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Web person at the Imperial War Museum, just completed PhD about digital sustainability in museums (the original motivation for this blog was as my research diary). Posting occasionally, and usually museum tech stuff but prone to stray. I welcome comments if you want to take anything further. These are my opinions and should not be attributed to my employer or anyone else (unless they thought of them too). Twitter: @jottevanger

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Museums and online logins pt.1: who’s doing what, where and why

It's not happening
Right now, not that many museums let users register and do extra stuff online. That assertion is very unscientific, but looking around the London nationals' websites (but looking no further than the home pages/main menus) I find:

  • British Museum: No login

  • Imperial War Museum: No login

  • National Gallery: No login

  • National Maritime Museum: No login

  • National Portrait Gallery: No login

  • Natural History Museum: Login for NaturePlus (forums, blogs, bookmarking etc.)

  • Science Museum: No login

  • Tate: No login

  • Victoria & Albert Museum: No login
Of these, all but the National Gallery are also partners in Creative Spaces, the "grown up" part of the National Museums Online Learning Project launched last year. This requires you to log in to do much of the interesting stuff, and the need for this and benefits of doing so are pretty self-evident (at least if you buy into the application, and there are others in the museum geek community who don't). The login, though, is not good outside Creative Spaces AFAIK.

I realise that my sample was purely London majors and there are perhaps other UK museums that do have registered user areas, but if this sample is at all representative, why is registration, or more pertinently the sort of activity that would require registration, apparently so scarce on museum sites? I mean, there must be lots of things we'd like to do with museum/gallery content or in museum/gallery contexts (meat-space or digital) that would need you to sign up, and there's always loads of talk about funky collaborative stuff, social media, personalisation... So if the big 'uns don't generally do it there's got to be a reason worth digging in to.

There are plenty of reasons why this may be so and I'll have a look at some later on, but in simple terms I'd put it down to "it's tricky to do" and "is it worth it anyway?" (that last referring to the value that both museums and their users would get for all the hassle). Certainly at the Museum of London we've had the registration discussion more than once. Mia was always opposed, and rightly so I think, on the grounds that it's exclusive and off-putting with little to gain from it; yet the temptation is there, especially if you're considering value-added features that depend upon registration to be effective - say, favouriting objects or saving searches. In fact, the redesign that we’re currently engaged in on the MOL sites is another reason why registration has been on my mind again, since it always brings up the suggestion of a special area for the Friends. Quite what they’d get in that area I couldn’t tell ya. It does bring up one important distinction between reasons for “doing” login: it can be for access control, or it can be for identifying the user and associating them with their stuff (or both of the above).

Of course, doing some of this stuff needn’t involve logging in to our sites at all. So the nest question is, what sort of things are museums doing with third party services that involve people using (optionally or otherwise) registered identities? And would it ever make sense to try to go it alone instead?

Social media basics: Twitter, Facebook
The whole point of participating in the likes of Facebook or Twitter is to become part of a wide existing social network. Whilst museums might sometimes have specific narrower audiences in mind for some of what they do here, there’s surely nothing to be gained by doing it anywhere but where the people are. For richer but more targeted social networks, Ning is a popular alternative hosted solution.

Blogs, forums, and comments
Lots of museums run blogs, some of them on hosted services like Blogger, others on their own installations (MOL, for example). These may have their own login system (Wordpress, for example) but they often hook into OpenID too, so if users want to make comments they can use an existing identity. Forums, too, can be installed and run without having to run a registration/login system, or you can use hosted alternatives like Google or Yahoo! groups (for all their failings). And of course, people feed back to museums through “contact us” forms. It would be a fool who made these accessible only to logged-in users, but one can see how it could be useful to link together contact forms with known users.

Wikis and Wikipedia
Installing MediaWiki or using the likes of PBWiki can involve some sort of user management, although you don’t have to build your own system for this. Perhaps in some cases you can use OpenID? If users currently have to register to edit your wiki, one can see how it might be easier if this was tied to other things they might have to register for.

Wikipedia, of course, is not under your control and nor do you need to be registered to edit it, so although plenty of museums use it for their own purposes it doesn’t really fit into this discussion. Wikipedia is socially produced but is not a social space in the same way as other sites, although discussions can grow up around topics.

Sharing media
YouTube, iTunes and Flickr are the classic places for sharing media, and this is for a combination of pragmatic/economic reasons (free hosting, unlimited bandwidth, no real technical challenges, easy embedding, a UI dedicated to that medium) and because of the ready access to a user base, many of them registered, who can favourite, tag and comment on your assets. Museums’ use of Flickr is much more sophisticated overall than with, say, YouTube, owing partly to the simple fact that photographs constitute a large part of many collections (and can represent most of the rest). A recent flurry of tweets and bloggage on the relative merits of Flickr Commons and Wikimedia Commons brought out the value of the social aspect of Flickr.

Take your pick here, but Delicious is the big social bookmarking app, and as a user it’s more important to tag your bookmarks than pretty much anything else. This makes it a great source of user generated data on bookmarked pages, although whether any museums mine the info on how their pages are bookmarked and tagged I know not but if you’ve got time you can do it (here for example is a search for how people have bookmarked the MOL home page). If people bookmarked using a museum’s own app instead of Delicious (or Digg, Stumbleupon, whatever), what would that do for them or for the museum? Well, for users I think I’ll leave that until later, but for museums patterns of use and tagging would be a potential goldmine.

Museums exist in social contexts all around the web. Sometimes they put themselves there – on Facebook, through blogging, via Flickr – and other times they simply find themselves or their content there – mentioned on Twitter, faved in Google Reader or tagged in Delicious, written up in TripAdvisor or Wikipedia. Doubtless I have some of the details of my little environmental scan wrong but that’s not really too important: the point is the multitude of interactions and the fragmentation of the information – no, the relationships – that result. All that wealth of knowledge and opinion, all that social capital, spread all over the shop. It makes you wonder if there’s more we could be doing to marshal it for the good of all museums, because rich as this ecosystem is, it can be pretty hard to learn from it.

Other posts in this series:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very Interesting!
Thank You!