April 15-18, 2009
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

A Guide to Managing a Large Multi-Institutional Project in the Cultural Sector

Carolyn Royston, National Museums Online Learning Project, United Kingdom


This short paper supports a workshop on how to successfully manage a large digital multi-institutional partnership project. The workshop draws on my recent experience and learning (including mistakes) of managing the National Museums Online Learning Project (NMOLP), a UK partnership involving nine national museums. The workshop covers some of the key challenges and issues I encountered and provides a basis for discussion about successful ways to approach managing a complex digital project. The workshop is a participative session with a focus on some key issues, including how to get the best out of your partnership, gaining consensus and agreement for content and technology, approaches to Web 2.0, working with third party suppliers, and providing a legacy for sustainability. These issues have applicability to anyone managing a digital project in the cultural sector, whether it is one institution or several working together.

Keywords: partnership, management, multi-institutional, learning, social media, search


The National Museums Online Learning Project (NMOLP) is a three-year government sponsored partnership project involving nine UK national museums: British Museum, Imperial War Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Natural History Museum, Royal Armouries, Sir John Soane’s Museum, Tate, The Wallace Collection and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The partners are working together to get their Web sites better used, engage new audiences, and transform the way they think about and use existing digital collections. The project launches in February 2009.

The project involves the development of a range of innovative on-line resources across the nine Web sites for pupils, teachers and lifelong learners. These resources include a large-scale on-line community called Creative Spaces; school-based resources to promote critical thinking called WebQuests; and a federated search linking the nine collections together for the first time.

This is the first time that UK national museums have worked together on a public-facing project. Therefore, in order for the project to be successful, participating institutions have had to work in new and innovative ways – both inter-departmentally and intra-departmentally, sharing knowledge and expertise as well as risks and successes. This unique project required the participating national museums to work together in a truly collaborative and creative way.

The core project team consisted of a full-time project manager (myself), a part-time technical manager, and a part-time administrator. In addition, there were six part-time content writers based across the partner museums writing content for WebQuests.

Each of the partner museums had project representatives covering both sets of resources and technical requirements.

Below I have highlighted some of the key challenges I encountered and my approach to finding solutions. These challenges will be explored in the workshop and supported by practical examples.

Key Challenges

The Partnership

NMOLP is a both a technical and an educational project. The participating institutions range from very large with in-house technical capability and large educational departments, to very small with limited or no in-house technical capability and small educational teams. At the beginning of the project, I discovered that expectations about what the project would deliver for each institution, and the resources and capacity needed varied greatly across the partnership.

It quickly became clear to me that in order for the project to be successful, the partners and project team needed to develop a shared vision for the project and an understanding of what the partnership could achieve together. We worked collaboratively to establish a set of principles, with clear aims and objectives, setting out how the partnership will work together, and what the partnership could deliver that the partners could not do on their own. This work enabled the partners to explore some of their similarities and differences, strengths and weaknesses across the partnership, how they could support each other, and what the barriers to success might be – institutionally, departmentally, and personally.

This process was extremely helpful in terms of enabling me to understand how I could manage the project more effectively, and where I could get specialist support or help from representatives in the partnership; for example, technical support or e-learning expertise. We re-visited how the partnership was working a year after the initial work was undertaken. It enabled us to see whether we were still on track with our aims and objectives and how the partnership was working. At the end of the project when we were developing a legacy strategy, we looked again at the partnership (see legacy section below) and whether the partners had achieved the goals for the project.


With so many stakeholders and people working virtually, it was critical to set up good, clear lines of communication and processes. Our principal method of communication was via Basecamp. All project representatives were required to use Basecamp, and all project documentation, milestones, meetings and messaging were communicated via this tool. Basecamp enabled me to more easily manage the decision-making process, make individual people accountable, and set deadlines. It also provided both the partners and the project team with a way of tracking discussions and decisions over the lifetime of the project.

It was also important to meet face-to-face with partners to keep them informed of progress and to keep momentum going. This was not always easy to organise and was time-consuming, but it did ensure that partners were engaged and involved in the project development and decision-making.

Basecamp will continue to be used post-launch by the partners. It will act as a central communication point and also as a space to provide discussion and support for any content and technical issues that the partners may have.

Scoping the resources

Working from the original implementation plan, it was important to spend time with the partners scoping out and exploring ideas about what we were going to develop. Ensuring that the partners were actively involved in this process meant that they had a better understanding of the project and the work involved and also helped to embed what we were doing into their individual institutions – helping with sustainability post-launch.

The project team ran different workshops throughout the lifetime of the project - with educators discussing the development of the two learning resources, and with technical managers discussing all technical issues. All relevant project representatives were asked to attend these workshops, and for most partners there was good and consistent attendance throughout the project.

The workshops also helped to develop a greater sense of partnership working, enabling discussions to happen across institutions where that would not normally happen. For example, education managers were able to talk about how we negotiate differences and similarities in educational approaches. And technical managers openly discussed technical issues and requirements and shared information about their technical infrastructure with each other. It has helped to open up the possibility of future collaboration and genuine partnership working around further development of this resource or future projects.


As we worked through the scoping process and started to develop concepts, build prototypes and work iteratively, some more challenging partnership and management issues started to emerge. These had to be tackled in order for the project to keep moving forward. Below are just a couple of examples – more will be discussed in the workshop.


One of the main challenges we encountered was around copyright. We have not created a central Web site or portal: all content is shared across the nine partner Web sites, including a cross-collection search. The search in particular is integral to the two applications and requires at the very least thumbnails to be displayed in the search results from across the collections. In effect, this means that collection items from partners will be displayed on each other’s Web sites. The sharing of objects across the partner Web sites is critical to the success of the resources. For some partners, copyright was not a big issue, but for others, it was extremely problematic.

In order to find a workable solution, we asked a digital copyright expert to help us draft an agreement that all partners could sign up to. She developed a copyright impact analysis which we invited all partners to comment on and discuss. This process showed the copyright officers in the museums that we were taking copyright seriously and also enabled partners to take a considered approach to the issue and share their concerns with each other. Their response to the document enabled me to see what the limits were in terms of what we could achieve with the collections, and in turn this informed the development of the resources.

From that document, we also developed a terms and conditions for users. We had to make certain compromises, such as only including objects in the search that have no copyright restrictions, and only allowing thumbnails to be displayed in the search and in Creative Spaces where objects from across the collections can be added to notebooks and groups. Users need to go to where the image is hosted to see a larger version. This is not an ideal solution from a user perspective, as we would have liked users to be able to engage with larger images within the applications, but it is a solution that works and has enabled us to move forward. The project has provided a practical example to the participating institutions of where technology can open many exciting possibilities around their objects, but copyright restrictions and organisational issues currently make it impossible to practically implement them. The hope is that digital copyright will continue to be discussed by these institutions in future projects, and they will find solutions that enable users to have the richest and most engaging on-line experience possible with the incredible collections available to them.

Working with third-party suppliers

This project had the complexity of having to work with third-party suppliers who are contracted to individual museums and carry out their technical development work or manage their collections. From a project management point of view, the museum’s third-party suppliers were at times problematic to work with as their primary responsibility, quite rightly, was to their client – the museum, and not this project. This did at times impact on the schedule as we were reliant on them to carry out certain aspects of work and they were not always well informed about the project, the scope of work required, or timescales. In situations like this, it was imperative for us to have the museum’s technical manager involved and to have that person convey to the supplier a clear understanding of the wider impact on the project if work were not completed in the timescales required.

Approaches to Web 2.0

One of the main aims of the project is to enable users to engage with the on-line collections in creative and participatory ways. We wanted users to be able to search across the collections and use objects they find, as well as their own work, to create and share content and develop communities of interest inspired by the collections.

We did some focus group work with users and built a small prototype to test out some concepts. Informed by the user groups, we decided the best way for users to really benefit from the partnership was to build an on-line community. Once we had made that decision, we then had to really examine what it would mean for each institution to have user-generated content on its site. This included not just the practical resource issues and moderation implications, but also identifying who the audiences might be for this resource, how to engage them, how to build and sustain the on-line community, and the museum’s own role in that process. There was the added element of some partners, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and Tate, already having some experience of Web 2.0; whilst for others this was the first time they had engaged with it.

Working in a partnership has been extremely helpful when developing this particular resource. We were able to really explore who the different audiences might be and how a community might function and benefit from having access to such a diverse range of collections. We discussed moderation and how it would be handled across the partnership. We have looked at community management and its value in helping to develop this service, and the partners have had to look at how they can integrate new ways of working into their existing practices. The project has enabled staff in the partner museums to share their ideas, hopes and fears around servicing an on-line community, and this communication will become more important as the service beds in and becomes more widely used. Built-in metrics to the application will also enable the museums to quickly see activity on their own site as well as across the partnership and be able to respond more rapidly to user interactions. This element of the project has been helped by a sense of shared success and shared risk amongst the partners.


In a project of this size and scope, it is important to develop a legacy strategy that includes sustainability and evaluation, as well as sharing of experiences and learning with the wider sector. This project has been designed to be sustainable once it launches, without a central project team in place. Each partner will be responsible for maintaining its own content, and partners can communicate any content or technical issues via Basecamp and in face-to-face meetings – processes have been put into place before the ‘official’ end of the project to ensure that this communication happens in as efficient and supportive a way as possible. Technical SLAs are also in place to support the partners with the applications and to service any issues that may arise. A project evaluation will happen six to nine months after the launch to allow the project to bed in and become more widely used.


NMOLP has been a unique management experience. It has been an incredibly complex project to manage due to the scope of the resources created, the number of stakeholders involved, and the need for institutional collaboration on a new scale.There have been many positives and much learning for the participating museums on how to work both across museums and inter-departmentally. As the project director, I have had to draw on and develop many strategies to ensure its success. It required a combination of using tried and tested project management methodologies as well as developing great diplomacy skills and tact. It’s about understanding how to be a project leader and hold a vision for the project, and how to utilise the people in your partnership to best effect. It’s about negotiation and compromise and gaining consensus to keep the project moving forward. My experience has not been easy, but it is immensely rewarding when it all comes together.


Creative Spaces:


National Portrait Gallery


Sir John Soane Museum

Natural History Museum

Wallace Collection

British Museum

Royal Armouries:

Imperial War Museum



National Portrait Gallery


Sir John Soane Museum

Natural History Museum

Wallace Collection

British Museum

Royal Armouries

Imperial War Museum

Cite as:

Royston, C., A Guide to Managing a Large Multi-Institutional Project in the Cultural Sector. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2009. Consulted