A Tutorial for Online Exhibitions at the British Museum

Sponsor: British Museum
Sponsor Liaison: Rebecca Horton, Jessica Juckes
Student Team: Jacob Koslow, Cormac Lynch-Collier, Matthew Puentes, Michael Sidler
Abstract: Online exhibitions present an unexplored frontier in museum curation. The British Museum’s International Training Programme (ITP) has very few resources for training curators on how to create and maintain online exhibitions. Using first-hand experience, surveying ITP fellows and interviewing museum professionals, we used WordPress to create an online exhibition and developed a detailed tutorial for the ITP fellows to create their own online exhibitions. We recommend the tutorial be tested and the iterative process is used when creating a website.
Link:  Final ReportFinal Presentation

Executive Summary

Online exhibitions present a new and relatively unexplored frontier in museum curation. Once posted online, the exhibition is immediately accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Without the constraints of operating hours of a physical exhibition, it is one of the best ways of disseminating information. However, technological inexperience prevents the universal adoption of online exhibitions in museums. Creating for an increasingly digital world requires technical skills in order to develop and maintain a website. While museums have sufficient content to put online, the means for doing so are not readily at their disposal. Currently, the British Museum’s International Training Programme (ITP) has very few resources for training curators on how to create and maintain online exhibitions.

The ITP is a global network of museum professionals working together to develop skills and disseminate best practices in a variety of Museum operations. The ITP’s mission is to create a network that crosses borders, and in doing so helps to develop exhibitions that would not have previously been made possible. Our project’s goal was to find an effective way to produce an online museum exhibition and develop a tutorial that allows ITP fellows to create their own online exhibitions in the future. At the end of the project we produced two deliverables for the ITP. The first was an online exhibition we created for the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery (a member of the ITP’s network). The content for the website was curated by five ITP fellows and compiled by a sixth fellow, Sue Giles, who works at the Bristol Museum. Creating the exhibition gave us an opportunity to use the tools that we were recommending and writing a tutorial about. The tutorial on online exhibitions was written throughout the project based on our experience creating our prototype exhibition for Bristol. It was written for ITP staffers with no technical training and no experience creating websites so that an exhibition curator can walk through all the steps from setting up a server to designing each page. The tutorial can be found in Appendix G.

The first step of our project was to determine what platform to use when creating online exhibitions. We interviewed ITP fellows and ranked potential platforms in a matrix (see Appendix B for the platform comparison matrix). Figure i shows that among the ITP fellows who had experience with website-building platforms (twenty out of forty-five respondents) the majority had used WordPress.

Figure i: Familiarity with Specific Platforms Among Respondents

Based on the ITP survey feedback and our own research into the platforms shown above, we decided to use WordPress to build our own online exhibition and recommend it to the ITP. Many fellows had experience using WordPress, and its low cost and array of plugins for different functionalities made it the best choice for this project.

Once we arrived in the UK, , we conducted eight interviews with curators and museum professionals to gather information that helped us when creating our prototype website. The interviews provoked us to think about how online exhibitions promote international collaboration without requiring curators to be physically together and how the content of an online exhibition can be more complex than a physical exhibition because the audience is largely made up of people who already have an interest in the subject. See Appendix D for the individual interview summaries.

To create our prototype online exhibition for the Bristol Museum we conducted three iterations on our design to make improvements and make the best possible website using user feedback. Figure ii below shows the iterative development model we used. After improving our designs in each iteration, we sent a survey out to a ITP fellows, museum employees, and peers for the testing phase. See Appendix E for iteration questions. Using these responses, we then made improvements for the next iteration. For more in-depth descriptions of each iteration see Appendix F.

Figure ii: Iterative development model

For the first iteration, we created three different test sites labeled A1, B1, and C1 focusing on the layout and navigation of the website. The main navigation methods we decided to implement were click-based, map-based, and parallax scrolling-based.

Based on our first iteration feedback (Appendix E) we decided that a simple layout was the best way to move forward in terms of navigation.

From here, we created three new sites for iteration 2: A2, B2 and C2. The goal of this iteration was to see how users would like content presented to them on the theme pages: a standard web page of text and images (A2), a parallax-scrolling effect (B2) and a slide-scrolling animation (C2).

The feedback on the second iteration was largely similar to the first; again, testers preferred a simpler design.

Because of this we decided for the third (and last) iteration to continue with only one website. Site A3 was used for the third iteration The goal of the last iteration was to get feedback on small refinements. Figure iii below shows the site genealogy from iteration one to iteration three.

Figure iii: Site Genealogy

Feedback on iteration 3 was largely positive with testers appreciating the simple design and suggesting little to no changes. The changes we made for the final deliverable were to do with text and image positioning. Figure iv below shows the final home page of our online exhibition. To view the delivered website visit http://bristolthebiggerpicture.itponlineexhibitions.org/.

Figure iv: Final Online Exhibition Home Page

The tutorial was created throughout this process as we learned new information about WordPress. For instance, at the beginning of the project while we were setting up our server and installing our WordPress theme, we were taking notes on the process and writing the “Wordpress Setup” section. As we made design changes we were writing the “Designing a Page with WPBakery” section. Following this process we were able to produce a well-informed tutorial based on our own experiences. Figure v below is from the title page of the tutorial.

Figure v: Title page of the tutorial

We recommend that the best way to continue with this project would be to test the tutorial. It was not feasible for us to test the tutorial with actual ITP fellows within the time allotted, but a testing period would help to produce the best possible product. Secondly, ITP fellows themselves should maintain the tutorial; if fellows were to update the tutorial as technologies evolved, it would keep the document up to date. We also recommend that when ITP fellows create their own website they follow some sort of iterative process. Although it is not strictly necessary, it is a good way to avoid technical bugs and get real user feedback. Our next recommendation is for the ITP to improve their surveying method. The survey platform they use (SurveyMonkey) has many helpful features that are not being utilized. Our final recommendation is that some British Museum staff should spend some time learning about web development. There are a large number of resources online for learning about using HTML & CSS programs, and taking advantage of these will open up new possibilities beyond what a WordPress plugin could provide.