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Sharing Personalisation: The 21st Century Museum Experience

Ailsa Barry on how our rapidly changing digital landscape is affecting the way we behave, interact and communicate. It is no longer enough to consume or encounter stand alone products or events; we now want the capacity to be able to share, personalise and communicate our experiences. For many, being able to tailor an experience to fit their needs and share it through social networking is an intrinsic part of their enjoyment.

Today we are looking for multi-dimensional experiences, delivered over multiple channels, in which our role is fundamentally changed from a passive consumer to an active participant. The way we discover and recommend experiences has also changed; we are now significantly more likely to trust anonymous recommendations than advertising. More often than not we are turning to virtual strangers to validate what we buy, how we spend our leisure time and to share our thoughts and interests. Against this background the 21st Century museum needs to rethink how it develops its experiences. It will need to draw upon a range of channels and media in order to meet visitor expectations and grow its audience. Museums will have to ensure that there are sufficient mechanisms for their visitors to stay involved, to recommend the experience and to generate interest.

The opening of a new Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum, in September 2009, gave the Natural History Museum in London the opportunity to incorporate some of these concepts into its development and to create a personalised visitor experience that could become a cornerstone of the Museum’s future visitor offer. The new Centre, as well as housing cutting edge research facilities and a significant proportion of the Museum’s botany and entomology collections, was also designed to give the visitor an understanding of the Museum’s research and the science it undertakes.

The resulting visitor journey around the Darwin Centre Cocoon follows the research and curation process; from the initial collection of material in the field through to the scientific processes required to hypothesise, test and publish theories. Along the way the journey covers the history of the Museum’s collections, the taxonomic naming convention and contemporary research techniques and tools such as microscopy and DNA sequencing. Two of the key aims of the Centre are for visitors to come away with a better understanding of the role of the Museum’s collections and research, and a desire to find out more about the natural world.

Such complex aims were not going to be achieved solely by displaying specimens from the collections. It became evident that the Museum would need to use an arsenal of approaches and media to communicate both the complexity of ideas and to give a real feeling and engagement for the subject. For the Museum the mixture of media, digital technology and real specimens had the potential to deliver complex information about the natural world and to develop a thriving community of natural history enthusiasts. In designing the experience the Museum looked at how it could use its collections, videos, touch screen interactives and social media to develop an integrated physical and virtual experience that would engage the visitor long after they left the building.

At the very start of the journey a number of ‘guides’ are introduced to the visitor via video; these guides, who are all scientists and curators at the Museum, explain their research and why and how they became interested in their subject. The guides are then interwoven into the narrative and are present throughout the journey. They reappear on a number of the touch screen consoles and explain some of the more complex subjects through a series of interactive activities. The guides introduce each activity and give video feedback to the visitor at each stage. By using real scientists as guides the Museum was able to establish a personal connection to its science and present it in an innovative and engaging manner.
For the Museum it was important that, once established, this connection and interest in the natural world was sustained and that visitors were encouraged to further their interest when they had returned home. Drawing on its past expertise in developing integrated physical and virtual journeys the Museum developed a personalised visitor experience that extended across both the Darwin Centre Cocoon and the Museum website (NaturePlus). A key part of this journey was the ability for visitors to select and save information throughout their visit which they could then explore later online. Their online experience was enriched through the addition of information, forums and debates around areas of interest.

Within the Darwin Centre Cocoon journey visitors are encouraged to bookmark and collect information by scanning a card with a unique barcode on selected interactive consoles. Online, visitors register the card’s unique ID number to access the information, which has been saved to their own personalised area on the Museum website. Along with their saved content there are also links to related information, videos, forums and events from both the Museum and external providers. These links are updated, ensuring that topicality is maintained. In this way the registered visitor is presented with a rich content offer tailored to their particular interests.

Once registered, visitors can also record their interests, join a range of Museum forums, add content, vote and comment. Through an increased focus on participation the visitor is encouraged to engage with the Museum on a deeper level and be involved in a vibrant online community. The initial bookmarking of the content within the Darwin Centre Cocoon visit therefore becomes an entry-point and trigger to a much richer ongoing experience online.

From knowledge gained from developing a number of temporary exhibitions which combined the online and offline offer (e.g. Dino Jaws and Ice Station Antarctica) the Museum knew that to be successful this concept of developing an offline/online journey needed to be seamlessly integrated into the experience. It was also aware, from other Museums which had piloted similar schemes, that although a predominant driver for visitors to bookmark their content online was to develop personalised content (such as photographs of themselves) these rarely provoked visitors to return after the initial retrieval. The Museum therefore conducted evaluation to gain an understanding of what would stimulate its visitors to join the online community and continue to participate.

The formative evaluation included twenty adults interviewed in one-to-one and paired sessions, as well as three schools sessions with teachers and students covering key stages KS3 and KS4/5. The evaluation led to a number of key findings that became the basis of the NaturePlus experience.

It confirmed that, although for some participants the concept was difficult to understand at first, once understood there was a definite interest in being able to bookmark and save content and follow it up online. All interviewees said they would pick up and use a card to bookmark content during their visit. Everyone liked the idea of being able to keep their personalised pages for an indefinite period of time and all were very positive about accessing additional content of interest. Visitor choice was also important, and respondents wanted to be able to choose and select from a variety of items and save them with a single card scan. Adults were most interested in new information about their interests, exclusive events, field videos and articles by Museum scientists. Students could see the value that it would add to their school work, and were excited about a new way of looking at the exhibits. Older students felt that events and news stories would be useful, as it encouraged them to broaden their interests beyond what was covered in the classroom. All students were keen to be able to collect their material in one place. Although the Museum initially thought that such an experience would be a catalyst for debate there was little interest in either commenting on issues within the exhibition or revisiting these comments online.

It was also apparent from the evaluation that, as this was a new concept for many visitors, some struggled to understand it, particularly older visitors. It was therefore agreed that a range of communication materials needed be developed to help visitors understand the concept, and that the experience needed to have a clear identify that could be expressed on cards, across marketing materials and online. Following additional evaluation and consultation the identity of ‘NaturePlus’ was developed to encapsulate the concept of collecting information within the gallery and continuing an enriched and personalised journey online. The name NaturePlus summarised for many the concept that they were getting something ‘in addition’ to their visit. Aware of the need to make the bookmarking a memorable experience, and to ensure that the visitor retained the card to register its unique barcode number, the cards were designed to be keepsakes and were illustrated with beautiful specimens that could be found in the Darwin Centre.

On-line content and resources
In developing NaturePlus the Museum wanted to ensure that there was continuity of the in-gallery experience and that the online activities focused on the science of nature and the Museum’s research. As a result, the initial content centred on the topics covered in the Darwin Centre exhibits, including blogs from scientists who featured in the Darwin Centre as well as updates and blogs covering events and exhibitions at the Museum. Having topical and frequently updated content was seen as key to the success of NaturePlus, particularly in stimulating repeat visitors and building loyalty. To be able to achieve such topicality there needed to be willingness from staff to blog, join debates and become involved. It was particularly important for the Museum’s science community to be actively involved. The fact that visitors could continue to read about Museum research and join forums with Museum scientists not only gave an authenticity and integrity to the content, it also gave a personal face to science, which was known to be important for effective science communication.

Although science blogs about field trips and research were immediately popular, the time and commitment for scientists meant that it was difficult to ensure consistency of posting. The tie-in with Museum science therefore has been most resourcefully achieved through the development of identification forums. These forums are the virtual arm of the Museum’s science enquiry service which is situated in the Darwin Centre. Through the development of the identification forums the input from scientists has been able to be fairly constant. A community of natural enthusiasts has quickly grown around the ID forums ensuring they remain topical. As a result not only has the level of intervention and input needed to maintain the topicality from scientists reduced but input from visitors with expertise in identification now makes a valuable contribution to the identification service. The identification forums are now a main draw for the majority of repeat visitors to NaturePlus, as either participants or observers.

The development of NaturePlus, covering both its integration into the Darwin Centre and as a vibrant online presence, required a broad range of expertise covering software and hardware development, design, editorial, learning, film, interpretation and visitor services. To achieve this a cross-Museum approach was needed that would ensure that NaturePlus was seamlessly tied into the visitor experience.

Although the integration of NaturePlus into the visit was seen as important, it was not seen as key to its enjoyment and participation, but as a value added adjunct. This was a strategic decision based on the wide age range of the expected audience. As a result there was little opportunity to give any significant motivation for saving the content or personalising it within a narrative. It therefore became essential that the content that visitors could save was interesting and topical enough to become a catalyst to continue the experience online. A significant amount of research was undertaken to ensure that the Museum had the content and the resources to achieve this.

One of the highest risks to the project was that although the concept was incorporated into early planning, the implementation of the interactive exhibits and the accompanying NaturePlus component were necessarily quite far down-stream in the development of the overall Darwin Centre project. The interactive exhibits could not be installed and tested until the exhibition installation was complete and the area was decreed clean and dustfree, and the interface could not be tested in situ until the exhibition kiosks were installed.
Although there had been proto-typing and user testing of the kiosks and the accompanying NaturePlus interface offsite, it became apparent that this did not reflect the user experience within the gallery context. Within a gallery, busy with visitors and competing stimulus, the interface for saving and scanning content had to be completely intuitive and simple to use, with a minimum number of steps and instructions. This had to be balanced against the desire of visitors, articulated in the evaluation, to be offered a choice of content to scan, necessitating a more complex interface. Valuable lessons in understanding how visitors would react and use the exhibits were therefore only fully captured and remedied after the opening.

Marketing the message
From past experience the Museum had learnt the vital role that Visitor Services and Marketing would play in the implementation of any new technology. Training sessions were organised with front of house staff, and this was key in ensuring that visitors understood the concept and how the bar code scanning and interactives worked and for feeding back any issues with the software. The observations of Visitor Services were also important in understanding how visitors, particularly school groups, were using the interactives and where changes needed to be made to the interface and to the instructions. In addition, the initiative offered a number of marketing opportunities. The Museum was able to use the press coverage of its opening to explain the concept of NaturePlus across a number of editorials. It also distributed 80,000 NaturePlus cards on the cover of Time Out magazine, as well distributing 4,000 pre-loaded cards through the Museum’s in-house membership magazine, all of these enabled an initial uptake of the services, which gave a significant kick-start to the online presence.

NaturePlus ongoing benefits
NaturePlus was instrumental in delivering a number of technical developments that would lay the foundations of the Museum’s future digital provision. It required a robust technical architecture to allow the exchange of data from the kiosks to the personalised areas of the website. These web services were developed so that they could include future Museum initiatives. As visitors had to register online to access their content the Museum developed a ‘single sign-on’ (SSO) mechanism which will enable visitors to use a single log-in and registration for any area that required it, for example shopping, purchasing tickets, joining forums or membership, removing the need for multiple user-ids and passwords within the Natural History Museum website.

All of the web services to support NaturePlus were developed so that visitor data, such as visitor preferences, could be linked, when appropriate, to the Museum’s customer relationship management system (CRM). Visitors’ profiles can be held in a centralised CRM which will enable a managed approach to customer relations across the Museum, mindful of the permissions that visitors have granted. This will become a basis for creating a better understanding of the visitors, allowing the Museum to deliver relevant content to visitors in their on-line and onsite journey and enabling targeted communications and e-news. In the future, it is foreseen that NaturePlus will serve as a lynchpin in the Museum’s relationship with its visitors, allowing the Museum to understand and meet their needs and enabling the visitor to drive its development.

NaturePlus definitely offers a new way of engaging with visitors and peers; encouraging an ongoing relationship, dialogue and the opportunity for participation. A year after opening, the Museum has almost 17,000 visitors registered to NaturePlus. These include formal learners who are using their NaturePlus cards to save content as they take part in the Museum’s classroom learning activities.

As the NaturePlus experience has grown an increasing number of visitors are joining directly online and are being referred from the web and Google. Initially there were few incentives, aside from viewing saved content, to join NaturePlus, and this was reflected in that 80% of the participants had been to the Darwin Centre. As the community has grown and become self–perpetuating, the offer has become richer and more complex, drawing in a wide variety of visitors. The rich nature of the offline offer and its relevance to visitors interests is reflected in visitor loyalty; a quarter of visitors return more than six times and a third come back more than three times.

NaturePlus has the potential to enable the Museum to broaden and deepen its interactions with its audiences through the provision of highly relevant personalised experiences that continue post-visit to engage the visitor with the Museum. As an experimental programme the Museum remains mindful of the need to be nimble in responding to the opportunities it presents and to constantly evaluate how it is developing and being used. It is this dynamic and evolving quality of NaturePlus, with its underlying tenets of personalisation and participation that gives it the potential to deliver a relevant 21st Century museum experience.

Ailsa Barry – Head of Interactive Media. The Natural History Museum, London

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