on the expertise and enthusiasm of visitors as well. We also want visitors to our Web site to feel they can contribute to the work of the museum and develop their own creativity. We have not yet persuaded a curator to moderate a chat room or ventured into any of those other potentially labour intensive Web activities, but in the last year we have used a wide variety of ways of incorporating visitor-created content into our Web site.

Keywords: user-generated content, creativity, museum web strategies

User-generated Material at the V & A

At the museum we have run events which we have translated into Web content at its most basic. Two exhibitions run in our Photography Gallery discussed the moment of the shot. They were Stepping In and Out: Contemporary Documentary Photography and 100 Photographs: A Collection by Bruce Bernard.

In response to these exhibitions, we asked visitors to leave on our response wall photographs or written cards about a defining moment in their lives, or a moment they considered a defining moment for society. Over 50,000 people took part, and many were prepared to share very personal events and perceptions with other visitors. When the exhibitions closed, we employed someone to sift though the responses and make a selection for the Web. Here are some of the contributions:

When my husband entered an addiction clinic by himself to give up alcohol – 3 years ago. Every moment since has been bliss!

Getting my BA degree and bus pass both in the same week!

When I made a pot on the wheel that stood up for the first time. Potter

The day I first did a headstand! Brilliant.

My husband’s 60th birthday when we had a party and our three children and their spouses and our eight grandchildren were all together for the first time. All live a long way from each other, one family Lincolnshire, one family Glasgow, the other family Spain.

Watching my Dad go mad and realising I have to look after him now…

The first bite of a huge breakfast with good friends after dancing all night in my favourite dress. Kate Catalina, NZ 24/11/02

Finding my great grandfather’s furniture in the British Galleries

In Barbara Hepworth’s garden modern art finally made sense.

Gaining confidence to go traveling on my own – seeing beautiful sites, meeting fun people and having a great time.

President Kennedy died because I didn’t pray hard enough. Sister Rita Margaret said so – I was 7. Paula H

For the Ossie Clark Exhibition Web site, we tried e-mail. People were asked to e-mail their recollections of wearing Ossie Clark clothes, together with any scanned images they might have. There is always a fear that staff will be overwhelmed by the response to such requests, but in this case, with a Web site that is pushing 3 million visits a year and an exhibition that has run for over seven months, we have received only about 25 written contributions and no images. (The image we have put on the site was a contribution from our head of exhibitions, used by us to seed the site.) It does not matter that contributions were few. Their quality was excellent and they bring vividly to life the excitement and emotion of wearing these clothes in a way simple museum labels could never have done. Here are a couple of examples:

It was my very first dinner/dance. I bought a black crepe and satin ankle length evening dress which at £20 represented a weeks salary. It fitted beautifully, with the deep front opening almost to the waist it clung with the weight of the crepe to a then youthful size 10 figure making it almost impossible to wear anything underneath. It was effortless and sensual to wear and lives on in my memory as the most beautiful dress I have ever worn. I still have the dress. It has traveled around the world with me though sadly never worn again as that youthful size 10 no longer exists. Gill Barker

I first became aware of Ossie Clark when I was aged about 12. What inspiration there was at the time – Biba, Bill Gibb and the master Ossie Clark! Ossie’s designs were the ultimate in innovation, genius pattern cutting and fabulous prints by Celia Birtwell – I was fascinated and intrigued. More than anyone else he was the designer who inspired me to carry on and carve out a future in fashion & textiles, albeit as a swimwear designer! In eager anticipation of the forthcoming exhibition I dug out my boxes of archive cuttings and magazines and yes, I am still amazed by the genius of Ossie. To anyone thinking of a future in fashion, go along and prepare to be inspired! Maureen Smythe

This kind of participation in the Web site uses visitors' expertise to broaden understanding of art and design. It was an easy task checking the texts and putting them on the Web, and we will repeat the activity with our forthcoming Vivienne Westwood exhibition.

An Experiment

For Westwood, as well, we have embarked on another experiment. The first phase of an exhibition Web site launches 6 to 8 weeks in advance of opening to encourage the advance booking of tickets. On this occasion we will also ask visitors to e-mail us questions for Westwood and the curator of the exhibition. We plan to select a range and put the answers on the phase two site, which launches a few days before the show opens. Here is another way to encourage visitor participation without creating too much work but at the same time bringing variety to the Web site.


The Victoria and Albert Museum was founded in order to improve the quality of British art and design, so it is entirely appropriate that our Web site should include images and other creative work by visitors. The Snap Happy Days half-term photography event took place over nine days. With support both from the BBC and the Lomographic Society, visitors experimented with three different styles of photography: lomo, instant cameras, and photo booths, and added their work to the display to create a growing exhibition of public art. This was the ideal museum activity: everyone from kindergarten child to senior citizen could do something age and ability appropriate and come away feeling proud of the work. Lomo photography is very democratic. 'Don't think, just shoot' is its mantra, and the lenses and filters create random effects which encourage people to look at the museum, and their own creativity, in a whole new light. Nearly 8,000 visitors came to look at the exhibition and to take part in the activities, and a sizeable number of the results were uploaded to the Web site, together with 'How to do it' instructions, examples of work by specific artists, and articles explaining the philosophy of this type of photography.

There is, of course, a big difference in a museum uploading examples of people's work to a Web site and people doing this for themselves.


Every Object Tells a Story

 In our next major project we are grasping the nettle of a moderated site where people can upload not only text and images, but video clips and audio as well.

 Every object tells a story is a major collaboration of the V&A, Channel 4, and Ultralab, funded by Culture on Line, a government agency tasked with broadening the range and audience for cultural activity on the net. The site is about telling stories (historical and fictional) about objects.

Snap Shot Stories

Last summer we used our holiday activities Snap Shot Stories to test some ideas that we will turn into activities on the site. 'Photostories' were created starring museum objects. Experimenting with imaging techniques, pictures were arranged onto a storyboard using speech bubbles to bring the characters to life. In another activity, mini-books were made telling the life of a museum object, and 'Transformation' allowed visitors use four images taken in a photo booth to morph snap shots into a museum object.

We will put a minimum of 1,000 V&A objects on the site as well as 600 from our regional partner museums as a core resource but visitors will be able to upload their own images if they choose. Ultralab is creating software that will allow visitors to comment on other people's stories, creating threads, and we hope also to be able to send out text messages to tell people when someone has added to their story. We aim to have 40,000 stories in the first year. The site launches in July 2004, so perhaps further discussion of this site should wait for Museums and the Web in 2005.


When looking at museum Web sites, I find there is disappointingly little in the way of contributions from visitors. What is there is largely in the form of text with little variety of approach. It seems a pity that when museums are becoming themselves much more interactive, we are not using our Web sites to draw visitors into making real contributions. We are surrounded on the Web by commercial sites that have learnt the value of inviting this sort of participation. We should be leading, not following.