April 13-17, 2010
Denver, Colorado, USA

A Walk in the Park: The Balboa Park Online Collaborative First Year Report

Rich Cherry, Balboa Park Online Collaborative, USA


Balboa Park Online Collaborative is a collaborative technology project involving 17 museums, performing arts venues, gardens, and the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park, San Diego. This paper will present the challenges we faced in managing the creation and execution of a common strategy and framework during our first year. We will share the successes and lessons learned as well as the compromises required to move the institutions of Balboa Park forward and manage the project effectively.

Keywords: Balboa Park, Collaborative, engagement, tools, digitization, community



In 1868, Alonzo Horton set aside a tract of land for a public park, one that would grow over the next 140 years into one of the most significant urban parks in America. In the years leading up to 1915, after many years of public enjoyment, several Spanish Colonial Revival buildings and structures were built for the Panama-California Exposition. Over the next 20 years, the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Museum of Art, and the San Diego Natural History Museum all opened their doors in the park. In 1935 and 1936, Balboa Park hosted the California-Pacific International Exposition, adding a replica of London’s 16th-century Elizabethan Globe Theater. Other park structures followed, including the opening of the Timken Museum of Art and the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.

Today, Balboa Park, spread out over 1,200 acres, is home to dozens of cultural, conservation and recreation organizations and attracts more than 10 million visitors a year.  Nevertheless, looking beyond the Spanish architecture, important cultural destinations, and incredible collections, the park is in fact facing huge challenges.  

Over the last decade, organizations in Balboa Park have started to look to collaborative solutions to solve problems. In 2001, 24 institutions joined together to form the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership (BPCP). BPCP takes a leading role in park advocacy, joint purchasing agreements, sustainability projects, management and facilitation of some park wide projects, and has created a learning institute for museum professionals. 

The Legler Benbough Foundation

The Legler Benbough Foundation has always recognized that cultural institutions in Balboa Park play a critical role in the cultural life of San Diego, California. Over the past 20 years, the Foundation has focused significant resources on these institutions to enhance collaboration and cooperation of the institutions to achieve joint objectives; to support programs of outstanding artistic merit which may not have sufficient audience appeal to allow their presentation without outside support; to support efforts to ensure the relevance of the institutions in a rapidly changing community; and to ensure the viability of the park and the maintenance of a park environment in which the institutions can flourish.

In 2008, the foundation began to consider ways to encourage technology collaboration among the Balboa Park Institutions to improve on-line access to institutional resources while attaining some cross-organizational benefit to its investments throughout the park.  To this end, they engaged cultural informatics consultant David Bearman of Archives & Museum Informatics. In the fall of 2008, Bearman and executive, program and technical staff from organizations in Balboa Park began identifying high level goals and functional areas which could benefit from on-line collaboration.


  • Realize savings through collaborative effort,
  • Improve public access to Balboa Park content,
  • Increase cultural tourism,
  • Enhance organizational capability,
  • Enable collaboration that would not otherwise have been possible,
  • And move towards sustainability of BPOC.

Functional Areas:

  • Content Management Systems (education, curatorial/collections/visitor services/intranet),
  • On-line transactions (membership/donations/ticketing/sales/registration),
  • Shared Technology services

Three structural options were presented to the directors of the organizations: these options involved differing degrees of organizational integration.  In December of 2008, seventeen of the largest museums and performing arts organizations voted to establish the Balboa Park Online Collaborative.

The Project

The Balboa Park Online Collaborative (BPOC) Project was initiated with $3,000,000 of funding over three years.  The overarching goal is for every institution to be able to build capacity while engaging a larger audience with a deeper and richer experience.  To accomplish this BPOC aims to:

  • facilitate and execute a fundamental change in the way museums, cultural arts and science institutions in Balboa Park approach the use of on-line technology by making on-line technology an integral part of the way the institutions fulfill their missions, interact with patrons, and collaborate;
  • improve the technology capabilities of member institutions while reducing costs by bringing organizations with similar needs together on mutually beneficial projects;
  • allow smaller institutions the benefit of having technology systems of the same quality as larger organizations, which in turn benefit from streamlined expenditures; and
  • provide public and scholarly access to the deep and valuable resources of the park.

 The Plan

In coordination with its advisory board and technical advisory committee, the BPOC developed a plan for supporting the technology requirements of its members through a combination of collaborative software and infrastructure development, training, and community planning efforts, and efficiencies achieved through shared resources and purchasing practices. The plan emphasizes the implementation of mission-appropriate tools and practices, the development and reinforcement of staff knowledge and skills, and the encouragement of shared practices and standards throughout the BPOC community. The elements of the three-year strategy are to enhance management, infrastructure, and digital content.


During the first year, BPOC was to focus on the core organizational structure and processes of the collaboration, and on training, communications, and assessment.

It was to establish an advisory board, consisting of directors of each of the member institutions, to oversee all BPOC activities; a technical advisory committee, including senior staff in strategic roles at the member institutions, to guide project planning; and working groups representing BPOC's key project areas (Collections/Digitization, Networking, Content Management Systems, etc.), including the appropriate staff members from the BPOC community.

In collaboration with BPCP, BPOC will provide training opportunities for staff of member organizations. Training efforts include park-wide seminars to educate staff on effective uses of technology and provide insight into emerging technology trends in museums and industry. In addition, BPOC provides support for marketing, programmatic, and technical staff who wish to attend conferences that demonstrate cutting-edge examples of technology in cultural institutions and where staff can build a network of peers in other institutions.

An intranet will support documentation, sharing, and discussions by BPOC governing teams and working groups, and - leveraging the work that will be done to develop the tools needed by these groups - BPOC will also offer to develop and support institutional intranets for its members.

BPOC and BPCP hope to realize efficiencies of scale in collaborating to achieve bulk discounts for hardware, software, and vendor services, based on traditional collective purchasing models. Further savings can be expected by leveraging the knowledge and skills in BPOC’s centralized service model for software and infrastructure development and support. New projects executed under the BPOC umbrella are likely to be achieved at a far lower cost than if staffed by outside consultants and/or implementers.

Annual assessment activities will determine the strengths and weaknesses of each of the elements of the two-year plan and allow for revision, restructuring, or reprioritizing the BPOC’s approved project list.

Policy frameworks

To encourage cross-collection, inter-disciplinary exploration, the members wish to establish an environment in which content from one collection can be easily combined with material from another; and in which intellectual property from one member organization can be easily accessed and shared with staff of another. To do so, BPOC’s members will need to address policy issues that sometimes stand in the way of sharing. The BPOC team proposes to host a series of discussions by senior staff of the member organizations to catalyze discussion about the benefits and perils of a collaborative, wide-open content strategy – a “BPOC Commons.”


High Speed Park Network

Working with the staff of Calit2, BPOC will install the infrastructure necessary for a high speed (350+ MB/second) connection to CalREN, the California Research and Education Network to which the vast majority of the state's K-20 educational institutions are connected. In order to facilitate collaboration in education and research, CalREN also provides connectivity to non-California institutions and industry research organizations such as Internet2, high-speed networks in Mexico and the Association of Pacific Rim Universities Networks. A pilot project in will give four BPOC members (the Museum of Man, the San Diego Natural History Museum, The San Diego Sports Hall of Champions, and The World Beat Center) access to high speed Internet and the ability to distribute content and share resources in a way they have not been able to do because of the limitations of their current networks.  The pilot project will also allow BPOC to prove the concept and assess the efficiencies of centralized storage and backup, server virtualization, and shared application resources. Following the pilot project, BPOC hopes to build out a high-speed network to all of its member organizations. As the data network is extended through the park, BPOC will create public wireless hot spots and allow park visitors to access the Internet (which will serve visitor needs while also facilitating promotion of BPOC member programs to park-goers).

Network Infrastructure - Virtualization of Servers

Server virtualization will make application support easier while greatly decreasing costs and using less energy than traditional physical servers. By sharing a virtualized server environment among the member organizations of the BPOC, each museum will benefit from efficiencies and economies of scale that would not be as effective or available to them as individual organizations. Economies of scale can be realized by centralizing the networked storage and backup facilities of BPOC member organizations. In addition to providing savings on cooling and electricity, a centralized storage facility will combine demand in such a way as to allow for utilization of industry best practices in information management.

Enterprise Digital Asset Management

A preliminary survey of collections management and digital asset management systems in BPOC member organizations found that the ad hoc solutions currently employed to manage the digital assets of member organizations are near the breaking point and largely inaccessible, rendering members’ digital assets at risk. Given the importance of members’ valuable digital assets for populating on-line systems and serving audience needs, it is strongly suggested that an enterprise digital asset management (DAM) system be implemented for BPOC members. Because enterprise-level digital asset management solutions are beyond the reach of even BPOC’s best-resourced partners, it is a logical choice for BPOC to create and support a service model for digital asset management for its members.

Shared Tools & Facilities

BPOC and its members have identified a group of on-line tools, including ticketing, membership/donation, scheduling, and course registration, and course support software, that are - for any individual organization - complicated and/or costly to develop and maintain.

After establishing a common Drupal platform for BPOC member Web sites, the collective can easily take advantage of shared tools and practices to enhance community engagement on-line. Such tools may include social software tools (for soliciting and managing user-contributed material such as social tags, user-created video or images, or foreign-language translations) or a metrics toolset for measuring visits or assessing user behaviors.

An application programming interface to collections records of BPOC members will enable more flexible use of this information, both internally and externally. Creating and using an API allows for the loose coupling to backend systems and public-facing applications (such as on-line collections), providing flexibility in managing data in either back- or front-end systems. Publishing a portion of the API to public Web sites could extend the reach of published collections.

Shared facilities and services for digitization of member materials, including audio, moving pictures, images, publications, and documents, is also being developed. A procedure for evaluating and prioritizing digitization projects will be administered based on need, available resources (both member and BPOC), the significance of the collections or materials, and the relevance of the digitized content to the overall goals of BPOC. Most digitization activities will take place in a centralized rapid digitization lab; on-site photography or digitization will be offered in the case of fragile or sensitive objects or material. Staff of BPOC partner organizations will support digitization work by providing cataloguing, as well as administrative and logistical support.

On-line Content

Web sites

BPOC partner Web sites will be re-launched on a common platform that will simplify administration, design, and authoring of content. The new open source platform, Drupal, will make it possible for organizations with limited technical resources to support robust content production; the shared technology will allow BPOC to more easily and effectively provide technical support to members.

A shared portal,, will serve as a gateway to Balboa Park organizations on-line, simplifying the on-line experience for those seeking information about park resources and events, and providing new opportunities for exploration by on-site and on-line visitors. A key feature of the Park Central site will be a shared calendar feature. Although BPOC will develop and maintain the calendar tools, event information will be contributed and maintained by the participating organizations themselves. To drive traffic to the site, feature articles and news about park activities will be produced by staff of BPOC and its members.  Additionally, this site will serve to model innovative uses of on-line technology to engage visitors and to provide  a place for combined collection searches and educational tools.

To encourage users to access the rich video content created by the World Beat Center and the San Diego Hall of Champions, these two organizations will launch specialized Web portals for video content. In addition to content from the World Beat Center and the Hall of Champions, the portals will host videos from peer organizations and other resources. It is the goal of these projects to become popular go-to resources for their constituent communities.


A baseline survey of collections management, digital asset management, and library/archive systems in BPOC collecting organizations will be conducted. Based on its findings, BPOC will implement short-term solutions such as system training and support for data conversion, and begin to seek funding for longer-term projects such as the implementation of a cross-institutional solution for digital asset management. BPOC will encourage standardization in data models and entry practices, allowing BPOC to follow an engineer once, implement many times model for a number of future projects.

Developing new, collective, content

A game, focused on encouraging visitors to visit multiple BPOC sites, is planned and will be launched this year. Developed in collaboration with staff from several BPOC organizations, the game could potentially take advantage of the park’s new wireless network infrastructure. It will serve the dual purpose of encouraging inter-institutional creative activity during the planning phase, and driving visitor traffic among partner institutions once implemented. It is a first example of the kind of multi-institutional content that could be developed within the collaborative.

First Year Report

It has been an incredibly busy year. BPOC staff has met with more than 250 stakeholders across the member institutions, the community, local and regional governments, local schools and universities, as well as individual funders, foundations and government funders. 

The most serious setback faced has been the global recession, which has hit the institutions hard.  Initial plans anticipated members would be able to keep existing resources in place and, in certain cases, expand certain BPOC-related activities.  Instead, a significant downsizing occurred at almost all member organizations, and many have had deficit budgets over the last fiscal year. As a result, some BPOC member organizations have experienced difficulty maintaining the high levels of commitment required to fully participate, to implement collective services, and to take advantage of training, attend meetings, and remain engaged.

In spite of these major challenges, BPOC has been successful in getting member organizations excited and supportive of the project and in moving forward individual projects.  Towards the end of the first year, some organizations have been able to re-focus resources toward the BPOC projects that they are most engaged with.  There have been some minor successes in fundraising, with BPOC receiving some funds from local government, stimulus funds, and a Google Grant.  Overall,the project is moving ahead on budget and is on track to the objectives set out by the collaborative and the funder.

Project Status


BPOC currently has a staff of four and regularly engages other expert consultants. The advisory board, made up of directors from the member institutions, meets quarterly while the technical advisory committee and working groups meet bimonthly. For all these groups, communication, discussions, and documentation are supported by a suite of on-line tools, including discussion forums and a BPOC blog.


In 2009, BPOC supported members’ staff to attended Museums and the Web, the Digital Directions Conference, and the Museum Computer Network.  It organized a  5-day Drupal coding workshop, a 1½ day social media seminar, collections management systems training for 25 member staff from 7 institutions, a 2-day mobile device workshop, and a 1-day ADA Web accessibility seminar.


BPOC has met with foundations, corporations, philanthropists and government funders as well as local, state and federal representatives to get the word out about the project and seek additional funding.  It has supported members on their grant submissions, including review of proposals and actual partnerships. And it has received a Google Grant worth $120K per year in free AdWords advertising and Google Checkout fees, $5K in city funds toward the gaming project, and a $170K in stimulus funding for server consolidation. Several other grant proposals have been written and are pending.

Baseline Survey

Through a series of meetings, workshops, interviews, and surveys, BPOC has worked with its members to understand the existing status of the members’ technology and any measurable metrics that can be used to evaluate change.

All of the partners have installed and given BPOC access to their Google Analytics, allowing the detailed measurement of all aspects of Web statics on the members’ sites.

Surveys of baseline technology infrastructure were conducted at all organizations to document the current technology hardware and software infrastructure that each organization had at the beginning of the project.  This includes servers, enterprise applications, desktop applications, technical support staff, and funding levels.

Members also gave BPOC access to detailed financial metrics via the California Cultural Data Project ( that allows year-to-year measurement of the financial impact of any BPOC projects.

Intellectual Property Sharing Strategy

To encourage cross-collection, inter-disciplinary exploration, the members have agreed to establish an environment in which content from one collection can be easily combined with material from another; and in which intellectual property from one member organization can be easily accessed and shared with staff of another.


High Speed Park Network Pilot Project

The design phase for the High Speed Park Network Pilot Project is complete, and BPOC is currently working through entitlement issues regarding placing the antenna on historic structures. 

Additionally, one pilot wireless hot spot has been created and is being tested for public access.  Additional sites are being designed.

Surveys of organizations with virtualization and consolidation needs was completed and submitted in a proposal in conjunction with the sustainability initiative run by Balboa Park Cultural Partnership.  Funding was allocated and the project is now in the bidding stage. 

A RAID 6 ISCI storage array with 14 terabytes of capacity was implemented and a high capacity backup system put in place.  Copies of digitized assets are stored on site on disk storage, on site on high capacity tape, at member institutions on disk, and at member institutions on high capacity tape.

Currently all of the members’ sites that have been converted to the Drupal CMS and the video sites are hosted on BPOC servers in the Amazon Web Cloud.  Additionally, BPOC staff have provided technical support to members for their in-museum technology needs, although this has not been a primary focus.


Web sites

BPOC will have launched 6 Web sites on Drupal in the first year, including the San Diego Museum of Man site and the San Diego Museum of Art site. The domain was transferred to BPOC around the 7-month mark.  Since then a full time editor has been hired to manage the site and expand content.  A working group has been formed of members with strong interest in leveraging this site which generates over 7.5 million page views a year.  A base Drupal conversion has been completed and re-branding is well underway.  We have implemented a new blog at, built an active twitter and facebook community, and made the site available via an iPhone app.

We have implemented two video portals based on the platform developed by the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s ArtBabble site.  These sites are and, and consist of sports interviews and presentation videos, and world music, respectively.  Efforts are underway to create the notes to accompany the 300+ videos currently on the sites and to recruit other national partners to participate in providing access to additional content.


The primary tool focus for year one was on a shared cultural calendar (please refer to the “Building a Cultural Calendar” mini-workshop at MW2010) that anticipates the complexities of the museum calendar and allows for the aggregation of calendar data from multiple institutions into a central calendar. 

Collections and Digitization

BPOC made significant strides during year one in the areas of Collections Management and Digitization.

Collections Baseline Survey

BPOC undertook a baseline survey of collections management, digital asset management, and library/archive systems in its collecting member organizations. A baseline report was distributed to the BPOC board as well as to the participating members and is available on the BPOC Web site. Working from the analysis in this report, BPOC planned to implement short term solutions like system training and support for data conversion, while beginning to work on funding solutions for longer term projects like establishing a shared resource for enterprise digital asset management and the upgrade and standardization of collections management systems.

The baseline survey found a wide discrepancy in institutional use of collections management systems and standards. In order to realize economies of scale in the process of getting museum collections on-line, a collections management leveling project was started in order to create parity in systems and use and allow BPOC to use standard methods for the delivery of collections content to public Web sites.

Many of the catalogue records for objects in the collections of BPOC institutions suffer from a lack of consistently applied documentation standards. BPOC has been working with its members to complete institutionally specific data dictionaries and rectify this prior to the publication of their collections on-line. The completed data dictionaries will serve as the roadmap for standards implementation and will also form the outline for the data entry manuals.

Following the completion of data dictionaries, the BPOC and its consultants are working with members to create detailed data entry manuals that can be used as a training and reference tool. These data entry manuals will walk staff through the process of creating and editing records while applying appropriate data standards.

Further complicating the matter, several BPOC member institutions have valuable collections data locked in systems that are no longer in use. BPOC is working with these organizations to convert that legacy data into the current collections management systems and make it available to staff and public users.

One of BPOC’s main goals is to increase public access to our members’ collections via the Web; however, many of the members’ most valuable assets have not been converted to a digital format. BPOC is pursuing a cooperative model for digitization work and has tasked its members with identifying digitization priorities within the park. The Collections Management and Digitization Working Group used the responses to a BPOC digitization survey, which included millions of photographs, thousands of videos, and hundreds of film and audio recordings, to set the digitization goals of the collaborative.

In response to the goals outlined by the working group, BPOC has purchased the required hardware and software to outfit a state-of-the-art digitization lab. In exchange, BPOC member organizations are contributing the human resources necessary to staff it. BPOC has brought in industry experts to train staff in the use of the systems and will provide administrative management to ensure maximum utilization of the lab. Certain antiquated formats will be outsourced for digitization.

BPOC is also working with the Internet Archive to digitize some materials, including journals and rare books, off-site at a relatively low cost per page.


Giskin Anomaly

BPOC has started to create and build “Giskin Anomaly,” an alternate reality game which allows visitors to the park to experience the history of the park while exploring its hidden treasures. The game narrative has been developed and a phone system implementation is underway.  Web site design has been initiated. Current work is focused on obtaining municipal permission to locate markers throughout the park.

Lessons learned

A number of lessons have been learned. 

Member capacity

The project was conceived and launched by knowledgeable members of the museum technology community who created the framework and goals for BPOC based on other successful multi-institutional collaboratives. However, unlike other collaboratives, the success of BPOC is predicated on the active involvement of all staff members from all institutions, not only the highly motivated, highly specialized staff members who would normally be expected to volunteer for involvement in a project like BPOC. While some BPOC members have staff that are very active and engaged, the average ability across the organizations does not, overall, rise to the same level. The recession has exacerbated this problem, with many of the park’s most valuable human assets already overstretched with their day-to-day institutional tasks. These factors led to underestimations in the training requirements and the speed at which the necessary capacity could be built. Significant progress is still being made, but the restricted investment of both time and funds has slowed what was expected to be a very rapid project.

Financial requirements

It is apparent one year into the project that the financial resources currently allocated to the project are insufficient by themselves to have the desired high-level transformational effect.  Partially this is because of the retrenchment that all of the organizations have experienced.  To compensate, additional funds have been provided by the Foundation, and a more active fundraising profile has been established.

Project Scale

When starting a project which is supposed to leverage scale, it would seem logical that more members would give more scale.  However, attempting to serve 17 members has in fact made the aforementioned funding issue much more acute.  Further, complications introduced by the size of the membership initially made it difficult to administer the project.  In retrospect, it might have been preferable to start the project with a core group of 5 or 6 dedicated organizations and then, after base systems and processes were in place and active, open the project to additional members.

Faulty Assumptions and Staffing Mistakes

There was a faulty assumption on the part of BPOC that smaller institutions would be more nimble and able to complete projects more quickly with BPOC’s support. However, it gradually became clear that a lack of institutional bureaucracy led to a lack of staffing resources and organizational capacity. Early Web site conversions were therefore hampered by both a newly formed team on the BPOC side and a lack of capacity on the member side.  While these were overcome, it is apparent that focusing on some of the larger organizations first might have been more effective.

Staff members in a small organization like BPOC are required to be nimble, intelligent, independent, motivated, jacks of many trades, and extremely hard working.  Staffing errors early in the project also slowed progress until these were corrected.  The current model of using more consultants seems to be effective in keeping the organization more flexible and effective.


The BPOC as a project is having a profound effect on its member institutions.  Slowly it is causing a change in the way member institutions in Balboa Park are thinking about and using on-line technology.  BPOC has made improvements in the technology capabilities of member institutions while leveraging resources by bringing institutions with similar needs together on projects.  BPOC has also allowed smaller institutions the benefit of having access to technology that is normally only available in larger organizations.  Finally, BPOC is well along in its goal to provide on-line public and scholarly access to the extensive and valuable resources of the park.

While by some standards progress on this project has been rapid, it still is to be seen if it has been fast enough in the context of a three-year timeframe. 


Bearman, D. (2008). Balboa Park Online Collaborative seeks Director. Available:

Bearman, D. (2008). Balboa Park Online - Planning for Collaboration. Available:

Bearman, D. (2008). Collaboration Models. Available:

Bearman, D. (2008). Is collaborating in difficult economic times a risk or a necessity? Available:

Bearman, D. (2008). A proposed framework for collaboration. Available:

Cite as:

Cherry, R., A Walk in the Park: The Balboa Park Online Collaborative First Year Report . In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted