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The Museum as Distributed Network, a 21st Century Model

Nancy Proctor on why the expanding landscape for museum audience engagement lends a new urgency to the questions: What is the museum’s responsibility to those who may never be able to visit the physical museum in person? And, how can museums engage online audiences on all the platforms they now use with the same degree of impact, if not the same kind of experience, as the “real world” museum encounter?

In 2006, a study by José-Marie Griffiths and Donald W. King of the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discovered that 45 percent of museum visits were by online visitors.(1) Today museums report up to 10 times the number of visitors to their websites that they get to their buildings, and online interactions with the museum now include social media sites – e.g. Facebook pages, Flickr groups, YouTube channels, blogs and Twitter streams – as well as digital content that is not authored or even sanctioned by the museum. So the museum experience can now be said to extend well beyond the platforms museums control – their bricks and mortar buildings as well as their own websites and social media presences – to the spaces where online audiences publish their own images, videos, texts and more about museum collections and events without any editorial recourse to museum staff at all.

This expanding landscape for museum audience engagement lends a new urgency to the questions: What is the museum’s responsibility to those who may never be able to visit the physical museum in person? And, how can museums engage online audiences on all the platforms they now use with the same degree of impact, if not the same kind of experience, as the “real world” museum encounter?(2)

These are questions not just of audience engagement today, but that touch on the very quality, relevance and sustainability of the museum experience in the future as well. We need new strategies for content and experience design to address our audiences effectively and efficiently across these many digital destinations, both those controlled by the museum and those that are entirely user-generated. These new methods take us beyond a simple “Multi-platform Museum” to a more radical “Distributed Network” model, proving, perhaps, that the humble crabgrass is better than even the ancient spoke and wheel in carrying the museum’s messages to its many audiences.

The Multi-platform Museum Model
At first glance, ‘multi-platform museum’ is a perfectly serviceable term to name the multi-faceted nature of museums’ interactions with audiences today: it makes us think beyond the physical site and suggests the museum’s presence in multiple digital contexts. Plus it has a nice alliterative ring. It is also true to say that ‘multi-platform’ accurately describes common current approaches to social media and online publishing. But this is not to say that the ‘multi-platform’ museum makes the best use and the greatest impact with digital media. Another metaphor, the distributed network, offers a more effective approach to cross-platform engagement in the 21st century museum.

Technically speaking, ‘multi-platform’ implies publishing to many outlets or ‘platforms’ from a single content source. In other words, the aim is to create a direct copy – as perfect a replica as possible – of the same original (content, message) on each platform, or at least control the content and experience centrally. But like any wholesale export of culture without sensitivity to the ‘native’ context and its communities, multi-platform publishing results at best in forcing square pegs into round holes, at worst in a sort of colonizing effort; either way, it ultimately fails to be faithful either to the message or the target audiences’ needs. Content designed for one use, context or platform rarely ports directly and easily onto another. Brochures do not make good websites. Texts written for catalogues and wall labels sound stilted and dry as audio guide scripts. And just as physical artifacts have to be photographed or scanned in order to create a digital representation for online use, at a minimum videos and photographs are frequently recoded and reformatted to meet the size requirements of the different social media platforms.

Tailoring content and experiences for each audience and platform, seemingly the alternative to a mass-export approach to content publishing and management, can be prohibitively expensive, especially if the museum is calculating per capita return on investment and addressing niche audiences. As a result, museums often live within their budgets by trying to develop a single, ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution that is intended to serve a ‘broad’ audience but in effect compromises both quality and specificity at the risk of fitting none. Too often the reply to the question, “what audience is your program intended to address?” comes the naïve and wishful response, “everyone!”

Moreover, because of its spoke and wheel structure, the multi-platform model does not easily incorporate feedback loops or ways for user-authored content and experiences to get combined with museum content and redistributed without passing through centralized channels, where editors and censors monitor the conversation. When museums adopt even ‘networked’ social media platforms using a ‘multi-platform’ approach, we see not conversation but a rebroadcast of the museum’s messages: Facebook, Twitter et al. become simply digital versions of the museum’s analog marketing campaigns. At best, the reach of these messages is extended through ‘re-tweets’, links or re-postings, but there is little if any two-way interaction or exchange between the museum and online audience members.

This is not to say that there is no value in broadcast, retweets or other quick and relatively superficial forms of audience engagement; on the contrary, they are part of the comprehensive set of tools and approaches the museum needs for communicating the rich variety of its offerings to an even more diverse audience and ever-broadening contexts. But if we aim at more than one-way communications – at developing new and compelling ways of reaching online visitors who may never have the opportunity to experience the wonder of our collections in person, then we need strategies for creating content and messages with a more discursive dynamic and greater sensitivity to the specificity of platforms, audiences and contexts now within the museum’s compass. Instead of a ‘multiplatform’ model, we need more flexible, modular structures and methodologies, akin to what a technologist might call a ‘distributed network’ or rhizomic model.

The Distributed Network Model
There is no center or panopticon to a distributed network: no Hegelian master or slave. The constituent platforms work together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In terms of content, we speak less of the ‘original’ and more of the ‘simulacrum’ – the copy without an original, about which Jean Baudrillard wrote so eloquently.(3) Notions of authority and hierarchy are not very helpful in describing relationships and processes that work together more like mash-ups than pronouncements. Truth, rather than being disseminated outwards from a center point, is discovered in its intersections and interstices, through the (sometimes surprising) juxtapositions that can happen when experiences are assembled collaboratively along the many-branched paths of a rhizome. In the museum as distributed network, content and experience creation resembles atoms coming together and reforming on new platforms to create new molecules, or ‘choose your own ending’ adventure stories.

The Internet is a distributed network, structured in such a way that it is impossible to destroy the entire network through an ‘attack’ or service outage at any single center. In the loosest sense, every time you perform a Google search, you have tapped into a distributed network. The original content that forms the results page – itself a ‘mash-up’ – exists on a number of different computers, physical and virtual, each potentially in its own network or grid. It is delivered to you in an entirely new and personalized context on the basis of your search interests and terms at that precise moment in time; yet the original digital assets are completely untouched in their original form, and you can easily trace the results content back to discover its full context and original publication environment. The value and authority of the ‘original’ is not diminished, but rather increased, by being placed in new contexts alongside content from other sources. Quality is determined by the content’s relevance, depth, longevity and quantity of what could be called ‘peer-reviews’ and recommendations: that is to say, links.

Other than the Internet itself, distributed networks don’t really exist yet in the technical sense, because most computer systems are built on the master-slave model. But we do see the products of master-slave systems being distributed, e.g. in peer-to-peer gaming, social media environments, and some wikis. As we begin to design interpretation and information systems for the museum in the age of social media, the distributed network can serve as an inspirational metaphor and a practical model to suggest new ways of authoring and supporting museum experiences that are:

• conversational rather than uni-directional
• engaging and relevant, rather than simply didactic
• generative of content and open-ended rather than finite and closed
• sustainable across platforms, communities, and time
• and that become ‘smarter’, more effective and useful the more they are used: rather like Pandora or the Amazon recommendations system – increasing the quality of both the visitor experience and the online museum

Like the Internet, the Museum as Distributed Network is enhanced, not diluted, by multiple voices and authors. But it requires powerful tools for making the ever-increasing data and metadata of assets, interpretations and interpreters findable and relevant, and for connecting communities of interest in meaningful ways across oceans of content and contributors. Here is one vision of how a distributed network approach can be deployed to foster and support mobile experiences of the museum both on-site and beyond.

From Headphones to Microphones: Designing mobile social media
Audio tours are the oldest and most common form of ‘self-guided’ mobile experience in museums and cultural sites, and, arguably, still the best source of ‘augmented reality’ experiences widely available today. The traditional audio tour development model began with the question, “What are the most important messages we want visitors to take away” from the encounter with this collection, exhibition or object – and content was developed to support those goals, overlaying the physical reality of the museum with interpretive content and information.

As the audio tour platform evolved from analog tapes to digital media players, the devices that could deliver the mobile experience proliferated. Today not just audio tours but mobile multimedia, including text, video and interactive content, can be delivered to the visitor’s own smartphones and media players as well as to devices provided on-site by the museum. A multi-platform approach might repurpose and publish the museum’s existing audio tour content to the new generation of mobile devices: cellphones, personal media players like iPods, and web-enabled phones – as podcasts, cellphone tours, mobile websites and native applications. Especially with some planning ahead for cross-platform content design and minor versioning of assets for the different delivery platforms, this is not a bad strategy: museums should seek to ‘meet our audiences where they are’ by publishing their content in as many places as possible.

As Koven Smith has asked (4), however, will delivering what is fundamentally the same, narrow-cast tour experience to shiny new gadgets really ‘take them some place new?’ Will adding images, or video, or a sexy new consumer device really improve the take-up or penetration rates of mobile technology use by museum visitors – in other words, better help the museum deliver on its educational mission? Although in conflict with visitors’ self-reported usage of mobile interpretation in museums (5), in reality the audio tour reaches a sobering minority of the museum’s on-site audience. One also has to ask how well podcasts, cellphone tours and iPhone apps serving up the same basic content, usually designed with the on-site visit in mind, fulfill the needs of those audiences who’ll never be able to come to the museum in person. And yet what museum has the resources to tailor content and experiences to suit the full range of its audiences on all the mobile platforms using a spoke-and-wheel design and distribution approach?

Applied to mobile platforms, the distributed network model can include but also go beyond the ‘narrowcast’ audio tour and basic mobile visitor services model for mobile websites and apps. This ‘un-tour’ (6) model positions mobile as an integral part of a web of platforms that connect communities of interest and facilitate conversations among our audiences as well as with the museum itself: mobile becomes social media. In so doing, it also supports the three key metrics that measure the museum’s success vis-à-vis its core mission and responsibility to the public good:

I. Relevance: the museum’s responsibility to make its collections, content and activities meaningful and accessible to the broadest possible audiences

II. Quality: the museum’s mission to collect, preserve and interpret the invaluable artifacts and key stories, ideas and concepts that represent human culture and creativity

III. Sustainability: the museum’s enduring obligation to deliver both quality and relevance to its audiences – forever.

Designing mobile experiences that deliver on all three of these metrics begins with asking what audiences want to know about our collections, exhibitions, research and scholarship, both on-site and beyond the museum’s walls, and not with what we want to tell them. By responding first to our visitors’ actual interests and needs, we create content and experiences that make the museum more relevant to their interests and lives. Starting with understanding our audiences also means we can increase the quality of the networked museum through both better focused museum-authored content, and linking to related content from audiences both expert and amateur. The quality and relevance of the museum’s discourse are the preconditions for its sustainability, and enable ‘network effects’ that grow audiences and foster self-perpetuating conversations about the museum’s collections, activities and messages.

Following are ten principles, functions, and tactics in mobile social media that support these key museum metrics:

I. Make the mobile program relevant:

1. Know the audience: Who is the target audience for the mobile program? The mobile program can capture data (metrics) and feedback from these visitors on where they go, what they see, and what questions they ask of the museum’s content and collections, events, etc. Traditional audience research can be core to understanding our mobile visitors’ interests and needs, but, as Lynda Kelly has argued, so can data-mining social media content;(7) user-generated content and data gleaned from commenting, collecting and sharing functions on both the mobile and related social media platforms the museum uses provide important insight into how audiences’ interests and needs are and can be engaged by the museum’s collections, activities and resources. In the museum’s mobile program, Facebook-style commenting functionality that allows visitors to select the audiences who can see their contributions (e.g. only people I have ‘friended’, only the museum, everyone), can be helpful in providing a comfortable and ‘safe’ environment for them to join and bring their larger social networks to the conversation. By the same token, it is critical that audience research and uses of the data gleaned from social media by the museum does not violate public trust, but continues to uphold the museum’s reputation and brand values.

2. Know the museum’s mission and goals: The museum’s mission, goals, resources and objectives for the mobile program serve as framework and touchstone for developing the content and services that respond to visitors’ interests and needs. These should be clearly articulated at the outset of the mobile project and understood by all involved in the project, both internally and external contractors. In 2007, the Education Department at SFMOMA adapted an Interpretive Goals questionnaire originally developed by the Getty to foreground the key information that structures and informs interpretive project development at the museum. The eight questions asked by the cross-functional teams at the beginning of each initiative include:

• Please list one to three main ideas visitors will take away from viewing the exhibition. What objects or didactic components of the exhibition will help them learn this?
• Describe the rationale and originality of the project. Is the exhibition bringing new scholarship to the field, exposing an under-recognized subject, etc.? Why is this exhibition important now at SFMOMA?
• Please note other interpretive, multi-media components that should be considered (audio tour, in-gallery videos, interactive feature, blogs, etc.). Are you aware of existing media created by other organizations on this topic? (8)

Understanding the museum’s mission and goals is the other side of the coin from understanding the target audience; if the museum’s and audiences’ goals are not aligned, mobile initiatives are likely to fall on deaf ears and add to the long list of one-hit mobile wonders: perhaps innovative and newsworthy in the moment but ultimately unsustainable and unsupportive of the museum’s and the audiences’ core aims.

3. “Meet them where they are…” (9): Location-based technologies bring the museum to the visitor both on-site and beyond, making content and collections relevant to the visitor’s current context. LBS also offers the ability to put content and interpretation in the world in surprising and serendipitous places, giving the visitor a powerful experience linked to the museum despite the absence of the actual artifact. Augmented reality – overlays of text, images, or video on the ‘real’ world seen through a mobile device’s camera – can bring not just information but haunting memories and emotions to everyday scenes: see, for example, the Museum of London’s Street Museum app which overlays the streets of London with images of those same locations from the 18th century and beyond at their correct geospatial coordinates, so that visitors can literally stumble upon the Great Fire of 1861 at London Bridge, suffragettes on Downing Street forty years later, Holborn Circus during the Blitz or hippies in Hyde Park in 1970. Similarly, Layar exhibitions presented by the Stedlijk Museum on Museumplein (10) in Amsterdam and an augmented reality exhibition of digital art within MoMA’s galleries curated by Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek for the Conflux Festival11 – unauthorized but also unopposed by the museum – created new ways for museum visitors to engage with the collections and the idea of curation both inside and beyond these museums’ walls. But even without sophisticated location-aware technologies, the museum can seek out and cultivate communities of interest around topics related to museum collections and events by providing timely mobile content and other contributions to the conversation through cross-platform social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook.

II. Cultivate quality of collections and content:

4. “… And take them somewhere new.” – to content, experiences and ideas visitors may never have thought to inquire about. The museum’s subject experts are uniquely placed to identify and leverage audience members’ interests to take them to new levels of understanding, and to introduce new concepts and content that they may otherwise have remained unaware of, without necessarily falling into lecture mode. The museum expert who joins a conversation with an audience is at the same time ‘just’ one voice and a privileged node in the peer-to-peer network of the conversation. Museums are bastions of niche expertise that has enormous interest and value to the communities already engaged with related content. These communities offer an opportunity for museum experts to curate not just collection displays and exhibitions, but conversations that extend well beyond the museum’s walls and exhibition lifespan. Once engaged, the community and its conversations can grow and change with the museum’s audiences as well as new scholarship and acquisitions.

5. Invest in quality content: As Chris Anderson has said, “Quality is in the eye of the beholder[s], and… what is most important to them… is relevance.” On the basis of better understanding both audiences and institutional goals, the museum can create content that is both calibrated to engage with audiences, and connects their interests to the museum’s mission and goals, thereby increasing the quality of both the museum experience and its digital assets. Mobile content is likely to outlive the technologies it is initially developed for, so investing in the highest quality possible, in terms of standard digital formats (high definition, 3D, etc.) and in production values, is the museum’s best chance of getting a longer-term return on their content investment.

6. Make it findable: Part of a quality visitor experience is being able to find the content that is relevant to the visitor’s interests and context in a given moment. Search facilities for collections and exhibition content, as well as interactive maps, are both critical and expected interfaces to helping visitors find the content that responds to their questions and interests. But good search relies on good metadata – with ‘quality’ here once again having a lot to do with relevance to the user. In addition to museum-authored metadata and geo-data, social tagging can enhance the discoverability of museum content for those who are not familiar with specialist terminology and ontologies often used to describe collections. The Brooklyn Museum’s mobile application (12) uses social tagging, along with ‘liking’, as an additional tool for audience engagement: by tagging and liking objects in the collection, visitors make them more findable by and interesting to others.

7. Engage audiences and visitors with meaningful work: Location-based social media platforms such as Foursquare, Gowalla and SCVNGR incorporate gaming elements that can be adapted by the museum to create cultural tours and routes of discovery, with ‘badges’ and other virtual rewards for fulfilling tasks. But perhaps more meaningful and sustainable engagement can be had from crowd-sourcing and citizen scientist/curator initiatives in which audiences truly contribute to the work of the museum and therefore to what they will experience there. Halsey Burgund’s audio installation at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum provides a platform for visitors to record their comments on the artworks as they move around the Park. (13) An algorithm blends these voices with each other and an original, location-based score by Burgund and plays them back to visitors’ iPhones at the locations at which they were recorded. Instead of a cacophony of banal visitor comments, the effect is profound: given the impactful task of leaving a vision and questions for those who come after, the visitors have collaborated asynchronously to create a guide to the sculptures that opens eyes and sensibilities even more than carefully curated expert interpretation. Again, this project finds that the line is blurred between ‘quality’ and ‘relevance’ when the content is proximate to the visitor’s interests and context.

III. Build for sustainability:

8. Cultivate conversations and communities of interest: Social media doesn’t just engage audiences more powerfully now, but it also creates a more sustainable museum discourse by distributing its content, messages and digital collections through a self-perpetuating network of online audiences. Objects from the collection, events and individual content assets (images, videos, audio recordings, texts) can all serve as ambassadors that reach out to audiences on whatever platform they may be using, and offer multiple paths to discovering more on other platforms, including but not limited to the museum’s bricks and mortar presence. Functions that allow visitors to save, annotate and redistribute content along with their experience and insights to others help build the network around museum collections and activities. The museum can also help communities of interest form around objects and exhibits by facilitating the conversation both directly with individuals and among audience members. The Australia Museum, for example, has started creating Facebook pages for specific objects from its collection which take on personalities and their own voices, engaging people online in passionate and lively dialogues. (14) The wider the network, the more self-sustaining the conversation is around the museum, its collections and activities. And just as appreciation of the museum has been shown to increase the more platforms for interpretation the visitor uses, (15) the value and ‘intelligence’ of the conversational network increases with use.

9. Think cross-platform: The potential for reuse of museum assets in a variety of contexts and conversations encourages us to think in a modular and rhizomic way about content development: in how many different ways, on how many different platforms, can a given asset be used? How will the conversations and communities take on different aspects in different contexts? In the museum as distributed network, every platform is a community, not just an outlet for content publication and distribution. By combining established social media platforms like Flickr, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter with mobile social media and analog content and publications built by or for the museum in particular, we can create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, thinking holistically about the museum as a network through its content rather than through the technology. The main challenge remains content and asset management across the ever-expanding array of platforms the museum uses. Single cross-platform solutions do not yet exist, but strategies and best practices for increasing efficiency are in development. (16)

10. Adopt standards: Most critical among the cross-platform content management strategies available to museums today is the adoption of mobile content standards. Museums can ensure the longest possible future use of assets by employing platform- and technology-independent standards where they exist, and creating them where they don’t. The Indianapolis Museum of Art has lead this movement through the development of TourML, a mobile content mark-up schema built for use in museum guides and interpretive mobile experiences. (17) Two international summits on this topic have been held in 2010, and a completed standard is expected by year-end.

“People say interesting things… in interesting ways.”
Instead of simply publishing the same content in multiple places as in the ‘multi-platform’ model, museums can adopt a distributed network approach to cross-platform design for a more sustainable way of building mobile experiences that are also higher quality, more meaningful and relevant to different audiences and their interests. In this model, the museum curates not just exhibitions and collections, but also conversations, facilitating and fostering communities of interest around the museum’s concepts, objects and events. Listening is as important a skill as speaking: as Halsey Burgund has said, “People say interesting things, and they say things in interesting ways.” This ‘wisdom of the crowd’ is a great and largely untapped resource in the museum economy of the 21st century. Employing the principle that the best way to learn is to teach, design based on the distributed network model turns visitors into curators and creators, docents and ambassadors for our museums by giving them the tools to contribute meaningfully to the development of the museum experience. The ‘un-tour’ of the rhizomic museum takes the mobile experience from headphones to microphones, “from we do the talking to we help you do the talking.” (18)

Nancy Proctor, PhD
Deputy Director for Digital Experience, Baltimore Museum of Art

(prior Head of Mobile Strategy & Initiatives, Smithsonian Institution)

Notes | References | Bibliography

1. Research by José-Marie Griffiths, dean and professor, and Donald W. King, distinguished research professor, School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The study, Interconnections: The IMLS National Study on the Use of Libraries, Museums and the Internet, was published as a series of reports (over several years, beginning in 2006) on the Web.

2. These questions were first raised by the author in Proctor, N. “Digital: Museum as Platform, Curator as Champion, in the Age of Social Media,” Curator: The Museum Journal 53:1 (January, 2010).

3. Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulations,” Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.#

4. Smith, K., The Future of Mobile Interpretation. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2009. Consulted October 25, 2010.

5. Petrie, M. and L. Tallon, The Iphone Effect? Comparing Visitors’ and Museum Professionals’ Evolving Expectations of Mobile Interpretation Tools. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted October 25, 2010.

6. Notes from the “Un-tour Unconference” session, Museums and the Web 2010. Consulted 15 October 2010.

7. Kelly, L. The 21st Century Museum: the museum without walls. Paper given at ICOM-CECA, Shanghai, November, 2010.

8. Samis, P. and S. Pau, After the Heroism, Collaboration: Organizational Learning and the Mobile Space. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2009. Consulted October 17, 2010.

9. As quoted by Michael Edson, Director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian Institution in public presentations and conversations with the author.

10. Consulted 27 October 2010.

11. Announced 8 October 2010 at and reviewed extensively on the web. Consulted 25 October 2010.

12. Consulted 25 October 2010.

13. Consulted 25 October 2010.

14. Kelly, L. The 21st Century Museum: the museum without walls. Paper given at ICOM-CECA, Shanghai, November, 2010.

15. Samis, P. “Petroleum Jelly Served Seven Ways or Gaining Traction in the Vaseline: Visitor Response to a Multi-Track Interpretation Design for “Matthew Barney: DRAWING RESTRAINT” In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2007. Consulted October 23, 2010.

16. See, for example, Bicknell, T. “Digital Asset Management Strategies for Multi-platform Mobile Content Delivery”, in conference proceedings of Bilbao Arte eta Kultura UPV/EHU: Museos, redes sociales y tecnología 2.0 7 July 2010.

17. Consulted 25 October 2010.

18. (Anderson 2009)

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