Museums and the Web 2005

Reports and analyses from around the world are presented at MW2005.

Democratize And Distribute: Achieving A Many-To-Many Content Model

Rachel Coldicutt, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Katie Streten, Channel 4, UK


In this Information Age, the Field of Dreams paradigm makes less sense than ever: "If we build it, they will come" presumes a didactic, one-to-many model of distribution that relies on the will for self-improvement. But now, when the answer to any question is a Google search away, and peer-review and social networking have superseded advertising as the most effective means of on-line promotion, how can museums attract and maintain large on-line audiences?

This paper explores the opportunity of mass distribution and mass participation as a future means of delivering meaningful content to the on-line and non-traditional user. The Victoria and Albert Museum has partnered with Channel 4 Television, the UK's third largest broadcaster, to promote Every Object Tells a Story, a mass-participative digital storytelling project launching in March 2005. Building on the current museological emphasis in the value of objects inherent not only in themselves, but in the stories that are told about and around them, Every Object Tells a Story gives users a chance not only to comment on iconic and important objects held in national collections but also to explore significance through submitting their own stories and objects, which can in tern be commented on by their peers.

This paper asks: Is mass democratisation of museum content the way to open our collections? What are the opportunities and dangers of allowing non-specialists to publish their ideas and theories in a many-to-many environment? How can partnering with the right media partner contribute to the development of mass distribution projects?

Keywords: User-generated content, digitization, partnerships, social networks, mass participation


New technology has changed how we seek and exchange information. In 2002, the Pew Internet & American Life project discovered that 84% of all Americans have the expectation of finding satisfactory information on-line, making the Internet "the primary means by which many people get key information" (Horrigan and Rainie, 2002). This study also documented the appearance of the verb to Google -a term that has filtered from the Internet cognoscenti to idiomatic speech in just two years; in fact, the word "google", meaning "to search for [something on the Internet] using a search engine", is now defined in the Collins English Dictionary. Basic literacy and an Internet connection offer Alexandrian riches to anyone with an urge to ask questions, and the process of publication is reduced to a click of a submit button. Indeed, ownership of a wireless laptop gives the opportunity to hold the world quite comfortably in the palm of your hand.

This Information Age has made the role of the educator-as-gatekeeper unsustainable; as Dan Gillmor's study of grassroots journalism shows, "there has been a shift from a top-down hierarchy to something vastly more democratic" (Gillmor, 2004). This means that the traditional one-to-many paradigm, common to both broadcasting and education, is not available on-line; instead, the Internet is a many-to-many medium, a "network of networks" in which smaller circles of influence are connected: "[w]hen a computer network connects people or organizations, it is a social network", capable of "creating a Web of group affiliations" (Garton, Haythornthwaite, and Wellman, 1997). This proliferation of information, and of groups to recommend it, undermines the status of the traditional knowledge powerhouse: a singular didactic approach is less credible in a network regulated by peer review and exchange – this is not about a single voice intoning from the front of an auditorium: it's about a conversation between equals.

About the Project

Every Object Tells a Story is an interactive project that tries to put these conversations at the centre of object interpretation. Besides digitising photographs of 1600 objects from four museum collections, the project is also inviting members of the public to submit their own stories and objects, creating a unique on-line collection at, bringing together everyday objects with national treasures, and expert opinion with personal anecdote. The on-line presentation of these objects will be the same regardless of provenance, ensuring parity of esteem between stories and objects, and enabling all who visit the site to make their own contributions on their own terms – and creating a many-part conversation about the value of objects and the meanings that form around them.

Screen Shot: Every Object Tells a Story

Fig 1: Every Object Tells a Story homepage

Screen Shot: Every Object Tells a Story

Fig 2: Every Object Tells a Story story page

As befits an Internet project, the scale and ambition of Every Object is considerable.

Led by the Learning and Interpretation Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the UK's National Museum of Art and Design, the project was commissioned by the government agency Culture Online, and the project team includes Ultralab, the educational technology house at Anglia Polytechnic University; Channel 4 Television; and the museums and galleries of Tyne & Wear, Brighton & Hove, and Birmingham. Given the combined weight of these organisations, our targets are considerable, and the Web site is tasked with attracting 1 million visitors and 50,000 public contributions by the end of 2005.

The significance of these targets should be considered for a moment; indeed, one million unique users might be thought a small audience share for a Web site involving so many national partners. However, consideration of these targets in context reveals much about the unusual nature of this project: given that, in 2003/4, there were 2.7m visits to the V&A's three London sites, it becomes apparent that a different approach is required for a single project that must generate 1m unique users and an active participation margin of 1-in-20. To enable us to reach these targets, the project is relying upon the reach and influence of Channel 4.

Channel 4 is an independent public service broadcaster set up by Act of Parliament in 1982. It is not funded by the licence fee (the mandatory payment required of all television owners in the UK); instead, all money to create programmes and run the business has to be found from our business ventures, primarily advertising revenue and the exploitation of programme rights. All revenue is returned to the Channel to pay running costs and programme development. The licence to broadcast is paid for by the Government in return for which the Channel has a public service remit that specifically includes the requirement for programming to be innovative, creative and distinctive, for it to take account of cultural diversity (ethnic, religious, sexual and locational) and to make a significant contribution to meeting the need for educational programmes.

A key area of the channel, channel4.learning, is devoted to delivering our public service remit through adult lifelong learning and formal education. As such, it was natural for the department to be involved in Every Object Tells a Story, a project which combines both formal and informal learning. The key roles of the Channel in the project are marketing, design, PR and some editorial input.

The technology partner for the project is Ultralab, the internationally renowned learning technology research centre at Anglia Polytechnic University. The centre was founded by Stephen Heppell and has a reputation for pushing the boundaries of on-line education and content delivery.

Storytelling And The Value Of Objects

Contemporary museology is interested in the way the value of objects is influenced by the value of the stories associated with them. There is a realisation that objects possess value not only because of their aesthetic, technical or monetary value, but also, and in many cases primarily, because of the associations they carry with them or, to simplify, the stories they tell.

Screen Shot: Astarte Syriaca

Fig 3: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "Astarte Syriaca". 1877. Oil on canvas. City Art Galleries, Manchester, UK

Screen Shot: Belt and Hanger

Fig 4: Unknown, Belt and hanger, 17th C.. Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK. Bequeathed by May Morris.

An object with limited inherent value can find a place in a national collection because of the stories associated with it. For example, the belt worn by Jane Burden, wife of William Morris, in Rossetti's 1877 painting Astarte Syriaca is given added value because of the story of Jane's love affair with Rossetti. The belt's association with her as the model and with two great artists adds to the value of the object, giving it a meaning outside of its aesthetic value or its worth as a piece of craftsmanship: this could be described as Attributed Value.

However, the Attributed Value of an object depends upon our own associations: as the "reader" of an object, we can bring many diverse meanings to it, resisting the "final signified" of a closed interpretation (Barthes, 1977). As such, objects can have multiple values, and their meaning(s) should not be closed by a single academic or factual interpretation.

In her paper The Power of Museums, for the 2004 Association of Canadian Studies in the Netherlands (ACSN) seminar, Sloof explains it clearly.

...institutions like museums do present the object with a certain meaning. They choose one or more of the object's meanings and display the object accordingly.

Museums are divided into different groups. Among others, there are art museums, anthropological museums, historical museums and natural history museums. Each of these types of museums has their own ideas on collecting and their own ways of presentation. When an object enters a museum, the museum chooses those meanings of the object that suit the museum's own context. So the same painting might be displayed as a piece of a famous artist in an art museum, an illustration of costumes in a certain age in a historical museum or a piece of ethnic art, showing the style of painting of a certain cultural group. (Sloof, 2004)

So objects are subject to the process of subjectivity even as they are set in the context of the museum which happens to own them. They will even be given a higher value or lower value according to the focus of the location in which they are housed.

Not only that, but whereas the access to objects and art is being democratised, access to the knowledge with which to interpret key aspects of the attributed value of objects remains restricted and is even diminishing: for instance, changes to the education system and modern society mean that former pieces of "common knowledge", such as Biblical stories and knowledge of Classical Civilisation, now have limited currency.

One example of this is the small, and declining, numbers of UK students taking Latin at GCSE level over the last 5 years shown in Table 1.

Year Number of Students
2003 10,004
2002 10,127
2001 10,365
2000 10,561
1999 10,451

Table 1: UK Students enrolled in Latin at GCSE Level. (source: Joint Council for Education, 2003)

The UK is a country of 69 million; the total population of 16-year-olds in 2003 was 760,000, and only 1.3% took Latin at the lowest national qualification levels GCSE and GNVQ (ONS, 2004; JCQ, 2004). While this 1.3% gained a certain level of cultural knowledge from this, what of the other 750,000? What do they know of ancient civilisation and the roots of modern language? More specifically, what value can they attribute to Canova's "The Three Graces", held in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London?

Screen Shot: The Three Graces

Fig 5: Antonio Canova, "The Three Graces", 1814-1817, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK.

It would not be inaccurate to suggest that they may well find inherent value in its beauty and understand its monetary value through a knowledge of the cost of marble and the time such a piece might take to sculpt; they may equally interpret it solely as Roman porn. (The fact that this might be one of the accurate values attributable to it is simply a happy accident.)

Where then is the role of museums and the Web in all this multi-valence? And does story telling add to, or lessen, our understanding of objects?

The Dangers Of Personal Interpretation

It should be acknowledged at this point that there are dangers in encouraging a personal interpretation of objects. The first and most obvious is the danger of distortion, and the use of objects for erroneous personal justification. An excellent case of this can be seen in Dan Brown's fictional work, The Da Vinci Code. The central premise of the book is that the true location of the Holy Grail can be uncovered through the paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci and the architecture of select locations in the United Kingdom and France. The Da Vinci Code is inspired by the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, the hypothesis of which is that Jesus survived the Crucifixion and together with Mary Magdalene founded a bloodline that later became the Merovingians in France (protected by the Knights Templar and later by the Freemasons), knowledge of which was allegedly suppressed by the Catholic church but kept alive by a secret organisation of which Leonardo da Vinci was a member. Da Vinci is then supposed to have alluded to these secrets in his works of art, particularly the famous The Last Supper on the refectory wall of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. In this painting, as both Brown and the authors of Holy Blood Holy Grail point out, the figure Leonardo painted to the right of Jesus is pretty and beardless, with long flowing hair, and that this figure's left arm, with Jesus' right arm, forms a V shape. These two facts are taken to mean that the feminine figure is wrongly identified as John, the disciple Jesus loved, when it is in fact Mary Magdalene, the V shape a symbol of "the sacred feminine".

However, knowledge of Leonardo's other works such as St John the Baptist show that he often painted androgynous or even beautifully feminine men, something supported by further knowledge of his sexuality.

Screen Shot: St John the Baptist

Fig 6: Leonardo da Vinci, "St John the Baptist", Musée du Louvre, Paris, France

There are now Da Vinci Code tours around the monuments featured in the book, and the Church of Sainte Sulpice has been forced to prepare a refutation of a variety of "facts" that the book has communicated regarding its location, importance, and the supposed occurrence of murders there.

So a little knowledge can be dangerous. But that does not mean that factual awareness is essential for an object to have meaning to an individual. Indeed, Every Object's multi-faceted approach to object interpretation runs almost contrary to much curatorial research. While each museum object is presented with its tombstone catalogue information (showing information about attribution and materials), this is only part of the holistic method we hope to encourage. Unusual items in the Every Object collection include a lock of hair from the head of much-loved Newcastle author Catherine Cookson, a lipstick kiss by supermodel Kate Moss, and a Star Wars At-At Fighter - described by the storyteller with painstaking affection, some twenty-odd years after his playing days have passed. The emotions and associations that these objects arouse may not be the traditional stuff of museum labels, and the stories they attract will be concerned with the dramas and passions aroused in everyday life by everyday things – and not, at a guess, tales of epochal moments in recent history. But while the tale of one little boy's (thwarted) ambition to become Luke Skywalker may be seen as banal submission to the demands of mass-media, it is nonetheless instructive with regard to childhood and memory, those lodestones of human experience that are common to us all.

In his report A Common Wealth: Museums in the Learning Age, David Anderson says that:

Museums at their finest ... communicate with us across boundaries of language, culture, and time, and suggest comparisons which illuminate our experience of the present .... Through museums, we have direct contact with peoples of all ages and cultures, experience the unimaginable variety of the natural world and expand our understanding of what it means to be human.

Interpreting objects through personal narrative relates directly to our understanding of other people and our selves. Indeed, one aim of this project is to convey a greater and more thorough understanding of objects and their significance by allowing multiple interpretations to co-exist: by combining the historic, cultural, material, personal, and inspirational aspects of an object, we hope to offer the reader a chance to develop a multi-faceted and fully rounded understanding of its importance and place within our society.

In the 150 years since it was founded, the V&A has amassed one of the world's greatest collections of art and design, and established an international reputation for excellence and expertise. Will Every Object's democratic and interactive approach to interpretation be damaging to this reputation?

Many of the Museum's curatorial staff have contributed to Every Object stories that convey their passions and enthusiasms, while others have chosen to dwell upon the traditional elements of explanation and interpretation. As a public-access project that seeks to include those alienated by museums and disenfranchised by high culture, the tone and content of these stories is of necessity more relaxed, and in many cases more personal, than would be found on a Museum label or in a scholarly article or monograph. The compound effect of these stories is increased accessibility that presumes no technical or other specialist knowledge, and which reveals unseen aspects of the collections and of Museum life. Many of these stories bristle with vitality and offer new perspectives on the significance of objects, enabling a non-specialist to approach the collected objects with a sense of connection and understanding, and to develop a relationship to the stories' authors, who would otherwise appear as remote figures of expertise.

It is not only the tone and content of these stories that is so unusual; there is also the matter of display. Objects of international significance are displayed next to personal ephemera, and expert contributions are positioned alongside stories written by the public. This mixture of objects and approaches is especially suited to on-line display, and the structure of the Every Object Web site is that of the Internet in microcosm: a network of networks, connected by themes, experiences, and individuals, which can be traversed via a different path at every visit.

The navigational core of the site is four-dimensional, with each contribution classified with up to four labels that place the object and story somewhere in history, and associate it with a place, a person, and a theme. As this is a user-generated site, each label is entirely subjective, showing the truth of that object and story as it is seen or understood by its author. Rather than introducing conflicting detail, this weaves the objects into overlapping networks and provides intriguing paths – from Raphael Cartoons through relics to photographs, and from lingerie through to costumes and casts.

Indeed, it is this model of publication by the public that might be seen to increase the reputational risk of the project. Wikipedia ( uses a similar, unverified process of open-editing, which has led it to become "the world's largest encyclopedia in less than four years of operation, with 450,000 articles and 77 million words in the English edition" (Wikipedia). The rules of submission state that "unverifiable information, or facts newly discovered that have not been published elsewhere ... are not welcome", but this has not been sufficient to quell criticism of the site by information professionals, who cannot trust the public to publish the truth. Indeed, the Wikipedia article Criticism of Wikipedia cites two examples of such reluctance to accept a move away from the top-down information hierarchy and towards a model of open publication:

The main problem is lack of authority. With printed publications, the publishers have to ensure that their data is reliable, as their livelihood depends on it. But with something like this, that all goes out the window. (librarian Philip Bradley)

The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may obviously be dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly doesn't know is who has used the facilities before him. (Robert McHenry, former editor in chief of Encyclopedia Britannica)

Such disdain of public knowledge and contribution reinforces the model in which knowledge is owned by the few, to be distributed to the many. Every Object hopes to counter both this hierarchical approach and the mistrust of this format by presenting conflicting views and interpretations side-by-side, creating a format for conversation and debate that allows readers to engage with multiple narratives, thereby arriving at their own understanding – learning through the interpretation and assimilation of information on their own terms, rather than simply accepting received wisdom.

Opportunities Created By This Approach

A project of this nature not only raises problems of authority; it also offers an opportunity for those outside the museum world to contribute to the understanding of objects – even correctly reinterpreting them. By allowing the public to see objects and to add their stories to the information collected around them, Every Object Tells a Story may allow members of the public to make positive contributions to the use of objects or their provenance. One only has to look at the reception of the 1987 traveling exhibition Hispanic Art in the United States: Thirty Contemporary Printers and Sculptors which enraged many Latin Americans.

As Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine write in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, the collected papers from the 1998 colloquia at the Smithsonian, the show was criticized because it "underestimates the overt political dimension of contemporary Hispanic art .... [stripping] the work of its linkage to the social arena" (Karp and Lavine, 1998). This situation would not have arisen if the curators had consulted the Hispanic community and included their contributions and understanding in the exhibition's interpretative material.

A project of this nature also creates opportunities for broader social inclusion. The London School of Economics project UK Children Go On-line has examined the links between the Internet and citizenship in British children aged from 9-19. Former Home Secretary David Blunkett has said that "Digital technology has important implications for the relationship between children and the state", and Sonia Livingstone's team explored the impact of engaging in "a civic or social enterprise larger than the individual exchange of information" (Livingstone, Bober, Helsper, 2004). Of children surveyed, 94% used the Internet to find information, and 70% had participated in "at least one form of interactive engagement with a website" (Livingstone, Bober, Helsper, 2004), meaning that virtual social networks are affording young people the means to forge bonds of social and cultural identity. Livingstone's survey points out that:

Many hopes are now pinned on the internet as a means of increasing young people's participation. The internet is widely hailed as the technology to bring direct participatory democracy to the masses, enabling citizens to become actively engaged in the political process .... The hope is leading many organisations, mainly – but not exclusively – in the public sector, to develop web sites, on-line forums, chat spaces, peer networks, and so forth, which aim to encourage young people to make use of a wide range of on-line opportunities, interacting and participating with each other and with decision makers (Livingstone, Bober, Helsper, 2004).

Every Object's target audiences include the "hard-to-reach", defined in this instance as those alienated by high culture. In building a democratically curated collection, the project enables cultural participation and identification, facilitating inclusive social networks that forge connections between members of the public and national organisations at a time when civic involvement and investment is declining:

Over recent years, there has been a decline in the level of participation in elections across the UK. Turnout at the 2001 general election was only 59.4%, and is even lower at local elections. This trend is reflected in other western democracies. (Electoral commission,

In a society that feels disenfranchised and powerless, the opportunity to contribute in a concrete way to something that may not make a difference but allows your voice to be heard is something which is valued highly. The fact that Big Brother (a channel 4 reality TV show, see is a worldwide success is due in part of the emotional involvement of the audiences in the unfolding of the human drama – manipulated by them.

Every Object Tells a Story is a project that acknowledges and welcomes the contribution of the individual. In recognising this contribution and publishing it, projects such as this create an emotional connection of validation with their users. This in turn creates their desire for the community to function effectively and to learn and enjoy the stories provided by curators and their peers. In fact it turns creators into peers, involved in active communication with one another.

The emergence of virtual social networks has had an important impact on how people use the Internet. In privileging and prioritising information, many Internet users now seek a "trusted guide" who can help them to fathom the multitude of choices and search results they are offered.

The Imagining the Internet project is based upon a survey of 1,286 Internet experts, who annually offer their predictions regarding the Web's short-term future. One respondent, a consultant for the MIT Program on Internet Telecoms and Convergence, predicts that in the next ten years,

[p]eople will have a wider range of sources – but most will settle on a small number that they will use repeatedly – much as they use a small subset of the large number of TV networks already available (Fox, Anderson, Rainie, 2005).

This is congruent with the model apparent on Amazon and Friendster, where the behaviour of other users offers pre-beaten navigational paths – testimonials and recommendations (whether they are book buyers or sellers, friends or lovers) guiding a way through the mass of choice.

In other words, the Internet user of the future may develop trust-based relationships with their information sources as they look for ways to understand the vast number of resources available to them. There are a some Web presences for which this is already the case – Google, eBay, and each cornering the market in their field – and this trend is further supported by the growth of Web logs that aggregate and recommend points of interest across the Web; trusted, named individuals providing a gateway to on-line content. As of January 2005, 5% of American Web users were already "using RSS aggregators or XML readers to get the news and other information delivered from blogs and content-rich Web sites as it is posted on-line ... an indicator that this application is gaining an impressive foothold" (Raine, 2005).

Every author of an Every Object story is named – whether they are contributing from a museum or as general user. This offers the chance for the reader to engage with real people, resulting in a sense of community that breaks down the monolithic impression of an institutional effort, as seen in the traditional educational format of one-to-many, and introduces a less intimidating, peer-to-peer model, creating a nexus of connections that enables the site to achieve a many-to-many sense of social networking. Readers are able to follow the contributions of an author that interests them, reading their various comments, stories, and following their tours of selected information, thereby engaging more actively in a smaller circle of influence, and developing a series of more active and meaningful relationships.

Choosing The Right Media Partner

The choice of media partner for any museum project is always carefully judged, but more so when a museum is seeking a democratisation of its content and the creation or expansion of community.

The most obvious contribution that can be made is that of reach. In December, 2004, Channel 4 reached 9.24% of all viewing individuals and 11.5% of all viewing 16-34-year olds (BARB, 2004). Given that the total population of the country is 69 million, likely viewing numbers are around 7 million viewers for that month. The total number of visitors to the V&A in 2003 was 2,689,500. Using Channel 4 for marketing is obviously a good strategy, to help the project achieve its required visitor numbers. In addition, Channel 4 has a clear remit to produce programming for multicultural audiences and for minority interests, and can reach types of audiences not easily reached by the Victoria and Albert museum, the project leaders.

However, the role of a media partner should never be viewed simply as a great marketing tool for content and ideas. The very fact of a media partner means that whatever the size, reach or identity, the partner will be creative and able to contribute ideas and new directions as much as marketing resources. It will be in touch with the audience or the desired audience in a different way, with its own knowledge of what makes effective communication and stimulating content. Therefore, a media partner can significantly contribute to your brand, content and even administrative practices. And biggest isn't always best!

Channel 4 is an ideal brand partner for Every Object Tells A Story for the following reasons:

  • Visual Brand – the channel has won awards for its brand and has a distinctive cutting edge approach to design combined with an appreciation of the needs of different audiences.
  • Brand identity – Channel 4's brand is associated with the non-judgemental and irreverent and at the same time with an uncompromising drive to break new boundaries in production, research and broadcast. It is the channel of Big Brother and the Time Team, of Equinox and T4.

These values have been applied to the project site to create a clean, contemporary feel and to the editorial function to develop a distinctive and welcoming tone.

Finally, Channel 4's experience of managing on-line communities through very popular forums and Big Brother made us the natural manager of the content. The approach is very laissez faire outside legal requirements, and this is likely to benefit the project, in encouraging interesting and vibrant connections among the users of Every Object Tells A Story.

Thus a media partner can contribute:

  • Reach
  • Audience development
  • Management
  • Contribution to and creation of a new brand


Democratisation depends upon distribution; for something to be open to the people, it must be available to them. By partnering with Channel 4, the V&A is able to reach a much larger and more challenging audience than it would under its own auspices as a museum. However, availability is not enough: a fully functional on-line presence must be compelling and accessible. In the case of Every Object we have sought to take this further by creating a format that people can contribute to, capitalising upon the "shape of the Internet" by using the social networks model. As such, this is a truly interactive project, and one that sees the coalescence of museums and the Web.


Every Object Tells a Story has been commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and is being delivered by a consortium led by the V&A and including Channel 4, Ultralab, Tyne and Wear Museums, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and Brighton and Hove Museum. With thanks to Megan Thomas, Victoria & Albert Museum.


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Cite as:

Coldicutt, R. and K. Streten, Democratize And Distribute: Achieving A Many-To-Many Content Model, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 31, 2005 at