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Museums and the Web

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Narrating Culture on the Web: Assisting Audience Participation through Reading Rhetoric and Innovating Online Forum Design

Mary Pettice, Lebanon Valley College, USA

Abstract

>Aotearoa/New Zealand’s Puke Ariki Museum, Library and Visitor Center in New Plymouth recently used two different formats for collecting and displaying visitor comments in recent (2010-2011) exhibits. Both formats challenge online visitors to weigh multiple perspectives on history and the future of Aotearoa/New Zealand. Read together, these comment areas offer insight into visitor interaction with exhibition material. In addition, the comment areas—one unconventionally designed but not interactive between users, one conventional and interactive between users—point toward new possibilities for designing and hosting audience-generated material that builds on and interrogates museum exhibits. The graphic design of the first comment area offers a much more appropriate foundation for an interactive discussion of cultural matters than the traditional linear message board forum used as part of the second exhibit. While the second exhibit’s forum allowed visitor interaction with other visitors, it isolated comments within particular threads. Inspired by the nonlinear “stage” design of the first comment area, I envision a hyperlinked, easily tagged and nonlinear experience that combines interactivity with a more aesthetically and culturally satisfying user experience.

Keywords: interactivity, participatory, forum, design, comment

Introduction and definitions

Much of the research on interactive platforms, most specifically online comment areas, began with optimistic ideals about deliberation, but the behavior of some users in online news forums has led to appropriate levels of skepticism regarding whether anything of value can come from online community conversations (Richardson & Stanyer, 2011). Those who study online newspaper and special-interest forums (Poor, Ridings, Gefen, & Arinze, 2006; Yoo, 2011; Richardson & Stanyer, 2011) offer suggestions about how a community of users can be motivated to engage in worthwhile discourse. Museum audiences have enough in common with the news and special-interest forum users that some of this research may assist in building a set of possibilities for museums and cultural institutions that wish to allow visitors to engage with the institution and with each other online. I apply and interpret this research with regard to the goals of cultural institutions, particularly those that have articulated the desired outcomes of visitor participatory activities (Durbin 2010; Simon, 2010; Allen-Greil & MacArthur, 2010). I refer to two different comment forums for two exhibits hosted by the same institution with an emphasis on how the visitors use language to engage with the institution and the impact of forum design, and conclude that while traditional threaded forums do not support the goals of museums and cultural institutions, innovative design of comment areas can enhance visitor participation and reinforce connections to the institution.

In The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon (2010) draws on the participatory roles articulated in the book Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies in order to begin her discussion of participation. Those roles are 1) creators, 2) critics, 3) collectors, 4) joiners, 5) spectators, and 6) inactives. In the context of my discussion, I’d like to focus on the categories of critics, collectors, and spectators—those who comment on content, arrange or vote on content, and those who are otherwise known as “lurkers,” a large but important audience that should be relevant to any discussion of the value of comment areas.

Interactivity has been described in various ways, but I’d like to use a definition that keeps the focus on the medium, or the technology used to by visitors to respond to the institution and/or other people. The medium is the technology provided or accessed to comment; those with whom the user interacts may be the institution alone, other users in a dynamic comment area, or unknown users who observe the interactions, static or dynamic, hosted by the institution’s comment site. Therefore, I have looked only at comments typed into the museum’s hosted platforms; when using an earlier exhibition for comparison, I omitted a significant number of comments offered verbally to staff and subsequently recorded as part of the total collection of all comments.

Toward narration, not deliberation

The digital democracy dream is very much alive for those who herald the Web as the ultimate deliberative tool; others temper their enthusiasm based on dismal readings of user-generated commentary. A media studies writer (Olmstead, 2011) tells newspaper editors that “a news site will have to get comfortable with the idea of comments as content,” and argues, “It’s time to think of your commenters as co-publishers.” Other journalism scholars offer laudable cultural reasons for encouraging online deliberation. One study (McCluskey & Hmielowski, 2011) heralds “the promise of online reader posts to bring additional views into public discourse on pressing social, cultural and political issues.” Another (Mitchelstein, 2011) suggests that “Posting comments in both online newspaper and blogs appears to increase participants’ interest in politics.” But the nature of particularly political discussions hosted by online news sites leads others (Richardson & Stanyer, 2011) to conclude that, faced with “fallacious symptomatic arguments” and “ad hominem attacks,” “the deliberative democratic potential of online discussion is a long way from the deliberative ideal.”

But what if deliberation is not the highest function of online comment areas? Instead of dismissing their worth because the product of online forums fails to offer true deliberative value, it may be better to scale back the emphasis on deliberation and find value in previously documented online user behaviors—and then grow comment areas that encourage those behaviors. In a discussion of designing participatory structures for museums, Simon (2010) argues, “The best mechanisms fit into the ways that people already use cultural institutions rather than forcing new behaviors onto visitors.” Research revealing how users expect to interact with institutions and other users online may in turn offer museums guidance for constructing online platforms that encourage constructive user interaction.

Achieving institutional goals

These online news site comments resemble, in significant ways, the mental activities of the engaged museum visitor. Museum visitors respond not simply to a variety of texts, objects, and images but to stories presented to them by the museum. Elaine Heumann Gurian (1999) argues that the museum is “a place that stores memories and presents and organizes meaning in some sensory form,” and emphasizes “the memories and stories told therein.” The engaged visitor makes meaning of these stories, these impressions and encounters; the engaged online forum member on a museum-hosted site should be prompted to do the same. And if the stories told by the museum yield fragments of thoughtful narratives from online commenters, the value of online forums may not be in deliberation, but in narration. As commenters carve out identities, declare allegiances (based on old and newly received information), seek agreement, and share experiences—fundamentally, creating meaning through storytelling—they find their places in narratives within the context of museum exhibit stories.  The goal of the museum online comment area, then, should be to encourage visitors’ storytelling: about their trip to the museum, about how they reacted to an exhibit, about how they responded to another visitor’s interpretation, and about how they meet and match the museum’s story as they make it relevant to their own lives and identities.

An online forum offers a variety of visitors, commenters and others, a participatory activity that is responsive to their own needs and stories, but the museum can design this activity to help achieve institutional goals. Nina Simon (2010) argues that engaged visitors who feel valued by the institution are “more likely to visit again, become members, renew their memberships, and donate time and money to the institution.” Participatory projects are designed to aid the institution in its mission of education, but they should also be designed to bring people back to the museum. If an exhibit examines local natural resource issues or public policy, for example, one might hope that the museum experience encourages visitors to engage with policymakers and other citizens offsite, but it’s reasonable for the museum to value just as strongly a documented re-engagement with the institution.

The creation of a thoughtful, well designed comment space serves two basic visitor-directed functions for the museum: 1) It allows visitors to interact with museum stories and staff, and 2) it creates a space that non-commenters can visit to reengage with an exhibit or to investigate other visitors’ experiences with an exhibit. Such comment spaces can also, of course, provide data for institutions regarding visitor satisfaction, but the content for measurement is often importantly those elements that, for the visitor, create a sense of community and ownership that will solidify his or her identification with the institution, resulting in return visits, recommendations to others, membership, gift store purchases, and donations.

Focusing attention on lurkers

But are visitors now using these online opportunities? The data on online interaction with museums seems to validate Jakob Neilson’s observation (2006) that “90% of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don’t contribute),” “9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time,” and only “1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions.” Allen-Greil and MacArthur (2010) report that the number of users who communicate with their museum online “is growing but still pales in comparison to the number who “lurk” or make use of our static Web pages.” And they conclude that, despite the low numbers of direct participants on their museum’s site, these projects should continue because of a belief that “the benefits extend beyond just the relative few who directly participate.”

Indeed, although nine out of ten users may be lurkers, it doesn’t necessarily follow that these users are completely disengaged from online content. Lurkers on a museum web site fall into two groups—those who’ve made the visit and those who may potentially make the visit. Forums allow the first group to see how others perceived the exhibit. Much as a museum visitor is presented with stories about the museum’s collections, an online visitor is presented with stories of how others make meanings out of their visits. The second group may include people familiar with the exhibit content who are silently gauging the online response; others may observe the online commentary in order to determine whether or not to visit the museum. Lurkers may, in fact, absorb information, perspective, and gain a connection to the museum’s content through even their seemingly passive behavior. A study (van Uden-Kraaul et al., 2008) of users of online health support sought to determine whether lurkers benefited from reading forums. The authors concluded that the lurkers on these comment boards shared active users’  “self-reported feelings of being empowered in several areas,” and ventured to conclude, “Apparently, reading in itself is sufficient to profit from participation in an online patient support group.” The most optimistic interpretation of Neilson’s 90-9-1 observation, then, would regard all museum participatory programs as clearly impactful efforts to “create new value for the institution, participants, and non-participating audience members” (Simon, 2010).

It may be nice to know that lurkers are obtaining value from the efforts of museum staff, but without evidence of participation, it may be difficult to determine an exhibit’s impact on these silent readers. Turning these lurkers into visitors who contribute may be a challenge, but offering visitors both 1) clearly defined activities that include the choice of either commenting on or curating/rating comments and 2) forum design architecture that encourages interactivity and focuses on the storytelling nature of museum exhibits will help to offer them more interactive experiences. These suggestions have two goals: to encourage more online visitors to interact constructively with the institution, and to avoid commonly observed problems with online forums, where participants may indulge in less than desirable community posting behavior.

Forum design: beyond threaded comments

The designers of an interface (Narayan & Cheshire, 2010) for managing very large discussion spaces observe that “Currently, most websites present discussions as a linear list of messages that require users to scroll and read through tens of thousands of lines of text . . ..” Narayan and Cheshire offer a more visually dynamic interface, prompted by another observation that “Few if any systems incorporate any type of visual interface to aid exploration and navigation.” In order for a user to feel connected at all to an online discussion, they must be able to locate themselves in the context of the conversation, and unwieldy navigation combined with large numbers of comments frustrates the activity of orienting the self within the discussion space.

Narayan and Cheshire identify the major culprit as the threaded, linear message board; they point out that segregating comments into threads “makes it difficult or impossible for a user to gain an overall view of where she is located within a given discussion space.” Museums and cultural institutions create spaces in exhibition halls that encourage visitors to place themselves spatially within the context of the exhibit material and museum collections; their online message spaces should offer the same kind of encouragement. If a difficult-to-scale forum keeps visitors from seeing where they belong, it becomes less useful for the majority of users as it grows. While many museums are currently not in the position of being inundated with active online commenters, the fact remains: discussion spaces must offer the contributing visitor and the lurker a clear connection to the totality of the conversation.

No discussion of online news discussion spaces fails to mention the problems and costs associated with moderation. Three major kinds of moderation are employed by hosts of online forums: hosts manually acting as moderators, software that filters out offensive terms, and crowdsourcing, a method by which users rate other users’ contributions. The American news publisher Gannet recently hired an outside company, Pluck Media Solutions, to moderate their online newspaper sites. Pluck’s moderation system, following detailed rules set up by Gannett editors, takes comments flagged by users and offers both human moderation and a "dirty words filter” (Gutter, 2010). Moderation requires staff resources, but again and again, many argue that design architecture is key to promoting worthwhile interaction. A paper (Manosevitch & Walker, 2009) presented at the International Symposium on Online Journalism stresses that “The design of a space is crucial for the quality of discourse that it produces,” and looks forward to new research that explores “further inquiry into design features that may elicit more deliberative content.”

Comparing two comment areas

A brief comparison between two exhibits’ different comment areas at the same institution offers an example of the failure of the threaded message board to invite thoughtful interaction with both the institution and other users. While these two exhibits share a regional audience, the first was specifically about the cultural and military history of the region and the second about its economic and environmental future. The first engaged audiences by connecting them to the ongoing legacy of cultural conflict between indigenous inhabitants and European settlers, and expectedly opened up passionate responses to its challenging material. And yet the audience similarities point to both exhibits’ emphasis on proposals for the future, on a highly regional data set with national implications and on possible conclusions reflecting a variety of cultural values. Both exhibits made it clear that visitors’ responses were sought and valued.

The first, “Te Ahi Kā Roa, Te Ahi Kātoro: Taranaki War 1860–2010” (2010), which described the conflict between the indigenous Māori and European settlers, retains an online presence through a comment area curated from a broad variety of visitor reactions to the exhibit. The comments are displayed with attractive graphics that give voice to the current state of the cultural conflict over colonial and indigenous versions of history examined in the exhibit while it creates a new narrative, one that tells a multi-voiced story of the community’s interaction with the past and the museum itself. This material was curated by museum staff (Conaglen, 2010) but is highly representative of the totality of visitor comments on the exhibit gathered through a variety of visitor interactions. The online comment presentation allowed museum visitors to join, contest, and parallel the trajectories of the narrative presented by the exhibit and current Aotearoa/New Zealand historical scholarship (Pettice, 2011). The user comments for the “Taranaki Wars” exhibit reveal a multi-voiced narrative that demonstrated a visit trajectory and added information about patrons’ pasts and the changes they experienced by visiting the exhibit.

The second, “What If? The Future of Taranaki” (2011) presented displays and events designed to stimulate conversations on regional identity and environmental sustainability and provided an online forum. The forum, which is now closed but archived, was built using traditional threaded message board software supplied and hosted by an outside company, Corporate HQ/Bang the Table. The comment board was open for the length of the exhibit, which ran from 4 Dec. 2010 to 20 March 2011, and slightly beyond; the latest comment posted before the board was archived was on 28 April, 2011.

Reading the “What If” comment forum

The main page for the “What If” forums (Puke Ariki, 2011) issues an invitation to the user: “Please share your thoughts on one, some or all of the seven forums provided.” The navigation on this page lists the seven separate forums, titled The Big Picture, Sea Levels, Energy, Neighbourhood, Economy, Mountain, and Communities. Within each forum are either three or four direct questions about the visitor’s thoughts about these topics. For example, the Energy forum lists three questions: “What do you think will be the main energy source for the future?”, “If you had easy access to any energy source, which would you use to power your home?”, and “What if the government proposed nuclear power as a fuel for the future?” The Mountain forum listed three questions also, all somewhat related to the region’s distinctive volcanic mountain, which has exhibited “intermittent volcanic activity at this site for the last 130,000 years” (Geonet, 2012): “As freshwater becomes a scarce resource, how should we manage our supply?”, “What if Mt Taranaki erupted, how might our landscape and economy change?”, and “What if Mt. Taranaki becomes much more popular as a tourist destination for visitors to the region, what impact would that have?”

In total, the forums listed 22 separate questions as prompts under these seven topics. The first forum, The Big Picture, was region-specific instead of topic-specific, and asked visitors to consider “What kind of Taranaki do you want to see in the future?”, “What are the things that you feel strongly about and want to keep as part of the future for Taranaki?”, “What do you think we are doing wrong?”, and “What do you think we are doing right?” (most readers chose to identity “we” not with the museum but with the community at large). This forum accounted for about 45 percent of the comments entered in all forums and was placed at the top of the forum lists.

The majority of responses on these forums were short; even on the busiest thread, “What are the things that you feel strongly about and want to keep as part of the future for Taranaki?”, only approximately 50 comments of 403 were longer than one line, and some of those were merely lists of short noun phrases that included return spaces.

The addition of this general forum may have had an effect on how porous the forums and responses were; many comments were not particularly forum-specific. But the categories also allowed for a great deal of overlap of concerns and terms. Of 60 comments that referred to the “mountain,” only 15 were located on the Mountain forum. The word “resources” showed up in a variety of forums; “pollution” showed up in all seven. These forums isolated comments within particular threads, and users who might have responded to a concern they shared were likely to miss every reference to their interests.

The number of prompts, the general nature of the first forum (The Big Picture), and the overlap of topic material might not have been a concern if the message boards had had heavy numbers of users. However, the total of 1273 comments, with 57 (6%) comments removed by moderation, is notable both because the board was open for almost 5 months and because only 88 (7.4%) of the comments were in response to other comments. Of that 88, 20 were removed by moderation, or almost 23%. Threaded comment forum setup carries with it the expectation that people will interact with each other. The “What If?” forums generated initial statements, but few users chose to respond to these initial statements even though they had the opportunity.

Additionally, focusing on the comments that indicated a personal connection to the exhibit content and the museum, one discovers that very few commenters used phrases that revealed declarations of current and future desires, states of thought, and acts of cultural self-identification. Phrases like “I like, “I really like, “I would like,” “I love,” and “I really love” totaled 22, or 1.8% of the non-removed comments; phrases that placed desired results in the future, “I wish,” “I hope,” “I want,” “We want,” and “My vision” totaled 20, or 1.6% . Other commenters, 39, or 3.2%, used language that declared allegiance and opinion such as “I feel,” “I think,” and “I believe.” Those who self-identified by either advocating for Māori culture (“I think that the restoration of Māori heritage is important” and “a maori taranaki” were 2 of 12 similar statements) or by writing their comments partly or wholly in Te Reo Māori made up a even smaller fraction of commenters, slightly less than 1%, perhaps surprising given the depth of emotion over the narrative of colonial turmoil inspired by the museum’s “Taranaki Wars” exhibit only months earlier. In the comments collected by the museum (Conaglen, 2010) for the earlier exhibit, 7% of comments were written in Te Reo  Māori or contained phrases in that language (not counting place names and common Te Reo phrases used by speakers of English and Te Reo in Aoetearoa/New Zealand.)

Language Use    

“Taranaki Wars”

“What If?”

I like, really like, would like, love, really love

4.2%

1.8%

I wish, hope, want, we want

3.1%

1.6%

I feel, think, believe

8.4%

3.2%

Significant Te Reo Māori

7%

<1%

Museum, Puke Ariki, exhibit(ion)

6.2%

2.3%

Table 1: A comparison of “Taranaki Wars” and “What If?” comment language

These numbers become more significant when one notes that that museum, using an earlier collection of comment options for visitors, gathering all but one comment onsite, for “Taranaki Wars,” had a smaller total number of comments for that exhibition: 635, including verbal comments to staff. Excluding those comments, the total of typed or written comments was 452, roughly one-third the number of responses for the “What If?” exhibit. This disparity is one of the factors that led me to compare these comment areas; the museum-going public proved, through their interaction with the earlier exhibit, that they were capable of constructing substantive comments onsite, comments that clearly suggested a high degree of engagement with the exhibit material.

It’s possible that a more vigorous attempt to get users to reflect on their visits and return to the forum was not practical for museum staff to develop. Significant but not directly related to the discussion is that the vast majority of commenters posted while at the museum; commenters are identified by which computer they used in the institution. Only five people posted online under registered screen names off site (I was one of them before I decided to embark on research for this paper), so the comments were usually brisk and not particularly introspective. The most prolific offsite commenter, registered with the name Green&clean, wrote a total of 13 comments, only one in response to another comment, during the first month of the exhibition. Green&clean’s comments were longer and more substantive than the average short answer, and yet no one responded to any of his/her comments over the next four months.

Missed opportunities

The “What If?” exhibit was not lacking in topics that engender vigorous debate within Taranaki and Aotearoa/New Zealand. Besides its heritage as a site of 19th century armed conflict, Taranaki is the site of the nation’s most ambitious offshore oil and gas drilling projects, a topic on which a very few citizens declare closely held opinions in the forums. One commenter argues that “conglomerate oil companies like Shell, BP etc hold back designs for alternative energy sources and power storage devices,” provocatively adding, “They don't care about you, your money. (No matter how many Museums they sponsor).” The material presented by Puke Ariki covered these active national and reginal concerns, but the associated forums didn’t reflect the healthy debates and visitor connections to these issues and the institution that they might have with a different forum design.   

Design and direction

The concept of design doesn’t only refer to software architecture; it includes attention to linguistic prompts from comment board hosts. Design that gives museum visitors direction and something specific to do may contribute to more valuable and on-topic collections of comments. Museums are already asking visitors to think about identity and personal connections to the collection or exhibit. Visitors enter the museum to learn or to at least be entertained; their act of absorbing the institution material becomes a story they can tell about themselves. But they won’t be inclined to communicate their own narratives within the large narrative of the institution unless they are prompted. And these prompts should be specifically designed and should offer a basis by which visitors contribute; Simon (2010) points out, “The best participatory experiences are not wide open. They are scaffolded to help people feel comfortable engaging in the activity.” In a discussion about existing newspaper comment areas, Stijn Debrouwere (2011) writes that “We're giving readers a blank canvas: a text area and a general instruction to ‘respond to this story.’” He argues that this indeterminate invitation contributes to the current unsatisfactory state of online comments and argues that “We need to change the language that invites readers into the conversation to reflect what the story is about.” A well-designed forum should not use language that leads visitors to reduce their thoughts to “yes” and “no” responses or even to those that fall into “like” and “dislike” categories—reactions prompted by open questions that clearly do not provide enough scaffolding. A well-designed forum will offer attractive places with clear direction not only to increase visitor comfort but also to prompt content-specific responses that answer, perhaps, a specific question about the story told by the museum.

Design and institutional mission

The linguistic and instruction-specific aspects of encouraging meaningful forum behavior are dependent, however, on an online community’s response to the visual and architectural design of a comment site. Because these concerns are so intertwined, it is important to recognize the observations of those who have attempted to facilitate new design architecture. The museum needs to offer comment spaces that are consistent with their missions and with exhibit-specific aesthetic elements; therefore, the target of those who wrestle with scalability and static design, the threaded message board, becomes unsustainable as a useful scaffold on which to build community interaction with institutions.

The threaded comment forum design allowed a kind of dilution that saw users wandering away from both the museum and each other. Of 17 comments that mentioned the word “museum(s),” 5 referred to museums in general, albeit as desirable cultural institutions; an additional 8 commenters directly referred to the museum by name, “Puke Ariki.” The museum and its exhibit material all but disappeared from the language of the comments. If the museum were to curate and display the best or most substantive comments and present them in a format similar to the Taranaki War exhibit’s forum display, the power and coherence of even the best comments would pale in comparison to those from the earlier exhibit. Observers would be able to identify the major issues facing the region, but would not be able to connect these comments directly to the museum exhibit or to the information presented there (save for one commenter’s implied dig at Shell Oil., one of the sponsors of the exhibit). If the target discussion questions were narrower, the threaded comment format may have supported more robust numbers of responses to others. The limits of the threaded message board hosted by someone else severely hampered the museum’s ability to allow users to tie their comments to the exhibit itself and the institution.

Suggestions for the future of forum design

In an effort to overcome the limitations of traditional comment boards on news sites, The Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership’s launched its design challenge (2011), “Beyond Comment Threads.” In a blog post on Knight-sponsored Idea Lab, Phillip Smith (2011) publicized the design challenge, beginning, “Let’s face it—technically speaking, comments are broken.” Some chosen entries stressed multi-platform sharing across media, ideas that are not within the goals of a museum’s exhibit-specific comment area. However, one winning entry (Debrouwere, 2011) focused specifically on how innovative design and appropriate interfaces might deliver “the most fruitful mode of conversation.” Another (Outing, 2011) submitted two contest-winning proposals, one arguing, “Extracting excerpts from best comments and bringing them to top of the stack (or inset box/widget in article) would encourage better comments,” and the other suggesting the addition of a topic cloud to the top of the comment page, “using text mining of the thread (updated each time a comment is added) to identify key phrases or concepts that appear in a comment thread.” Tagul, a program in beta, offers users a way to create links out of the words in a tag cloud, and illustrates the potential for designers to implement Outing’s suggestions.

Designs that allow museum viewers to grasp the major conversations might resemble some of these proposals, particularly Outing’s; these designs can be adapted to reflect the institution’s goals and exhibit-specific content:

  • A non-linear platform, one that uses design elements that complement and incorporate the artwork associated with the exhibit or institution.
  • Museum collection-inspired icons for commenters: Users should be able to create user names and display profile icons that have connections to both their identities and the museum. From an easily searched thumbnail list of objects in the museum collection, users can select an icon that will be displayed along with their comments. Visitors can then see connections they share with other users, possibly facilitating goodwill between visitors who admire the same museum objects. The goal is to keep the museum collection, exhibits, and experience as central to how a user identifies himself or herself on the museum-hosted forum site.
  • Give users a way to pull in visual or linked content from a central museum-hosted exhibit site: Each exhibit’s online offerings should include easily linked material, images, charts, videos, that a user may feel supports his/her comment. A click and drag mechanism might automatically insert a link and add text to a comment such as “Go here to see what I’m talking about.”
  • Curatorial roles for lurkers: Simon (2010) points out that “there are many more people who enjoy spectating and critiquing content than there are those who enjoy creating it.” Simple instructions might ask for help in ranking comments “most helpful” or “best museum links.”
  • Emphasize storytelling: Questions and prompts that begin discussions should seek to identify the stories presented by the museum and encourage visitors to respond to these narratives with stories of their own.

Such design guidelines would allow the community a vibrant place in which to talk about museum visits and to see what others thought of an exhibit's message and implications, resulting in a greater connection to the institution for commenters and lurkers. Design and linguistic prompts should keep the museum central to the forum’s users; a museum exhibit comment area should use the museum as a reflection of community and cultural identities and offer users a way to declare their own identities and communicate with others.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Bill Macnaught, former manager at Puke Ariki Museum, Library and Visitor Center in New Plymouth, Aotearoa/New Zealand; and Kate Conaglen, Acting Team Leader Administration at Puke Ariki for their help with providing background information about their institutions. I’d also like to thank editors Minette Hillyer and Geoff Stahl of The New Zealand Journal of Media Studies as well as their peer readers, who helped me refine my ideas on an earlier but related paper.

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