March 22-25, 2006
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papers: Attaining The Holy Grail: How To Encourage Wider Engagement With Museum Collections Through Participation In New Media Projects

Claire Harcup, Culture Online, Department for Culture Media and Sport, and Mark Nesbitt, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK


Increasingly, museums and galleries are being asked by funders to reach new audiences as a condition of receiving money. This poses a problem to the sector: existing audiences are easy to reach; new audiences are much harder to get to, and are often resistant to traditional approaches. This paper shows how new technology can be used as a way not only of opening up collections to new audiences but also of engaging audiences on a deeper level than ever before through participation. Drawing on the experience and lessons learned from a raft of interactive projects, this paper looks at how to understand and define audiences, how to design virtuous circles of content that encourage and promote participation, and how to team up with the right organisations to reach target audiences.

Keywords: interactive projects, virtuous circles of content, participation, wider engagement, project design, Culture Online, plant cultures


In May 2000, the UK’s then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith, signalled the Government’s intention “to encourage museums, galleries and archives to adopt a strategic approach to social inclusion.” In 2001 the Government’s Departure for Culture, Media and Sport stated that funding agreements would reflect social inclusion policy guidance and contain appropriate objectives and targets. This approach has become the norm in the UK. As part of their funding agreements, the Department asks the bodies it supports to agree to targets that will “open up our institutions to the wider community, to promote lifelong learning and social cohesion.”

The intention behind the policy is commendable, especially in the face of research, such as the “Champions of Change” study (1999), that is increasingly pointing towards the fact that cultural activity benefits individuals. However, the policy poses a problem to the sector: existing audiences are easy to reach; new audiences are much harder to get to, and often prove resistant to traditional approaches. The challenge for museums and galleries is how to find new ways of engagement. In the UK, a series of projects commissioned by Culture Online has demonstrated how new technology can help do this.

Culture Online

In 2002 the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport set up Culture Online with the aim of extending the reach of arts and culture in England to new audiences using new technology. The initiative was given £16 million over three years to commission projects to delight and engage audiences. Since 2002 it has commissioned around twenty projects, many of which are for school-age children (though not necessarily for use within schools) and those at risk of exclusion.

Culture Online projects often bring together consortia that might not have worked together otherwise, and while Culture Online was not solely established to work with museums and galleries, many of its projects have partners that are part of the sector.

Projects must delight a target audience and do at least one of the following extremely well.

  1. Increase access to things that people would not have had access to otherwise. An example might be a virtual collection drawn from a variety of institutions.
  2. Increase collaboration on the part of those who would not have participated otherwise. For example, projects might provide tools especially designed for Culture Online’s target audience.
  3. Give people information about existing services, in the real world or the virtual, that they may not have discovered otherwise.

All Culture Online projects include some degree of participation. They aim to get their audiences to do something in the real world - to create something, to submit something, to visit a theatre, museum or gallery, and so on - so that virtual interaction leads to change The advantage of this approach is that participative projects, when successful, engage with their audiences on a deeper level than non-participative ones, just as the process of creating and then viewing your own home video is a far more immersive experience than watching a television program, even though the medium may be the same.

The Benefits Of Interactivity

Interactivity offers a number of advantages over more traditional media when it comes to engagement. One of the most striking is that the more people interact, the greater the potential value that is added to the whole.  Consider Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org), the on-line encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Wikipedia has been put together at a speed that would make traditional publishers gasp for breath. This was possible because it harnesses the skills and knowledge of its users, allowing each contributor to add, edit and remove text. By and large, Wikipedia’s contributors do not abuse the trust that has been placed in them, and the result is a surprisingly authoritative reference source, the value of which is potentially increased with each interaction from its audience.

Interactivity also allows levels of engagement and participation to be scaled according to the needs and wants of different types of users and, unlike almost any other medium, a low-effort interaction on the part of the user can add a lot of value for others.

Take the example of the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com), which invites users to write reviews of movies for other users’ benefit. This type of activity will be attractive to a certain sort of person, one perhaps who is eager to share his or her views, but not all filmgoers want to go to the effort of writing a full critique, even though they may have strongly held opinions. These individuals are not ignored in the Internet Movie Database model. They can vote on whether or not they found a review useful and, as a result of these seemingly small actions, reviews with higher approval ratings become more prominent on the site than those with lower ratings. Thus individual users are able to add value for others, and the power of multiple low-effort interactions is greater than the sum of the parts.

Interaction can take many forms – voting, creating, writing, playing, sharing, to name a few. What’s common to each is the effect it has on the users, transforming their experience from the passive to the active. Every time a user edits an entry on Wikipedia or uses a voting button to share an opinion on a review on the Internet Movie Database, a relationship has been formed between the site and the individual; a sort of ownership has been established, enriching the user’s relationship with the content – and ultimately with the content providers themselves.

Interactivity is not all about enriching users’ experience, however. In addition to allowing the museum or gallery to build up a relationship with its audience, it gives the opportunity to create a presence that goes beyond physical boundaries and to engage people in parts of its collection to which they might not normally have access because of the limitations buildings impose. It also gives the organisation a showcase, one which will get them noticed and give them credit. These benefits are well understood, but perhaps less recognised is the opportunity interactivity affords an organisation to build its understanding of its audience’s interests and behaviours, and at the same time accrue new content.

This paper outlines the key ingredients for creating successful interactive projects: defining and understanding audiences, creating virtuous circles of content, and putting together successful delivery partnerships. 

Define And Understand Your Audience

It should go without saying that a project starts with the audience but, sadly, all too often audience needs languish a long way down the priority list, below the requirements of the organisation that is creating or funding the project. There are still projects in which the first questions asked is not: Who are we doing this for? and What do they want/need? but How does this fit with the structure and needs of our institution? There’s nothing wrong with a project that fits an institutional framework; it’s just that this shouldn’t be the only reason for doing it. Good projects please both the audience and the institution.

The first thing to do is to define your target audience - who are they and what are their needs? Find out everything you can about them and if you don’t know, find someone who does. Go and talk to special interest groups or outreach organisations that work with the people you are trying to reach, so you can design the most appropriate experience for them. This is what the Plant Cultures project, led by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in the UK, did (see case studies below).

The result of understanding your audience in this way might mean that you have to forsake the traditional ways of thinking about your collection. This may be uncomfortable in the short-term and may well demand persuasive power to convince people within your organisations of the benefits of doing so, but ultimately it will reap rewards.

Create Virtuous Circles Of Content

Typically there are five key stages to successful interactive projects, taking the user from initial interest to the act of creating or doing something.

  1. Stimulate interest - get your target audience’s attention
  2. Engage - get them to buy into the proposition
  3. Guide - lead them to resources
  4. Communicate - get them to collaborate and/or communicate - after all, brains learn and develop in the presence of other brains, virtual or otherwise.
  5. Create/do - get them to do something in the real world

While in theory each stage leads to the next and can propel the user further on the journey that starts at a spark of interest (Engage) and ends in the creation of something new and wonderful (Create/do), in practice each stage can be thought of as a barrier - a person whose interest is stimulated by, say, a newspaper article or a television program cannot be assumed to have engaged with the central proposition behind a project related to that article or program. Used properly, however, new technologies such as the Web, interactive television and mobile devices can enable each stage by lowering the barriers between them.

New technologies can also be powerful tools in the creation of virtuous circles of content in which the things that people create or do stimulate interest in others and ultimately may lead to their creating or doing something themselves. Such virtuous circles underpin the design of many successful projects. Figure 1 illustrates how a virtuous circle of content might look.

Fig 1: Example of a virtuous circle of content

Fig 1: Example of a virtuous circle of content

Culture Online’s Mad For Arts project is a real-world example of a virtuous circle of content. Mad For Arts was a unique project that created an artistic forum for some of the most marginalised people in society - mental health service ‘users and survivors’. The first step was to seed the site with contributions that would inspire others to get involved, so the project enlisted the help of organisations that work with people who have experienced mental distress to encourage them to act as guides and critics to the art works that they found inspirational. These were uploaded to individual ‘studio spaces’ on the Web site, where they encouraged other users to contribute their own thoughts. Some of the pieces from the audience were made into films that gave new insight into how works of art can reflect or re-shape our world view, and the best of those appeared on the Community Channel, a niche broadcaster with national distribution, and Channel Five, one of the UK’s main terrestrial broadcasters. These broadcasts were seen by millions, and each contained a strong ‘call to action’ for people to participate on-line.

Ingredients Of Successful Project Consortia

The skills required to deliver interactive projects are diverse and are seldom found in one organisation, so many projects must of necessity become collaborations between a number of partners. While this can make them more complex from a project management point of view, if the vision for the project is strong enough and based in real audience needs, the advantages can outweigh the potential disadvantages. When putting together a consortium of project partners, the key disciplines that need to be covered are:

Editorial leadership - This may come from the lead organisation itself, from an outside partner or from a combination of the two. Whichever approach suits, the most important thing is that the project’s editorial leaders believe that the needs of the audience come first and are persuasive enough to bring others round to this view if necessary.

Project management - This will probably come from the lead organisation. Complex interactive projects require tight control to pull together their many elements. Make sure you employ a dedicated project manager with extensive experience. The technology-shy need not apply.

Technical expertise - If you don’t have the skills in-house, appoint a good technical provider during the early stages of planning. Many projects prove impractical or suffer from soaring costs as a result of critical decisions made early on without input from the right people.

Design - Ensure your designers consider usability as important as aesthetics; otherwise you will end up with a beautiful site or service that no one can use. Usability guru Jacob Nielsen states that after a usability redesign, sites increase desired metrics by 135 per cent on average. Also, ensure that your appointed designers have accessibility in mind at all times. Not only is there a moral obligation to make accessible sites; in many countries it is a legal requirement. Working accessibility in up-front saves time and money unpicking problems later, not to mention the reputational risk to the lead organisation if the project receives negative publicity.

Audience understanding - Don’t assume that you know and understand your audience (unless you really do). Find people who work directly with the people you are trying to reach and tap into their networks and expertise - you’ll save time, money and disappointment.

Distribution - Never assume just because you build it they will come. Interactive projects compete in a busy space, and projects need to be brought to people’s attention by those who ‘own’ audiences. Often television and radio channels or newspapers are the best way to reach an audience, but if you are targeting a small niche audience, it’s probably more appropriate to work with a special interest organisation.

Case Studies

Plant Cultures http://www.plantcultures.org.uk

Fig 2: Plant Cultures home page http://www.plantcultures.org.uk

Fig 2: Plant Cultures home page http://www.plantcultures.org.uk

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK, is an institution with a world-wide reputation and unparalleled scientific and horticultural expertise whose mission is to increase knowledge and understanding of plants. Its academic database and resources are second to none, but they have limited appeal to non-scientific audiences.

Together with Culture Online, Kew Gardens conceived a project to broaden the appeal of its work at the same time as collecting information that had a value to the institution itself. Both parties recognised that there was a wealth of information surrounding the cultural significance of plants that went beyond Kew’s normal remit, and that by actively seeking such information about the plants of a particular region Kew could add to its knowledge whilst simultaneously appealing to people with ties to that geographical area, as well as those interested in plants in general.

From this thinking Plant Cultures emerged - a Web site that captures stories, recipes, images and folklore associated with the plants of South Asia. To deliver what was an ambitious project, which involved not only building the site but also organising a series of content workshops around the country, a complex consortium of interested parties needed to be created, particularly since Kew did not have particularly strong links to the South Asian community. This was done by pulling together a number of diverse partners.

Fig 3: Partners involved in Plant Cultures

Fig 3: Partners involved in Plant Cultures

Lead partner - As lead partner, Kew was responsible for the project management and the editorial leadership of Plant Cultures, as well as lending the authority of its brand.

Audience owners - Bradford Community Environment Project works on the ground with people from the South Asian community. Their people brought Plant Cultures their deep understanding of the project’s target audience.

Outreach partners - Plant Cultures harnessed the combined outreach power of Kew Gardens itself, the Museum of London, Leicester City Museums and the National Museums of Liverpool. These organisations co-ordinated activities in their respective cities, including the events and workshops that helped gather evocative stories and ultimately a huge treasury of Web-based material.

Specialist partners - The British Library, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Wellcome Library and the Natural History Museum all contributed content to sit alongside that from Kew itself. For some of the partners, this was the first time some of their material had been available to the general public.

Technical partner - In addition to its specialist expertise, technical partner NYKRIS also contributed its knowledge of the museums and galleries sector.

Media partner - BBC Asian Network scheduled a week of programming based around Plant Cultures.

Experience on the Plant Cultures project underlines the importance of working with organisations that understand the target audience intimately. Specialist partners are able to anticipate and overcome barriers that may not be obvious to those from another tradition or culture or who do not share an outlook or experience. This knowledge can prove invaluable when dealing with issues that seemingly have nothing to do with the project itself but can influence its success or failure. For example, on Bradford Community Environment’s recommendation, rail tickets were made available to female participants in an out-of-town workshop so they could choose not to be driven by a male coach driver. The provision of rail tickets allowed women to participate in the project who may not otherwise have felt able to do.

For Kew Gardens, the project has been notable for fostering new relationships. Some are external; for example, with museums and other institutions in the cultural sector and community groups. Others are within Kew: the project has helped scientists and curators communicate with staff working in IT, education and in the gardens and greenhouses. Working with NYKRIS and Culture Online’s technical team led Kew to take a pro-active approach to Web site usability and accessibility right from the start. The most exciting - and challenging - part of the project for Kew has been the project’s work on fostering, and capturing in digital form the participation of British Asian communities.

ICONS http://www.ICONS.org.uk

Fig 4: Icons home page http://www.ICONS.org.uk

Fig 4: Icons home page http://www.ICONS.org.uk

Launched in January 2006, ICONS is a virtual collection of hundreds of England’s cultural icons. Nominated by the general public, the Icons collection reflects a contemporary view of English culture and values - a living picture of a country, a people and a way of life. From Stonehenge to the red double-decker bus, from fish and chips to the humble cup of tea, the project is set to become a dynamic portrait of England.

Hundreds of nominations from the public are being registered on the site. Each quarter new icons of England will be announced, as the on-line collection grows bigger and richer in content. It is a chance for people to choose their own icon or vote for other people’s nominations and share anecdotes, photographs and memories on-line.

Icons can be navigated through different layers of content, cross-referencing from an historical, scientific, sociological or artistic angle. The objects themselves can be examined in new ways: there will be 3D viewing options, virtual magnifications, audio-visual descriptions and on-line animations.

Each object links back to its ‘home’ institution and is linked thematically to other objects in that collection. Visitors will be able to participate in a variety of related activities, including a full education program.

By featuring everyday objects and finding new significance in them, challenging the user to think about what constitutes an icon, the Icons project finds the common ground between museum and audience. Even the seemingly trivial example of the cup of tea, much loved by the British as a pick-up-me-up and comforter in times of strife, reveals itself to be the trigger for a journey through British colonial history, touching on the trade and ships that brought tea to British shores and the porcelain industry that grew up around the fashion for tea-drinking and adapted to its needs.

The project leverages the power of the virtuous circle to garner nominations from the public. National and local newspapers, radio and TV stations have all carried pieces about the project, challenging their readers to nominate their own icons for consideration. This has led to a flood of nominations going forward to the editorial committee, which will deliberate on their worthiness for inclusion in the site. The announcement of those that made it will no doubt provoke more debate and another flurry of nominations.

My Art Space http://www.myartspace.org.uk

FigFig 5: My Art Space home page http://www.myartspace.org.uk

Fig 5: My Art Space home page http://www.myartspace.org.uk

My Art Space is an interactive service that enables visitors to museums and galleries to ‘collect’ cultural artefacts using their cell phones and to create their own on-line collections through which they can share their interest, knowledge and enthusiasm about the objects and art works they find. The service, specifically designed around museum education, illustrates how the digital world of Web sites and mobile phone technologies can add value to the real world of museums, galleries and exhibitions.

Led by The Sea, a sustainable design and innovation agency, My Art Space is to be launched early in 2006 at the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, Urbis in Manchester, and the Study Gallery in Poole. Although the service is available to general visitors, it is primarily targeted at pupils studying National Curriculum Key Stages 2 and 3.

Students are given the opportunity to improve their understanding and interest across a range of subject areas by connecting the physical world of the gallery to their own world of learning. They then ‘curate’ the objects they have collected, displaying them in virtual galleries on the My Art Space Web site that can be shared with the general public as well as their family and friends. By bringing the museum experience and students closer together, students can interact with museum or gallery objects in meaningful, fun and stimulating ways, and through starting their own collections are encouraged to consider the nature of curating. For many of the pupils, the excitement of using a cell phone in a learning environment breaks down the barrier that they may perceive exists between themselves and the museum or gallery’s artefacts. The risk that the experience of using the phone becomes more important than the artefacts themselves is mitigated by the fact that students are asked to give reasons for their decision to include an object in their personal collection.

Playground Fun http://playgroundfun.org.uk

Fig 6: Playground Fun home page http://www.playgroundfun.org.uk

Fig 6: Playground Fun home page http://www.playgroundfun.org.uk

Not every successful relationship between a museum or gallery and an interactive project has to have the institution as its starting point, as the example of Playground Fun illustrates. Playground Fun is a Web site that aims to revitalise the tradition of street games by inspiring a new generation of children to record and create their own versions of the games their parents and grandparents played.

Commissioned by Culture Online from Learnthings, part of the Guardian newspaper’s media group, the site is designed to exercise children’s imaginations as well as their bodies, turning Web interactivity into physical activity. Featuring colourful cartoon characters, the nuts-and-bolts information is a basis for classroom discussion about the games children know, and for developing pupils’ own games and rhymes. At the heart of Playground Fun is a game builder tool which allows children to create new games or their own versions of existing games and then to test them out in the playground, thus stimulating children’s creativity, writing and oral communication skills.

After its launch, Playground Fun teamed up with the Museum of Childhood in London as part of its summer program. The museum ran a series of outdoor activities in the grounds of the museum, based around traditional games featured on the site. In addition, it conducted a number of workshops in which children were taught how to devise and capture their own games to add to the site.

The programme was a success for all parties, demonstrating the power of combining the virtual with real-world activities. Through the Playground Fun-inspired activities the museum was able to forge a stronger relationship with its audience, encouraging many new visitors through its gates to participate in the workshops and events. As one parent put it, the program gave the children a “nice feeling about museums”. On the other hand, the program benefited the site too. Eighty-two per cent of those who took part said that they would use Playground Fun to learn more about outdoor games, get ideas for activities or create new games.

Web Design Challenge http://www.beingheard.org.uk

Fig 7: Being Heard home page www.beingheard.org.uk

Fig 7: Being Heard home page www.beingheard.org.uk

Another interactive project that strengthened a museum’s relationship with its audience is Web Design Challenge.

Culture Online came up with the idea of running a competition to encourage the Web designers of the future while engaging them with concepts of citizenship. Headed up by The Hansard Society (an independent, non-partisan educational charity, which exists to promote effective parliamentary democracy) and the Design Museum in London, Web Design Challenge was a competition to uncover the best ideas and design potential in young people between the ages of eleven and fourteen by asking them to design a Web site called Being Heard to give young people a voice in politics,.

The competition was supported by a dedicated Web site which provided tips and guidelines for teachers and pupils, in particular on the principles of good Web design. More than 500 schools registered to take part at the start of the project, which involved teams of students creating designs for their own personal home pages on a range of topics from music and sport to bullying, crime, family, religion and the environment.

Entries were judged by a panel of new media specialists as well as representatives from the Design Museum and the Hansard Society.

Each of the designers of the 200 best entries was invited to one of the Web Design Challenge masterclasses held at prestigious venues around England (including the Design Museum itself) where they received tips and guidance from leading Web designers as well as their brief for the next phase of the competition. In this phase, the young people were asked to design a Web site for other young people on the theme of “Being Heard”. Teachers were sent a resource pack to support both the ICT and citizenship features of the challenge. The winning design from this phase was then turned into the Being Heard site (www.beingheard.org.uk) run by the Hansard Society.

As well as unearthing latent design talent, Web Design Challenge has proved extremely successful in engaging young people with design in general and Web design in particular. It has achieved this by engaging its audience not with individual items of a collection but with the general ethos of the Design Museum - to promote an understanding of design in the round. However, what makes this project especially interesting is that it managed to achieve a relationship with a new audience through ICT and citizenship - routes not traditionally associated with design.


Interactive projects have the capacity to engage new audiences with museums and galleries in fresh, exciting and compelling ways, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to the design: projects need to be tailored to the particular needs and behaviours of the target audience. Nevertheless, there are a number of key principles that, if applied properly, will provide the project with a robust foundation and maximise the possibility of the enriching experience that characterises the best interactive projects. By forming a deep understanding of their target audience, creating virtuous circles of content, and putting together appropriate multi-disciplinary delivery partnerships, museums and galleries can help maximise an interactive project’s chances of success and thereby help achieve their own strategic goals.


Building on PAT 10 - Progress Report on Social Inclusion, HMSO, London (2001).

Catterall, Chapleau and Iwanaga. Champions of Change - The Impact of the Arts on Learning (1999). The US “Champions of Change” study of 25,000 students found that those with high levels of arts participation outperform “arts poor” students in virtually every measure.

Department for Culture, Media and Sport 2003-2006. Service Delivery Agreement.

Foreword to “Centres for Social Change: Museums, Galleries and Archives for All”, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (May 2000).

Nielsen, Jacob. “Return on Investment for Usability.” Jacob Nielsen’s Alertbox (January 7, 2003). http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20030107.html.

Cite as:

Harcup C. and Nesbitt M., Attaining The Holy Grail: How To Encourage Wider Engagement With Museum Collections Through Participation In New Media Projects, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2006 at http://www.archimuse.com/mw2006/papers/harcup/harcup.html