Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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“Do curators dream of electric collection records?” Exploring how the Powerhouse online collection is used

October 8th, 2011 by Seb Chan

As one of the first of a ‘new style’ of museum online collections, launching several internet generations ago in 2006, the Powerhouse Museum’s collection database has been undergoing a rethink in recent times. Five years is a very long time on the web and not only has the landscape of online museum collections radically changed, but so to has the way researchers, including curators, use these online collections as part of their own research practices.

Digging through five years of data has revealed a number of key patterns in usage, which when combined with user research paints a very different picture of the value and usefulness of online collections. Susan Cairns, a doctoral candidate at the University of Newcastle, has been working with us to trawl through oodles of data, and interviewing users to help us think about how the next iteration of an online museum collection might need to look like.

I asked Susan a number of questions about what she’s been discovering.

F&N – You’ve been looking over the last few years of data for the Powerhouse’s collection database. Can you tell me about the different types of users you’ve identified?

Based on the Google Analytics, there seem to be four main types of OPAC users. I’ve given each of them a nickname, in order to better identify them.

The first group is the FAMILIARS, composed of people who access the OPAC intentionally. FAMILIARS know of the collection through either experience (having used the online collection previously, or from visiting the museum), or via reputation (ie GLAM professionals, researchers or amateur collectors). FAMILIARS come to OPAC with the highest level of expectations and have the most invested in the experience. Trust and authority are hugely important for the people in this segment.

The second group, I’ve called the SEEKERS. Like FAMILIARS, SEEKERS are driven by a desire for information they can trust. However, unlike FAMILIARS, SEEKERS do not yet know about the museum and/or its collection. This group includes people who are new to collecting communities, or student researchers etc. If they find what they are looking for on the OPAC, SEEKERS have the potential to become FAMILIARS.

The final group for whom authority and trust in information is important are the UTILISERS. These visitors, primarily education users (like school students), have specific and particular research needs, which are externally defined (ie they might be looking for answers to set questions). This group is task-oriented.

The last group that comes to the OPAC is the WANDERERS. These are casual browsers who seek fast and convenient information, but don’t necessarily need depth in their answers. Seb once nicknamed them “pub trivia” users, and that seems pretty apt.

F&N – What sort of proportions do each of these make up?


By far the greatest number of OPAC visitors are WANDERERS. More than 80% of all OPAC users – whether in a two-year period, or a six-month timeframe – visited the collection online once. Obviously not all of these will be WANDERERS, but a significant proportion of OPAC users are clearly coming to meet short-term information needs.

At the opposite end of the scale, around 5% of OPAC users visited the collection five times or more during the last six months. These visitors have the most invested in the current OPAC, having spent time learning to negotiate it.

F&N – Have these users changed over time? (As other collections have come online etc)


The actual make up over time doesn’t seem to have changed that much, although the numbers of visitors dropped a little after a peak in early 2010.

Having said that, there are seasonal trends in the users. The search terms that UTILISERS often use to find the collections (such as “gold license”) are more popular during the school year than at other times. Similarly search terms go through peaks, depending on media interest, such as a high number of searchers who come to the OPAC looking for Australian media personality Claudia Chan Shaw, whose dress is in the collection.

Some search terms are just weird. One of the most popular search terms ever was “blue fur felt” which skyrocketed to popularity in January – July 2010, but has not been used to bring visitors to the OPAC since.

F&N – Are overseas users different from Australian ones?


During the last six months, the OPAC actually had more international users than domestic ones, with the top ten international countries visitors coming from the USA, UK, Canada, New Zealand, India, Germany, France, Netherlands and Philippines. The search terms that lead international users to the OPAC are very different from those within Australia. After all, many of the most searched for items are that link up with the school curriculum, and that is very Australia-specific. These items also make up a significant proportion of the most-looked-at references.

The search terms overseas users to access the collection are often far more specific – such as particular clock brands etc, which would indicate a higher proportion of amateur collectors (SEEKERS and FAMILIARS) than WANDERERS.

Australian users spend longer on the site, and have a far lower bounce rate, so once on site they engage more.

F&N- You’ve been speaking to our curators about how they use ours and others collection databases. What are some of the things you’ve learned from this?

Talking to the curators has been absolutely fascinating. Every single curator that I have spoken to has his or her own ways of researching and gathering collection information. Some curators rely heavily on books, while others spend a significant amount of time conducting face-to-face interviews. Others use websites like Trove, or conduct community consultation online, using wikis and blogs. However, every researcher utilises Google and the Web in some way in their search for information.

No matter how a curator conducts collection research however, all are looking for two main types of information. The first is the broad contextual information for an object that places it into an historical and social framing. This includes the broader history or biography of the creator or manufacturer, and information on the social period in which it is or was used.

The second type of information is specific to the object itself, and includes information about maker’s marks, the object’s history (including provenance, such as how, when and why it came into the collection, why it was owned and used), and any stories that relate specifically to the object.

In order to find this information however, very few of our curators use museum collection databases – even those curators who conduct a significant amount of their research online. The reasons for this varied, but emerging themes included a difficulty navigating online collections (once it could be located on the institution website in the first place), a sense of frustration at being unable to find relevant information/objects, and most important, a lack of trust in online collection databases.

Not one curator that I spoke to trusted either our own OPAC or other online collections as a resource that could provide complete and authoritative information. Where a number of curators did find online collections useful however, was in providing immediate access to images of objects and to get a sense of whether another institution held objects that might be important to their own search. Knowledge about what was in a collection was useful, but not necessarily the collection knowledge that was included in the online record.

A number of curators did use our own OPAC to see what information was being communicated to the public, and to answer public enquiries. However, it was very clear that there are ongoing issues with trust and authority.

Two things that did increase trust for curators however were good quality images (through which they could get a visual sense of the object), and PDFs of original documents. Curators trust that which they can see themselves. For most curators, their expertise is such that they will have an intuitive sense when information they come across is likely to be correct.

Following Susan’s initial work we started looking at the SEEKERS in more detail. Why were they coming to the site? And, more importantly, were they satisfied with what they found?

We’ve had a pop up survey running for the last two months – again using Kiss Insights – and the numbers have started coming in.

In order to survey only the SEEKERS we have set the survey to only show to visitors who’ve arrived via organic search, have visited at least three pages, and, obviously, are in the museum’s online collection. The survey, thus, has quite a limited reach and has been triggered by only 3900 visitors in the time – and has been completed by 229 respondents.

It is somewhat heartening to find that the largest subgroup of Seekers – those doing ‘amateur research, hobbyist and collectors’ – feel the content they find is ‘good’, and that the lowest positive ratings are for the ‘other’ group. This is especially interesting if we look by object and see which object records are being rated as ‘poor’. Here we find a mix of well documented (at least according to us) and very scantily documented (no image, metadata last copied from a paper stock book entry in the 1980s).

Once we get to a critical mass of respondents – 1000 or more – in this group we should have some more actionable findings. Then we move on to looking at the the other groupings.

Tags: 2 Comments

  • Lynda Kelly

    Thanks – this is interesting Seb and Susan. Your classifications remind me of the “Student, stroller, streaker” typology used for physical visitors. More on that here: http://australianmuseum.net.au/BlogPost/Audience-Research-Blog/Categorising-visitors

    What I’m starting to think that the ways visitors/users etc engage with museum collections wherever they happen to be (physical site, online and even mobile) is not really any different, it’s just that they are using different tools across each context.

  • Anonymous

    The other online typology that is widely used in the Brownbill/Peacock model from 2007 - 

    “Visitors: those people using the Web site to plan or follow up a visit to a museum venueSearchers: those people using the Web site to locate specific subject-based informationBrowsers: those people who access the Web site as part of browsing activities on the WebTransactors: those people who use the Web site to interact or transact with the museum.”
    (from http://www.archimuse.com/mw2007/papers/peacock/peacock.html)

    I’m sure there is a wide variance in the proportions of the types of collection database user between types of museums as well. I would hazard a guess that the natural history museums get the highest percentage of trivia quiz wanderers whilst art museums would get the least of that type etc.