April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Teens Connect to Art and Each Other at Young Peoples’ Laboratories for Art

Anne Tessing Skovbo Nielsen and Tine Nygaard, Statens Museum for Kunst, Denmark; and Ethan Wilde, Mediatrope Interactive, USA


At Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK), the Danish national gallery, we wanted to reach a teenage audience. Our assumption was that if we truly wanted to engage this difficult - very elusive, ever changing, and perfidious - age group in dealing with art, we had to invite them to be active partners in creating this new initiative as well as in running it when launched. We wanted to let young people decode art for their peers. The result was a new art community on-site in the museum and on-line for teens age 12-20. We called it u.l.k. (in Danish u.l.k. is an abbreviation for Young Peoples' Laboratories for Art). This paper evaluates the work done together with the teenagers, with a special focus on creating the Web site. The paper represents the outcomes of focus groups, interviews, usability tests, as well as log file analysis. We discuss what we’ve learned, how the community on the Web site has developed since the launch, and what our perspectives on the future are.

Keywords: teenagers, social networking, education, community, user created content, constructivist learning.


Making Room For Teenagers

For almost ten years SMK had worked successfully with children in The Children’s Museum of Art (primarily for 6-12 year olds) through exhibitions for children with original art, workshops, and special guided tours. But when the children became teenagers, SMK couldn’t hold on to them anymore – and visits from school classes with pupils of that age in the setting of The Children’s Museum of Art naturally made them feel dissatisfied.

The Egmont Foundation in Denmark had originally funded the making of The Children’s Museum of Art, and they subsequently supported the new u.l.k. initiative with a large donation. The Egmont Knowledge Centre took shape, and today it includes The Children’s Museum of Art, u.l.k., a branch of The Danish National Art Library, and the study room for Prints and Drawings. We mention this background information to point out that the Museum in general went through many transformations during the time we had to develop the u.l.k. - from spring 2006 through to April 2007.

To help us develop our new initiative, we collaborated with teachers, but what was most important to us was the engagement of 90 young people – known as artpilots – in the project. This represented a new way for us to work and provided for direct participation of our target audience in the planning and creation of the u.l.k.

We’d made thorough preliminary studies to understand this new audience – asking the question: ”How does the world look from a teenager’s point of view”? One thing we realized at once was that it was very important to involve teens as much as possible and work closely with them. They worked with us in planning and executing every aspect of the project. They joined different working groups that helped to design the interior of the centre, to figure out how we should use digital media and the Web, to decide which theme we should work with during the first year, and to help us develop new educational activities relevant and interesting for teenagers.

Figure 1

Fig 1: Research Curator Henrik Holm discussing 19th century art works with Artpilots

 Artpilot Jesper is filming the conversation in order to be able to document new art knowledge constructed during the conversation.

What’s been interesting is how much teens engaged in the project. It soon became all theirs; there was great team spirit, lots of enthusiasm, and a strong desire for independence. We learned from our evaluation that being part of u.l.k. made the artpilots feel stronger and more self-confident. Many of the artpilots and the young people using u.l.k. had the feeling that they were alone with their interest in the arts;  they felt shy about the artistic output they created, and very vulnerable. This new joined force of creative teenagers carried us with them by storm.

The Concept of u.l.k. (Young Peoples Laboratories for Art)

In the beginning we didn’t know what this new teenage initiative in The Egmont Knowledge Centre would turn out to be. As our work progressed, it became important to find it a name that would resonate with young people. The artpilots had many very good ideas, and it was a difficult task to find a name that explained what the initiative was about while satisfying the artpilots as well as the Museum’s upper management.

What led us to include “laboratory” in the name was the wish to signal that the fundamental idea behind the centre and the Web site is to let museum staff and young people produce new knowledge together. Experiments are being carried out and the results of these meetings are new knowledge. We wished to have a constructivist approach to understanding the concept of knowledge, and acknowledge the different levels of knowledge and experience the museum and the young people represent. From here we could focus on how these two positions enriched each other. All activities in u.l.k. are offspring of this fundamental idea. So far, u.l.k. consists of five elements:

  • The Web site
  • The artpilots –  young people age 15-20
  • Education workshops led by artists - varying in length from two hours to two days,and demanding a ‘hands-on’ and ‘minds-on’ approach from the students.
  • The exhibition – an interactive exhibition curated by the museum and the artpilots in relation to “This year’s theme”. The exhibition will display some of the key works in relation to the theme, and will change during the year depending on the products from the workshop.
  • u.l.k. events – hosted by the artpilots, late at night, at openings, weekends and on holidays.

This might seem a bit complex. So here is an example of how this “new knowledge” becomes interesting in relation to the Web site.

How Do You Fit Into the Picture?

In the opening year the chosen theme was “How do you fit into the picture?” The team of artpilots discussed interesting works with museum staff. From a big pool of works we together chose 30 works that we’d like to present as entries on the Web site. We composed the entries from knowledge produced by teams of artpilots, research curators, educators, artists and conservators. One of the theme works is two panels from an altarpiece in the Cathedral of Siena, picturing two saints. We worked hard to find access points relevant for today’s youth for these medieval works. One opening turned out to be the topic of sacrificing oneself for something. As one artpilot said, “Today we’re not ready to sacrifice ourselves for anything – not even a new pair of shoes!” This entry on the Web site contains the viewpoints of the artpilots, the conservator and the research curator and has been put together by an editorial group consisting mainly of interns. Passion became the artpilots’ way to understand the medieval artworks, and from that starting point their interest in making new contexts for the artworks grew around discussions on politics, gender, painting techniques and religious fanatics. In other words, the art pilots produced new knowledge connected to the specific artworks by bringing them into their perception of the world, creating new approaches for the works, and exchanging their interpretations with the museum staff.

Figure 2

Fig 2: The passion expressed in the Siena altarpieces became the way to approach medieval art. Screen shot from the u.l.k. Web site.

The point is that the entries created by staff together with artpilots should work as inspiration for all users of the Web, site but they are primarily created for educational purposes, and demonstrate how many different voices are valid when it comes to grasping art. Every year a new theme will introduce new entries on works from the collection. This will affect the general content created for the site and give all of us new learning. But for those users who are interested in art in general and want to take part in the community, this educational agenda set by staff/artpilots. entries should  be viewed only as an additional offering.

The Web Site


We designed the Web site to fulfil two purposes. We wished to create a community, and to make it into a Web site well-suited to educational purposes.


The three most important target audiences are:

  1. “Free teenagers” including the artpilots – in other words teenagers with a special interest in arts.
  2. Teenagers using the site in relation to an educational visit.
  3. Teachers.

A fourth and secondary target audience is professionals, including artists, curators, and educators.

So far we’ve only had qualitative objectives for u.l.k. and the Web site. Our wish is to create new and interesting linkages that foster a closer relationship to this new audience through ‘lead users’, the artpilots.


To support our constructivist approach we used some of the commonly known Web 2.0 “techniques” on the Web site. The core idea in the Web site is that everybody can create a profile. With this profile they can create entries about whatever they’re interested in. They can also create entries together with other users on the site. In order to generate navigational access points for these clusters of entries and profiles, we encourage the users to tag their entries, comment upon each other’s entries, recommend each other’s profiles, and discuss subjects in the forum. We called the site’s cumulative entries a “knowledge bank” to illustrate that we expected to capture some of the interesting knowledge (user-generated content) being created inside and outside the on-site laboratories that comprise u.l.k. Our hopes were and are that our knowledge bank will continue to grow stronger over the years.

Figure 3

Fig 3: The homepage of the u.l.k. Web site.

From our target audience analysis we learned (Lund, L. & A.T.S. Nielsen, 2006) that teenagers spend most of their on-line time contributing to the Web by creating user-generated content for social networks. One might say that they spend a lot of time maintaining their aura on the Web. We also knew what would be special about the u.l.k. community in comparison and competition with other big community sites such as MySpace, Flickr, YouTube and Facebook. These distinctions are that the u.l.k community is carried by a serious interest in arts (e.g. visual arts, theatre, music, movies, fashion and literature) and is qualified by the interaction between the on-site and on-line community.

The Community

We wanted the community to evolve from the artpilots. At the time we launched the Web site, we had already been working with 70 artpilots, and some of them made their profiles and encouraged their friends as well. In this regard the launch was a success. We had around 200 profiles before the Summer Holidays without doing any marketing at all.

The vital reason to create the art community was that the interest was there – and still is. We didn’t start off wanting to create a community. Our starting point was discovering how the Museum could become relevant to this young and critical audience. Through our studies and the collaboration with the artpilots we learned that the answer was to create a community: it was the tool they and we needed.

What we didn’t have was experience regarding how big an ongoing task it is to maintain, support and develop the community site. During the Summer Holidays the Web site hibernated. We made a mistake in not taking seriously enough the maintenance of the Web site after launch. Examining the log files made it clear that activity was high in May, then dropped a lot, and increased again when the educational activities began in September. While writing this paper, we’re preparing a strategy for the improvements needed on the site. For instance, many users have just visited the Web site once and never returned to work seriously with their profile. This cursory usage leaves a mark of emptiness on the site.

If we could re-do the project, one of our key points would be to give the artpilots much more responsibility for the Web site right from the launch. They should of course create and perform activities on-line as they did on-site. Instead, what happened was paradoxically that they made a MySpace profile where they communicated their project. Of course it was a great initiative from a marketing point of view, but it was also symptomatic. Interviews with the artpilots have revealed that they have lost the feeling of the Web site as theirs, so all the good energy and the spirit from the on-site community has not influenced the on-line community. This means that we’ve so far not been sufficiently good at emphasising one of the community’s biggest advantages and using  the synergy. There’s no doubt that the on-site community is thriving and has been a success. This gives the artpilots a feeling of being together, included in a lively community, with others sharing the same interest in arts.

Figure 4

Fig 4: On Wednesday evenings and during the weekends young people gather to enjoy themselves and participate in u.l.k. events

We’re just about to change this vicious circle. A new team of artpilots will soon start, and they’ll be involved to a much greater extent in running the Web site: reporting news, inventing activities with on-line and on-site aspects, and keeping ongoing debates in the forum. Our interviews with users of the site revealed that it’s important to nurse the community and involve the Web site. We have learned the hard way that the activity level in an on-line community is essential to the value of it. Our mistake was to rely too much on the users to increase this activity by themselves, simply because we didn’t have previous experience, and unfortunately ran short of resources at a crucial moment in the process. A change of director at the SMK - announced just before the opening of u.l.k. - led to several months with great organizational and financial uncertainties for the Museum, and stalled the project. We now have a full-time staff member to take care of and develop the work with the artpilots, and a full-time staff member to run and develop the educational programme in u.l.k.

Figure 5

Fig 5: For users of u.l.k. all kinds of art are embraced by the u.l.k. concept: Fine arts, fashion, movies, music and literature. It is clear when you look at the Art Pilot profiles. This is Camilla’s profile.


What wasn’t quite the same success at the moment of the launch was the educational part of the project. An essential problem for the project was that due to political and management interests, we had to launch The Egmont Knowledge Centre at a really difficult time from an educational point of view. It was in late April at the end of the school season, just when everybody began to think about exams and before the planning the next school season. The intention from the beginning had been that the educational offerings would be one of the most important “marketing tools”, because in every school class there would be at least a couple of teenagers interested in art who would learn about the opportunities in u.l.k. during a school visit.

We weren’t quite ready, either. Between the launch in April and November 2007, we  experimented to find the best form for our education programme and continually improve it. Actually we’re still just beginning to understand the great potential the Web site has. In our new digital workshops we’ve provided computers with digital tools that we have had to learn to use ourselves - while artists working in new media suddenly are becoming relevant in a new way. On-site we’re using Linux computers and free open source software. All these new possibilities have presented challenges to us. We underestimated how much work it would give us. But we’re looking forward to using these resources better in order to enrich the Web site with interesting content from the many workshops.

Yet another challenge in relation to creating this new educational offering was the staff/artpilot entries. It turned out to be a major time-consuming process with our desire to give emphasis to the many different voices in relation to each work in the theme. After a reality check, we reduced the number of works we want to present from 30 to 10 a year. And still we’re completely dependent on interns to run the editorial group. This generates many uncertainties for both the interns and the rest of the staff engaged in those entries.

Another problem with the site has been the teachers’ entry points to the knowledge bank. It seems that teachers are impatient users. They haven’t got the same curiosity and interest as the teens to lose themselves in the site. We learned that they need quick instructions, easy access, and support to understand why they should include a Web site like u.l.k. in their educational curriculum.

Who’s The Owner?

Interviews have revealed other challenges for us in reviving the Web site: the purposes of the site are not evident to the target audiences. We made the classic mistake of not conducting usability tests in the design phase because of our very tight deadlines. Considering this, it’s great that we worked closely with the artpilots when we developed the design. Interviews with users of the Web site have proved that the look and feel of  the homepage is enticing, exciting, and rouses the curiosity of the teenagers, and they also fancy most of the ruling design principles. And this is in spite of the fact that they find it quite difficult to navigate on the Web site (even the artpilots) and that they are quite puzzled by the terminology used to structure the content.

Figure 6

Fig 6: Go participate! The u.l.k. concept is both an on-line and an on-site art community

During the creation phase we needed quite difficult and self-invented terms to understand how to make our concept operational. For instance, the knowledge bank is an example of a term not well suited for traditional impatient Web users. What we need to do better is to clarify the twofold purpose of the Web site to the users so we can quickly lead them to the key pages relevant for their interests, because there is obscure terminology still present in the design and navigation. Even eager users continue to have a feeling that they don’t fully understand the fundamental idea of the site or how to use all the options it seems to offer. This is a clear sign that we need to make the prime functions simpler to comprehend.

Looking back at the process, we thought we had solved this matter already during the work with the specification and  design because the artpilots were involved. However we weren’t aware of how quickly the artpilots began to resemble the rest of the museum staff in the project, and thus were blind to the same issues. Moreover, conceptualizing the whole project at the same time as developing the accompanying Web site meant that we sometimes had to force decisions that we weren’t quite ready to make.

When we ask the users who they think the owner of the Web site is, they respond that it is the SMK, but they are also very aware of the community talking through the Web site. For users who haven’t yet been engaged in the community on-site, it’s a strong signifier that the museum’s logo is visible on the Web site. It gives them a feeling of professionalism, seriousness, and sets the stage for the on-site activities. At the same time they are a bit confused about how much the young people are allowed to decide, and what level of control the museum exercises over the Web site. One example is that due to the tight production deadlines we chose to limit the number of personalization tools available in the profiles. But since almost all of our users are used to designing their own MySpace profiles, they experience it as a way of controlling them, restraining them or not taking them seriously enough. In other words, it’s important to meet expectations set by other sites, or at least try to.

We think of the u.l.k. community as an on-line space we only partly influence. Our hope is that teenagers using the site will think of it as their on-line art space facilitated by us. Then it will realize its potential as a social network and thus be an alternative learning space as well. The teenagers might not be very interested in the specific knowledge we hold at the museum or the ordinary activities we present, but via us they can meet others with the same interest, and together gain more interest and knowledge. Interviews showed us that some of them prefer each other’s knowledge as entry points, and then slowly gain broader interest. A cool profile’s recommendation of an artist is a far more interesting tip than what we can provide, but teens might never discover it if we don’t facilitate the right setting for the discovery. Collective intelligence has a lot of power here as well as on the rest of the Web.

Lessons Learned

7 Positive Outcomes And Benefits
1 The artpilots It is great to work closely with the artpilots. We could not have developed this project without them! Now it’s time they regain the responsibility for the Web site.
2 On-site and on-line community The combination of the on-site and on-line community has a great potential. So far we have used most of our energy connecting with the lead users and the on-site community. But the community members are keen on improving the on-line community.Resources, planning and patience are key issues.
3 The design The right look and feel is extremely important. In our situation it’s turned out that it has an almost enchanting effect.
4 The potential u.l.k gathers functions from sites like Flickr, YouTube, MySpace but in a setting that takes art seriously and prolongs its life expectancy.
5 The target audience It’s incredibly valuable to conduct thorough research of the target audience and let this have a fundamental influence on the project. And it’s a great satisfaction to be able to embrace teens who actually don’t want to be embraced by giving them an alternative space for their interests.
6 The content There are many really interesting entries, lots of energy, new thoughts, and new ways of communicating what art’s about. We’ve only in very rare occasions had to edit or remove inappropriate content. So we’re also ready to give up some of the control we were afraid we’d have to keep.
7 Developing the museum The u.l.k. Web site is a regular widening of the museum’s on-line identity. We believe that the site embodies the concept of the u.l.k. project in its functions and design so well that is has become a visible proof that something important has happened in the museum, something has changed. The site has helped the Museum to understand a new target group: the teens. 

Table 1: Seven positive outcomes and benefits

7 Risks And Problems
1 The activity level in the on-line community We have already lost some potential users because we hadn’t planned how to nurse the on-line users. One user said, “There’s nothing worse than the feeling that I’ve wasted my time because I haven’t received any feedback on my things”.
2 Usability tests Don’t forget them or postpone them!
3 The age scope of the target audience What we created is more relevant for the older part of the age scope (15-20).
4 Developing the artpilots They were as involved in the project as the rest of us and for that reason they couldn’t always provide the new eyes we thought they could.
5 Keep it simple! The first use of the Web site must be intuitive and easy, and generate feelings that there are more in-depth possibilities. With the u.l.k. project we’ve complicated some of the essential interfaces more than necessary, and made it too difficult to comprehend the twofold purposes of the Web site.
6 Use Web conventions In the creation phase, not involving users that had previous experience with establishing communities was a mistake. They could have helped us to think through the methods and inventions as well as follow the best conventions. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.
7 Resources and planning It takes a lot to maintain and develop the site - and marketing is indispensable.

Table 2: Seven risks and problems

Future Perspectives

Although we cannot say that our on-line community has been a success yet, it hasn’t been a failure either. We have confidence that the atmosphere from the on-site community will diffuse into the on-line community when we continue to give it the time and effort required. The process continues within the museum as well. We are still in the process of learning how to become a museum relevant for this audience.

The u.l.k. site has the chance to become an alternative to Facebook, MySpace, Flickr and others. Many users on these huge sites have removed themselves from active participation because they feel they spend too much meaningless time with superficial contact and spam. In comparison, the u.l.k. site is a serious site, a small, exclusive and non-aggressive site designed for exchanging specific art knowledge and experience.

We also use the Web site as a Web 2.0-influenced prototype to learn much more about our Web audience in general. We’re soon about to re-launch the Museum’s main Web site. The new site will be comprised of several sub sites like the u.l.k. Web site, and when  users of the u.l.k. site get older, we should be able to meet their expectations with a Web site that can extend the user experience they’ve already had.

One thing we’ve also learned from this evaluation is that interest in art and the use-based behaviour and need of the users (Peacock, D. and J. Brownbill, 2007) are very important for understanding how to be relevant for the users – these patterns often move across traditional demographic segmentation. Young people are not just the young people. Some of them have an interest in the site because they are very creative and want to become artists themselves. Others approach the site from a more theoretical point of view; they perhaps want to read art history and are very interested in just learning and discussing. The art interest determines the way they use the Web site - how often and for how long in their lives. 


Lund, L. and A.T.S. Nielsen. Kunstrum med mening. At berige og bevæge de unge på Kandidatspeciale afleveret ved Københavns Universitet, 2006.

Peacock, D. and J. Brownbill. “Audiences, Visitors, Users: Reconceptualising Users Of Museum On-line Content and Services”. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 31, 2007 at

Cite as:

Nielsen, A., et al., Teens Connect Nielsen, A., et al., Teens Connect to Art and Each Other at Young Peoples’ Laboratories for Art, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted