by • 8 Apr, 2011 • Technology, Thoughts about museumsComments (3)9679

Born Digital Museums – Wrap up of MW2011 unconference session

Digital Wall
Photo by Craig on

At yesterday’s unconference sessions at Museums and the Web, I proposed a discussion about what digital museums could look like. What would a born digital museum in the 21st century be if we look beyond Second Life? Magdalena, Martin, Chloë, Jamie, Fiona, Timothy, Linda, Nanna and Fiona shared some great ideas, which I’m happy to share with everybody.

The Open University Challenge

In 1965 the Open University (UK) started being planned to challenge many of the presumptions of traditional universities. When it opened in 1969 many people did not believe the model of a ‘virtual’, easily accessible and inclusive would prove viable. In 2011, the Open University is still around and educating over a quarter million students a year, with its concept exported to many other countries.

A “born digital museum”, in many ways, faces the same challenges as the Open University did once. Why is the Open University successful? And, can we apply these lessons to a museum, to make it succeed as a museum without a physical location?

Representation of artefacts and narrative

Immersive and emotional have been used so often in discussions about (online) presentations, that they’ve become a cliché. Yet, as all clichés, there’s truth in them. A digital museum should have digital representations of artefacts (and especially born digital artefacts). However, it should not be a nearly endless bunch of fabulous data. Every artefact and every presentation requires an (emotionally) inspiring narrative to trigger discovery and curiosity.

Apart from wonderful data, the Wikipedia experience is also serendipitous discovery of information.

The context of the artefacts (stories, etc.) and connections with other sources of information and experience are more important in the digital museum than the artefact itself.

Additionally, the representation of both artefact and context should be ‘beautiful’. Use of high quality video, audio and professional scripts are a precondition to success, according to the participants of the session. As one said, “There’s no substitute for an artistic vision to be able to capture the artefact.”

Communication specialists should work together closely with curators to design the presentation of the digital museum.

Games! (Or not?)

The word ‘game’, like ‘museum’ has a strong, but different meaning to many people. Although it’s tempting to think about a digital museum as a game (aren’t games incredibly successful?) one should take care when using the word ‘game’. Gameplay and game elements should be sources of inspiration for the digital museum, though.

Games are good at getting repeat-visitors. To achieve this as a digital museum, the participants of the session proposed multilayered narratives that encourage visitors to dive deeper into the story every time they visit, as well as adding new stories regularly, to keep people interested.

Try a lot of different things to see what works to make a digital museum succeed and look beyond the contemporary idea of what a museum is. One said, “People should not think of [the digital museum] as a museum.” It should simply be somewhere they want to go, regardless of the label.

All participants in the session agreed it’s a tremendous opportunity to be building a digital museum in the 21st century. Although no blueprint was drawn, many of the preconditions given, to me, are very useful. I tried to capture as much as possible of the discussion in this post, but have missed a lot as well. Please feel free to add whatever you think this discussion needs!

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