April 13-17, 2010
Denver, Colorado, USA

Van Gogh's Letters: Or How to Make the Results of 15 Years of Research Widely Accessible for Various Audiences and How to Involve Them

Marianne Peereboom, Edith Schreurs and Marthe de Vet,  Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands


In October 2009, as the culmination of 15 years of academic research, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (the Netherlands) presented a prestigious new academic publication of the complete correspondence of Vincent van Gogh, both in book form and as a Web edition. Based on a cross-media strategy and a mixture of new media, including a blog, an iPhone app and a multimedia tour, the collection of letters was made permanently accessible to a wide audience. This paper addresses the underlying principles and the choices made as well as the organisational and technical challenges faced, and discusses the results so far and the lessons learned from our experiences.

Keywords: cross-media, digitisation, iPhone, multimedia, outreach, Web publication, Web 2.0, artist's papers, letters

How 15 Years of Research Led to Multimedia Access

The Van Gogh Museum holds one of the largest collections of Van Gogh paintings in the world. The museum’s mission is to make the life and work of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) and the art of his time accessible to as many people as possible in order to enrich and inspire them.
In addition to his many stunning paintings and drawings, Vincent van Gogh left the world one of the most fascinating collections of artist’s correspondence known to exist. This includes 902 letters: 819 written by Van Gogh and 83 written to him. The majority of these letters are held by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The letters enable us to follow Van Gogh’s development as an artist. In his letters – mostly to his brother Theo, and sometimes to friends like Paul Gauguin – he writes about his quest for perfect art, draws sketches of his latest projects, and describes what inspires him.

Figure 1

Fig 1: Letter by Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh with a sketch of his painting The Sower. © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

As well as being a great painter, Van Gogh was a talented writer. His letters are regarded as one of the most important collections in the Netherlands’ literary heritage (Mateboer, 1998). The letters are key to understanding Van Gogh’s work and bring his ideas to life. They enable us to place Van Gogh in context and provide insight into the time in which he lived. Van Gogh’s letters also illustrate the importance of the letter as a means of communication for the artist, who often lived far away from his brother, his other relatives and (artist) friends.This is not obvious  to the generation growing up with mobile phones, e-mail and Web 2.0 social networks that allow us to keep in touch at any time and anywhere. Besides being literary documents, the letters containing sketches are works of art themselves and therefore appealing to the eye. Unfortunately the letters are also very delicate. Light damages the paper and causes the ink to fade. Therefore the letters are rarely exhibited.

In October 2009, the Van Gogh Museum completed over 15 years of research on this unique collection. All of the letters were re-transcribed, annotated, dated and translated, in partnership with the Huygens Institute (, an academic institution that conducts research in the field of Dutch letters and the history of Dutch science. The Van Gogh Museum and the Huygens Institute presented a complete, modern edition of the letters in book and Web form in October 2009. The museum celebrated the culmination of the research with a major exhibition on the letters: Van Gogh’s letters: The artist speaks (9 October 2009 to 3 January 2010).


Van Gogh’s correspondence is part of a larger collection of letters and documents. The heart of the collection came from the estates of Vincent and Theo van Gogh. In addition to the letters by and to Vincent, this collection includes letters written to Theo van Gogh by artists such as Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, and family correspondence with letters from Vincent’s parents and sisters. These, too, contribute to a better understanding of Vincent van Gogh and provide an often moving glimpse into the family’s life. The collection also includes some four hundred family photographs, diaries of Jo van Gogh-Bonger, family announcements, diplomas and certificates, programmes, menus, notes and correspondence with regard to exhibitions, etc.

The Van Gogh Museum received a subsidy from Metamorfoze (, the Dutch National Programme for the Preservation of Paper Heritage, to digitise the entire Letters and Documents collection. The subsidy included a provision for the development of a Web site for Memory of the Netherlands ( to make this collection accessible to a wide audience. How we put this into practice is explained later in this article.

The availability of high-quality digital images of the letters and the other unique documents that were hardly accessible to the public presented opportunities to give a wider audience access to the letters as a core collection of the Van Gogh Museum, using a variety of multimedia applications. This paper addresses the choices we made in this respect, the organisational and technical challenges we faced, and the lessons we learned. At the time of writing, not all of the statistics were available. In the presentation of this paper during Museums and the Web in Denver (April 2010), we will use the figures to try to clarify whether we achieved our objectives.

Book and Web Editions

The rapid developments on the Web prompted us to reconsider our choices during the course of the project. When research on the letters commenced in 1994, the Web was still in its infancy. The objective was to create a new academic edition of the correspondence in book form. In 2004, the decision was made to develop a Web edition in addition to a book publication. This decision was inspired by changes in the world of publishing and the rapidly growing potential offered by electronic media. By publishing the large, all-encompassing edition digitally, we expected to do greater justice to the immense volume of material and the complex of interrelated layers of information, and to give visitors to the site more options and more ways to use the edition.

The choice for an academic Web edition then led to other choices for the design and target group of the book edition. With the Web edition serving the academic target group, the book could be published as a reading edition for a wider audience. Because not all of the academic apparatus had to be included, the book edition could be reduced to 6 volumes, although it still weighs some 15 kilograms. The Web edition was published entirely in English, with the letters in their original languages, Dutch or French ( The book is available in three languages: Dutch, English and French (Van Gogh, 2009).

Notably, some influence of Web developments can also be found in the design of the book. The decision to include colour photographs of all of the works of art Van Gogh mentions - his own and those of other artists - was not made until fairly late in the project. This is in line with the growing emphasis on images, stimulated partly by the Web. One reviewer wrote that “obviously” the text is accompanied by colour photographs of all works of art, but the original idea was to publish a text without illustrations with a separate volume containing black & white photographs! Adding a small sized image at every instance where a work is mentioned in the text echoes the use of thumbnails on the Web. In the museum sector, in which the book and catalogue were and still are a matter of course, the decision to publish a Web edition of the letters was also more revolutionary than it may appear to be today.

The Web Edition: Lessons Learned

One of the very successful aspects of the Web edition, thanks in part to the creative contribution by Zeezeilen design agency (, is the flexibility with which the different types of content can be viewed side by side: original text, translation, facsimile (digital image), illustrations of artwork, notes, etc.

Figure 2

Fig 2: Screenshot of the Web edition, showing the presentation of the English translation next to the facsimile. The user can use the tabs above the columns to choose what he wishes to see side by side: original text (in Dutch or French), with or without the line endings in the letter, the English translation, the image of the letter, images of the works of art mentioned in the letter, and the annotations.

The Web site is still very static and not interactive in the sense of Web 2.0. The user can read, study and compare, but cannot contribute, add or discuss. The Huygens Institute had already been working on the development of on-line platforms to support collaboration and the exchange of material by academic researchers. However, developing this conceptually and technically for the Web edition was thought to be too ambitious at the time, in view of the time available for the project. Now that Phase 1 has been completed, further development of the Web site’s content and functionality are being considered.

The following table shows the visitor numbers from the launch to the end of January 2010. Many enthusiastic comments from visitors were received at the e-mail address given on the Web site.

OCT 2009 30243 37577 243963 2151037 110.92 GB
NOV 2009 25386 33229 227378 1647956 92.29 GB
DEC 2009 19384 27869 308462 1711849 98.96 GB
JAN 2010 22445 31830 432395 2323960 129.97 GB

Table 1: User statistics of the Web edition from its launch in October 2009 to 31 January 2010. Source:

It’s in the Mix

We decided to use the launch of the Web and book editions as an opportunity to use new and social media to make the collection of letters accessible to a wide audience long-term. The underlying principle was to provide access not only to museum visitors, but also to an audience that was unable to visit the museum in person. Thanks in part to their visual appeal, the letters are ideal for this purpose. Van Gogh wrote in a very human and engaging tone which fits with the personal touch of Web 2.0 media. The letters bring Van Gogh the artist and Van Gogh the person closer than ever. We expected this to evoke a great response from the public. We wanted to give our audiences worldwide the opportunity to discover Van Gogh’s letters, to ask questions about them and to share their experiences with us and with each other.

New and social media enabled us to provide a global platform and to provoke  dialogue with and between people interested in Van Gogh. We also wanted to try to use new media to make the Web edition appeal to a ‘layperson’ audience with little prior knowledge, people who were unlikely to find such a site on their own.

However, we did carefully consider our visitor profile. The Van Gogh Museum attracts around 1.5 million visitors a year. The average age is 32, surprisingly young for a museum. The level of education is high: higher professional education level and above. Visitors come from all over the world, with high visitor numbers from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain and East Asia (Japan and China).

Public surveys showed that many people look up information on the Internet, use mobile media or participate in social networks before or after visiting the museum. The museum’s Web site attracts over a million of visitors a year. In addition, inspired by the experiences of, for instance, the Brooklyn Museum (Caruth, 2007), in 2007 we became actively involved in a number of social networks. And this was not without success, as evidenced by the fair number of followers and comments on Facebook ( VanGoghMuseum), Hyves (, and Twitter ( We therefore decided to specifically focus the multimedia access to the Letters on a number of core target groups:

People interested in Vincent van Gogh worldwide

There are many Van Gogh enthusiasts throughout the world. Many of them look up information on the Web or share the inspiration they get from Van Gogh through social media. This doesn’t just concern young people; our Web statistics show that older people are also frequently looking for information and inspiration on-line. More and more people are using smartphones to visit our Web site, with the iPhone taking the lead with 26,928 of the 37,541 smartphone visitors in 2009.

Museum visitors who want to extend or deepen their visit

As well as Dutch and English-speaking visitors, French visitors are interested in more in-depth information, as shown by the pick-up rate for audio tours. Many museum visitors and other people interested in Van Gogh know him primarily as an artist, but not as a letter writer. We wanted to inspire this group through the paintings already familiar to them.

Young adults aged approx. 20-35

This group represents a large proportion of tourist visitors. Since 2004, the museum has specifically targeted this group with its Friday evening programmes as well. The aim is to encourage young people from Amsterdam and the surrounding area to visit the museum. They enjoy being inspired by multimedia and interactive technology and activities, as shown by earlier experiments with downloadable content such as the Beckman Podwalk for the Max Beckmann exhibition in 2007 ( page=102741&lang=en) and the Millais Poetry Trail for the John Everett Millais exhibition in 2008 ( This group also has increasing access to smartphones, such as the iPhone (Anand, 2009; Van der Zwaag, 2009; NielsenWire, 2009).

Secondary school pupils

The Van Gogh Museum attracts over 40,000 pupils a year, with many others using the museum’s on-line resources. Van Gogh is a standard part of the curriculum in art and cultural education in the Netherlands and abroad. With ICT becoming increasingly important in education and schools introducing smart boards and digital sources, the digital collection of letters provides a unique opportunity to introduce pupils to Van Gogh as an artist and a person through the letters.

The majority of these target groups are outside the Dutch language area. Therefore, our aim was to provide the information at least in English, with French provided as a third language where possible. We decided to serve academics through academic channels, assuming that these scholars would soon become aware of the Web edition through their own streams of information.

Chosen Media

In addition to the book and Web edition, we developed a mixture of other multimedia resources for the above-mentioned target groups based on the following questions:

  • How can we provide depth and information on the letters to visitors of the exhibition?
  • How can we allow interested people to become acquainted with the letters in an easily accessible manner online?
  • How can we create unity between the different possibilities/resources and link them to form a cross-media strategy?
  • How can we provide sustainable and long-term access to the letters with regard to new media?
  • How can new media help us to relay not only the art-historical value of the letters, but also their literary importance and the fact that the letter was a means of communication?

Figure 3

Fig 3: Illustration of the multimedia mix used to provide access to the letters

We decided to use the following criteria:

  • Availability in several languages, at least Dutch and English
  • The Web edition as the basis
  • Re-use of content, but geared to the medium and the target group
  • Interconnectivity: mutual connection and links
  • Accessibility and approachability
  • Content inspiring , even if a visit to the exhibition is not possible
  • Launch timing to coincide with the opening of the exhibition, and preferably the press conference on 30 September 2009
  • Distribution in the museum, through our site and other Web channels
  • Use of the museum’s homepage ( as a portal to all available media. A flash animation gave the homepage the look and feel of the letters during the exhibition period. Visitors could access a summary page by clicking on a link.

Figure 4

Fig 4: Screenshot of the museum’s homepage showing the look and feel of the letters exhibition

Figure 5

Fig 5: Screenshot of the page on the museum’s Web site describing the various media used for the letters

Multimedia Tour

The Van Gogh Museum aims to offer its visitors depth and context, so that they can get more from their visit. Because the galleries can be crowded and many of the visitors are international, the museum tries to use short text panels in the exhibits. The exhibit descriptions provide primary information, with more in-depth information available through audio tours, multimedia, activities and events.

Most visitors come to see the famous paintings, like Sunflowers and The Yellow House. The aim is to introduce these visitors to the letters by means of these familiar paintings. As the letters could only rarely be exhibited in the gallery due to their fragility, we chose to create a multimedia tour in Dutch, English and French through the XP Vision and CAT system of our supplier Antenna Audio. An advantage of this is that the existing audio tours in nine languages and the children’s tour in two languages can also be placed on the multimedia players. The letter tour is also pointed out to users of languages other than the three languages in which the letter tour is available. To inspire ‘further reading,’ the credits refer to the exhibition’s page on the museum’s Web site with links to other letter media like the Web edition and the blog. The tour was launched when the exhibition opened, after which the tour was converted for the permanent collection. In 2010, wireless Internet will become available in the galleries, with a live link to content including the Web edition. This will enable visitors to see and listen to the letters at any time, and get to know the scholars who spent years researching them.
The multimedia tour also presents visitors with some of the frequently asked questions, such as, ‘Did Van Gogh only write his letters in Dutch?’ These questions were taken from the list of “the 37 most frequently asked questions”, drawn up by the editors of the letters and the Education & Public Service department. Visitors can answer yes or no. After clicking, the researchers answer the question in a short film. This makes the research topical and encourages visitors to think about the issues with which the researchers concerned themselves. Other films show what Arles and the other places Van Gogh wrote from look like today. Visitors are also given a glimpse into the heavily guarded safe in which the letters are kept.

The multimedia tour is available not only to adult visitors, but also to pupils in the last 2 or 3 years of secondary school. Linked to free downloadable teacher’s manuals  ( in Dutch, English and French, the museum tour also serves pupils in this way.

Multimedia tour: results and lessons learned

A multimedia tour that is available during a major exhibition and for the permanent collection afterwards sets a significant challenge for the content developers. Internally, staff members were not always aware that the tour would be used for the permanent collection after the exhibition, and that this had consequences for its content. Although the figures are not available yet, we do know that the multimedia tour was widely used. It was particularly popular among French visitors. People also seemed to spend longer using the multimedia tour than the traditional audio tour. For school bookings for the spring season, we are already seeing a high demand for the multimedia tour as a field trip.

iPhone application Yours, Vincent

In the last few years, the Van Gogh Museum has extensively researched the possibilities of using mobile phones for on-line outreach. As the museum did not have enough internal expertise and staff capacity, we sought partners in the Netherlands and abroad. Our research taught us that it is currently still extremely difficult to develop an application that runs on various platforms. Therefore, we decided to concentrate on a smartphone with a growing market share, one which is all the rage with our target group: the iPhone.

The fact that the iPhone and its trendy brother, the iPod touch, are known for the way in which they make content available through the popular App Store, iTunes and iTunes U, factored in our choice. Following extensive analysis, Antenna Audio turned out to be the best partner for us at this time, to develop an iPhone application with its Pentimento system.

Our aim was to make an application in at least Dutch and English for people who are unable to visit the museum in person. In order to make it as accessible as possible, we wanted to offer it free of charge through the App Store. The great advantage of the iPhone is its high image quality and zoom function. This enables people to get closer to the letters than would ever be possible in the museum. But we wanted to offer more than just a ‘zoomable’ picture with an audio stop.

The main concern for us was the question: who are the users of such an application and how can we hold their attention? Research and questions put to iPhone users taught us that they are mainly highly educated, in their thirties, frequent Internet users, (remarkably) often male and multitaskers. They use their iPhones in the train, on the road, while watching TV, at work, etc. So we needed something to hold their attention. Therefore we decided the tone would not be typical of a museum. Learning wouldn’t come first; it would be about experience.

We decided to let Van Gogh do the talking himself. You discover his life through his letters. The tone is human interest. You discover not only Van Gogh the artist, but also Vincent van Gogh the person. This can be done chronologically, and also through a rolodesk function. We used this approach to provide depth by means of zoomable images, dozens of reproductions of works of art, image galleries, short films, interviews with letter experts and a link to the museum’s Web site, where more can be found on the other letter media. A video demo of the iPhone application can be found at

Figure 6

Fig 6: Screenshot of the iPhone app

Figure 7

Fig 7: Screenshot of the iPhone app

iPhone app: results and lessons learned

As of the beginning of January 2010, the application had been downloaded 15,000 times by users from over 35 countries. The reviews are good: a 4-5 star rating in the App Store, recommendations by newspapers including The Guardian and the Boston Globe, App of the day on February 2, 2010, and many on-line reviews. The storyline is regarded as inspiring. The fact that the app is available free of charge is also highly appreciated. Notably, the Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy London starting in January 2010 will draw new attention to the app.

But there is also criticism. The vast quantity of visual material makes the download time long and the application heavy on resources. We pioneered together with Antenna Audio. The only app Antenna had developed previously was the inspiring Love Art with the National Gallery, based on existing audio material. However, we developed an app from scratch.

Although Pentimento is a good system, it did prove to have some limitations. For example, it was not always possible to be as interactive as we wanted. We wanted a flip function, so that you could really turn a letter over. However, this was not feasible within the system, the budget and the time available.

We also discovered that we had some missionary work to do internally. Few staff members were familiar with the iPhone. They didn’t understand what we were aiming to do and how complex some things were. We didn’t have much time to request all the images, trademark rights didn’t come up until the later stages due to inexperience, and discussions on marketing also started late because we underestimated the complexity of promoting an iPhone application. ‘App’ turned out to be a broad term. We discovered that everything in the App Store became an application, even old audio stops with static thumbnails.

The formulation of what you are offering and its added value for users is something to consider carefully. The PR was also somewhat overlooked due to the large-scale promotion of the Letters exhibition. Within the time available, a press release was issued and the app was spread through our own on-line channels and those of our partner Antenna/Discovery. LinkedIn proved to be a suitable channel for informing colleagues. Another factor in the PR was that we were unable to provide a firm launch date. As soon as the app was finished, Antenna sent it to the App Store, which made it go live after testing. It was not possible to determine when precisely this would happen. As we had already experienced delays and had to translate the English app for the Dutch market, there were two weeks between the launches of the two language versions, and both were released after the exhibition’s opening. This was not conducive to marketing.

Van Gogh Blog

If Van Gogh had been alive today, he would probably have been an active user of blogs and social media. After all, he wrote very personal letters, often several a day. This comparison with contemporary communication and the fact that the Web edition did not offer a Web 2.0 approach prompted us to add a blog to the multimedia letter mix. However, we had no experience with this and were short on time and available staff. Because there were already plans to develop an iPhone app and multimedia tour with Antenna Audio, we decided to use their expertise for the blog as well. This enabled us to link the three forms of media and harmonise the content.

The plan was to develop a blog in two languages (Dutch and English), on which excerpts from Van Gogh’s letters would be published several times a week. Van Gogh was the sender, following blogs of other historical figures like Charles Darwin and George Orwell. The underlying principle of the blog posts was that the publication date corresponded with the original date of the letter. So, on 9 October 2009, you would read what Van Gogh wrote on 9 October 1888, and on 25 October 2009, an excerpt from 25 October 1884. This kept Van Gogh’s experiences alive. It was also the intention to place only excerpts, because his letters are often very long and we did not want to make a copy of the Web edition. We chose excerpts that would appeal directly to the reader, without identifying the original recipient of the letter.

Van Gogh’s recommendations were the thread connecting the excerpts. What inspired Van Gogh? What did he think of the places he visited, the works of art he saw, the books he read, the people he met and the work he created? We used letters with sketches as much as possible to make the posts visually appealing, and we included links to the Web edition for the complete text. An rss feed gave readers the opportunity to subscribe and enabled the latest blog posts to be distributed via other channels. To generate attention for each blog post, we published each new post on Twitter and Facebook, using We used as a URL shortener as we already used it in our Twitter updates. In essence, the blog would serve as a hub with several embedding options from which content could be shared on various social networks. We used various Van Gogh Museum channels and social media to draw attention to the blog. Unfortunately there was no time to actively involve other bloggers.

As our site CMS does not have blog functionality, we chose to develop the blog with free software from This provided customisation options as well as the desired functionality.

Figure 8

Fig 8: Screenshot of the Van Gogh blog

Blog: results and lessons learned

When developing the blog, we kept in mind the good advice of previous Museums & the Web editions: ‘build it, test it, amend it, then rinse and repeat’ (Ellis, 2007). However, this proved difficult to implement in practice. Due to tight scheduling and limited manpower, the focus shifted to selection and presentation of the content. Regrettably, the goal of having all the blog posts scheduled before the launch was not feasible. Therefore, the blog continued to take up a lot of time after the launch. Also, there was not always enough time to carefully consider necessary plug-ins like one for a suitable statistics program, or possibilities of sharing content with a bookmarking & share service like ‘add this’. Thus the blog promotion started mainly through the museum’s Web site and the social media on which we are active.

However, the results were not disappointing. To measure the success of the different on-line activities related to the letters, we used and combined a variety of tools: webstats (Sitestat), blogstats (FireStats), Twitterfeed, Facebook insights, TwitterAnalyzer and TweetReach.

On 17 January 2010, the blog had 27,000 page views, a total of 11,000 visits, with an average of 240 page views per day. These numbers are comparable to the letters overview page on the Van Gogh Museum’s Web site in the same period. The average number of clicks on a link distributed through twitterfeed was 75 clicks for English posts, and 21 on Dutch posts. This is not bad for a relatively new medium, which also requires more activity of its visitors. The comments told us that a large number of visitors viewed the blog from the museum. However, the best quality comments came from outside the museum.

Most of the traffic came from the Van Gogh Museum’s Web site (24%), although there was also a quite a bit of traffic from Facebook (5.7%), Twitter (3.2%) and various other blogs. The majority of the blog visitors were from outside the Netherlands. It was difficult to measure traffic from Twitter as most Twitter stats only go back  a few days.

The use of Twitterfeed also had consequences with regard to worldwide operation. The publication of the feed could not be automatically set to a certain time, meaning that tweets sometimes appeared in the middle of the night Central European Time: good for residents of the American West Coast, but not for European followers. We solved this by temporarily setting the desired publication time to ‘check every half hour’.

Finding the right tool for i.e. blog stats and distributing the rss-feed seemed to be a quest on its own. Some of the tools we used proved to be limited in practice.

Memory of the Netherlands

Memory of the Netherlands ( is a Web site that makes Dutch heritage collections accessible to a wide audience and to schools. As Memory of the Netherlands has both a Dutch and an English interface, this provided an opportunity to make the material accessible to a Dutch and an international audience. This Web site was launched in October 2009, titled Vincent van Gogh: letters, art and context (

Unlike the Web edition, which contains the complete correspondence of Van Gogh with full academic apparatus, for the Memory site a representative selection was made from the correspondence, and supplemented with varied material from the rest of the Letters and Documents, such as family correspondence, family photographs, etc. The Memory site also includes images of 100 top pieces: 50 paintings and 50 works on paper. Because the Memory site is aimed at ‘laypersons’, the Van Gogh site is accompanied by explanations according to themes, through which we try to answer frequently asked questions received by the museum (based on the same list as the multimedia tour). Besides art-historical themes, there is also attention for ‘Van Gogh the person’, addressing things like his frame of mind or lifestyle, in a short explanation and a link to letters related to this. ‘Vincent van Gogh: letters, art and context’ provides an accessible introduction to Van Gogh as an artist, a letter writer and a person; it is aimed at a wide audience and at schools. It also provides access to unique photographs and documents that are not yet available through other channels. Naturally this site links to the Web edition for the complete correspondence and substantive depth.

Especially for schools, Memory of the Netherlands has a Web lessons maker, a tool which teachers/lecturers can use to design their own lessons about the letters. This makes the collection of letters accessible to schools as well. Besides one-way traffic, Memory of the Netherlands helped us to enter into an initial dialogue on the basis of these letters by means of this simple Web 2.0 technology.

Memory of the Netherlands: results and lessons learned

At the time of going to press, statistics were not yet available. However, the initial reactions from the public are positive. People are inspired and indicate that they click through to the Web edition. We did discover that the Web 2.0 content of the educational tool was lower than we had been led to believe. We also noticed that many teachers/lecturers still need to get used to this type of media. The launch took place in the autumn, whereas the spring is the peak period for school visits. We are curious to find out the response to the new on-line material at that time.

Myths and Assumptions Versus Facts and Experience

The design and execution of a cross-media strategy using various multimedia resources and platforms to provide access to a collection were new for the Van Gogh Museum. Although we had good previous experience with one-dimensional multimedia projects, the combination thereof took it to another level. Gradually we learned a lot and encountered assumptions, resistance and suppositions. The main assumptions we encountered internally are described below.

The Web edition will compete with the book

For a long time, publishers in particular were concerned that the book, priced at €395, would no longer sell due to the free Web edition. However, the opposite was true. Book sales exceeded all expectations and the first reprint is already in progress. The other multimedia resources also seem to stimulate sales of the book. People become so enthusiastic after reading the letters that, even though all letters are available on-line, they want to be able to read the de luxe, beautifully illustrated edition at their convenience.

Memory of the Netherlands will compete with the Web edition

Scholars were afraid that the Memory Web site would become a copy of and keep visitors away from the Web edition. We had to make them understand that target group orientation also plays a role on the Internet and that the tone, design, content and functionality of the Memory Web site were intended to appeal to a different audience. Following the launch, the Memory site was found to reinforce the Web edition rather than compete with it. The Memory site attracted a new audience to the Web edition.

Rights issues

The use of photographs of works from other museums proved difficult. The copyright for the book and Web edition had been cleared in the traditional manner early on. The development of media balancing on the interface between education, PR, marketing and commerce was something new for many other museums too. Image banks wanted to know exactly what our intentions were, how many visitors we expected, etc. A lot of creativity and diplomacy was required to dispel the perceptions of fellow museums with regard to copyright violations. Internally we also had to increase awareness that copyright had to be arranged differently; for example, through creative commons. We regard the Brooklyn Museum copyright project as an inspiring example in that area (Wythe, 2010).

A blog will be very time-consuming

This proved not to be myth but fact, particularly for a dual-language blog. However, this depends largely on functional technology and sufficient manpower.

A blog will attract a lot of spam

Unfortunately this too proved to be true. There are of course ways to discourage spam (anti-spam plug-ins, asking users to provide a valid e-mail address, comment moderation), but it takes time to see what will and what will not work

A free iPhone app will compete with the multimedia tour

We didn’t find this to be the case at all. Sales of the multimedia tour were good, and the iPhone application is still downloaded regularly. Random checks appear to indicate that people inspired by the app are more likely to pay for additional in depth information through the multimedia tour in the museum. The statistics and public surveys available at the end of January 2010 should indicate whether there is any interaction here.

A multimedia tour will stop people looking at art

There was a fear that visitors would only look at the pictures and films in the multimedia tour. However, observations showed that visitors using the multimedia tour spent longer in the museum. The FAQ films and the comparisons between sketches in letters and the corresponding paintings encouraged visitors to take a more conscious look at the works of art.

The cross-media mix can be included in the total PR and marketing campaign

This proved to be partly true, but we also noticed that promoting new media requires a different approach. The target groups are often found in other places than among traditional museum visitors. This requires a different tone and approach, and closer liaison with PR and marketing staff.

New media are gadgets, which can be set up quickly

We were able to dispel this myth for good. Internally we saw how much time is required for the development of a cross-media mix. Carefully working out which message is made accessible through which resource for which target group requires good preparation. Also, we were not always able to rely on public surveys or feedback groups. Desk research, random checks and a good dose of nerve were required to make a collection, which had been relatively unknown, accessible to a wider and newer audience than would have been possible with traditional means alone.

What’s Next?

Cross-media access to the letters may seem obvious to a new-media-savvy audience like Museums and the Web, but it was a major step for the Van Gogh Museum. For the first time, the whole organisation considered target-group-oriented access to the collection using new media linked together. Now that the museum is also working on the systematic digitisation of all its collections and the production of rich content, there is support for the development of ideas to use these new images in an innovative manner.

We became increasingly aware that the use of multimedia resources means you have to keep re-asking what you want to achieve and what you want to say. Just like the exhibition policy, this must be based on a carefully considered strategy. If the activities are too ad hoc and isolated, this complicates the effective use of the activities, through a lack of support, a lack of the right content at the right time, too little connection with the exhibitions and other more established products like the texts in the galleries, guided tours, educational programmes or catalogues. If we look at our multimedia products as buildings, a coherent e-strategy and a good ICT infrastructure form the foundations that keep the new buildings from collapsing. So don’t become fixated on the screen of the iPhone, or the new iPad, but also enter into dialogue with the organisation on how this fits in with the museum’s mission, vision and objectives. After all, new media are the tools we want to use to make our collection accessible and inspirational to people.


With thanks to: a.o. Rene van Blerk, Ann Blokland, Bob Konijn, Gus Maussen, Caroline Miller, Adrienne Quarles van Ufford, Marieke Uildriks and Laurine van der Wiel.


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Cite as:

Peereboom, M. et al., Van Gogh's Letters: Or How to Make the Results of 15 Years of Research Widely Accessible for Various Audiences and How to Involve Them. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted