Making audiences the focus of online collections

This week, Katie Moffat, Head of Digital at The Audience Agency, is our guest blogger. The Audience Agency logo

Katie looks at some inspiring initiatives and research museums around the world are undertaking to give different audiences what they want when they engage with collections online. The Audience Agency helps museums and other organisations understand the motivation of their audiences to connect their content to as many people as possible.

You can follow Katie on Twitter @katiemoffat


Earlier this month The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced the release of 375,000 images to the public domain under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) designation.  To be clear, this means that anyone can use the images “…for any purpose, including commercial and noncommercial use, free of charge and without requiring permission from the Museum”.  As this article in Wired describes it, “the Open Access is an unprecedented example of an institution opening its doors to the online community”.

Two people looking at framed illustrations on a wall in an exhibition in an art gallery
Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

Of course the Rijksmuseum took a similar step a few years ago and then went on to launch Rijksstudio a platform that encourages not only the downloading of images from their collections but the use of those images in designs for clothes, furniture, fabrics and a multitude of other items.  This initiative has been so popular that there is now an annual award for the best use of an image.

There are many reasons why a museum might choose to take this step; for moral reasons because they believe that art belongs to everyone and deserves a wider audience, for more commercial reasons – exposing more people to these images may well make them visit the physical museum to view the item in person, or for quality reasons, as Martijn Pronk, then head of publications at the Rijksmuseum said in an interview in 2015 “One of our directors once said: I don’t care if you print Vermeer on toilet paper. As long as you use OUR Vermeer. What he meant was: online you will find thousands of images of Vermeer paintings. Many of them are of very poor quality. Ours are high resolution top quality. We’d rather you use the correct Rijksmuseum reproduction for your product design”.

Not many museums are at the stage where they are able to take this radically open approach, either for practical and/or organisational reasons but perhaps what is most interesting about it is the fact that at its heart is a belief in the value of audiences, of all types.

At The Audience Agency audiences are at the centre of all of our work. We help organisations to understand who their audiences are, who they might be, how to grow their audiences and what the audiences’ motivations are. Rarely do we work with an organisation that has only one audience type, more commonly there are multiple audiences, all with differing motivations and needs.  For a museum traditional audience types might include academics, researchers, historians, families and schools.  Online those audiences expand even wider. Collections can inspire people, sooth them and entertain them and this impact need not be at the expense of more specialist users.

In 2014–2015, supported by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) undertook a digital research and development project to explore whether it was possible to create a web interface that specifically helped improve public access to collections by encouraging exploration.  Their findings were numerous but the overall conclusion has particular relevance when thinking about how different audiences respond.

“Perhaps predictably, the data reinforced the view that collections engagement is all relative. Depth of engagement in the search catalogue interface would ordinarily be interpreted as the extent to which users probed multiple individual objects for detail. Certainly, this form of engagement was visible from the data. However, a large number of users were happy to spend prolonged periods of time browsing hundreds of artefacts collected on screen together, hovering over text captions for context, without ever diving into individual objects for more detail. For this audience, it seemed the collections interface was an holistic experience and an encounter with a rich collage of juxtaposed artefacts. In contrast, for other audiences who simply wanted to find the object, the interface was only a tool to conduct their enquiry…Perhaps the most revealing insight was that almost twice as many visitors accessing the collections search pages on TWAM’s websites identified themselves as audiences who don’t know what they’re looking for. Regardless of whether the interface satisfied their need or not, the click-through data indicates that a substantial online audience exists that desires collections engagement without a specific search request in mind. The responsibility therefore is with the museum to create user-centric experiences that propel casual, curious audiences into and through the collection.”

Screen shot of the interface of Collections Dive
Collections Dive interface from Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums

What is particularly interesting about Collections Dive is how it supports the idea that you can present digital collections in such a way as to engage different types of audiences, many of whom have differing interest and knowledge levels.  And that if done well, digital platforms help to ensure collections receive wider audience attention.

In our work with museums we have found that approaches to digital vary tremendously. Some (the minority of) organisations do have a fully defined strategy that links to their organisational aims and values and has a clear implementation plan to support its delivery. But most are wrestling with how to approach digital collections and are still in the earlier stages of exploring what might be best for both the organisation and their audiences.  As the Tyne & Wear approach demonstrates though, it is possible to serve multiple online audiences at once. And when faced with a vast collection of sometimes hundreds of thousands of items, ensuring the audience is part of the planning process makes it easier to prioritise and ensure a museum’s collection is valued by as many people as possible.

Find out more about The Audience Agency by visiting their website www.theaudienceagency.org or following them on Twitter @audienceagents