April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Living Museum®: Supporting the Creation of Quality User-Generated Content

Allison Farber and Paul Radensky, Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, United States of America


The Living Museum® is an on-line application and curriculum that enables students and teachers in Jewish schools to create virtual exhibitions of artifacts that represent their individual and collective Jewish heritage. Our site went live a year ago, and now that we have posted on-line exhibitions from a number of schools, several challenges have emerged with the quality of our user-generated content. For example, how do we support students to write thorough and thoughtful artifact descriptions? What sort of mechanisms will both encourage and enable teachers to review and edit student submissions? How do we ensure that students and teachers submit quality photographs that meet the high standards visitors expect from on-line museums? How do we manage staff resources invested in reviewing and editing user submitted content?

Our initial questions raised new questions: How rigorous should the Museum’s review process be? What standards should we maintain? How do we communicate these standards? What do we do when we receive an exhibition that does not live up to our educational standards?

This paper presents the Living Museum’s on-line protocols and the instructional module we built to support the creation of quality exhibitions. We discuss how demonstrating high expectations, sharing our educational goals and providing technical and curricular resources facilitate the creation of quality user-generated content and can be used as a model for others when creating Web sites that host user-generated content.

Keywords: education, children, quality, artifact, heritage, user-generated content, on-line exhibitions


About a year ago, staff of the Education Department at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust (the "Museum") held an intensive three-day training session for teachers in Jewish schools on how to use its Living Museum Web site and curriculum. The Living Museum is an in-class and on-line curriculum for fifth and sixth grade students in Jewish schools. Through this curriculum children examine their Jewish heritage through the study of family heirlooms. They create on-line and in-school exhibitions of artifacts that represent their families' Jewish experience.

The training seemed to go well and the teachers appeared to understand the Web site (Berman Center for Research and Evaluation in Jewish Education, 2007). During the seminar we talked at length about the educational value for students to create complete, grammatically correct, and stylistically consistent artifact labels for inclusion in the exhibition. We discussed how important it was for teachers to thoroughly review the students’ work. Additionally, we showed the teachers where they could find criteria for creating quality exhibitions in our on-line Teacher’s Guide, and we spoke about how they could revise and comment on their students’ work in order to get the best quality results.

In an internal survey, the teachers wrote that they understood the process of creating an exhibition and they felt ready to work with their students to post their efforts on-line (Berman Center for Research and Evaluation in Jewish Education, 2007). However, when the teachers submitted their exhibitions for review, we were largely disappointed with the quality of their work. One teacher submitted an exhibition that was full of egregious grammatical mistakes. Two teachers submitted their exhibitions several months after they intended to finish them, and one of these exhibitions included many incomplete artifact labels. We were left wondering what happened and how we could improve the quality of Living Museum exhibitions in the future.

Living Museum Background

In order to explore our dilemma, we must explain more about the Living Museum. In December 2005, the Museum received a grant from the Covenant Foundation to support expanding what had been a local program to a national one. The Museum and Dr. Karen Shawn of the Moriah School collaborated on an early version of the Living Museum for Moriah's Heritage Fair. Following this initial partnership, the Museum developed a Living Museum tour for students in Jewish middle schools. Generous funding from the Covenant Foundation allowed us to build the Living Museum Web site and reach out to bring out-of-state teachers to the Museum to learn how to implement the Living Museum curriculum in their classrooms. One important goal of the expansion of the Living Museum is to serve students in remotely-located Jewish communities, particularly those that do not have access to a local Jewish museum or many resources for learning about their heritage.

The following is a basic outline of the Living Museum. Students visit a local museum where they learn about artifacts and observe how a museum is organized. Afterward, the students return to their classroom where they learn about the components of an artifact label. With the help of their parents, students choose an artifact from home to research. This artifact should be one that represents their family history and heritage. In class, students write their own artifact labels based on the research they did with family members, and their objects are photographed. After the students’ artifact labels are reviewed by their teacher, the class works together to create a list of galleries (thematic groups) into which their artifacts could be placed. Then as a class they decide in which galleries their artifacts will be placed. The students with artifacts in a particular gallery collaborate to write a gallery text panel, which describes the themes of the artifacts in that gallery. The class then creates a title and an introduction to the exhibition.

Once a class has finished creating artifacts, galleries, and an introduction to the exhibition, the teacher and students create their on-line exhibition. First, the teacher uploads the introduction and creates the on-line galleries which constitute the framework of the exhibition. Then the students login and add their artifact images and label text to the appropriate galleries. Next, the teacher edits, accepts or returns the students’ artifact labels. Once all students have completed their artifact labels to the teacher's satisfaction, the teacher submits the exhibition to Museum staff for review and publication on-line. Additionally, the class creates an in-school exhibition in which the artifacts are displayed, and parents, teachers, and other classes are invited to view the students’ artifacts, labels, and galleries, and hear about the exhibition from the students themselves.

Figure 1

Fig 1: Introduction to an exhibition

Figure 2

Fig 2: Gallery consisting of a title, text, and artifacts &Itemid=38&nx_pageid=946

Figure 3

Fig 3: Student’s artifact label &Itemid=38&nx_pageid=463&nx_itemid=482

There are several educational and institutional goals for this project. The educational goals include helping students understand their place in Jewish history; learning about museums and the ways they are organized; providing opportunities for improving writing and categorization skills; involving parents in their child’s Jewish education; and posting exhibitions that are relatively consistent in structure so that together they form a cohesive on-line museum. Institutional goals (the goals of the Museum) include expanding a successful local program into a national one through an on-line Web site; providing resources and lessons for teachers in Jewish communities across the country who might not have access to many resources for teaching and learning about Jewish heritage and history; and positively and fairly representing the Museum, students, and teachers who have contributed to the Living Museum while keeping the safety and privacy of the students paramount.

User-Generated Content

Many of the most visited Web sites today feature extensive user-generated content. These Web sites include Wikipedia (, YouTube (, and Facebook ( The accuracy, originality, and value of the user-generated content on these Web sites vary.

The current trend in popular Web sites that feature user-generated content is the publication of material that is not subject to an initial review process. Generally, users are given the task of deciding whether or not content merits viewing. On Web sites like YouTube and Facebook, content is typically taken off these Web sites only if it is violent, graphic, or offensive or if it breaks copyright. On other Web sites like Wikipedia, the content is modified by the public with limited input from the original author.

Our Web site runs contrary to this trend. We exert a degree of control over the content for several reasons, including:

  • The Web site is dedicated to meeting our educational goals
  • We have very specific users and a very specific audience
  • The content is written primarily by children
  • The content is personal and should not be subject to public commentary posted by users
  • The user-generated content should not be modifiable by the general public

The Internet is a vast resource, and there is a demand for both Web sites that accept most user-generated content, like Wikipedia, YouTube and Facebook, and Web sites that regulate the content that users submit before it is posted, like the Living Museum. Both types of Web sites serve a purpose. Web sites that accept most user-generated content encourage creativity and may allow users to share their work with the public at all stages of development. The stricter rules of the Living Museum Web site serve a different purpose: to ensure a successful educational outcome for the participating students, classes, and visitors.

Clarifying Educational and Institutional Goals

One of the most important educational goals of the Living Museum is to motivate students to learn about their Jewish heritage. We have employed several strategies to meet this goal. To encourage the creation of exhibitions that reflect students’ Jewish heritage, we must first ensure that students and teachers are the sole contributors to our Web site. Although anyone is welcome to view the exhibitions, only approved users may contribute. Consequently, we carefully monitor whom we allow to register as users on the Web site. This strict registration process is meant to prevent disappointment in other visitors who might otherwise go through the work of completing the project, only to find themselves unable to post their exhibitions. Although we currently limit use of the Web site to classes in Jewish schools, we are considering the possibility of allowing other schools, interfaith groups, and community groups to post their exhibitions in a future version of the Living Museum Web site.

Another goal of the Living Museum is to involve parents in their child’s religious school education. Parents and families of the students are encouraged to work with their child to choose an artifact that is related both to the history of their family and their Jewish heritage. We have seen that because of the personal nature of these artifacts, parents tend to become involved in this project.

Another objective is ensuring that the artifacts on display have a connection to Judaism or Jewish life. This may raise questions of interpretation for the teachers and students. Many students have family backgrounds that are not solely Jewish. Other students come from secular Jewish households. Still other families may have few heirlooms, because, for example, they recently immigrated to the United States or Canada and may not have been able to bring many objects with them. Our solution is that the artifacts students choose do not have to be religious objects, such as a prayer book or a Passover Seder plate; they may also be common objects that tell a Jewish story. For example, a pair of sewing scissors can tell the story of a Jewish family that moved to the southern United States and opened a custom drapery business which flourished during a time when there was rampant anti-Semitism in the area.

Providing opportunities for improving writing and research skills is an important aim of the Living Museum. For this reason, Living Museum artifact labels are longer than traditional museum artifact labels. We ask students to create labels which contain a title, the dimensions of the artifact, materials, place of origin, approximate date the artifact was made, and the artifact “donor’s” name. Most importantly, we ask the students to tell the story of the artifact, as well as show the significance of the artifact to the student’s family and Jewish heritage. The label should articulate these connections as completely as possible and should be free of spelling, grammar, and factual errors.

Another goal of the Living Museum is for the students to learn how a museum is organized. This is accomplished by having the students arrange their artifacts into galleries and organize those galleries into an exhibition. The gallery is the critical organizational device of a museum. The content of the galleries, how they are introduced, and even the way they are arranged will transform a group of artifacts into a coherent story.

A part of the Teacher’s Guide that requires special comment is the section on creating and uploading images. Web sites with clear, crisp images draw in visitors. Therefore, we have written and video tutorials which show teachers and students how to photograph objects with digital cameras and how to crop, sharpen and enhance the images on Google’s Picasa ( From anecdotal evidence we believe that our tutorials are encouraging teachers to work harder on the photographs than they would ordinarily. However, we feel the photographs on our Web site could be more inviting. Therefore, we are thinking about ways to encourage our users to take better photographs, and are considering different tools to allow them to edit their photographs more easily. Displaying high quality photographs on the Living Museum accomplishes the goals of representing the schools and the Museum well and providing a fairly consistent level of quality throughout the Web site.

Another important institutional consideration is protecting the privacy of students who use the Web site. Accordingly, we ask teachers and students not to include photographs of students in their exhibition. We also ask that students use only their last initial rather than their full last name in their artifact labels.

After laying out what is expected of teachers, the Living Museum staff needed to discuss how far we were willing to go to ensure that our educational and institution goals were met. We weighed the value of publishing high quality exhibitions against a desire to publish every student's submission as an acknowledgement of the real, if sometimes flawed, work that the student completed. We also discussed how much time and effort we can expect of busy teachers before they become unwilling or unable to carry out the Living Museum project. Additionally, we talked about what our policy would be on controversial material, and we discussed the amount of staff time we were willing to dedicate to reviewing and editing exhibitions.

Ensuring Achievement of Educational and Institutional Goals

Part of our conversation focused on how we can support teachers, students, and parents to ensure that our educational and institutional goals are achieved. The Living Museum Web site has instructional materials for students and parents, but the primary instructional module on the Living Museum Web site is the Teacher’s Guide. It includes detailed written instructions and twelve short videos explaining how teachers can implement the curriculum in the classroom, and demonstrates how they can complete the technical aspects of the Living Museum.

We provide guidelines for choosing artifacts, but we leave it up to the teachers and the students to decide whether or not an artifact is acceptable for on-line display. As long as the artifacts do not disparage any person or group, nor contain text that is under copyright, we will not ask the teacher to remove an artifact. This issue came to our attention after we received a controversial artifact label which led to a lengthy internal debate, after which we decided to allow the label to be published because it reflects the thoughts and opinions of the child who created it. The artifact label in question was considered potentially controversial because it was critical of a government's policy.

We have frequently found that exhibitions submitted for publication include artifacts that have no relation to Judaism or Jewish heritage. Although the Living Museum specifically posts exhibitions built around the theme of Jewish heritage, we have published exhibitions that contain artifacts where the connection to Judaism was not explicitly stated or even alluded to. Our decision to include these artifacts was based on the fact that the exhibition contained a majority of artifacts that told Jewish stories. We made the decision to allow a small number of artifacts that did not have an explicit Jewish story because we do not want to exclude children by rejecting their artifacts. On the other hand, if a submitted exhibition contained a predominant number of artifacts that did not reflect Jewish heritage, we would have to revisit this issue. Thus far, this has not occurred.

Figure 4

Fig 4: Artifact label unrelated to the theme of Jewish heritage

Another issue is the submission of exhibitions which contain errors in spelling and grammar. If an exhibition has minimal grammar and spelling errors, Living Museum staff will correct the errors and will post the exhibition on-line. If the exhibition has numerous errors which would take our staff many hours to correct, we return the exhibition to the teacher and suggest another adult review the exhibition before resubmitting it. We plan to add a spell check feature to our Web site to minimize the amount of teacher and staff time spent reviewing.

It is not possible for us to devote enough staff time to ensure that each artifact label is totally accurate; however, if we believe there is a factual error in a particular artifact label, we e-mail the teacher to request verification of accuracy. In one case, we received an artifact where a student listed the materials of tefillin (ritual objects worn by religious Jewish men when they pray) as cardboard and paper. Since tefillin are traditionally made from leather and parchment, we asked the teacher to confirm the student’s description or to correct it.

It is important to note that we review exhibitions to check that there have been no breaches of children’s privacy. We check that students identify themselves with only their first names and last initials. If an artifact is submitted with a student’s last name, or with the last name of someone in the family, we change the entry so only the last initial of the student is used. We allow exceptions only if the last name is necessary to the story of the artifact. For example, if the artifact is a change of name certificate that a child’s grandfather received when he changed his name to make it seem “more American” upon immigration to the U.S., we would allow the child to leave the grandfather’s last name in the text if it was different from the child’s last name. In another measure to protect privacy, we do not allow photographs of the students to be posted on-line. If an exhibition contains a picture of a student, we return the exhibition to the teacher and request that the picture be replaced.

Despite the numerous instructions, guidelines and worksheets we have put in place to facilitate the production of what we consider appropriate artifact labels, we have nonetheless received many artifact labels which fail to include a depth of information that meets our desired standards. In these instances, we weigh the number of problematic labels in a given exhibition against requiring a class to re-do its exhibition and the likelihood that the class would not re-submit their exhibition. Nonetheless, if the majority of the artifacts in the exhibition are incomplete, we return the exhibition to the teacher with a request to have the artifact labels developed more fully. To ensure the production of fuller labels in the future, we plan to put more required fields on the form that students fill out in order to submit their artifacts. We also plan to state our criteria for acceptable exhibitions more explicitly.

Figure 5

Fig 5: Incomplete artifact label &Itemid=38&nx_pageid=1055&nx_itemid=664

One of the more challenging tasks in creating a Living Museum exhibition is drafting the introductory text panels for the galleries. These text panels present the unifying theme for the artifacts in the galleries, and they are often the product of a fair amount of group work by the students. Consequently, we refrain from making significant changes to the gallery text panels, and generally only correct for spelling and grammar. The only exception is a gallery which contains only one artifact, which means that the gallery fails to meet our goal that exhibitions be consistent, and artifacts be divided into meaningful galleries. Here we recommend to the teacher that this artifact be included in another gallery, or that more artifacts be added to the gallery. To counteract this possibility, in our Teacher’s Guide we added a recommendation that each gallery contain at minimum three artifacts.

The inclusion of clear photographs is also a goal of this project, and accordingly we check the photographs when exhibitions are submitted. In general, we do not comment on the photographs because they are difficult for teachers to re-take. However, we do intervene in cases where the artifact is absolutely impossible to decipher.

We discussed how we evaluate exhibitions above, but how do we decide whether an exhibition will be accepted, revised or returned for revision? A high-quality exhibition contains artifacts that reflect Jewish heritage and/or experience, has well-developed labels, correct spelling and grammar, accurate content, clear photographs of artifacts, and no photographs or last names of students. Exhibitions meeting these expectations are easily accepted. So far, very few of the exhibitions that have been submitted fall into this category. But most exhibitions are acceptable with revisions made or suggested by Living Museum staff.

Exhibitions that are returned to the teacher for revision have a majority of incomplete artifact labels, a significant portion of artifacts are not related to Jewish heritage, a substantial number of spelling, grammatical errors, or content errors, or photographs of students. It should be noted that we rarely return exhibitions. In the one case where we did not accept an exhibition, the teacher did not modify the exhibition and it remains unpublished.

Another common problem we have found is that teachers underestimate the time and effort involved in putting together an exhibition. In the beginning of the Teacher’s Guide, we inform teachers about how much time and energy this project will require while trying not to discourage them from undertaking the project. Despite posting these expectations, we have found that teachers consistently underestimate the amount of time and effort it takes to complete this project. To remedy this ongoing problem we plan to include this information in the email teachers receive when their registration is approved so they can set realistic timelines before they begin.

We continue to work on the Living Museum Web site in order to put mechanisms in place that will facilitate the development of quality user-generated content. Because of this, we have not widely promoted the project, and most of the teachers presently using the site are teachers we trained to do the Living Museum in an on-site seminar that is part of our Covenant Foundation funded pilot project. There are usually fewer than six classes working on the Web site at a given time. With such a small number of current users, we have had not encountered difficulty dedicating staff resources to answer questions from teachers or to review exhibitions. Most exhibitions are assessed and posted on-line in less than one week, though we anticipate a longer review process for larger exhibitions.

The average exhibition on our Web site contains twenty-one artifacts. Once the pilot stage has ended, we will include a message on our Web site notifying potential users that:

Exhibitions containing fewer than 25 artifacts will be processed within one week. Exhibitions containing between 25 and 75 artifacts will be processed within two weeks. For exhibitions containing more than 75 artifacts please contact us before beginning the Living Museum to ensure that we can dedicate staff time to review your exhibitions.

We may also re-evaluate our standards as our site grows larger; we want to keep review time short so as not to discourage teachers from doing the project.


To guarantee that both participating schools and the Museum that created the Web site are represented well, we have established a set of minimum requirements which must be met to have an exhibition posted on-line.

  • The majority of the artifacts must relate to the topic of the exhibition, in this case, Jewish heritage.
  • Artifact labels should be free of grammar and spelling errors.
  • Artifact labels must contain no egregious factual errors.
  • The viewer should be able to decipher the object in a photograph.
  • Student privacy must be protected. Therefore, no photographs of students may be posted and no last names of students may be used.
  • We aim for organizational consistency between exhibitions. Therefore, the majority of artifacts in an exhibition must be complete and the artifacts must be divided into galleries, each containing more than one artifact.

We continue to think about how to facilitate the production of quality user-generated content without overwhelming the user with rules and time-consuming procedures. We strive to encourage teachers, and through them, students, to devote ample time to creating their exhibitions. The greater our success in conveying the value of the Living Museum's educational goals, the better our Web site will be.


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Cite as:

Farber, A., and P. Radensky, Living Museum®: Supporting the Creation of Quality User-Generated Content , in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted