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Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

Building an Online Commons for the Park

Christina DePaolo, Balboa Park Online Collaborative, Zachary Szukala, Seso, USA and Erick Kendrick, Piction, Australia


The Balboa Park Online Collaborative (BPOC) is currently building the Balboa Park Commons, a website that will bring together digitized collections content from 27 museums and cultural institutions into a rich online resource at The key goals of the Commons project are to increase the visibility of the museums’ content by providing the public with unprecedented access to rare and unique collections from Balboa Park museums, design a tool-set that meets the needs of San Diego educators and students, and attract new, more diverse audiences by including social software tools that allow visitors to create their own stories and discover interesting and fun connections across the collections. This paper and mini-workshop will highlight the technical and non-technical aspects of developing an online digital commons that engages audiences in the creative use of cultural heritage materials.  Even though this project is focused on aggregating many collections from the museums and heritage institutions located in Balboa Park, any institution interested in presenting their collection online in cost-efficient ways to engage visitors can apply the Balboa Park Commons model.

Keywords: collections, education, user-interface, digitization, databases, access

1.    Why a Commons?

Balboa Park Online Collaborative project activity began in 2009, and was founded by the San Diego-based Legler Benbough Foundation to facilitate and execute a fundamental change in the way museums, cultural arts and science institutions in Balboa Park approach the use of technology by making it an integral part of the way they fulfill their missions, interact with patrons and collaborate. In its everyday operations, BPOC works to address common technology problems faced by these museums in order to improve public access to their rich cultural resources. By emphasizing cooperation among 27 Balboa Park organizations, BPOC improves technical capacity in the park and prepares its members to meet the needs and expectations of a 21st Century audience.

Although representing a vast, diverse, and unique array of museum collections important to the cultural life of the San Diego region and beyond, very little of the Balboa Park museums’ collections have been available online. Therefore, early on in the formation of BPOC, online collection access was identified as a primary goal. The idea is to distribute members’ collection information in as many ways as possible in order to increase their visibility to support current member needs as well as reach new audiences. We developed a model to collaborate with members to rapidly digitize their collections, standardize their collection data and migrate their data to similar Collection Management Systems when possible. This frees up the collection information, making it available to broadcast through a variety of online publication platforms. This process of managing collection information makes it available to promote educational use by teachers, researchers and the public (Sully, 2011). Over the last three years BPOC has worked with member institutions to put their collection information on several digital media sharing platforms (such as Flickr, Flickr Commons and YouTube), on their own websites through building and installing a Drupal Online Collections Module, and through the development of the Balboa Park Commons, a shared online presence for member collection information.

For the Balboa Park institutions there are many benefits of participation in a commons initiative, including directly complementing their mission goals, creating an improved user experience, creating economies of scale so smaller to mid-sized park institutions who normally could not afford to participate can, participating in innovation and knowledge creation around collection assets, building a better business model and being more responsive to the needs and expectations of digital natives (Edson and Cherry, 2010).

The Balboa Park Commons will be a portal of aggregated collection content belonging to the Balboa Park cultural institutions, located at This is the central website for the park, attracting 100,000 visitors per months looking for information on over 80 organizations and attractions. The Commons website is currently in the prototype stage and highlights of the development process are explained in this paper.

Figure 1:  Infrastructure built to support repurposing collection data to a multitude of online platforms.

2.    User Experience Driven Design

Once the museums and the collaborative had a plan in place for collections initiatives, the Balboa Park Online Collaborative applied for and received a 2-year Institute of Museum and Library Services Leadership (IMLS) grant, “Presenting Balboa Park,” that allowed the implementation of a Balboa Park Commons project to include a user experience driven design process, organization of collection data into a DAMS (a central repository that could be used to multipurpose collection content), increasing capacity to digitize partner collections and including evaluation in the project lifecycle.

In its most simplified definition, user experience driven design is a process where you find out the needs and barriers of your intended audience, so you can design and build an online experience that they will want to use and enjoy. For the Balboa Park Commons project, the major questions that needed to be answered were: would the San Diego area community use such a tool and how could they use this tool in a way that was meaningful and of interest to them? Working with Scott Sayre and Kris Wetterlund of Sandbox Studios, who led and designed a series of six focus groups for the project, we learned it was important to understand the technological barriers and issues users face when accessing an online collections tool. Building from the innovative work they did for the redesign of ArtsConnectEd website, a resource for K-12 educators and students based on the collections of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Walker Arts Center (Dowden and Sayre, 2009), the focus groups consisted of a series of questions that got to the heart of the needs of the San Diego educator, student and museum professional communities.

The focus groups were held in February 2011 and 47 community members participated. They were audio-recorded and transcripts of the recordings were made. The outcomes generated several key project management documents. Sayre and Wetterlund produced a summary of key focus group discoveries listing the interface, features, functions and content requirements that surfaced. This was then summarized into a User Requirements Document. The project designers published their findings, highlighting key insights and listing the online resources that influenced the focus group participants in their decision making process.

It was clear from the focus group results that teachers want online tools that make it easy to browse and find information. The biggest barrier they have to using online tools for teaching is finding time to make sense of the plethora of online resources and make them relevant to the lessons they teach their students. They want to find what they are looking for as well as make new discoveries. Even though they would like curated collection experiences, they did not want pre-packaged lesson plans. They want tools to easily create and download information for lessons that they can share, update and change. It was also unanimous that they wanted to have better access to the park’s digital collections and they shared ideas on how a commons website could better engage and inform them on what was going on with institutions in the park.

All project team members (BPOC director, project manager, designers and software developers) observed the focus groups, and the results now provide the central philosophical framework for both the site design and build that is under way. All project decisions and conversations are based on a shared understanding of what the end users want.

Once the focus groups were completed, the designers (from Seso, a Los Angeles based interactive media firm) began the Discovery Design phase, starting with Content Definition.  The content definition process seeks to inventory all available content in whatever format is readily available, understand key objectives and have a few visual diagrams that align all parties with a common understanding on the interactive platform that is being created. With the Commons, Seso had the added challenge of thinking about this platform as extensible beyond one type of museum. It can easily work for one, and for twenty-seven.

Undiscovered Treasures

Seso successfully brought their creative thinking to the table in the way in which they deeply understand the plight of museum collections and online access, knowing how many museum collection objects sit dormant and the wealth of stories related to them are undiscovered or undocumented. “Undiscovered Treasures is the label we apply to these collection opportunities, and during this process of creating the Balboa Park Commons design we found ourselves coming back to this driver many times over.” Visitors to museums savor the traditional art and space experience, but are also highly digitally connected. They expect that a favorite museum will keep up digitally, and that the joy and sense of discovery and wonder that they feel in an in-person visit will also be present on the web. The designers explored how visitors could continue to make discoveries online through the Commons interface that would give them the rare opportunity to make connections and relationships between multiple collections.

The Design Process

The process Seso used to design the Balboa Park Commons is rooted both in crafting a beautiful environment and experience for digital visitors, but also in celebrating and showcasing Undiscovered Treasures across a diverse collection landscape. They followed the four industry-standard phases of interface design:

  • Focus Group Findings
  • Discovery (Content Definition and Design Vignettes)
  • Architecture (Features and Interface)
  • Design Iterations (Style and Interface)

Seso then went through a process to design a robust platform for the Balboa Park Commons using these methods:

Key Drivers
Phrases that state strategic high-level goals in a tangible form, along with phrases that hint towards clear design possibilities are created.

Audience Types
Audience definition can be as simple as defining a single end-user group, or as complex as many groups requiring different feature sets all with different personal drivers guiding them through an experience.

Feature Set Evaluation
Certain features are known, others have yet to be discovered. Taking inventory at this early stage allows for technology planning and architecture to begin with a strong base, with the known fact that new features will be found during design.

Figure 2: Key drivers for the Balboa Park Commons.

Available Objects, Media, and Writing
Content becomes a stumbling block the longer you wait to understand it and define it. It's often left until last. By taking inventory early on, you allow for powerful opportunities and the Undiscovered Treasures to be incorporated in the fiber of the product. 

Content Acquisition
If no content is available, or there is a gap in what is available, a plan to create or source missing content is created. A writer or an existing or new community may be sourced. 

Collection Organization & Taxonomy
A desired taxonomy is planned, and seeks to categorize and setup a logical pathway through the content. This is critical to developing interactive navigation methods 

Experience Map 
A unique method to Seso, Experience Mapping is a way to visually quantify overlapping features, drivers, and user commitment level in a single powerful visual. 

Casual Gaming Interaction Explorations 
As appropriate, playful methods of interacting with content are considered and evaluated. We're not always talking about Angry Birds or Super Mario: simple questions, revealing connections to other online users, or providing ways for a user to like or share can be considered casual gaming on the web.

The Commons Audience Types and Experience Map

During the discovery phase the following audiences for the Balboa Park Commons were identified. The core audiences are educators, museum professionals and school age children. The secondary audience consists of parents, researchers, historians, university students, tourists, visitors to the park, media/press and artists or creative professionals.

Seso’s experience map divided the user experience into five zones (labeled surprise me, browse, view, create and play) identifying the corresponding features and the amount of time investment and level of commitment a user would give to each zone. These User Interface (UI) explorations define the main sections of the Commons that would be further articulated through the wire-framing process that followed next. They are the activities and modes related to exploring the collection and they are defined as: find and search, create, view, game play, story sets and streams.

Figure 3: The Balboa Park Commons Experience Map is a visual expression of the website experience being developed.


After the discovery phase, the website’s architecture was designed through an extensive wire-framing process that spanned five months, an iterative process consisting of the review and discussion of revisions of an architecture document that resulted in a final master document. The principal visual concepts of the website’s elements were developed and illustrated in the wire-frame architecture:

  • Integration of the Balboa Park Commons into with a minimalized header region to maximize real estate for experiencing the collections.
  • A seamless browsing experience of the online collections through the browsing and viewing utilities:
    • Capability to browse the collections by featured works, themes, user sets, objects and institutions.
    • Capability to experience the collections via different views such as stream, grid and list, with placeholders for “play” and “create” that could be added on to engage visitors in the collection through game play.
    • Stream view: collections objects “stream” by the user to show the breadth and diversity of the collections. A user can pause the stream or stop the stream by selecting an object.
    • Filter: ability to add filters manually to the website’s views.
    • Search: a traditional search box and advance search functionality.
    • Info & Set module: provides all the metadata information on an object, related information, and also allows you to create custom sets of collection objects.
    • Hover controls: allow a user to download, print, save and tag objects.
    • Story Sets: allows the user to add images and their own text, as well as digital media content from social networking sites to a custom set of collection objects.
    • User profile: ability to create unique login information or use logins from social networking (Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc.). Includes design of a personal avatar that could be assigned to each user.
    • Media types: layout for images, text, video, audio and a book reader.

Figure 4: Wireframe design of stream view.


After the wireframe process, Seso created two iterations of site designs, the last being what the developers are currently using to build the site interface.

Figure 5: Final design of stream view.

The Model

At the core of the design work is an understanding that even though museum collection content is not always perfect and often far from complete, we can work with what we have to create a user-interface that allows visitors to discover the Undiscovered Treasures that exist in our collections.  The work allows us to understand that we can do a lot with less. Not all the Balboa Park Museum collections have robust data, but through the discovery and architecture phases we were able to design a rich interactive model that can surface the available relationships the collections have to offer by designing the appropriate online browse and search tools. In addition, the design is flexible to accommodate developing the interface in stages, or the design can be adapted depending upon the web technologies that are being selected to build the site. The ultimate goal of the design of the Commons is to give the end user access to the museums to discover collections they don’t expect to find, make connections across the collections, make personal connections to the digital objects, share what they find and through possible future funding, participate in social curation through game play.

3.    Creating a Model: Getting Large Data-sets Online


In order to support an easy-to-use, beautiful collections website design, you need a back end infrastructure and workflow to organize, manage and serve up collection content. The first barrier for many cultural organizations is not having the resources to digitize their collections. Before BPOC was formed, several Balboa Park organizations were actively digitizing their collections, while others had substantial barriers – such as the lack of a collection management system – that made digitization impossible. Since collection access was identified as a priority early on in its existence, BPOC began to collaborate with the museums on digitization efforts, and during the last three years several rapid capture mobile stations have been built and are now shared across the park, one with a large copy stand that can accommodate artworks as large as 40x30 inches, as well as a book scanner built by San Diego High Tech High students. As a result, 170,000 images have been digitized, as well as video, film and books. This has allowed the museums that were digitizing their collections to expand their efforts, and those who could not pursue digitization now have access to the technology and support to do so. BPOC has also collaborated with partner organizations to provide them with entry-level collection management systems and best-practice consultation on data management and workflow process.


A major component of building the infrastructure to support online access to the Balboa Park museum’s collections is to have a Digital Asset Management System (DAMS) up and running that allows the individual institutions the capacity to better manage and organize their digital assets. In the winter of 2010 three different DAMS vendors were invited to demo their products for BPOC and museum staff. After review of the products, hardware and software costs, features, and vendor responsiveness, Piction was selected as the DAMS solution.

Figure 6: The Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) assets in the Piction DAMS.

Once the DAMS hardware was installed, BPOC staff began migrating existing digital assets to the server. These assets consist of both materials produced from the digitization effort as well as materials that existed on-site within member organizations’ servers, desktops, and CD-or DVD-rom disks. While there is only one installation of the software, it is divided into multiple virtual instances for each member museum. From the institutional perspective, museum staff will have their own DAMS implementation, along with all associated permissions, roles and preferences offered by a DAMS. As of this publication, the Mingei International Museum of Art, the Museum of Photographic Arts, the San Diego Air and Space Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art and the San Diego Museum of Natural History have been added to the Piction DAMS and more museums will be added in the coming months.

Balboa Park Commons Software Development

Many discussions were held by the BPOC software developers and the Balboa Park Commons Advisory Committee members to discuss what open-source platforms should be used for building the website, and Drupal and Joomla were tested and considered. However, they fell short on delivering the robust user-experience that the project team was designing. Cake PHP was selected as the platform to be used for the user-interface presentation layer. In the meantime, BPOC staff researched the potential of using the Piction DAMS API to build the commons user-interface, and a collaboration between the Piction and BPOC development teams formed as a the result of this research. The expanded team is currently developing the web services and front-end coding necessary to create the user-interfaced designed by Seso. Piction has also created the framework to standardize the diversity of collection metadata so it can be presented in the Commons site in a consistent manner, through a data definitions screen, that will line up data that has different titles to correspond with one field in the commons (for example “object ID”, “accession number” and “catalog #” lines up with “catalog ID” as illustrated in figure 7). Piction is adding the workflow process for museums using the DAMS system to easily upload and remove digital assets into the Balboa Park Commons. A lot of focus has gone into making this process easy to understand and use, to ensure success and participation in the Balboa Park Commons website for the long term.

Figure 7: Diagram showing how museum data is mapped in the DAMS for participation in the Commons.


The Balboa Park Commons team is currently building a prototype for launch in Spring 2012 and plan to add features to the site through September 2012.

Within The Park

Another important piece to this puzzle is creating Within The Park, a private internal commons structure for BPOC partner museums to share digital content with each other, making it freely available to participating museums under terms of the Creative Commons Non-Commercial-Attribution-No Derivatives license ( Even though this is restricted to participating park museums, this piece of the Commons structure is no less important, because it enables and simplifies distribution of member content and encourages collaboration between partners. Once Within the Park is set up, partners will be able to look for collection content from the other museums that will support their exhibition and education efforts, making connections and relationships they could not make before. Since the Piction DAMS will be a central repository for park museum collection assets, it will also provide the mechanism for Within The Park. The schema and workflow process for Within The Park is currently being designed.

Eleven BPOC partner museums have signed Letters of Agreements (LOA) in order to participate in Within The Park, and two are pending signing. These thirteen museums have been prioritized for participation for Within The Park because they have digitized assets or are actively working on digitizing areas of their collection. Adoption has been a long process, consisting of many meetings with the partners to explain and understand the concepts. Many have very little experience in data sharing and integrating each other’s content into their exhibitions and programs. The meetings and resulting approval process has been a vehicle for each museum to understand the concepts involved in adhering to a Creative Commons license. Some of the museums have a higher threshold for participating in new digital initiatives while others have a lower comfort level and voice more concerns, worried about potential harm to their institutions, significant issues such as loss of revenue streams or loss of control over their intellectual content. Over all, the process has deepened the partner museums’ relationship with BPOC through the collaborative process, a process where the museums are thinking through the LOA and passing it through their own internal approval process, and then discussing the issues and concepts with BPOC to clarify participation that eventually results in adoption.

The Model

As we implement the many components of the infrastructure to support the online distribution of collection content, many issues and discussions have come on how to approach and shape a model for getting large data sets online. The major components of the BPOC model are:

Build Success

Start with a project where you know you can accomplish success in a short-period of time or in a straight forward manner, and think strategically about how this success will allow you to continue to add complexity or features down the road. For example, the San Diego Air and Space Museum (SDASM) archive staff had already began an aggressive digitization program when BPOC came along. After its inception, BPOC worked with the SDASM to increase their digitization output and to publish these newly digitized photographs to Flickr. In the three years that SDASM has been on Flickr they have published over 100,000 images that have received 5 million page views. Because of the success of this project, Flickr Commons invited SDASM to move from a normal Flickr account to be featured on the Flickr Commons. SDASM also served as inspiration for other museums in the park, influencing the Museum of Photographic Arts to join the Flicker Commons in 2011.

Phase it in

The implementation of the park-wide DAMS system and the build of the Balboa Park Commons website are being phased in over time and priorities are constantly being set and realigned so each deadline for each phase can be met and completed in a timely manner. This is such a simple concept, so simple that it often gets overlooked, but when implemented correctly it provides museum staff a powerful framework for troubleshooting the inevitable obstacles that come up. It allows the teams to solve problems and get work done in manageable chunks. Phasing in projects also allows you to amass a knowledge base that builds momentum and a structure to support the next project phases.

Be Cost Effective

The Balboa Park Commons project, and building the infrastructure to support it, is an ambitious project. Like most projects to get collections online, it can be very expensive. However, BPOC’s approach is to find cost effective and efficient ways to make the project affordable and easier to implement in a short time period. To be cost efficient, BPOC will often build off of or add to pre-existing resources, collaborate with museum partners to apply for funding, find project partners that have shared goals and vision, and work with volunteers and interns to augment available staff resources.

Communicate to Collaborate
This effort to push collections online to increase access and visibility for the Balboa Park heritage institutions is a multi-layered effort to build infrastructure for broader distribution. Since BPOC’s philosophy is to try to get as much done as possible in an accelerated time frame to prove success and see results, many of the components are being built and produced at the same time. Communication on process and progress to the participating museums is a key factor to moving projects forward. However, with many moving parts going at once it can get confusing. Understanding many of the concepts behind these projects is not for the faint of heart.  Add that to the fact that many of the museum staff are juggling multiple roles and many priorities in their institutions as well as participating in these efforts with BPOC.

To facilitate collaboration and communication BPOC holds Commons meetings every two months. Attended by approximately 15-25 museum staff, these are lively meeting that give everyone involved with these projects and opportunity to get a progress report, demonstrations of tools being implemented, ask questions, voice concerns and catch up with each other on museum life in the park.

In addition, BPOC is constantly holding meetings with the individual museums to work on the specific collections projects. These are often meetings to plan, answer questions, work through issues and discuss next steps. Also important to this process is training. Both formal and follow up training sessions are held for BPOC and partner staff to get to know new software products, understand and identify new digital workflow processes and get refreshers on the tools they are using.

BPOC and park museum staff also socialize informally; many of the ideas and questions related to the collection projects are hashed out with gusto in coffee shops, during happy hour or while walking through the park on the way to meetings or events.

Effective communication among BPOC and museum partner staff is essential to the success of these projects. It is at the heart of being in a collaborative, a healthy dialogue is necessary to build a shared understanding of why these project matter and why sometimes compromises need to be made. Thoughtful communication and conversations that allow for give-and-take create the relationships that need to be forged for successful collaborations.

4.    Conclusion

This paper will be presented at the Museums and the Web 2012 conference where members of the Balboa Park commons project team will demonstrate how cultural institutions can use this model to add value to their online collections and encourage visitors to find those important Undiscovered Treasures that are hidden away in their collections. For those institutions that are looking to build the infrastructure to put their collections online, this model can provide a cost efficient strategy and approach for doing so.

5.    Acknowledgments

BPOC would like to that the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS) for the support of the Balboa Park Commons. The IMLS is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

6.    References

Sully, Perian (2011). “Connections through Collections: A lifecycle Overview of How Collection Datasets Are Utilized in Educational Projects.” Journal of Museum Education Volume 36, Number 3, 229-239.

 Edson, M., and R. Cherry, “Museum Commons. Tragedy or Enlightened Self-Interest?” In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted January 29, 2012.

The Den Foundation, Knowledgeland, and The Ministry of Education Culture and Science (2010) Business Model Innovation Cultural Heritage. Amsterdam, The Hague.

Dowden, R., and S. Sayre: “Tear Down the Walls: The Redesign of ArtsConnectEd.” In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2009. Consulted January 29, 2012. 

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