Strength in Numbers: Complementary Approaches to Content on Collaborative Museum Websites
Emily Lytle-Painter, USA, Sandra Fauconnier, The Netherlands
ArtBabble (http://www.artbabble.org) and ARTtube (http://www.arttube.nl) are similar, collaborative museum websites about art and design, initiated by two museums across the globe. Both have launched dedicated online platforms for art-related video; both encourage stronger interrelations between diverse museums’ content and better reach of targeted audiences. Beyond these similarities, both websites and their administration function in different ways. This paper compares both projects as interesting case studies for online museum collaboration. The recent redesign of both platforms reflects their diverse strategies for managing growth and sustainability.
Keywords: online video, taxonomy, collaboration, content, sustainability, partnership
1. Introduction: Digital Collaboration
Historically, museums have relied on collaboration to achieve their missions in a variety of ways. Sharing resources such as space, expertise, and collections is necessary within the community for exhibition, scholarship and advanced care of objects. With the addition of digital technology, museum collaboration expands to include educational efforts, interpretive media and access to information by various audiences. No longer restricted by geography, institutions can join with appropriate partners from around the world. As museums increasingly focus their educational efforts to the digital sphere, opportunities for collaboration arise on new platforms, and the benefits for not-for-profits far outweigh the risks.
There are a number of reasons for museums to choose to collaborate online. The first and most obvious is financial. Many digital projects are expensive to start as well as keep going, and sharing resources and infrastructure reduces the need to fund expensive projects alone. Museums can also choose to collaborate to increase access, which includes sharing information on websites like Wikipedia. Collaborative repositories of information forge connections and bring together expertise from different institutions, allowing an international audience to more easily benefit from scholarship. Finally, digital technology enables museums to interact with and be a part of a diverse range of communities, from civic to professional.
This paper addresses two case studies: ArtBabble and ARTtube, similar collaborative museum websites about art and design, initiated by two museums across the globe. Both have launched dedicated online platforms for art-related video; both encourage stronger interrelations among diverse museums’ content and better reach of targeted audiences. While they host similar content, the websites and their administration function in different ways.
Both websites date back to 2009. ARTtube (formerly http://arttube.boijmans.nl, now http://www.arttube.nl) was founded as the video channel of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (http://www.boijmans.nl) in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. ArtBabble (http://www.artbabble.org), the cloud-based, international art video partnership, was initiated and administered by the Indianapolis Museum of Art (http://www.imamuseum.org), in Indianapolis, Indiana.
In 2012, both websites underwent major renovations. ARTtube grew to become a collaborative video platform for five Dutch and Belgian museums. The partners established a shared editorial policy; besides the individual museums’ videos, they work on collaborative video productions, exceeding the individual museums’ programming capabilities. With a large-scale redesign, ArtBabble grew to join 54 partners from 5 countries. The changes focused on strategies to enhance accessibility for users through the development of a new, standardized cataloguing taxonomy, making the website responsive for mobile access, and simplified the process of adding content for partners by embedding video from other sources.
As evidenced by the number of partners on these two websites, many museums have turned to online video to share stories interpreting their collections and activities. Why is video so popular? Video is an inexpensive medium for visually attractive, condensed storytelling. When face to face experiences are not practical or even possible, video is a medium for sharing a first-person message with a wide audience. It is a good medium for free choice or asynchronous learning. Finally, video is the currency of today’s online audiences. The amount of video online has grown exponentially since 2005, the year YouTube was launched.
In this paper, we outline the strategies developed by the two websites over the past four years for managing collaboration and growth and examine the ultimately common challenges: cataloguing within a standardized framework, interlinking with associated resources and initiatives, and exposing the content to relevant audiences.
The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) began creating video in 2006, as part of a larger initiative for digital engagement within the Education department. All production, from conception and planning through filming, editing and distribution, happened in-house. From the beginning, this enabled the New Media team to have a large amount of control over the specific messages of the museum.
One of the first major projects was the critically acclaimed Roman Webisodes (http://www.artbabble.org/topic/series/roman-art-louvre-webisodes), which debuted in conjunction with the major exhibition Roman Art from the Louvre in 2007. The IMA team thought carefully about how technology could be used to successfully promote the exhibition, educate visitors and provide a new digital experience. Traditionally, the IMA used orientation videos or audio guides for its larger exhibitions. For Roman Art from the Louvre, they decided to experiment with online content, by developing digital videos available in a variety of formats. Content was available prior to visiting the exhibition, leading up to the opening of the exhibition.
As the success of the New Media department projects grew, it became apparent that the delivery method of YouTube was ineffective at reaching a larger audience. Despite being tagged with many art-related terms, the videos produced at the museum were lost in the overwhelming amount of content on YouTube. The IMA began to consider options for sharing video content through a more specialized portal. While a solo endeavor akin to an online TV channel was considered for a while, the IMA realized the project goals would be best achieved by partnering with other institutions to create a collaborative art video database. Partners could use shared tagging system in which to find the videos, leading to connections between separate institutions content.
Funding was secured with a grant from the Ball Brothers Foundation, and ArtBabble was born. Work began on the back-end structure of the site in September 2008 by the IMA’s in-house software development team, now called IMA Lab. The complete customization of the drupal site allowed for features missing from YouTube at the time, including high definition videos, videos over 10 minutes, and contextual information, called notes, to the video content.
The following February, the website was launched in beta, and went public in April 2009 with six high-profile partners: Art21, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, New York Public Library, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Smithsonian American Art Museum. The IMA received dozens of request for partnership within the first month, and subsequently launched 10 new partners in July 2009. The rapid early growth of the partnership speaks to the large need filled by the website.
The original structure sorted the videos in three ways: Channels, essentially subject tags, Series, groupings set up by the partner, and Partners. When the website was launched with 7 partners and 250 videos, this was an acceptable way to sort and find videos. But it was not scalable with the growth of the site. As the website passed 20 partners, videos became increasingly difficult to find. The rise of the use of mobile technology (the original ArtBabble was not compatible) and changes to YouTube made an update necessary. In early 2012, the IMA team began to prepare for a full redesign of the site.
After 8 months of planning, a comprehensive user survey on the site, and securing 16 new partners, the new website was launched December 2012.
The changes were as follows:
- The website was completely visually updated. The brand was modernized and simplified, while paying homage to the previous look of ArtBabble. The new page layouts optimize video viewing with a charcoal grey background and widescreen format, and integrate Facebook comments.
- Partners can embed videos from YouTube, Vimeo, and Brightcove, simplifying the process of adding to the site and leading to more timely content.
- Existing video tags were sorted into a new structure of five major categories. Using this framework, the navigation of the site was re-imagined as the taxonomy itself, to get visitors to content faster.
- The beginning of an educational section was imagined for the new ArtBabble, including a new format for the inclusion of curricula. The IMA hopes for this section to continue to grow.
- The new ArtBabble website is responsive, and coupled with HTML5 videos from YouTube and a new JW player. This means the site is completely accessible from any mobile device.
Another small but significant change is the removal of notes from the video player. In the original interface, partner institutions could add links to related content at specific points in the video. Creating notes was time consuming for the partners and because of this, they were added to less than 10% of videos on the site. In their place, the new site allows partners to add Additional Resources as links separate from the video. The new interface is easier to administer for the partners and compatible with the embedded YouTube player.
The website saw steady growth to 30,000 pages per month during the first few years. In 2013, ArtBabble plans to continue expanding the reach of the website through focused educational content and addition of partners, including foreign language content.
Several museums in the Low Countries have firmly embraced online video as well. Since 2008, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen have experimented with in-house video production: from short videos specifically created for multimedia museum tours, to longer, documentary-like productions that were created for a combination of online and on-site display. (Schreuder, 2010) Both types of video were well-received, in terms of audience appreciation and numbers of online and offline visits.
The museum staff – both from the education and the marketing department – already made extensive use of dedicated YouTube and Vimeo channels. There, like the IMA staff, they noticed that it is difficult to adequately reach and address those audiences that are looking for specific, expert-created content. (Arora & Vermeylen, 2012; Sonck & De Haan, 2012) In October 2009, thanks to support from the VSB Fund, the museum launched a separate online video channel, ArtTube (http://arttube.boijmans.nl), as an integral part of its own website. Two years later, this channel showcased more than 100 very diverse videos, most created by the museum, and attracted up to 16,000 unique visitors per month.
In a few years’ time, video production became part and parcel of Museum Boijmans’ educational strategy. The museum experimented with the widest variety of techniques, video formats and genres, and worked with a large group of amateur and professional filmmakers. (Schreuder et al., 2010-2011)
The first website for ArtTube was conceived by design agency Fabrique and inspired by ArtBabble, which had launched shortly before. The site made it possible to organize the videos into series, to maintain Dutch- and English-language versions of a video, to add descriptions and ‘notes’ (short explanatory texts related to specific moments in a video’s timeline; a feature also present on the first version of ArtBabble), and to indicate whether a video is about an artwork currently on display or not. Mobile support was not present yet. On the ArtTube website, the videos were made available via RSS feeds and podcasts and could in most cases be downloaded and embedded. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen also became a partner in ArtBabble.
ArtTube was designed as an integral part of Museum Boijmans’ broader online strategy. The museum maintained (and partly still maintains) interrelated, dedicated websites for several of its online educational trajectories: its online collection (http://collection.boijmans.nl), ALMA (http://alma.boijmans.nl, a website that connects pre-industrial artefacts with their representations in paintings), and – until July 2012 – ArtTube.
Meanwhile, many other museums in the Netherlands and Belgium gained experience with online video. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen was regularly approached to transform ArtTube into a collaborative online channel for videos about art and design from the Low Countries. With support from the Dutch SNS REAAL Fund (http://www.snsreaalfonds.nl), ARTtube was rebranded (including a new spelling for the project’s name) and relaunched in July 2012 with four new partners: Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, De Pont (Tilburg) and M HKA (Antwerp, Belgium). The initial group of founding partners is, on purpose, not larger: ARTtube works with a model of editorial focus, shared governance and calculated growth. This second, collaborative phase in the project’s lifetime serves as a testing ground for a new cooperative and business model, growing towards autonomy.
The new platform is explicitly designed as an international, Dutch-language collaboration, with four partners from the Netherlands and one partner from the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium. Together the region accounts for 23 million native Dutch speakers; the new ARTtube is one in a series of transnational Dutch-Flemish cultural projects (see http://www.grensopener.eu, online database of such initiatives) that aim to reach art lovers from both countries.
After six months of operation, the new ARTtube reached 25,000 visits per month; this number increased each consecutive month. 77,000 unique visitors found the new website since its launch in July. Each visitor spends, on average, more than 3.5 minutes on ARTtube. The project aims to reach 500,000 unique visitors in 2014. In 2013, ARTtube will focus on calculated growth (in partners and audiences), increased reach, collaborative production, and research of sustainability after its structural funding ends in 2015.
4. Partnership and Management
Over the past 4 years, the management teams for the two websites developed many strategies for coordinating the collaboration and growth. As we examine the differences, the pluses and minuses of each style of partnership are highlighted.
ArtBabble achieved diversity of content through its large numbers of partners and videos. During the initial setup of the site, the IMA sought out a few strategic partner institutions. Since that time, institutions interested in joining have initiated all conversations with the IMA about adding their videos to the site.
Once a museum has expressed interest, the process of contracting and adding video content can move as quickly or as slowly as a partner would like. Although many individuals have expressed the desire to add their own content to the site, partnership is kept to not-for-profit arts institutions only. As per the contract signed before partnership is granted, the IMA pays for all of the fees associated with hosting the site, but retains the rights to seek outside funding.
Any questionable requests for partnership or proposal for large changes to the site are approved by the ArtBabble Steering Committee, a standing small group of museum professionals made up primarily of staff at each of the original seven partners institutions. To shorten the timeline to partnership, in 2010 the Steering Committee gave tacit approval for the IMA to run daily operations as they see fit.
In 2013, ArtBabble hopes to update the model for the Steering Committee. Instead of a standing group, seven self-nominated partners would have a yearly appointment. This would allow a different pool of partners to make leadership choices about the direction of the site, and include the point of view of smaller or newer institutions.
All management of the site within the IMA and interaction with the steering committee is run through the Publishing and Media department, with ArtBabble being managed as part of a larger strategy for publishing and sharing the IMA’s content. Changes to the site in 2012 allows the IMA to switch their administrative focus from primarily assisting with adding videos and troubleshooting to managing the terms that create the navigation structure of the site and publicizing the site through social media.
After their respective launches on ArtBabble, activity with the site varies from partner to partner. Some institutions like the Museo Tamayo (http://www.artbabble.org/partner/museo-tamayo) have limited video production. Since they went live in October 2010, they have not added more content. Other partners like the Asian Art Museum (http://www.artbabble.org/partner/asian-art-museum) have larger production departments. They add new video frequently, and use the site as their primary method of distribution. The IMA chooses to not have update minimum or frequency requirements, and allows partners to upload video at a rate set by their own budgets or production schedules.
ArtBabble also allows partners to select and manage their own content, but encourages content to be kept to an educational or interpretive art focus. This open policy ensures that partners can use the site as they see fit, sharing the content deemed valuable by their own museum. Title, description and tags are mandatory on all published videos, and the IMA retains publishing rights. The IMA’s release of videos is from an administrative standpoint, for the coordination of social media.
In contrast, the five current ARTtube partners have envisioned the new ARTtube as a sharply dedicated and curated platform for telling stories about art and design. The project works with an editorial board that consists of representatives from all partner museums; the board develops and follows a framework of shared editorial guidelines. This includes the following principles:
- ARTtube only shows videos about art and artists – no autonomous video art.
- ARTtube shows videos explicitly created and/or commissioned by the partners – no external productions that are provided out of the blue, no third-party uploads.
- Videos on ARTtube are always educational to some extent, and never purely promotional in nature. ARTtube can contain trailers that serve to publicize exhibitions, but these must always contain interesting, educational elements.
- Videos are preferably bilingual: when recorded in Dutch, they are subtitled in English, and vice versa.
- Participation in ARTtube involves a certain level of long-term commitment to content delivery: each partner agrees to contribute at least eight new videos per calendar year – smaller partners, such as Museum De Pont, contribute four.
- Videos are contextualized by well-written descriptions and, if possible, notes that further explain chapters and highlights in the videos.
These guidelines remain valid at least until the end of 2014, when funding for ARTtube by SNS REAAL Fund ends, and will be refined as the project evolves. Following these principles, the five ARTtube partners have provided 69 videos in the course of the platform’s first year, 2012. Highlights include a popular video about Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam’s new graphic identity (http://www.arttube.nl/en/video/Stedelijk/Huisstijl), a selection of videos supporting Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s exhibition about the foundations for Early Netherlandish Painting, ‘The Road to Van Eyck’ (http://www.arttube.nl/en/pers/Jan_van_Eyck), and a well-received artist portrait of Jimmie Durham by M HKA (http://www.arttube.nl/en/video/MuHKA/Jimmie_Durham).
ARTtube’s smaller scale has both disadvantages and advantages. The ARTtube editorial team has identified the necessity to bring focus into the platform. This issue is addressed in the first place by using series and taxonomies to connect the individual videos on the project’s website.
But ARTtube takes it one step further: it is initiating truly collaborative video production by its partners, in order to create programs that exceed the individual partners’ collections and programmes. In 2013, the five current ARTtube partners will release a brand new video programme that is shared by all: “We Love Art.” Supported by the Mondriaan Fund (http://www.mondriaanfonds.nl), this two-year programme celebrates the role that art plays in society. Each video and production in ‘We Love Art’ will involve the collections and expertise of several museums at once. The program includes three major sections:
- We Live Art, a representative and diverse interview series with people from Belgium and the Netherlands who are, in their work and life, strongly inspired by art;
- We Make Art, a series of ‘how to’ videos about extraordinary materials and processes in contemporary art, linked with a series of workshops and masterclasses;
- We Are Art, a programme for experimentation with new technologies, user interaction and networking.
Furthermore, the ARTtube editorial team looks with interest at existing needs and requests outside the individual museums’ programmes. For instance, early after the relaunch of ARTtube, it became clear that there was a need for relevant online video that can be used in Dutch secondary art education (CKV); this need is addressed through a guest blog by art educator Anja Marbus (http://www.arttube.nl/nl/onderwerp/CKV).
Because of this shared programming and shared infrastructure, ARTtube becomes an interesting media partner. At the time of writing this paper, partnerships are being negotiated, but not yet officially announced, with specific (digital) TV and internet broadcasters and with a major Dutch art magazine. Growth with new museum partners will happen in a calculated manner: new museum partners are asked for a certain level of engagement and agreement with the editorial guidelines as described earlier.
5. Interface and Structure
As previously outlined, both websites underwent major redesigns in 2012. The drastic changes in the structural setup of each site led to changes in administrative interactions with the partners and the experiences with the final product for users. Both websites have adapted to the rise of mobile devices and have incorporated mobile and responsive elements in their redesigns to cater to this growing audience.
For ArtBabble, many of the choices made were informed by a survey performed in Spring of 2012. Audience evaluations showed that while our users were happy with our content, they wanted more of it, and in a more timely fashion. Most dramatically, they wanted to be able to find the content they were looking for faster.
The major change that ultimately influenced the structure of the site and how users found videos was the reorganization of subject tags. ArtBabble had been functioning with an open tag system, applied by the partners to individual videos. Out of this pool, certain terms and artist names were approved by the administrator to become Channels and Artists, the primary ways that users accessed video. Problems arose as the unapproved pool of terms grew to more than 3,000, including duplicates, different standards in naming, misspellings and other issues.
In order to deal with the wealth of terms needed by such a large and diverse set of partners, existing subject tags were sorted into a new, closed taxonomy of 5 major categories. Using library cataloguing vocabularies like the Getty’s Union List of Artist Names (http://www.getty.edu/research/tools/vocabularies/ulan/index.html) and Thesaurus of Geographic Names (http://www.getty.edu/research/tools/vocabularies/tgn/index.html) a standardized way of naming was applied to all of the existing terms, (Auscherman, 2011). This reorganization also connected all of the artist pages to their artist biography content from Wikipedia. Using this framework, the navigation of the site was re-imagined as the taxonomy itself, to get visitors to content faster.
ARTtube’s new design, launched in July 2012, emphasizes intuitive navigation. Its Pinterest-like homepage is designed in a responsive way and displays a mosaic of recent videos: a showcase of the diversity of content that is presented in the website. Users are free to browse the wealth of content and dive into what interests them, which can range from a video about the medieval technique for gold leaf application on wood panel to a recent performance registration by body artist ORLAN. Analytics show that this works well: especially content above the fold is popular, and people do scroll down.
Under the hood, less visible from its homepage, ARTtube has a modest taxonomy that relates videos with similar content and themes. The keywords are chosen by the site editors, are quite simple, and carefully chosen according to a few simple criteria: are the specific topics interesting for general users, are they easily understandable by a non-expert audience, and general enough to be applicable to a significant set of videos? Examples of popular keywords are painting, sculpture, glass, architecture and Middle Ages.
Some, but not all, videos are arranged in series – a feature which is also present on ArtBabble. Series are (play)lists of videos created according to shared formats and characteristics. Some popular series are: Curator’s Choice (http://www.arttube.nl/en/series/Curators_Choice – favorite works presented by curators), Works of Art (http://www.arttube.nl/en/series/Works_of_Art) and Inspired By (http://www.arttube.nl/en/series/Inspired_by – artists talking about their sources of inspiration). Finally, as on ArtBabble, videos are tagged with artist names; a next version of the website will include an alphabetical list of these.
6. Growth to New Audiences
Both websites maintain a close relationship with their audiences via social media. Facebook statistics show a slight majority of female followers (52,4%) with an emphasis on the 25-34 age group. Quite usefully, social media allows assessment of success factors for videos by tracking comments and shares (Finnis, J., Chan, S., & Clements, R., 2011): videos tend to be popular and successful when related to young and upcoming artists, well-known names, or when they announce a specific campaign (such as a contest).
In December 2012, the ARTtube partners organized ARTtube On Stage, a public event where videos were screened in front of an enthusiastic and responsive live audience that triggered quite a bit of qualitative feedback. In late 2012, members of the ARTtube editorial board evaluated each others’ videos. And in 2013, a larger quantitative and qualitative audience survey is commissioned.
As ArtBabble and ARTtube prepare for the future, both websites look to the explosion of online learning as an area ripe for exploration. ArtBabble partner Smarthistory (http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org) is a massively popular multimedia web-book about art history already exploring this field. Smarthistory joined Khan Academy (http://www.khanacademy.org) in October 2011 to become part of a large-scale initiative that furthers “free, world-class education for anyone anywhere.” Smarthistory’s videos now support a comprehensive course about art history, next to a wealth of online courses about math, science, economics and computer science. The lessons are supported by the Khan Academy’s extensive system of classroom tools.
ArtBabble and ARTtube lack specific classroom tools, but they do provide curated, trustworthy content for educators. ARTtube has initiated and commissioned a blog specifically targeted towards Dutch art educators and one of its partners, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, produces video that fits specifically into one of the yearly themes outlined in Dutch arts education curricula for secondary school students.
In 2013, ArtBabble attempts to address these educational needs with the addition of its “For Educators” section (http://www.artbabble.org/educators). With the recent changes, it is hoped that the site will become a better resource for educators, found to be 38% of its audience. The website aims to pull together small groups of videos around focused themes, for teachers to access easily and quickly and put into existing lesson plans. ArtBabble Lessons also aim to tie art content to the new Common Core standards (http://www.corestandards.org) currently being implemented across the US. This would enable teachers to easily integrate concepts from art and art history when teaching about subjects like math or science.
Both ArtBabble and ARTtube are initiatives of museum education departments and have a strong educational mission, thus making expanding to online learning a natural fit.
What is the future of museum collaboration online? ArtBabble and ARTtube are interesting case studies of museum websites, showcasing successful collaboration around online video about art and design. Both projects were initiated by a single museum, but have grown in different ways and have developed different organisational models in the past four years. They coexist alongside each other in a complementary manner and demonstrate, each in their own way, different possible scenarios and benefits of online museum collaboration.
ArtBabble is a project that focused on shared infrastructure and has a potentially global approach. At the time of writing, it brings together 54 international partners and has evolved towards a model that can accommodate even further growth. The benefits of museum collaboration in ArtBabble lie in enhanced accessibility and contextualization thanks to its new, standardized cataloguing taxonomy. The partners can manage their own content easily, and add external video by embedding video from other sources. Sustained support for ArtBabble by its initiator, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, guarantees its longer-term support and survival.
ARTtube, a collaborative video platform for five Dutch and Belgian museums, is a partner in ArtBabble and is a smaller-scale initiative with a much more local focus. The surplus value of collaboration ARTtube lies in its shared editorial strategy and joint content production, exceeding the individual museums’ programming capabilities. The ARTtube editorial team and board also disseminate their videos together, beyond a shared website, including social media and digital television, and research business models for video about art. Conditions for its longer-term sustainability are being investigated; this will probably depend on the project’s ability to maintain a simple and nimble infrastructure and to forge strong partnerships.
Both cases are well visited and received by audiences, both from a quantitative and qualitative point of view, and both attract a lot of interest from potential new partners. It is interesting to observe that both projects have simultaneously responded to a demand from educators, by presenting, developing and/or disseminating specific content for this target group. We suggest that the different approaches to online collaboration are valuable, and moreover, valid, complementary and mutually strengthening.
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