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published: March 2004
analytic scripts updated:
October 28, 2010

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  License
Museums and the Web 2003 Papers

 

 

Disintermediation and the Museum Web Experience: Database or Documentary-Which Way Should We Go?

Brad Johnson, Second Story Interactive, USA

http://www.secondstory.com

Abstract

The Web is a communication medium that caters to an individual's every desire. It empowers audiences to get exactly what they want, when they want, and how they want it. It provides a direct connection between buyers and sellers, between information consumers and providers-without traditional intermediaries like brokers, dealers, or agents. Now we help ourselves.

Why should art and artifact be any different? Some Museum Web sites provide austere library-science-like access to information, while others have documentary film-like storytelling qualities. For some curators, the Web is an opportunity to get out of the way and give visitors free access to all that is hidden in their physical museum; for others, they see the multimedia possibilities as a way to enhance their controlled presentations and add on even more interpretive accessories. Some sites provide unmediated direct access to their entire collection, while others provide carefully curated presentations. What do users want? Is the Web a tool for audiences to go beyond the exhibit walls and explore, sort and search collections themselves, or is it an opportunity for richer, more immersive interpretive presentations?

In this talk we will examine a variety of museum-related sites that explore each extreme and all in between-from database-driven sites to rich-media documentary-like approaches-and evaluate what components worked and what didn't. We will look at the relative costs associated with developing either direction, and by analyzing the traffic reports and user feedback from hybrid sites that incorporate each extreme we will explore which components were ultimately more popular, which proved easier to update or maintain, and which cultivated repeat traffic.

 

The Web is a communication medium that caters to an individual's every desire. It empowers audiences to get exactly what they want, when they want, and how they want it. It provides a direct connection between buyers and sellers, between information consumers and providers-without traditional intermediaries like brokers, dealers, or agents. Now we help ourselves.

Why should art and artifact be any different? Some Museum Web sites provide austere library-science-like access to information, while others have documentary film-like storytelling qualities. For some curators, the Web is an opportunity to get out of the way and give visitors free access to all that is hidden in their physical museum; for others, they see the multimedia possibilities as a way to enhance their controlled presentations and add on even more interpretive accessories. Some sites provide unmediated direct access to their entire collection, while others provide carefully curated presentations. What do users want? Is the Web a tool for audiences to go beyond the exhibit walls and explore, sort and search collections themselves, or is it an opportunity for richer, more immersive interpretive presentations?

In this talk we will examine a variety of museum-related sites that explore each extreme and all in between-from database-driven sites to rich-media documentary-like approaches-and evaluate what components worked and what didn't. We will look at the relative costs associated with developing either direction, and by analyzing the traffic reports and user feedback from hybrid sites that incorporate each extreme we will explore which components were ultimately more popular, which proved easier to update or maintain, and which cultivated repeat traffic

While the Web does cater to the culture of individuality, immediacy, and disintermediation, its enhanced multimedia capabilities and rich interpretive potential are still something many visitors crave. Sometimes storytellers open up new doors, and other times they get in the way. Ultimately the most successful Web sites are those that balance both approaches, empowering individuals to control the degree of mediation in their own customized experience.

Before we can assess the relative merit of the mediated Web experience, let's look at where it came from. In its infancy, the Web medium was about providing access to information: through page-based containers cross-linked with hypertext, users could find information, view images, read papers, and conduct research. It was not an entertainment medium, but rather an information retrieval medium for academics, researchers and geeks. Graphical browsers were introduced at the same time the CD-ROM craze was beginning to wane, and soon, displaced multimedia developers were redirecting their talents with interactivity online, in turn relieving Webmaster's of architecting, designing and producing Web sites. The Web began to change.

Information retrieval was not enough. What was going to define the look of the site? How was it going to feel? What sort of stylization or shtick was going to differentiate the information that was being presented? The explosive popularity and craze of the medium was drawing ever more diverse talents, each bringing with them the trajectory of the tradition they left. Print designers brought richer graphical sensibilities. Architects and information designers introduced new dimensions to structure. Web sites now had motifs and metaphor, and became "experiences."

With each revolutionary release of Netscape and Internet Explorer, developers exploited every new functionality they found, making Web sites look less and less like the sort of things they started out as. As sites became ever more enchanting, the medium attracted ever wider pool of creatives, and soon musicians, writers, game designers, filmmakers, and exhibit designers lent their hand in making these experiences more 'immersive,' more cinematic and more narrative. Motif inspired metaphor, which paved the way for story.

With hysterical pop culture rage and seemingly limitless venture capital thrust on the adolescent medium, new technologies, faster computers and fatter connections encouraged developers to keep dreaming and keep pushing the frontier. No longer confined to the page-based information retrieval model the Web was based on, big budgets and broadband dreams inspired and commissioned the sort of stuff investors thought would further popularize the Web experience.

First there was data, and then there was a presentation layer for the data. Over time the presentation layer got a little salt and pepper, then some spice. It became more flavorful, and soon it was a rich thick sauce smothering the data. The user experience has crept from one extreme to the other. From the Webmaster's directory structure full of data, to the documentary filmmaker's online QuickTime narrative, the brief history of the Web has offered users the full spectrum of intermediation.

We have all learned the importance of narrative, and the value storytelling has contributed to the medium. In the real world, some museum goers take the narrated headset tour and don't wander off the path, others browse through galleries randomly, and others head to the research library to find exactly what they are after. How can we accommodate all these experiences simultaneously online?

Whether a Web project begins with an idea in need of assets, or assets in need of an idea, sooner or later assets are amassed. As our studio was concepting the user experience of the Pearl Harbor site for National Geographic, we were simultaneously acquiring hundreds of historical images from the Naval Archives, the National Archives and the Library of Congress. While browsing all the image thumbnails and thinking about how the content would be organized on the site, it struck me what a wonderful experience I was having. I was looking at ALL the original images that we had access to, and the raw, random access to them was empowering. How would the story of Decemer 7, 1941 be told? How would all these assets be held together? As these big folders full of wonderful pictures became organized into hierarchical directories and widdled down to "image selections," I was reminded of the saying documentary filmmakers have that it isn't so much what you put in the film as it is what you don't put in it.

As objective, neutral and unbiased as anyone can hope to be, the editorial decisions they make invariably posit a subjective viewpoint that reflects their worldview, their culture or the age in which they live. Another person, a different group of people or someone in the future would make different selections. A different telling of Pearl Harbor will be more meaningful to a different age, and from the same pool of assets at their disposal, a different perspective will be defined. The assets that were not selected by our team are not part of the final presentation, and the ones that were are now glued together and inextricably bound together in our mediated "story."

If we care about creating interactive projects that can withstand shifts and changes in technology, why wouldn't we care about creating projects that can withstand shifting points of view? Museums and cultural institutions would like to think their efforts will be accessible, viewable and of value to users in the future. Adhering to industry standards and separating data development from technology development goes a long way towards insuring against technological obsolescence. While there are obviously no curatorial or editorial 'industry standards,' there are ways to segregate presentation layers, accommodate different experience types and build extensible properties.

Working on the National Museum of American History's "A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution" gave us an opportunity to look at the aftermath of Pearl Harbor from a different perspective. It also gave us the chance to rethink what we were learning from previous projects. Again, we had a story to tell and we started with many assets but this time there were thousands of images to select from. Oral Histories, photographs and artifacts were curated for the story based on themes in the physical exhibition. Unlike Pearl Harbor, the images that were not used were not gone for the story was just one of the presentation layers, not the only presentation layer. Every asset used to tell the story is an invitation to the collection database where all the assets can be found. In essence, the collection section of the site is where all the raw materials can be found, where users can browse or search and access anything they want as they want it. The building blocks of story are organized by the database, not trapped in the narrative. More records can be added to the database over time, and other tellings of the story can come out of it.

"Jasenovac: Holocaust Era in Croatia" for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum works very similarly: there is a collection and a history component. Artifacts from the collection illustrate the story of the holocaust in Croatia, and the story invites exploration in the collection. The artifacts are presented in context with the history, and stripped of context and catalogued. The site offers multiple presentations with varying degrees of intermediation.

Similarly, MoMA's "Artists of Br cke" site provides both a curated thematic track and a user controlled filter or browse mode. In the curated mode, visitors choose between 8 themes where 50 comparative groupings are accessed in a linear progression. In the browse mode, users virtually go behind the exhibition walls and filter the artwork according to their own criteria as if they were shuffling slides on a curator's light box. Browsing is enhanced without interference by the fact that users can select different criteria that affects which assets are displayed (show all "woodcuts" by "Nolde" for example).

Let's contrast two very different projects addressing the same subject matter: Egyptian tombs in the Valley of the Kings. In "Unwrapped: the Mysterious World of Mummies" we were after an experiential quality that immersed visitors in the diversity and mystery of the subject through rich-media narratives and exploratory experiences. There are twenty different mummies that are presented in over 40 different linear narrative segments, and one mummy presented in a navigable 3D tomb recreation. These documentary inspired narrative threads are interlinked, promoting user-defined pathways that serve each individual user's curiosity. The 'interactivity' in the site is in the way a user chooses to weave together the passive narratives, and what enhanced peripheral information they select along the way. While the experience of the site makes a powerful impression and can inspire further interest in the subjects presented, there is little reason to revisit the experience. Robust narratives modeled after historical documentaries are inherently more passive, less interesting after one viewing, expensive to update or modify, and are based on mediated, traditional one-directional storytelling models.

By contrast, the Theban Mapping Project provides many different presentation layers for the same content from each end of the mediation spectrum. Where the Mummies site was like a movie that had a few interesting tools within it, the Theban Mapping Project is a tool with a few interesting movies in it. TMP is not itself a mediated experience, but it reflects the understanding that there is value in mediation and offers it as a mode.

Built on the most comprehensive archeological and image databases on the Theban necropolis, the TMP site offers the same data through two main technology/presentation layers. There is a searchable quick-access, ADA compliant HTML presentation and a rich-media Flash presentation, both accessing the same dynamic content. Within the Flash presentation, users can elect to experience the content through 65 distinct guided tours in which Dr. Kent Weeks takes users through each and every tomb, one right after the next. Another mode allows users to explore the tombs themselves through interactive axonometric drawings which display images and information in context to the active selections. Another mode gives Egyptologists and advanced enthusiasts access to the database records and measured drawings of each tomb in context. All the pieces of the project are bound together by the database, and the mediated tours are a different dimension of the presentation layer. If you remove the mediation, everything still works. In the Mummies' heavily mediated model, all the components of the experience are held together by the presentation itself: if you remove the mediation, there is nothing.

We have learned that our most successful projects are those that embrace the original purpose of the Web information retrieval balanced with rich media storytelling presentations. All the components of the narrative are independent pieces organized through a database backend so that the stuff of stories is accessible for as many different arrangements as there are perspectives. The next steps of interactive storytelling are exciting. When mediation is not an on or off kind of thing, but is rather adjustable on demand, and when the user can modify it qualitatively by selecting from multiple viewpoints including ones they themselves have assembled and contributed, then we will get a taste for how revolutionary the Web can be.