Is it time for museums to reconsider our online purpose?
A rough transcription of my talk at the 2018 National Digital Forum. How we at Auckland Museum focused on making connections and inspiring our audiences rather than counting page views.
What I’m actually going to talk about today is mission fulfilment, and if I am honest, nothing that I’m going to mention is particularly radical, groundbreaking or revolutionary — its all pretty simple and obvious. But just because it is simple and obvious, it doesn't mean that it was necessarily easy for us to take onboard.
At the Auckland Museum we have a pretty solid mission and vision statement:
To enrich lives and inspire discoveries + connect through sharing stories of people, lands and seas
For the past six years I have understood my role and purpose in helping the museum achieve this mission — to put our collections metadata on the web in a site we cleverly called Collections Online. For the past four years, I have been at the National Digital forum talking about the various stages of success that we have had in achieving this mission. We went open as a rule, closed open only in exception, released one million records, applied a CC-BY licence to 350,000 images, created an API that follows the principles of linked open data. The museum has also invested heavily in making the collections ready for collections online. They closed a gallery to create the collections hub, employed 7 photographers and 16 cataloguers to enrich the records. This team creates 2000 new images and 2000 new records each month and on average will update 5000 records every single day! When we launched we saw a staggering 700% increase in traffic to the site, however, it has now flattened off and month on month we see the same number of users — it's not like for every 2000 new images we gain 2000 new users. So 18 months ago we started digging into the data to see how we could increase our user base.
The answer we came up with is simple and obvious — most people don’t care about, don’t know about or even care to know about Auckland.
It's obvious — with billions of people on the planet, most simply do not know that Auckland exists, let alone that we have a War Memorial Museum and in that War Memorial Museum there is a Botany department with specimens collected by Joseph Banks. Our data supported this, most of our users were visiting from New Zealand — an audience that already knows about us. I realised that we weren’t fulfilling our mission, or we were only fulfilling it on a small local scale. I had made a website that followed the principles of the physical building — create a platform, wait for people to turn up, hand them data and images. I hadn’t leveraged the power of the web, I had got my purpose wrong, I wasn't meant to be building a collection online site, I was meant to be putting our collections online. And that meant, everywhere.
So it was time to step up my game, we would amplify the Collections through collaboration, partnering with like-minded organisations who shared our passion for open access and already served an audience on a quest for knowledge or creativity. Understanding that this would be the best way for us to meet our mission we agreed that we would engage each partnership with enthusiasm, commitment and respect — simple and obvious.
The first and best decision we made was to partner with Digital New Zealand. Digital NZ provides an aggregating service that collates and indexes all of New Zealand digital cultural content and works with international partners such as Europeana and Digital Public Library of America to share our content on a global scale. They do all the heavy lifting when it comes to metadata ingestion and regular harvesting of new records. Using their dashboard, our content in DigitalNZ has more page views and more interactions (downloads, image clicks) than our own site — in fact, we see more use of our collections in one month on DigitalNZ than we do on our own site in 3/4 months.
Does this matter? As an organisation do we care that our content is getting used elsewhere? It comes back to the mission — to inspire and connect — and that can and should happen anywhere.
Next, I spoke with our Natural Science researchers, asking them where they went to find specimen and taxonomic data. No surprises, they didn't go to museum collections online, they used international aggregators such as GBIF, the Biodiversity Heritage Library and the Atlas of Living Australia. Simply and obviously, they use the search ecosystems that they are used to. The ones designed for their data. So we joined, with enthusiasm, commitment and respect — we uploaded all of our data and trained our staff to work with their tools.
Time for some big dumb numbers — we average 20,000 collection downloads a month via our natural science aggregators. The same records on our own site have never been viewed. But that doesn’t matter — the mission is to inspire and connect, not get referrals to our own site. Our records are getting used. They are geting used for biosecurity research, citizen science, taxonomic research and education — that's what matters, that's mission fulfilment.
Then we looked at the portfolio of sites that we had started and given up on. Pinterest was the prime example. We started a page four or five years ago, filled it with photos of weddings showing the museums as a venue hire — makes sense, isn’t most of Pinterest just weddings and hairdressing? Today it is much much more. We committed 5% of one staff member’s time to improve our profile — in the grand scheme of things this was just a few hours a week that could dramatically increase our reach. The staff member involved was part of our collections team, so understood what rich content was getting generated and who understood the audience. This wasn't a crowd that was going to accept an XML metadata dump — they selected rich imagery, crafted the captions and set up automated publishing schedules.
More big dumb numbers — we now average 60,000 interactions with our content in Pinterest every month, people pinning, collecting and sharing our images — that’s the mission, we’ve connected, we’ve inspired, we’ve shared our collections beyond Auckland and New Zealand. Now, most people don't come back to our collections online catalogue, but that's fine, because that's not the mission.
We’ve now got 22 partnerships set up with like-minded organizations to try and get our content out audiences in digital spaces where they are already searching. That means not forcing them back to our site. It means, accepting that they don’t know about (or really care about) us as an Institution but they do care about our collection.
There’s one more site I want to talk about and, to be honest, it’s one we’ve all heard a little bit about and I think we’re going to hear a little bit more about in this conference. We’ve heard passionate talks from people like Siobhan Leachman and Mike Dickison about the promise of Wikipedia at previous conferences, I have sat there listening to them, enthralled by the promise. But ultimately it has always ended up in the too hard basket. I struggled to see how this open concept of a website that allows anyone to edit content, would work with our traditional workflows and systems.
Last year we decided it was time, with enthusiasm, respect and commitment to joint the Wikipedia movement. We got ourselves a Wikipedian-in-residence who started training our staff and started to change the internal culture to comprehend what this site could do. Then we found online volunteers and these volunteers uploaded images into Wikicommons for us. In fact, they uploaded a hundred thousand images for us, classifying and tagging images for use in the various Wikimedia projects. These images are now used on 2,000 Wikipedia pages in 83 languages. We could never dream of doing that on our own - we sometimes struggle to get just one language working and here we are with eighty-three languages showing our content to the world — That's mission fulfilment.
We then looked at some of our most popular objects in Wikipedia. One image, in particular, gets a quarter of a million page-views every single month - that blows my mind that our content could be used in such a way, that our objects could inspire stories around the world. That same object has had 50 page views on our own website in the last three years ( I’m 90% confident that’s me looking at it going trying to work out what is going on!).
But with a quarter of a million page views in Wikipedia almost no one comes back to our site. So does it matter that our image flashed in front of someone's eyes for a second? It matters because someone saw it. It matters because one person may have been inspired by it. The fact that under one per cent of them actually click and come back doesn’t matter. The mission is to connect and inspire not to count page views on a website. When that starts making sense it all does.
Now I’m probably meant to spend some time answering the question “do we need a collection online?”
I need a job, so yeah I think we do.
I think it’s a solid foundation, from which everything else can be built and no one else is going to do it, so we have to. But I don’t think you have to follow our path. I don’t think you have to do the same as everyone else. We went open by default, then built a platform, filled it with beautiful rich content, made an API and then worked with partners. Maybe if you’ve got limited time, maybe if you’ve got limited resources you just need to jump from one end to the other. Focus on working with partners from the outset not reinventing the wheel with your own site.
Start thinking about what your mission is and how you can best fulfil it. Then you may realise that your mission isn’t to count page views, your mission is to connect people with objects, to tell stories and celebrate the diversity of human culture. Remind yourself why we’re all doing this and honestly I think the rest is just simple and obvious.