Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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‘Intention’ – museums as information sources or ‘platforms’

March 10th, 2008 by Seb Chan

I’ve been talking a lot about ‘intention’ recently and it needs a bit of explanation.

In the commercial world of the web realisations are being made that not every ‘page view’ is equal and that advertising on social networks is not the cash cow that it was assumed it would be.

Social networks have some of the lowest response rates on the Web, advertisers and ad placement firms say. Marketers say as few as 4 in 10,000 people who see their ads on social networking sites click on them, compared with 20 in 10,000 across the Web. Mark Seremet, president of video game publisher Green Screen, stopped advertising on MySpace last spring because of a 13-in-10,000 response rate. “It’s really hard to make money on that anemic click-through rate,” says Seremet.

In the cultural sector, too, we are beginning to realise that the behaviour that web users exhibit on other parts of the web doesn’t necessarily mean that the same will occur on our own sites even if we build beguiling tools and platforms. For all the hyperbole about digital natives there is little to demonstrate that highly digitally literate audiences necessarily want to undertake ‘co-creative’ tasks on our sites even if they are regular creators elsewhere – especially (and this is critical) if our physical spaces don’t invite co-creation and participation.

Is it a chicken and egg situation? Do our physical sites need to change as well as our websites?

The OCLC report Sharing, Privacy and Trust in Our Networked World report reveals that on a library website,

– 6% would participate in online discussion groups
– 5% would share photos and videos
– 6% would describe their own collections
Р7% would view other people’s personal collections

I doubt these figures would differ much for a museum website.

So what are the intentions of those who do visit our websites?

Peacock and Brownbill in their 2007 paper, Audiences, Visitors, Users: Reconceptualising Users Of Museum On-line Content and Services, split Museum Victoria visitors into 4 categories – visitors, transactors, searchers and browsers. Tellingly the visitors and transactors, those who had purposely visited the MV site for specific purposes (information for visiting through the door, using a service etc) only comprised 36.5% of traffic. The rest the searchers and browsers represented 63.5% and arrived at the site via serendipitous discovery.

That’s a high proportion of ‘unintentional’ traffic and it would be interesting to compare the visit lengths of each group as well as their propensity to revisit the Museum Victoria website within a 3 month period.

Kevin von Appen from the Ontario Science Centre ran a workshop for the Powerhouse a few days ago and the two of us have been talking a lot about the notion of ‘museums as platforms’ since. Looking at it this way it makes sense that if we expect online visitors to engage deeply and interactively with our online materials (the ‘web as a platform’), we need to offer similarly oriented experiences in our physical galleries too.

‘Platform experiences’ aren’t just interactive experiences. These interactive experiences need to be much more than a touch screen ‘game’ designed to ‘teach’ and move the visitor on in under 90 seconds under the guise of ‘giving the next visitor a go’. ‘Platform experiences’ need to be open ended and co-creative, and this needs significant cultural change to make possible.

Whilst the web is an ‘easier’ place to create these participatory environments, the real challenge for museums is to translate these into complimentary participatory spaces in their physical galleries. The relationship between web and gallery needs to be symbiotic and foster the growth of a audience that demonstrate the potential of ‘platform experiences’.

At the moment we cannot assume that online behaviour on other websites will necessarily carry forward to our own museum websites unless we change our physical gallery experiences as well.

Tags: 3 Comments

  • It’s interesting that we expect high levels of interactivity from our web visitors but not from those coming through the physical spaces. Even when interactivity occurs it is often in a closed context (playing a one-player game, listening to sounds in headphones, or like the media production facility we have here at the Powerhouse where the workshop area is isolated from the development of exhibitions so creation is taking place as a ‘separate’ activity within the museum, rather than an underlying focus).

    Having said that it should be recognised that the best kinds of real participation are probably occurring through the education public programs, where kids get a thrill out of being part of the process and being valued for their opinions (I’m thinking of the Kids College program that the Australian Museum runs here in this example).

    What is an appropriate model for adult participation if so inclined? Perhaps interactive theatre is a good place to start?

  • Renae,

    Great point–that’s what I am constantly working on with Museum 2.0–how to make the museum-making process a more open, participatory experience. Because the extension of your comment is: we expect more of our visitors than we do of ourselves. We’re not nearly as willing to interact and engage with them as we hope they will be, and that’s unreasonable.

    I think that science cafes and bar trivia nights/spelling bees are great adult experiences. Relatedly, we’ve been working with adults for months now via the web and Second Life to allow them to design future exhibits for The Tech (museum in California) and have a thriving community of adults who love to design and build things–for our real visitors! It’s a great loop completion, both in terms of involving visitors in exhibits behind the scenes and connecting visitors to visitors, start to finish.

    Jeez, didn’t mean that to sound so marketing-y. But I DO feel strongly about this stuff… and that we shouldn’t cop out on making the real content as participatory as the web. Otherwise, exhibits become less relevant…

  • Nina,

    That all sounds fantastic. I’d love to see some of the examples that adults have come up with for future exhibitions at The Tech.

    I’ve signed up to your blog – there’s some good reading there!