Case study: engaging the public with online collections

This case study, from our Let’s Get Real action research program, looks at how to boost visits to online collections and not just to visitor information. It considered who the stories are aimed at and who is telling them and creating and testing content with users.

About the participant:

Name: Andrew Davis

Organisation: Royal Collections Trust

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What was the research question behind your experiment? | Why was this important to your organisation? | What did you do to implement this? | What happened? | What were the personal challenges you faced when carrying out this experiment? | What did YOU learn? | What did YOUR ORGANISATION learn? | What next?

What was the research question behind your experiment?

What is the best way to engage the public with the items within the Royal Collection?

Why was this important to your organisation?

There had been a feeling (based on our Google Analytics reports) that there had not been a tremendous engagement with the collection amongst the general public (we have vastly more traffic to the visit section of the site than to the collection area), and want to find ways to boost engagement with the collection itself. This has tied in with physical visitors to our sites, where people are more interested in seeing the castle/palace than the artefacts themselves – as a charity we are responsible for promoting the collection and access to it.

Existing work was already underway to make technical changes to the site and how we store and publish information about the collection, as well as looking at how the public responded to these changes.

What did you do to implement this?

There were two strands to our experiment: the internal process of beginning to change the way that we think about the creation of content (even the notion that what we are doing actually is creating content), and what that content itself actually should be – and who it should be aimed at.

The first strand involved (and continues to involve) discussions across the organisation about both who is responsible for telling our stories, and who we think we are telling them to/for. This work has been about slowly bringing people around to the notion that digital/online audiences are not monolithic, so the previous approach of having a single online voice won’t best appeal to those audiences. In our Collection Online meetings, representatives from all curatorial sections met to discuss how we can adapt content already produced for different audiences (exhibitions, catalogues, scholarly articles) to re-use or expand the principles for online use.

The second strand involved creating test content, and trialling it on prospective users.

What happened?

We still have no agreement on exactly what our stories should be – are we seeking to present the collection in an ordered/thematic way, focusing entirely on the art itself, or are we trying to use the objects in the collection as jumping-off points to also allow us to tell the stories of the people who created them and the world they were created in/for? This is a debate that is much broader than the digital – it relates to everything from our exhibition and publishing programmes, to our events and learning activities. In this sense it has been timely for the digital to be a driving part of the discussion, and not bolted on to a decision made elsewhere.

In terms of creating content, it has been an excellent opportunity to get the wider curatorial team, who edit our collections management system from which nearly all online content about the collection is drawn, to begin to think in terms of what they create being for an external, as well as internal, audience. We’ve been able to begin to draw distinctions between content (usually raw data) that is essential for us for management purposes but perhaps of little interest to the outside world, and the more narrative elements, which perhaps have little interest internally but which are essential for external understanding of and interest in the Collection.

These debates will be ongoing!

What were the personal challenges you faced when carrying out this experiment?

Selling the concept of an experiment – the very idea that we might be doing something that we couldn’t guarantee would work. It really focused a lot of my energy on acting as an influencer, rather than a participant in other work streams – convincing, cajoling and soothing as the need arose.

What did YOU learn?

Mostly about the need for communication and constantly keeping people in the loop about what we were doing, and how ideas were developing. The biggest problems were when different sections felt that they were being ignored/others were receiving special treatment. At the same time, it also became apparent that there were paths of least resistance – individuals who were keen/interested and open, and able to act as advocates with their own teams. Its really important to cultivate these sympathetic people when we are trying to implement something new.

What did YOUR ORGANISATION learn?

Harder to say! It’s certainly something that we are continuing to work on, and I think that the concept of experimenting to find what might work is an important one for us to look to take forward in the future. We are definitely more open to the results of external feedback, and allowing this to influence our planning. Hopefully we are also learning the importance of the curatorial voice in making our collections relevant -no matter how great the art work, we can’t purely rely on that to attract audiences in a really competitive digital realm.

What next? 

We will be launching a series of online collection trails, of differing length/style/tone, and will be monitoring the response to these. This will then influence our commissioning process moving forward, and where we seek to place each piece of content – for example, does something work best on the website, social media or newsletter? Hopefully it will see us continue to develop as a content producing body (and perhaps seeing ourselves as such).