by Katherine P. Spiess and Spencer R. Crew, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
The National Museum of American History (NMAH) is committed to inspiring a broader understanding of our nation and its many peoples. To accomplish this mission, we are exploring ways to further extend access to our collections and scholarship-access that has value and meaning to our audiences. The rapid development of the Internet and World Wide Web opens exciting opportunities to reach out to audiences across the country and around the world-not just to those who come to Washington, D.C. For those who do come to Washington or who visit our traveling exhibitions, technology offers the opportunity to see a greater number of objects and explore related topics more deeply while physically experiencing a few select artifacts.
The Opportunity and the Challenge
Objects in museums are objects out of context. The whole purpose of the modern museum, in terms of the public, is to create context-that is, meaning. In museums, we call the creation of context “interpretation.” Multiple contexts can be created for and around a given object in our collection. Our central challenge in responding to the public through electronic media is how to address these varied contexts and nuances to serve a diffuse audience of varied backgrounds as well as multiple interests and needs.
The electronic media provide a way to look at a collecting arena in more depth: to create virtual exhibitions that address topics and themes not represented in our exhibition galleries; to present multiple points of view, interpretations, and experiences; and to respond to the needs of several different audiences. These media allow us to continue showing collections while one physical exhibition is being replaced with another and to explore various design and presentation approaches while experimenting with different script content. Technology also gives us a broader audience from which to gather evaluations and seek input during development-that is, before installing an exhibition in any of our galleries.
When museums exhibit objects in traditional ways, they must choose a few objects from their collection; for example, at any given time, less than five percent of NMAH’s holdings are on display. By using a variety of multimedia and videoconferencing technologies for electronic outreach purposes, NMAH staff members provide access to more of our collections than we can ever make physically available at any one time. We create and deliver collection-based presentations to student and other groups, both in the museum and at remote sites worldwide. We develop electronic versions of the exhibits in our galleries and exhibits that exist only virtually. Our educators develop electronic interactive theme activities, curriculum materials, teacher guides, and teacher training materials for classroom and home use. And we have the opportunity to provide thematic access to our full collection of three million objects while referencing related materials held by other organizations.
Our goal is to have these products valued by educational institutions as well as by families and individuals. We hope that our products will increase understanding of the topics and issues that are presented and promote further exploration of them. How do we know when we have achieved our goal? A major challenge facing us is to develop methods for determining the value, meaning, and effectiveness of electronic products to our audiences. These audiences may be defined by age, ethnicity, educational background, physical and mental ability, and other variables.
Are the content and design of our electronic products useful and meaningful to the intended audience? Are we creating the intended learning opportunities? Is the content intellectually accessible, and are the words comprehensible to the intended audience? Just as important, does the audience find our site more useful and of more value than sites maintained by special-interest groups and for-profit organizations, who often present similar content in a more exciting and accessible way? These for-profit organizations are our real competitors. In the physical world, our audiences often pay more to use the products and services of these organizations than they pay to use ours. In the virtual world, the dollar cost tends to be the same-the cost of the Internet service provider.
We continue to hear about the number of “hits” that a home page receives, but knowing the number of hits does not tell us anything about the purpose or quality of the electronic visit. Online audience questionnaires tend to be completed only by those who like to express their opinions in this manner. Some museums have made use of focus groups, while others have partnered with teachers and school districts to develop and test specific Web products. There remains, however, a need to develop a complete and integrated evaluation process for museum World Wide Web offerings that reaches out to all target audiences. NMAH is engaged in a search for such a process.
NMAH will develop a database that profiles our audiences and contains evaluative information about our electronic products. Collaboration among organizations that maintain this type of information benefits all. Technology provides tools to collaborate in developing and using this information, and we are interested in participating in such collaborations.
Our Expanding Audiences
The National Museum of American History is committed to being an audience-oriented organization. The full meaning of this commitment is still being discovered. Does audience-oriented mean that we provide our publics with what they want, what has meaning for them, what we believe they ought to have, or some combination of the above? How do we determine the answers to these questions? What criteria do we use to arrive at the answers? NMAH continues to struggle with these questions as it moves forward with its strategic plan.
In 1996, NMAH completed a yearlong survey to determine the characteristics and experiences of visitors to our building in Washington, D.C. As a result, we now know that a large proportion of our visitors travel to Washington from other parts of the United States (81 percent), primarily from the East Coast and the South (64 percent). Two-thirds of our visitors have completed at least a bachelor’s degree. The average age of our visitors is 39 years, and 13 percent are members of minority groups. Visitors believed that NMAH’s purpose is to engage in historical research and to educate. Overall, visitors favored public purposes (education, display, and entertainment) over professional purposes (history and preservation) by nearly two to one.
As part of its strategic plan, the National Museum of American History identified children and multigenerational groups as target audiences-onsite and online. We also stated our commitment to becoming a resource to those who live in the Washington, D.C., area. Over the next five years, our largest virtual audience will be children in grades five through twelve, teachers, and families. We base this determination on the fact that families and school-age children are two of our target audiences and that these groups are known to be frequent users of the Internet.
Although the academic community has always been both an audience and a collaborator, we also see a special relationship developing through the Internet between graduate programs in public history and the museum community. The goals of public history programs are different than those of traditional academic history programs. Museums can offer electronic access to scholarship and collections that help students learn about and better understand the issues of public history. NMAH is pursuing ways to develop electronic products that meet this need. Part of our approach will be to form partnerships with academic programs in this area and with other museums.
We have defined our target audiences, but we also realize that the virtual visitor approaches the Internet with different expectations than those of a physical visitor who views an exhibition or attends a public performance. Users of the Internet come with specific questions or they come to “surf”-to see what they find. They expect a quick response to a question, and they expect to find enjoyment and discovery in surfing. Through links and surfing, some visitors find NMAH’s Web site by accident; they do not necessarily realize that it is our site. How do we take advantage of these visits to create a repeat, intentional visitor?
The challenges we face in attracting Internet users and meeting their needs are no different than the challenges we face with visitors to our galleries. Electronic visitors, like visitors to our galleries, come with their own life experiences, vocabulary, thought processes, ways of learning, and agendas. As we explore different ways of using technology, how we address their expectations and characteristics will determine, to a large extent, the success of our efforts. As we reach out to diverse audiences, we must be sure that the themes and subjects meaningful to these audiences are in our products and in the databases supporting these products. The content must be intellectually and physically accessible to the target audience and the general public.
Although the challenges we face with visitors to both our galleries and our Web site appear to be the same, the environment in which these two groups interact with us is different. The virtual visitor has not come to the physical environment of our museum; we have been brought to his or her physical environment. In addition, the Internet allows that visitor easy and quick access to other sites that address the same or similar topics as those we present. Because of the technology, the viewpoints we put forth and the overall quality of our products are readily placed in a larger context and within a larger set of views. What makes our electronic presentations desirable and valuable in this context? Clearly, one way to find out is to involve our audiences in the development and evaluation of our electronic products. The question remains: How?
For our target audiences, NMAH is developing electronic products to advance family literacy, support and enhance school curricula, and provide families with resources to explore and learn about themselves as well as the history of this country and its peoples. We wish to make history fun and, among other approaches, will use electronic game formats for some of our products. In addition, we wish to explore creating an electronic interface that will enable visitors to generate their own exhibits through thematic access to our holdings and scholarship. If we are to be of value, the visiting public must be able to find us on the Internet, recognize us, and navigate our site. Therefore, we are planning a complete redesign of our Web site to increase our audiences and to increase the number of repeat visitors. Engaging our audiences in this process is a priority.
Approaches to Documenting Collections and Their Effect on Staff
Our desire to provide access to increasing numbers of our collections and to provide multiple points of view and interpretations brings with it the startling recognition that, all too often, extant documentation of collections, in both manual and automated systems, is woefully inadequate. The quantity of documentary information is generally more limited than one might expect; moreover, it represents only one viewpoint-that of the curator or specialist who brought the object into the Museum. There is no uniformity in the way information is organized. Neither consistency in the level or depth of detail noted nor conformity in vocabulary use or thesaurus controls can be found. In addition, the quality of recorded information often is either questioned by current staff or obviously inaccurate.
The root cause of much of the trouble is not hard to locate. Because of lack of staff and time, over the years, minimal information has generally been recorded about the items in our collections. For many items, we have only the object’s name, the donor’s name, a brief description, and an accession number. Museums require richer contextual information for research, interpretation, and exhibition activities. For example, information is needed on the history of the people and events associated with the object and on the object’s origin, use, physical nature, and symbolic import.
As long as the Museum, with minimal amounts of staff, time, and expertise, continues to be responsible for managing new acquisitions and maintaining its existing collections, no opportunity for a critical review of the existing data and no possibility for analysis, upgrade, or revision of these data will arise. The situation thus becomes syndromic as continuation of the status quo only adds to the difficulty of resolving the problem in the future. How then do we correct and enhance the documentation so it can be used to provide better access to our collections and scholarship?
The textual content of a museum’s collection documentation system-the nature and specificity of the terminology applied-depends entirely upon the training, work experience, and cultural background of the staff member who is documenting a particular item. Cultural diversity among staff offers the potential for rich documentation and interpretation of collections, and we must continue our efforts to build a truly diverse staff. During this era of staff reductions and tight budgets, however, we must find additional ways to bring this diversity to the documentation and interpretation of our collections.
Conversations among staff broaden viewpoints and enrich collections documentation. In the past, the content of these conversations was rarely recorded in museum cataloging systems. Such was the norm in most museums. Curatorial staff did not necessarily see the value in capturing and recording the information generated by these exchanges. Manual cataloging systems were not designed to hold multiple viewpoints.
Today, technology offers us an effective tool for capturing and acknowledging the contributions of multiple staff in documenting and interpreting museum collections. Before this tool is used for maximum benefit, curatorial staff must see the intellectual benefit to recording the full complement of information that is generated about an object. They must also see the value of using that information as they carry out research, create exhibitions, and develop public programs. They must believe that this work is as important and worthwhile as that involved in creating an exhibition. Collections documentation is an essential part of the foundation for our exhibitions and public programs, both physical and virtual. We must align our recognition and reward systems accordingly.
Our challenges now are to change existing norms and to create an environment where team, or collaborative, cataloging is an accepted part of processing new collections and of retrospectively documenting existing collections. More than that, we must develop a communal approach where expertise, experience, and cultural diversity are shared among cultural institutions and the academy, and where our audiences are invited to contribute to the documentation and interpretation of collections. Again, technology offers us the mechanism for this collaboration.
New Ways of Doing Business
The Internet not only facilitates collaboration in documenting and interpreting collections but also allows cooperative collecting and virtual lending. We can increase our collections-virtually-by adding to our documentation system information and images of objects held by others and that relate to our own holdings. As NMAH has developed Web products, we have inserted links to other sites with thematically related topics. We also would like to include objects-virtually-that are held by other institutions and individuals. Objects that are not available for physical lending may be lent virtually to enhance the electronic visitor’s experience and increase the educational value of the product.
NMAH has formally moved to a team-based process for the development and presentation of physical and virtual exhibitions and of public programs. We recognize that the full range of expertise and knowledge needed to successfully complete these projects must be applied from the beginning of any project. The actual number of members on any team is dependent on how the expertise and knowledge are distributed among the staff. In some cases, one staff member may cover several areas; in other cases, one staff member may specialize in a single area.
All exhibits and public programs require content expertise-in-depth knowledge of the subject matter being presented. That expertise resides in the Museum’s curators, historians, and subject specialists. Our products also require educators, collections managers for legal and ethical issues as well as preservation needs, and designers, producers, and public relations specialists. Designers and producers who create physical exhibits and public programs need different skills than individuals who create Internet products. Recently, we have created a project management unit for our exhibition program. It is staffed by full-time professional project managers. The project manager is responsible for the timely completion of a project within budget. The project manager also is responsible for ensuring that concerns expressed by any member of the project team are addressed and that each team member has an equal voice. This structure frees the other team members from project management duties and allows them to focus on the work involved in their functional areas. In the past, most exhibition projects were managed by curators or subject specialists who, understandably, were often more sensitive to issues in their area of expertise than to the areas represented by other staff working on a project.
We see the Project Management Program as a way of bringing balance to planning and budgeting as well as of ensuring greater responsiveness to issues and concerns. We will apply this same management structure to our Internet products. Thus, we are about to issue our first formal electronic information management policy. This policy reinforces our belief that Internet products require the same critical review of content quality, the same consideration for audience, the same effort for design and production, and the same attention to evaluation as do our physical exhibits and public programs.
These efforts to better use the Internet and the World Wide Web are ambitious undertakings; however, we, like our sister institutions, have to move aggressively in this area. The visitors who enter our buildings now represent just a small part of our potential audience. Each of us must create a presence on the Internet, and we must be creative in the ways we position ourselves. It is not enough to simply announce our existence and the programs we produce. Information about our collections that includes images, interactive exhibitions, educational materials, and other engaging activities is essential.
High-quality Web sites are a resource-consuming proposition. These sites demand creative staff to develop them and competent staff to keep them up-to-date. Maintaining a Web site also puts pressure on staff to ensure that their collection information is current and that they integrate the Web site into their work and budgets as they create exhibitions. Moving in this direction demands a new mind-set. It demands that we recognize the growing and critical importance of the Internet and that we think about new ways to use this technology to our advantage. Not following this path may prove disabling or fatal.
Competition to use the information in our collections grows daily, particularly, among the for-profit sectors. Although we cannot expect to deny these sectors permission to use information in our collections, we need to provide our own products for the presentation of this information. These products must represent our philosophy about education and the presentation of our collections. We have important contributions to make, and we must let the public know what we have to offer. At NMAH, we are learning that this proposition is not a simple one. It can succeed only if we apply careful thought, creativity, and time and generate additional resources. Creating quality virtual products is a heavy burden for any museum to add to its commitments during already-challenging times. Nonetheless, work in this area must become part of the core mission activities of all of us in the future.
At NMAH, we are committed to building a presence in cyberspace that is engaging and that reflects our mission. In keeping with this commitment, our Web site must offer stories of our nation and its many peoples that have value and meaning to our audiences, must be based upon sound scholarship, must be created from quality designs, and must ensure intellectual and physical accessibility. If we accomplish these goals, we believe our electronic visitors will use us and, more important, will return on a regular basis.