March 22-25, 2006
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papers: Creating A Virtuous Circle Between
A Museum’s On-line And Physical Spaces

Ailsa Barry, The Natural History Museum, UK


There has been significant debate over the last decade concerning the comparative merits of the virtual and physical offers within museums. Both have been treated as relative silos, and are often developed by separate teams who have little contact or overlap. Museums have been slow to recognise the full potential of integrating these two key areas and the value this would bring to the visitor experience.

In order to extend and evolve their relationship with visitors, museums need to develop a holistic view of the audience journey across both the physical and virtual spheres. New media offers opportunities to engage the visitor within both the virtual and physical museums. It can continue visitors’ experience beyond the walls of a museum and create a ‘virtuous circle’ between the virtual and physical space. Visitors are inspired on-line to visit the museum, while within the museum access to a variety of media channels (PDA’s, mobiles, kiosks) encourages visitors to extend the journey by book-marking, voting and sending links of relevant information home. The museum experience is therefore personalized and can be explored by visitors in their own time and to the degree that they wish.

However, in order to achieve this, museums must strategically implement this concept, considering multiple platforms and delivery channels when developing content and looking for opportunities for cross-fertilization where possible. A review of recent projects that the Natural History Museum, London, UK, has developed highlights some of the issues that arise as museums begin to implement the strategy of a virtuous circle, and indicates some of the research, resource and infrastructure issues that need to be addressed if it is to be successful.

Keywords: virtuous circle, kiosk, Internet, user-journey, handheld, multimedia, ubiquitous computing,


Established in 1881, the Natural History Museum in London is considered one of the world’s leading natural history museums and one of the UK’s top tourist attractions. It has over 70 million objects in its collections and over a million records on-line.

The Museum established its Web site in 1995; it was the first national museum to have a Web site in the UK. Visits to the Web site have now well surpassed visits to the physical museum. Last year the Web site received over ten million on-line visits, in comparison to over three million visits to the physical museum. This proportion of on-line to on-site visits is not particular to our Museum; our neighbours at the Victoria & Albert and the Science Museum have similar statistics. We also know from surveys and our log stats that our virtual visitors fall into three broad categories: 30% – 40% are potential museum visitors looking for planning information, 30% subject enthusiasts (in our case, looking for information about the natural world) and 30% scientists looking for peer-to-peer research. Significantly, from these surveys we can deduce that at least three million of our visits are directly tied into visiting and exploring our physical space, and that these potential visitors not only are Web adept but also expect to access associated on-line resources.

However, although museums increasingly realize that they are hybrid institutions with as many virtual visitors as physical ones, historically there has been little attempt to strategically tie these two offerings together to create one continuous user journey. Instead, each area has been perceived as a distinct sphere with its own strengths and only moderate overlap in the user journey.

The Web site has typically been perceived as supporting the physical offerings with marketing information, and as such is seen as an important source of pre-visit information. In interpreting the physical collections as two-dimensional digital offerings, the Web site provides valuable curatorial and interpretive information that can be accessed by those unable to visit the physical space. It therefore extends the geographic reach of the museum.

However, the Web site is not commonly seen as a way to temporally extend a museum visit, continuing visitors’ journeys after they have left the physical space, and thereby augmenting and building on the visitor relationship. Within the sector there has been little strategic thought given to developing and creating a complete user journey that combines the physical offering with the virtual offering; a journey that extends from the Web to the museum and back to the Web, or vice versa - the essence of the ‘virtuous circle’.

Fig 1: The Virtuous Circle

Fig 1: The Virtuous Circle

Other cultural content developers and distributors have already seen the value of developing such a virtuous circle for their audiences, creating multiple ways their audience can consume content and extend the experience in different media. In television, tie-ins ranging from pod-casting and blogs to live tie-ins with game shows have exploded in the last two years. Television producers, mindful of falling TV audience share, know the value of the Internet as a way of keeping their audience interested and loyal between episodes, and are inventive about imaginatively tying the show back to the Internet. With the burgeoning use of mobiles and the potential of payment, this re-purposing and extension of content into different media has increased dramatically. Museums have been slow to pick up on this, and such tie-ins are often focused on specific projects rather than used as a strategic approach for overall audience development.

The Strategic Development of the Virtuous Circle

The Natural History Museum has been developing interactive media kiosks for as long as or longer than its Web site. It currently has 63 interactive kiosks situated in the galleries, yet only three of these have any direct link back to our Web site, and these have been developed in the last year. This is not unusual - a poll of London national museums shows that the majority of museums do not have electronic links back to the Web site, nor do they encourage users to capture information and continue the experience on the Web at home. If they do, the activity is tied into a specific initiative; it is not coherently tied into an overall visitor offer.

Although there have been several projects to encourage the virtual exploration of the physical collection both through gallery kiosks and on the Web, these commonly remain as distinct offerings with no connections between them. The British Museum Compass collections on-line ( allow users to explore a vast array of objects in the Museum. Inside the Museum there are 50 touch screen consoles that allow a search for similar content. However, these two fantastic offerings are duplicated in parallel virtual worlds with no overlap between them.

Similarly, many museums have kiosks that allow users to bookmark objects within their collections, and these are then e-mailed back. Although there are some exceptions, commonly these e-mailed bookmarks contain distinct information and are not directly linked back to the museum Web site. They therefore do not encourage users to expand or continue their experience further within the virtual space.

Historically there are myriad reasons for this. Many of the systems were planned and developed before robust content management systems allowed dynamic updating of content both on the Web and in kiosks. They were also designed at a time when rich multimedia could not be viewed over the Web, thereby making different offerings for kiosks and Internet essential. The infrastructure and politics within museums have also worked against developing a coherent visitor journey. Many museums have distinct Web and gallery new media teams sitting in different departments as diverse as Exhibitions, IT, Library, Education, and Marketing. To organise and co-ordinate the virtual and physical offerings can therefore prove difficult. Perversely, in trying to ascertain their on-line identity beyond a support to the physical museum, many Web sites inadvertently have to compete with the physical museum for resources and content.

In 2004, the Natural History Museum agreed on a strategy to develop and improve the relationship between the physical and virtual space, and to develop a virtuous circle that ensured the visitor journey was a continuum between the two museum offerings. Within its Strategy for Interactive Media, 2004, the Museum states that:

Interactive Media will engage the visitor both virtually and in the galleries. Through creating inspiring material and interactive tools both on the Web and in the galleries, a virtuous circle will be created between the virtual and physical space, extending the visitors’ interest and relationship with the Museum.

In order to achieve this approach, the Museum realized that it must ensure that all content development consider multiple platforms and delivery channels when developed, including kiosks, Internet, PDA, mobile and broadband, and that it must look for opportunities for cross-fertilization where possible. The delivery of content through multi-media platforms was considered part of the overall public programme alongside other interpretive channels such as the permanent and temporary exhibitions offerings and the Learning programme.

For the Museum, the deliberate adoption of this strategy was important, as it was the first step in anticipating and understanding how audiences might wish to use and consume information in the future. (It also educated audiences on how they might wish to use content). As mobile Internet and opportunities for ubiquitous computing grow, audiences’ expectations of receiving information anywhere and at any time will escalate. The museum experience will not finish when visitors leave the building. There will be an expectation of being able to store material for consumption and development in the future. Enabling users to personalise, bookmark, revisit, engage, participate in and add to the content in an on-line environment will be part of the experience of the future.

The adoption of this strategy coincided with the restructuring of Museum departments and processes. The gallery interactive media team and the Web team were combined, creating a common skill set and enabling material to be repurposed for all new media output. Simultaneously a new project approach was implemented within the Museum to ensure that all potential contributors to a project across Museum departments were brought together at the concept stage of a project. This meant that a comprehensive approach to a project was taken, ensuring that all content possible was repurposed through multiple channels, and that the distinct channels linked and referred to each other whenever possible. It also made sure that appropriate infrastructure and resources were put in place at the beginning.

Previously the New Media and Web teams had been brought in after the development of the exhibition or programme concept, and then they refitted the content for the Web. This approach had meant that opportunities for integration and effective linking to the exhibition content were not optimised. The deliberate adoption of the new strategy meant that the ‘virtuous circle’ was internally recognised as an important objective within a project, and would receive explicit funding and resources for realization.

The Museum initiated the strategy with simple implementation into four different projects; a multimedia tour delivered on handhelds, two interactive kiosks located within galleries, and a touring exhibition integrating the interactive experience within the exhibit with a personalised Web space. Each of the projects had different modes of integrating the physical and virtual space. They are all at different stages of development and have different resource issues, usage and uptake. These projects will set the groundwork for the concept of the virtuous circle within the Museum. It is planned that working from the evaluation and lessons learned the Museum will look at more sophisticated mechanisms for achieving this in the future.

The Multi-media Hand-held Tour

The positive feedback many museums have received concerning the take-up of book-marking on multimedia hand-held tours made the development of a book-marking facility on a multimedia tour, with links to an associated Web site, a natural starting point for developing the concept of the virtuous circle (Proctor & Tellis, 2003). Research carried out at the Exploratorium (Fleck et al , 2002) had found that visitors are frequently overwhelmed by the vast amount of information presented, and book-marking or a Rememberer helped them build a record of their experiences which they could consult during or after their visit.

Although the book-marking facility on the Museum’s multi-media tour was only an aide-memoir and did not actively encourage the continuation of activities on-line, it was hoped that once users had clicked through they would begin to explore and be increasingly engaged with the virtual space, using a system of managed associated links beyond the specific subject area.

The multimedia tour is a 60-minute tour which tells the story of the Museum, the architecture of its landmark building and the research being conducted behind the scenes. The tour is a rich media experience of video, images, audio and text, delivered via a handheld iPAQ computer whose interface and operating system were modified by the Dutch company Guide ID to accept their management and operating system. Visitor and tour navigation was based on a combination of Bluetooth and RFID tags, in combination with a map. Each point on the tour can be bookmarked. After a visitor finishes the tour the device is docked and an e-mail sent to the user giving the specific links to the Museum Web site. As the tour was so content rich, the ability to bookmark the content for later consumption offered the user useful additional functionality.

Fig 2: The Natural History Museum’s Multimedia Tour

Fig 2: The Natural History Museum’s Multimedia Tour

From the evaluation of 700 tours there was a 14% use of the book-marking facility. Each user marked approximately three content points per tour. In general, rich media content of slide shows or video were bookmarked for later use rather than the more simply illustrated audio and images (Natural History Museum 2005). The overall percentage of bookmarks was lower than expected from the preliminary research published by other pilots (Fleck et al, 2002). However, inconsistent application of capturing e-mail addresses of users by front of house staff means that these statistics could be misleadingly low. Nevertheless, informal evaluation suggests that this lower uptake could be due to the book-marking’s not being obvious, as it was situated on a second level of the menu. The relatively novel concept of book-marking within this context was also an issue. Some of the visitors commented that they did not understand what they would receive via a book-marking application.

However, preliminary evaluation shows that those users who did use the book-marking facility found it very useful, as it allowed them not to worry about retaining large amounts of information while on the tour. After exploring the information on-line, visitors went on to explore the links to other areas of the Web site, and there was positive feedback to revisiting the site.

Museum Kiosks in Exhibitions and Galleries

Other developments of the virtuous circle involved introducing a book-marking facility within two kiosk exhibitions: the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition and the Ecology Gallery.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year Kiosk

The kiosk within the ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ exhibition enabled visitors to browse any of the photographs on display and then bookmark their selection and e-mail it to their home address. An e-mail was then sent with thumbnails of the pictures chosen and a direct link back to Museum Web site which had a virtual gallery of all photographs and accompanying information. The kiosk was integrated into the exhibition design; however there was no explanatory text explaining its function.

Fig. 3

Fig 3: Wildlife Photographer of the Year gallery kiosk

Over a one-month period (December 2005) there were 14,236 visitors to the gallery. Approximately 7% of these used the book-marking kiosk facility and clicked through to the Web site from the e-mails sent from the kiosk. From preliminary evaluation, half of the visitors interviewed did not notice or understand that the kiosk was a book-marking facility.

However, those who did participate commented on the usefulness of the functionality and spent time book-marking their favourite photographs.

The Ecology Action Point Kiosk

The Ecology Action Point kiosk within the Ecology gallery had a similar function. Designed to encourage visitors to become involved with their environment, it allowed visitors to choose from different areas of interest that they wished more information on. E-mails with links to the appropriate sections of the Natural History Museum Web site and other relevant organisations were then sent to them.

The kiosks are sited in an area with little other activity and are a key feature within this section of the gallery: as a result, although the gallery has relatively low visitor numbers, the conversion rate of visitors choosing to use the site has been higher.

Fig 4: Opening screen for Ecology Action Point kiosk

Fig 4: Opening screen for Ecology Action Point kiosk

Fig 5: Ecology Gallery and Action Point kiosk

Fig 5: Ecology Gallery and Action Point kiosk

Implementing the Virtuous Circle Within an Exhibition

The next project to implement the concept of the virtuous circle is the upcoming Dino Jaws exhibition. Primarily aimed at families with children aged 4-11, the exhibition is being developed for launch in June 2006. To evaluate interest in the concept of the virtuous circle, the Museum conducted front-end evaluation on the upcoming exhibition.

The evaluation used a questionnaire with 51 family groups (Pontin, 2005). The results showed that 27% of interviewees used the Web site when planning a visit. However, some parents did not know that the Museum had a Web site. When asked if they would consider using the Web site for planning a museum visit in the future, 30% said they would, 51% said they might and only 15% said that they would not consider it.

Over half of the parents said that they were interested in having their children access gallery activities and information via their computers at home. There was a mix of information that was considered potentially useful at home: 35% thought that additional information on details of dinosaurs would be useful; 38% wanted to see personal self-generated mementos, e.g. photos of themselves with a dinosaur; 35% wanted to see self-generated content, e.g. drawings they had made within the exhibit; 48% wanted to view how well they had responded to quizzes; and 18% wanted relevant links to other Web sites.

Based on this information, the Museum formalised the concept of a continuous user journey between the physical and virtual space as a specific objective within its exhibition strategy and development.

The exhibition developed the concept of a dinosaur detective trail to complement the overall concept of the exhibition and further develop understanding of how scientists know what they know. As part of this trail, each ticket issued will be bar-coded with a unique identifier that holds a secret identity for different dinosaurs. Interactives within the exhibition will give clues as to the identity of the dinosaur on the ticket, encouraging children to look and observe the exhibits more closely. Some of the interactives will have activities whose outcomes will be captured and stored on the associated Web site. At the end of the exhibition, children will be encouraged to use their ticket to log on to the Web site and go to their personalised area which will contain their stored information and activities relating to their visit experience.

In order for this project to progress, it was important that the project team agree and work on the concept of the virtuous circle from the beginning. The physical and virtual experience was then tied together and gave real value, rather than sitting on top as an extra-curricular activity. As this was the first project the Museum had undertaken in this way, there were some learning curves. As should be expected, full understanding of the possibilities afforded by new media were only fully realised by the Interactive Media members of the project team. Therefore significant time and preparation were needed to convey these opportunities and attain agreement from the rest of the project team.

For the Museum these projects are all initial steps towards integrating the concept of a virtual circle into its public programme. Through encouraging the visitor to bookmark content and revisit it within the virtual space, it is hoped that the Museum will extend the relationship with the visitor and develop a richer user journey that encourages return visits. For the Museum, the next steps are to successfully launch and evaluate the Dino Jaws exhibition and then to look at the development of mobile technology as a means of personalising information within a Web or mobile Internet space.

Next Steps and Lessons Learned

The low figures currently seen in the usage of links between the virtual and physical space seem to be supported by other research done on similar projects. The Science Museum, London, developed a way of saving visitors’ biometric output to personalised Web pages. According to Dave Patten, Head of New Media at the Science Museum, this project generated approximately a 15% click-through rate to the Web pages from visitors. Such low returns overall could be construed as being an exceptional effort for a minimal return.

However, although low, these preliminary figures for the first few projects, where the audiences are often unaware of the possibilities, are significantly higher than the average 7% click-through rate for e-mail newsletters which are considered a primary method of extending the visitor relationship and encouraging repeat visits. (Natural History Museum, 2005)

Dave Patten suggests that there were a number of reasons to account for the low uptake; visitors simply forgot that their experience had been logged and that they had a personalised area on the Web; they couldn’t find it when they visited and they felt that the content they created within the galleries had only a temporal value and was not perceived as something to be revisited at home. (D. Patten, personal communication, Jan 23, 2006)

There is another potential explanation for low take-up. All of the projects developed delivered a singular type of information. The Science Museum only produced automatically generated material from the user’s biometric data, e.g. finger-prints; there was no additional content. At the Natural History Museum, the multimedia tour and the kiosk within the gallery only created bookmarks to relevant information; there are no other activities or ways of engaging with the information.

However, the front-end user evaluation conducted by the Museum suggests that, just as in the physical space, users want a variety of different types of engagement and a range of on-line activities to participate in.

Research is therefore needed to understand what activities will be successful in providing the impetus for visitors to extend their journey into the virtual space. As new technologies become integral to people’s day-to-day lives, there will be an expectation that experiences can be consumed on a variety of platforms and through a range of media. The onus is on museums to discover how visitors want to interact and engage with content and services. They need to be able to deliver a user journey that will be enjoyed across both the physical and digital spheres, with each element contributing to a wider and richer experience.

As the nature of museums gradually shifts and opens up, the ability to provide links between physical and virtual space will become increasingly important, if not fundamental. The virtual space will offer opportunities for activities and debate to continue after events and exhibitions, with relevant links to rich content to inform. However, the links between the physical and the virtual space no longer simply sit within the governance of a museum. People no longer accept being solely consumers of information - the rise of blogs and wikis show that people can be motivated to add their own experiences and interpretation to familiar information sources in ways we haven’t yet anticipated. Users can now generate and upload their own tours via podcasts, which in turn are updated by other visitors. Museums therefore need to anticipate ways in which visitors will create their own connections and deliver the tools and services that will facilitate this.

Museums need not only to offer these opportunities, but also to educate their visitors that these information technologies exist within the museum environment and can enrich the user experience. Visitors are unequal in their understanding of information technology, and in a rapidly changing landscape will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. As our preliminary feedback suggests, some visitors are still unsure as to what to expect from even simple activities such as on-line book-marking. Museums need to introduce visitors to new ways to explore – within galleries and extending to on-line activities.

In order to enrich the user experience of the future, museums need to start looking now at ways of strategically developing a continuous user experience. They need to reassess traditional gallery interpretation skills to think ‘virtuous circle’ and extension to the Web, rather than the current understanding of the Web as a separate module. Another fundamental change is needed in terms of funding. If museums are to offer an integral physical and virtual user journey, they will need to ensure that their budgets and funding reflect this aspiration and provide resources accordingly. Museums cannot afford to miss the opportunities afforded by the virtuous circle: to do so will increase the discrepancy between how visitors interact with the museum environment and how they enjoy and learn from other sources. We need to strategically shift the way we conceptualise our visitor journey to ensure that future visitors can move with ease between our virtual and physical offerings, and thereby have a more personalised and richer experience.


Fleck, M., M. Frid, T. Kindberg, R. Rajani, E. O’Brien-Strain, & M. Spasojevic (2002).. From Informing to Remembering: Deploying a Ubiquitous System in an Interactive Science Museum. In HP Laboratories Technical Reports. Last updated March 6th, 2002, consulted January 14th 2006.

Föckler, P., T. Zeidler, B. Brombach, E. Bruns, and O. Bimber. PhoneGuide: Museum Guidance Supported by On-Device Object Recognition on Mobile Phones. In Proceedings of International Conference on Mobile and Ubiquitous Computing (MUM'05), 2005. Consulted Jan 2006.

Natural History Museum (2004). A Strategy for Interactive Media, 2004. Unpublished report

Natural History Museum (2005). Unpublished survey results. Research period Aug to Dec 2002. Statistics based on a sample size of 700 visitors.

Natural History Museum (2005). Email Newsletter Marketing 04/05, Evaluation Report, unpublished findings, Nov. 2005.

Pontin, K (2005). The Natural History Museum Front- End Evaluation: Families and Dinosaur Diets Exhibition, Unpublished findings, 2005.

Proctor & Tellis (2003). Proctor, N and C. Tellis (2003). The State of the Art in Museum Handhelds in 2003. In D Bearman and J. Trant (eds.). Museums and the Web 2003: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, 2003. Last updated March 8, 2003. Consulted January 21, 2006.

Cite as:

Barry A., Creating A Virtuous Circle Between A Museum’s On-line And Physical Spaces, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2006 at