Yesterday I wrote about A History of the World in 100 Objects as an example of the extraordinary value that can be produced through collaboration between strong public partners. Today I’d like to touch upon the project’s effective use of digital technologies.
Rich Content, Rich Presentation
All the material offered by this project is worthy of publication. The care shown to the physical collection extends to the virtual collection; the website design, photos, podcasts and interactive features are all expertly produced, informative, attractive and easy to use. I’ve enjoyed quite a bit of it and haven’t once had the impression that an element was thrown in because it might have value to someone or validate the use of public funds. Nothing has felt like an add-on or afterthought and the integral sense of balance and fit has kept me engaged. I would have bailed if the virtual exhibit was merely the poor stepchild of the physical one. Everything here has been worthy of my time and attention — and my recommendation to others.
Technology as the Means Versus the Ends
A History of the World in 100 Objects incorporates just about every technology in mainstream use today: multimedia, social media, interactive features, blog, online survey … and each is used appropriately and to great effect. The project architects clearly understand their means and ends; the exhibit is what they’re building and digital technologies are their tools. It’s like the project is a virtual house and video, timelines, podcasts, Facebook and Twitter are their skillsaws, levels and hammers.
There’s widespread confusion about this, particularly around social media. Loads of pixels have been spilled and plans laid for how to get more Facebook fans or Twitter followers with nary a mention of the reason for doing it — or how to assess whether or not it was worth the effort. I’m really interested to know what success metrics this project team has established and have sent an email inquiry to them. I’ll let you know if I receive a reply.
Exemplary Use of Multi and Social Media
The website is a multi-media extravaganza. Audio and stunning photography abound. The podcasts are beautiful soundscapes and just the right length. I’ve enjoyed the music, the sound effects and the narration as much as the information they convey. The photos are gorgeous and can be viewed individually or in slide shows, in one size or many and the interfaces to do so are are intuitive and elegant - no distracting control panels or layers popping up everywhere. Videos present users talking about the objects they have contributed. While less formal than the photos, each is expertly produced and add to my sense of participation in the project.
Social media is used as part of a unified strategy to help users engage with the material and each other. It complements explicit outreach, such as the encouragement to “Make history – add your object now”. Facebook and Twitter help promote the site and let users conveniently weave the project into the stream of their daily lives. The blog provides informal narrative and engagement opportunities. The blog comments I saw were concise and on-topic, with pointers to related historic information or requests for new features/uses for the material. The Twitter feed and Facebook page had the same qualities and provide a nice platform for people around the world to share the experience of this UK-based program.
This is a great use of social media. The project’s creators have made it a prominent but not distracting part of the experience. Social media is positioned as informal narrative around the content rather than an integral part of it. This positioning, and the BBC and British Museum’s focus on delivering something of value implicitly model the type of enagement they’re seeking, and the public seems to be responding.
Each Page a Destination and a Portal
The “100 objects” concept is an effective organizing principle, for each item has individual merit as well as wider symbolism and meaning. This is reinforced technologically, with each object having its own page and each page being an intuitive gateway to the entire collection, to related topic areas and supplemental resources. Check out today’s object, the Throne of Weapons, a sculpture “made out of decommissioned weapons from the Mozambique civil war.” The page foregrounds a compelling visual and textual narrative including curator and visitor commentary. It also provides easy access to other objects in the collection based on facets including contributor, location, culture, time period, etc. Accompanying material, such as the podcast in audio and written form, is also readily accessible.
Going Local via the World Wide Web
In addition to the faceted search on the object pages, the website has a dedicated page from which to explore the locations of the collection’s UK contributors. Each link opens a rich pathway to exploration of the United Kingdom. Here again, the collection anchors the visitor experience and local context is seamlessly woven around it. I found myself drawn to this information and explored news, history, and things to do for various counties. Each local site shares the same display template and navigation, which helped me focus on the content rather than having to take time to figure out how each local site works. At one point, I drilled deep into a local site and was unclear on how to navigate back – so I typed “100 objects” into the search and immediately found what I was looking for. Now that’s good information architecture and ease-of-use.
Promote that Brand
The virtual project is accessible exclusively within a British Museum site or a BBC site. Every part of the user experience, from the site display and navigation to the URL structures, reinforce those brands. This is really important.
Many public library sites I visit send me off to a 3rd party site like Flickr, Slideshare, etc. – which perpetuates the 3rd party brand instead of the library’s. In addition to disrupting the navigation and context, this can raise privacy concerns and cause me to abandon the content. (I don’t consume content on popular 3rd party sites that have aggressive user tracking and data collection policies.) Those concerns were not raised on the British Museum/BBC sites that were persistent reminders of the institutions responsible for delivering this wonderful value.
Let’s hope the team that put A History of the World in 100 Objects together does another one soon!