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Museums and the Web

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The Community as the Centrepiece of a Collection: Building a Community of Objects with the National Vending Machine

Jasper Visser and Dennis Tap, Museum of National History, The Netherlands


Traditionally, museum collections are often the basis of community-building activities. The National Vending Machine of the Museum of National History is attempting to reverse this relation and put the community at the heart of a collection of objects, stories and discussions. After comparing the quantitative and qualitative results of two different instalments of the project, this reversed relation has proven to be viable, as long as a number of things are taken into consideration. Most importantly: the key elements consist of a focus on the audience rather than on the collection, a link between onsite and online, immediate rewards and participatory design.

Keywords: Collection, Community, Digital Cultural Objects, Online / Onsite, Participation, Crowd-sourcing

1.    Introduction

What is a community? And can it build a collection? According to James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of the Crowd, communities work best when there’s diversity of opinion and the freedom to disagree. The community-sceptic Bauman believes a community cannot (even) reach consensus. They only share a common understanding (Bauman, 2001). Online communities are about human interaction and relationships. Community websites facilitate communication (and discussion) among people online (Strauss and Buss, 2009). A community, it seems, is better defined by ongoing discussion than by agreement among its members.

A museum collection is a group of related things that can be displayed in an exhibition or used for educational purposes. The collection is – or should be – shaped by a museum’s mission rather than being an accumulation of random objects, even if they were collected expressly for this goal (Weil, 2002).

Communities and museum collections have a long, shared history. As the ICOM Code of Ethics (2006) states, collections reflect the communities from which they have been derived, even contemporary collections. Thus, there is a direct relation between specific collections and specific communities. Just as collections are brought together purposefully according to a museum’s mission, as Weil (2002) argues, so also the communities to which a museum caters are defined by its mission. In a museum, the collection is therefore the starting point for its communities.

The Museum of National History of the Netherlands does not have a (traditional) physical collection. Instead, it uses objects to evoke a sense of history in the visitor. The story is more important than the object. A plain household item can be as important as a unique historical artefact. At the same time, the museum encourages visitors to add their own history (Schilp and Byvanck, 2008). Community-building, crowd-sourcing and participatory projects are important elements of the museum’s approach to history.

The National Vending Machine (in Dutch: ‘Nationale Automatiek’) of the Museum of National History is a project that focuses on everyday objects and their historical and personal significance. Launched in May 2010, its objective is to build a collection of typically Dutch objects and the historical and personal stories surrounding them. This collection is called a ‘community of objects’. Visitor contributions are central to building this community of objects.

Unlike most modern-day museums that use their existing physical collection and the events they stage as a starting point for community-building activities, as we have seen above, the National Vending Machine starts with the community and builds a collection (and activities) on the basis of its efforts. The community is seen as the centrepiece of the collection. Without the community, there is no collection.

This poses a question: is it possible to place the involved community, the heart of a collection, in such a way that the community contributes to the collection, interacts with the collection and responds to the collection as it would with a traditional museum collection? And, if so, how should this influence project and process design? To answer this question, this paper examines the findings of the National Vending Machine, using both quantitative and qualitative results. In a discussion of these results, we try to draw general lessons that might provide guidelines for community-centred collection building.

The National Vending Machine

The National Vending Machine provides the context to answer the central research question. This project by the Museum of National History of the Netherlands aims at gathering insight into the material history of the Netherlands, at finding new ways to represent history and involve people with history, and at establishing new ways to design museum shops. In this study, we are especially interested in the second objective: discovering new ways to represent history and involve the audience.

The National Vending Machine is an ongoing exposition that consists of a travelling traditional Dutch vending machine, a website, and activities with the audience at locations remote from the physical vending machine.

The vending machine (see Figure 1) shows a selection of up to 40 different objects in 80 compartments. Each object has a printed label attached to it, with a short, curatorial text explaining the historical relevance of the object. Visitors can buy an object for €1 or €2 after registering by means of a personalized RFID card. After buying an object, visitors can watch a short film about the object on a television screen in the vending machine.

The website (see Figure 2) originally gave a description of the project and of all the objects on display in the vending machine. Registered users can add comments (personal stories or discussion) to each of the objects and suggest new objects to be placed in the vending machine. With every object, one can see who else has bought that object.

Fig 1: The physical National Vending MachineFig 1: The physical National Vending Machine

Fig 2: The original home page of the websiteFig 2: The original home page of the website

The vending machine and the website are linked through the registration module in the vending machine. Registered visitors create online profiles on the website; the profiles are linked individually to the objects they buy and the comments they make. After buying objects, visitors receive e-mails to guide them to the specific page of the object on the website.

With its website and vending machine, the National Vending Machine builds a so-called ‘community of objects’. The community of objects is the collection of objects and their related historical and personal stories, enriched with meta-data about how often they have been sold, to whom, and at which location of the physical vending machine. Hence, the community of objects is more than the specific objects on display in the National Vending Machine, as it also carries the discussions and motivations behind the objects. The community of objects is fixed in neither size nor content, as it is supposed to expand on the basis of visitor contributions to existing objects (motivations, personal stories, discussions) and suggestions for new objects. As such, the community of objects gives insight into the material history that lives among the people of the Netherlands.

2.    Methodology

To discover the answers to the central questions posed in the Introduction, a variety of pilots and experiments have been done to research assumptions and test hypotheses in the project. The development of the National Vending Machine is a continuous process based on temporary installations of the physical vending machine (about 3 months per installation), before, during and after which adjustments are made to ensure continuous improvement. The project thus follows a sort of iterative or incremental development cycle.

This paper researches the development process and results of two installations: the pilot installation in the Amsterdam Historical Museum and the subsequent installation in Museum TwentseWelle in Enschede, both in the Netherlands. The differences in preparation for the installation, the involvement of the audience in the pre-selection of objects, the design of the website and interaction models, and activities organized to engage the audience, all serve as variables to try to explain the differences between these installations with regard to audience engagement with the National Vending Machine and the community of objects.

First installation: Amsterdam Historical Museum

From 27 May to 29 August 2010, the physical vending machine was situated in a freely accessible area of the Amsterdam Historical Museum. Its location was at one of the exits of the museum, visible from the outside and near the official entrance. Because the area is accessible without a ticket and not equipped with a counter, there is no exact indication of the number of visitors to the area.

Amsterdam Historical Museum is a city museum with a varied collection of historical and contemporary objects relating to Amsterdam and/or its people (AHM, 2010). The museum lies in the city centre of Amsterdam and receives about 200,000 visitors per year (NMV, 2010).

For the opening of the exposition in the Amsterdam Historical Museum, a collection of objects for the community of objects was needed. This first collection of 37 objects was selected as follows:

  • A small team led by curatorial staff of the Museum of National History made a long-list of about 100 possible objects for the first installation.
  • The Museum of National History provided ‘general objects’ referring to Dutch history, while Amsterdam Historical Museum provided objects specific to Amsterdam.
  • Based on the ease of reproduction, costs per item, production time and availability, a selection was made of objects that could be produced in sufficient quantities before the opening.
  • For this selection, curators researched the stories behind them and made a further selection of objects that gave a varied image of history.
  • This second selection was taken to the Amsterdam Historical Museum and tested on actual visitors. Visitors were asked which object immediately drew their attention, and which objects they recognized and could tell stories about.
  • Based on the feedback the final selection of 37 objects was made.

Second installation: Museum TwentseWelle

From 5 October 2010 to 9 January 2011, the physical vending machine was placed in the museum café of Museum TwentseWelle in Enschede, in the east of the Netherlands. The café is accessible without a ticket and has high visibility for passers-by. There is no indication of the total number of visitors coming to the café.

Museum TwentseWelle is a regional museum that tells the story of Twente from many different viewpoints. Its collection contains natural and cultural-historical objects. (TwentseWelle, 2010). The museum is located in the new cultural district of the city of Enschede and welcomes about 60,000 visitors a year (GOBT, 2009).

For the exposition in Museum TwentseWelle, changes were made to the collection of objects on display in order to represent local history better. The second collection from the community of objects contained 40 objects, which were selected as follows:

  • 30 of the most popular objects from the first instalment (based on number of sales).
  • 10 new objects specific to the region. Museum TwentseWelle selected these objects. This was done partly by the curatorial staff and partly by inviting the community, through advertisements in local newspapers, to contribute ideas.

For the new objects, curators researched the stories behind them to make the presentation complete.

Activities with the audience through structured dialogue

Apart from the two installations of the physical vending machine, a series of activities with the audience was set up to increase interaction with the community of objects. The activities were based upon the structured dialogue in the Signtific Game as described by Simon (2010, pp.111-14). Visitors to any of these activities were actively approached to participate with the community of objects by adding their own objects, adding personal stories to existing objects, and by engaging in discussion with others about objects. Such activities have been organized on four occasions, respectively in Amsterdam (two days), Arnhem and Enschede (during cultural festivals) and Lelystad (at a large regional mall).

Each of the activities had a similar design, with minor changes in the specifics. The basis was a stand such as a market stall where some of the objects in the community of objects had been put on display. Visitors could post their contributions either on the wall or on a table (see Figure 3) around these objects. Contributions were made using A6 cards. There were 3 types of cards:

  • Idea cards to add a new object.
  • Good idea cards (changed to ‘I have a story’ cards in Enschede and Lelystad) to add a story to an object and stimulate the object.
  • ‘That makes me think about…’ cards (changed to ‘I like’ cards in Enschede and Lelystad) to elaborate upon an existing idea and add something related.

Visitors wrote their contribution on one of the cards (supervised by a host) and posted them on the wall or table. In exchange for a contribution, visitors received one of the objects from the community of objects and additional information about the project on a flyer or leaflet.

Fig 3: Activity with the audience for the National Vending MachineFig 3: Activity with the audience for the National Vending Machine

Measuring qualitative and quantitative results

Both quantitative and qualitative results are used to answer the central question of this paper. Quantitative results include the number of objects sold at the physical vending machine, the number of registered users at the vending machine, comments added to existing objects on the website, and new objects added on the website (all available from the CMS), as well as the number of visitors and visits to the website (available from Google Analytics). Quantitative results for the activities with the audience include the number of cards filled by visitors and the division of this number over the three possible card types.

In Amsterdam, quantitative observation of the interaction of the audience with the physical vending machine was made. On two occasions the behaviour of the audience in the area of the vending machine was taken into account, making a distinction between ignoring the vending machine, observing the vending machine, talking (with friends/other visitors) about the machine, touching the vending machine, and buying an object from the machine.

Qualitative results include a user test done in Amsterdam, interviews performed with visitors, and observations by staff manning the machine or working nearby the machine.

3.    Findings

The National Vending Machine at Amsterdam Historical Museum provided many pieces of quantitative and qualitative data. During the installation (a 95-day period) 2,258 objects were sold to visitors. Some 570 people created accounts at the vending machine. Not all objects were sold to registered visitors, because visitors had the option of purchasing an unregistered RFID card in order to buy an object.

Observations of visitor behaviour at the museum showed that only a small percentage of visitors actually bought an object at the vending machine (see Table 1). The group that engaged in conversation (talking) about the machine and the group of visitors that actually tried to interact with the machine (touching) were significantly bigger.

Activity Total Percentage
Ignoring 47 33 %
Observing 37 26 %
Talking 39 27 %
Touching 18 13 %
Buying 3 2 %

Table 1: Visitor behaviour at the National Vending Machine

These observations and notes made by the staff at the machine (in Amsterdam Historical Museum, a student was responsible full-time for operating the machine) further revealed a number of things:

  • People are more likely to participate (talk, touch, buy) when they come in groups (2 or more). Usually they go from talking about the machine, to touching (trying) the machine, to eventually buying an object.
  • When there is one person responding to the vending machine, others (also from other groups of visitors) are more likely to join in. Participation (talking, touching, buying) comes in waves, where sometimes nobody is paying attention to the machine, and sometimes the room is filled.
  • Participants who bought an object were more likely to buy another object if they had completed the entire process (registration, buying an object, watching the film). The film in particular seemed to encourage people to buy another object after buying a first one.

Finally, the builder of the physical machine, Mediamatic, performed user research. Although this research was mainly aimed at the technology and user interaction, it provided some useful information for this paper. The research consisted of observations and interviews with 14 participants of the National Vending Machine. See also Sendijarevic (2010).

  • It is of utmost importance that there is somebody to help the visitors through the complicated process of buying an object. Many people need additional information over and above the information given on the screens.
  • The part visitors like most is choosing (and discussing) the object they will buy. They like this more than actually buying the object.
  • Most visitors can give a specific reason why they bought a specific object.
  • People like it that they can take the object with them.
  • People like the videos and the design of the vending machine.

How did the visitors’ interaction with the physical vending machine translate to contributions to the community of objects? For Amsterdam Historical Museum (AHM) and the installation in Museum TwentseWelle (TW), as well as for the period of about a month in between both instalments (INT), Table 2 displays basic statistics, such as visits to the website and comments.

Statistic AHM INT TW
Visits to website 2,098 814 1,979
Unique visitors to website 996 426 1,440
Sold objects 2,258 - 1,120
Registered users 570 - 205
Comments to existing objects 10 3 8
Suggestions for new objects 2 1 5

Table 2: Website and CMS statistics for the National Vending Machine

In Table 2, the data of the second installation show considerable differences from those of the first one. In the 97-day period in which the National Vending Machine was placed in Museum TwentseWelle, 1,120 objects were sold (about half the number that were sold in Amsterdam). The number of registered users is also significantly lower. However, due to technical difficulties at the start of the second installation, a higher percentage of visitors probably bought their objects with an unregistered card. The other statistics are comparable to those at Amsterdam Historical Museum.

Activities with the audience

The activities with the audience began at the end of the first installation. Table 3 presents the results of the 4 activities. The first two – Amsterdam and Arnhem – were slightly different from the third and fourth – Enschede and Lelystad – where the cards and questions were redesigned based on the experiences of the past.

In both Amsterdam and Arnhem, quite a few contributions to the community of objects were gathered, especially compared to the contributions gathered during the installationt of the physical vending machine in the Amsterdam Historical Museum.

In Amsterdam, on the cards, there were 9 discussions extending 3 or more levels. (In other words, there were 9 cards that triggered at least 2 responses by other participants.) The longest discussion had 7 responses in total. In Arnhem, the depth of the discussions was less.

Activity with the audience Total number
of cards
New object
Good idea
‘That makes
me think about…’
Amsterdam (28 and 29 August 2010) 202 158 (78%) 25 (12%) 19 (9%)
Arnhem (5 September 2010) 207 186 (90%) 9 (4%) 12 (6%)
Enschede (12 December 2010) 52 12 (23%) 19 (37%) 21 (40%)
Lelystad (23 January 2011) 34 18 (53%) 11 (46%) 5 (15%)

Table 3: Results from the activities with the audience

After a redesign of the cards, which is further explained below, the third and fourth activities with the audience show a different division of the types of cards. At these activities, the experience of the previous two had stimulated the hosts to steer people towards discussion rather than towards adding new objects.

In Enschede, on the cards, there were 6 discussions extending 3 or more levels. The longest discussion had 8 responses in total.

4.    Discussion

Tangible changes made during the project, and their results

During the project, a couple of tangible changes were made; they had an impact on the engagement of visitors and the quantity and quality of their contributions to the community of objects.

The first was a redesign of the website. During the first installation, the website’s home page gave a description of the project (see Figure 2). In the intermezzo between the two installations, this home page was altered to pay more attention to the community of objects (including the discussions and contributions of the community, see Figure 4). From Table 2 one might conclude that the new website has been more successful at attracting people and more successful in converting interaction at the physical vending machine into contributing to the community of objects online, especially given the fact that the number of visitors at Museum TwentseWelle probably was only about on- third of the number of visitors at Amsterdam Historical Museum.

Fig 4: Redesigned website of the National Vending MachineFig 4: Redesigned website of the National Vending Machine

Possibly the improved engagement at Museum TwentseWelle was because the audience had been involved in the selection process of the objects. Remarks read online and heard by staff suggest such, but this cannot be determined with any certainty.

The second change between the two installations was a change in the wording on the cards for the activities with the audience. From the first two activities, it had become obvious that the emphasis lay too heavily on suggesting new objects, whereas it is also important to have discussion and to add personal stories about previously suggested objects in order to realize a healthy community of objects. These were the changes made:

  • The idea/new object cards originally had a header – ‘you make history’ – and asked for an object, a motivation and optionally a name. Many people misunderstood the cards and wrote only a story on them. The card was redesigned to say: ‘this object should be in the vending machine’.
  • The good idea cards originally simply had ‘nice idea’ on them, and were intended for visitors to contribute to the discussion with a story or opinion. This was changed into a card with the header ‘this is my story’ which focused on the story rather than on the object, and could be used more freely to add to the discussion.
  • The ‘that makes me think about…’ cards were meant to encourage an idea and build upon it. Apart from the header, these cards asked no questions and therefore gave little guidance. People often didn’t understand them. The card was changed to say: ‘I like this’, with a Facebook-like symbol and the leader ‘because…’.

From Table 3 you might conclude that the redesigned cards helped to spawn discussion about objects and reduced the number of new objects added without discussion. This is clearly a positive development, as the community of objects is as much about the stories and discussions behind the objects as about the objects themselves.

The community as the heart of a collection?

Is it possible to place a community at the heart of a collection? To answer this question, we need to look at what the community is and at the state of the collection after two installations of the National Vending Machine and four activities with an audience.

First, the community. Going back the Introduction of this paper we see that a community exists in discussion, although it may share a common understanding. During the project, this understanding evolved to mean an understanding of what a typically Dutch object is, and why, according to the people asked. There is no consensus about that, not even when the question is limited to a certain region (such as in Enschede). However, the question is clear and, when asked appropriately, people feel an urge to answer it. Most visitors can give a specific reason why they bought a specific object, and most people addressed at activities can answer the questions on the cards. Therefore, based on the experiences in the project so far, we assume that the Museum of National History can call upon the people of the Netherlands (the ‘community’) to build a collection of typically Dutch objects and personal and historical stories that surround these.

Second, the collection. A collection is made up of related things that can be used for expositions or education. At the moment of writing, the collection of the National Vending Machine consists of 47 objects that have a cheaply reproducible physical representation so that they can be put on display in the physical vending machine. These 47 objects have stories attached to them, both historical and personal, and occasional discussions surround them. Members from the community suggested a couple of these objects. Also, there is a collection of hundreds of community-suggested objects, of which (if we include duplicate suggestions with different motivations) there are some 20 to 30 that are well motivated, well discussed, and the result of contributions from many people. At the moment, these do not yet have a cheaply reproducible physical representation to be sold in the physical vending machine, nor full virtual representation on the website. Since the redesign of the website, however, these additions potentially have a place in the virtual community. Although these objects coming from the community do form a collection, they are not yet clearly acknowledged as part of the same collection as the 47 earlier objects, and cannot yet be used for expositions and education.

To conclude, at present there is a group of related things that is partly a real collection, while part of it is on the verge of becoming a real collection. Members of the community have built up part of this collection from the ground, while part of it was started by curators of the participating institutions and enriched by members of the community. There is a strong desire to make the community the heart of the collection in such a way that all new objects, especially the ones put on display in the physical vending machine, come from community suggestions and are motivated by community stories. However, throughout the project many factors have hindered this development so far. Continuous redesign of the project and processes were, and still are, needed.

Designing the project and processes to make the community the heart of the collection

The experiences and qualitative and quantitative results from the two installations have shown a number of things that will influence (future) installations of the vending machine and - if possible - call for redesign or at leaset, changes to be made. These are lessons about designing projects and processes in such a way that the contributions of a community can help build a museum collection.

The Lessons

The first comes from the experience of visitors adding new objects to the collection online, versus one of activities in the field. As Table 2 indicates, visitors did not add new objects online in the first installation, and this only slightly improved after the redesign. We believe this is partly because people visit the website after having been confronted with the physical vending machine. This exposition confronts them with an apparently fixed collection of objects. It is not obvious that they can add their own objects to this collection. This belief is reinforced when, during activities with the audience, they easily come up with new objects when asked at random, especially when asked about personal experiences and thoughts rather than general ideas. Therefore to have a community build a collection, we believe there should be a focus on the visitors and their stories rather than on the existing collection.

The second lesson shows that the website had few visitors, and these can be traced back to a large extent to the people who bought an object and received an e-mail to go to the website. Please note that only registered visitors received such an e-mail, so that the registered users/unique visitors rate has a steep incline after the instalment in the Amsterdam Historical Museum. We believe that this is partly because the activities with the audience provided strong encouragement for people to visit the website. Some of the comments and suggestions made on the website can be traced back directly to encounters at one of the activities with the audience, either because the author referred to them in his or her contribution or because one of the staff members remembered the story. So it is useful to have an ‘offline’ encouragement for people to contribute their stories and ideas online. This is supported by the observation that people need somebody to explain the project to them and to encourage them to add their own stories.

The third lesson is about immediate rewards for participation. As we have seen, visitors who bought an object and watched the related film were more likely to buy another object. Likewise, the reward of an object encouraged people at the activities with the audience to come up with a good idea. On a number of occasions, people who didn’t immediately come up with an idea or story returned later to write their thoughts down in order to receive an object. We also noted that the fact that their contribution becomes part of a museum collection is a motivation for people to participate. Therefore (immediate) rewards, whether they be physical (an object), virtual (a film) or ‘psychological’ (becoming a contributor to a museum collection) , are considered important to trigger participation.

The final lesson is a summary of the experiences of situations where people decided not to participate versus those situations in which they did decide to participate. At the physical vending machine, one reason not to participate was that the machine did not work or did not work in the way the visitor expected it to. Quite a few visitors walked away without buying an object, even though they showed interest in the vending machine (see Table 1). Interaction with the website improved (slightly) after the focus of the website was shifted from the project to the contributions of the community. At the activities with the audience, people were stimulated to contribute when asked about their ideas, whereas they often did not participate when asked to contribute to the project. This shows that a consistent and persistent focus on the (potential) participant in all aspects of the project increases participation.

In summary, when designing projects and processes in such a way that a community will contribute to a collection, we have found that

  1. a focus on the existing collection limits the freedom of visitors to contribute their ideas and stories, whereas a focus on visitors and their stories increases participation and encourages the creation of a varied collection
  2. offline encouragement is important for online participation in a collection
  3. immediate rewards are a strong encouragement to contribute
  4. the design of all activities in the project and all processes should focus on the participant.

5.    Conclusion

Building a community of objects with the National Vending Machine has proven to be possible, although difficult. The audience has the potential to build up a wonderful collection and, when stimulated in the right way, people come up with many ideas. Designing activities and processes to embrace this potential, however, requires continuous evaluation and redesign to discover what works and what does not. The Museum of National History has learned a number of valuable lessons about designing a project and processes to make a community the heart of a collection. The most important lessons have been stated in this paper. The museum will apply these lessons in future installationss of the vending machine, in the redesign of the website, and in activities with the audience.

We believe the recommendations given in the discussion of the results to be of value for others planning expositions or activities in which the audience plays an important role. In conjunction with a cautious ‘yes’ to the question as to whether it is possible to have an audience do things as important as building a collection, we hope this will serve to encourage and increase participation in our collections and institutions.

6.    References

AHM (2010). Amsterdams Historisch Museum: Your entry to the City. Retrieved December 28, 2010 from

Bauman, Z. (2001). Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World. Cambridge: Polity Press

GOBT (2009). Bezoek aan Toeristische Attracties Overijssel. Een Analyse van de Ontwikkelingen 2005-2009. Retrieved from

ICOM (2006). Code of Ethics for Museums. Retrieved from

NMV (2010). Nederlandse Museum Vereniging, Top 55 Museumbezoek 2010. Retrieved from

Schilp, E. and V. Byvanck (2008). The National History Museum Stirs the Historical Imagination. Arnhem: National History Museum.

Sendijarevic, E. (2010). Automatiek INNL: Evaluatie Usability Testing Resultaten. Retrieved January 5 from

Simon, N. (2010). The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0.

Strauss, N. and A. Buss (2009). The Online Communities Handbook: Building your Business and Brand on the Web. Berkeley: New Riders.

TwentseWelle (2010). What is TwentseWelle? A Universal Story Modelled on Twente. Retrieved December 28, 2010 from:

Weil, S. E. (2002). “Collecting Then, Collecting Today: What’s the Difference?” In G. Anderson (ed.). Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift. (pp. 284-91). Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

Cite as:

Visser, J., and D. Tap, The Community as the Centrepiece of a Collection: Building a Community of Objects with the National Vending Machine. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted