How do you talk about a museum that isn’t built?

The M+ building under construction in the West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong

Rising out of the dust by the base of the ICC tower in West Kowloon is our new museum, M+. Although the main building is under construction, we’ve been operating as a museum since 2012, hosting programmes, screenings and exhibitions throughout Hong Kong, and more recently at our temporary home, the M+ Pavilion. In the early days, team meetings took place around the director’s desk. Now, our boardroom can barely accommodate the size of the team as operations, programming, and the general scale of things ramp up in preparation for opening day.

The first M+ team photo, 2011

With the launch of our new bilingual storytelling platform, M+ Stories, we want to show this growth in activity by taking a look at what it means to build a museum from scratch, talk more about daily goings-on, provide access to the M+ Collections, our areas of interest, and the operations behind opening a building with 17,000 square metres of exhibition space. Everything we do at this point in our development needs to contribute to long-term goals and projects; this includes building a museum website, developing in-gallery experiences and their content, while also establishing our content strategies and open access initiative. Below are a few key insights into how we developed Stories, and why we made the decisions we did.

M+ team photo, late-2017

A testing ground

Stories is a place for experimentation. It gives us a means to test assumptions and insights with visitors, develop our bilingual editorial workflows, fill in some of our knowledge gaps about the Hong Kong museum visitor, and experiment with curatorial storytelling outside of exhibition spaces. In short, Stories will feed into and help inform concurrent and future projects while also acting as a megaphone that communicates the life and ideas of our young institution in advance of our building’s opening.

Stories homepage

Building, hosting and managing our own platform prompted us to think beyond the editorial remit of the project. It got us planning for our future technology stack, our in-house growth and skills development, how our systems speak to one another, what lives where, sources of truth, as well as how we approach some of the areas outlined below, including branding, accessibility and tagging taxonomies.

Institutional identity

Stories was designed and developed by Zak Group in collaboration with the museum’s digital and curatorial teams, but the work that went into the build and its content touched on all parts of museum (and district) operations. The Stories design forms our interim digital identity which will be used on upcoming projects such as our Collections site, while the visual identity of the museum as a whole is created.

Titles and the Stories style guide

A feature of Zak Group’s design is the way that the institution’s bilingualism is surfaced — both as a means to toggle between traditional Chinese and English content— and also as a design statement positioning M+ as an institution of Hong Kong. This approach to titling went through a few rounds of iteration, taking into account user-experience, text legibility, as well how accessibility features might work in a design where different character sets sit side-by-side.

An early iteration of bilingual titles

Occupying the mplus.org.hk URL, Stories is the first permanent online space run by M+ staff. Pre-Stories, we had a bunch of microsites, some of which continue to get a lot of attention. Stories brings together our online editorial content under the one umbrella, including blog posts, journal articles, and videos, and will soon include online exhibitions and artist commissions. A glance at the collated material on the homepage, blog or video channel hopefully provides an insight into who we are and what we’re about as a museum.

Accessibility

Early on, we decided it was necessary to build inclusivity and accessibility into the platform’s core. This has meant offering closed captions and transcripts for all time-based media outputs, working with the Hong Kong Blind Union on issues such as keyboard accessibility and skip links, providing quality alt text (which at the time of writing, unfortunately, rules out using platforms such as this one), accounting for un-translatable content, while ensuring that whatever we build seamlessly supports outputs in traditional Chinese and English. It’s also got us thinking about things we want to do in the future, as well as what surfacing elements such as alt text might look like on future iterations of Stories or a collections site.

Tagging

Underlying the content is an experimental tag-based framework, which groups our content across the site in a way that preferences subject to chronology or section. This framework is part of a broader strategy around our tagging taxonomies, and in turn, the lenses we use for storytelling. This work with tags will manifest across other platforms and in-gallery experiences too.

Chinese language Explore page

We see tags as another ‘in’ to our content, an invitation to explore, and a means to flexibly build out areas of interest and find new ways to group content as it grows. Tagging has also instilled a mindset internally to think about content differently, and the contexts in which visitors view certain material — at its essence it’s an approach that posits the visitor at the forefront of the content creator’s mind—and an exercise in empathy.

Exploring by emoji

We’ll continue to refine our tagging methodology and employ different lenses as our base of material grows, and we’re able to make new links between various outputs.

Technical

Stories sits on ProcessWire, a PHP-based open source CMS. It was written in Vue.js as a single page application — all the code for the front end is available on GitHub, as are all the other projects we’re developing. Institutionally, working within an open source framework was an important choice, this approach makes it relatively simple for us when it comes to working with outside developers and artists; it’s also a sustainable way to build our in-house skills, our team, and take ownership of our projects.

Authoring view within the CMS

The CMS was made with the people who would eventually be spending their days using it in mind, a small group authoring all content bilingually at a quick cadence. We spent a lot of time thinking about how content would enter the system, how easy it would be to create pages in two languages, while also ensuring the page structure, asset handling and authoring tools made sense to our editors.

What’s next?

An old colleague once asked: how do we make something that fits into someone’s day? This question is something that I come back to — both as it relates to digital projects but also a museum’s role in society more broadly. It’s a question that prefigures the one asked at the top of this article, how do you talk about a museum that isn’t built? Stories lays the groundwork for M+ online by providing a live, working project to develop and iterate our processes on. It also allows us to learn more about our visitors, find out what works and what doesn’t, and places us in a position to create experiences that are relevant to our audiences, that ‘fit’, and can be applied to other outputs. At the same time, we can work out the technical overhead, develop our team, create workflows and develop relationships across departments, while ensuring that what we build is fit-for-purpose and fits into our long-term goals. Everything we’re doing at M+ we’re doing for the first time, which is both incredible and a little daunting. Projects such as Stories need to lay the groundwork and inform what comes next.