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published: March 2004
Five Become One: how five Manchester museums developed a shared web portal
Pauline Webb, Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester, United Kingdom
This paper will describe how and why five Manchester museums the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester (MSIM), Manchester Art Gallery (MAG), the Manchester Museum (MM), the People's History Museum (PHM) and the Whitworth Art Gallery (WAG) developed a shared web portal for the delivery of information about their collections. The launch of the web portal in May/June 2003 will be the fruition of a four-year collaboration between the five museums. The rationale behind the portal is that, for historic reasons that are unknown to most real and virtual museum visitors, Manchester has five major separately constituted museums, whose collections relate and overlap in a number of ways. By offering a single access-point to information about the combined collections of the partner museums, the web portal will improve public understanding of the collections of all five museums and will enable the museums to work together more effectively through greater knowledge of each other's collections.
Keywords: collaboration, Manchester, museum portal
Manchester is unusual amongst the large British cities outside London in having five museums with outstanding collections that are separately constituted and governed.In most other cities of similar size, such as Birmingham, Leeds and Liverpool, the major museums and art galleries are united through common governance and jointly cover the full range of museum disciplines. In Manchester, the existence of multiple museum bodies and the nature of their disciplinary specialisms may be confusing to users. For example, actual and potential users may be unclear as to what characterises, distinguishes or, indeed, conjoins the art collections of the Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth Art Gallery. Similarly, it is not immediately obvious from their names that the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester covers only the physical sciences, whereas the Manchester Museum covers the natural sciences.
An opportunity to address these issues arose when the Museums and Galleries Commission (subsequently reconstituted as Resource, the Council for Museums, Libraries and Archives) introduced the Designation Scheme for collections held by non-national English museums in 1997. This scheme provided a method of assessing collections and determining which collections could be deemed to be of pre-eminent national and international importance. The five Manchester museums successfully applied for Designation of parts or all of their collections. The purpose of the Designation Scheme was not simply to formally acknowledge the existence of such collections, but also to provide a basis for channelling national funding to support them. Accordingly, the Designation Challenge Fund was introduced for a three-year initial term in 1999 and extended for a further two years in 2002.
All five Manchester museums were keen to take advantage of this new funding stream to improve the recording and management of information about their collections. They decided to collaborate on the procurement of a collections management system and the commissioning of two interrelated research reports: a feasibility study into the potential for shared access to collections information and audience research relating to the delivery of collections information via the web. The collections management system was procured through a joint tendering process, at the end of which the partners were unanimous in opting to purchase KE Software's EMu collections management system. The partnership yielded both tangible and intangible benefits, chief amongst which was the saving of about a third of the costs of the license fees and hence the annual support charges of a new collections management system. This was achieved through the partners successfully negotiating to be treated as one client group. Other benefits have included the pooling of skills and knowledge in both the selection and the development of the system.
From the beginning, all five partners were committed to making collections information available via their web sites and thus required the chosen collections management system to provide a web interface facility. Hence, in order to be able to develop web interfaces that succeeded in meeting the needs of their users, the audience research project was carried out in parallel with the procurement process. As the partners were also investigating the feasibility of shared hosting arrangements, the market research contractor was specifically briefed to include multi-museum sites and portal sites, such as Australian Museums On Line, amongst the test web sites.
The resulting audience research report, titled Great Expectations, proved to be extremely informative, in terms of both web site design and content issues. It also provided strong support for the concept of the Manchester museums web portal, as shown by the following extracts:
The report identified three behavioural types of museum user - characterised as browser, searcher and researcher - according to the way that they engage with information, a model that is equally applicable applies to both the 'real' museum audience and the 'virtual' museum audience. However, it is the distinctions between these audiences that support the case for the web portal:
Thus the target audience for the portal site includes all types of user.
The rationale for the web portal
Although shared hosting proved to be unfeasible in the short term for a number of logistical reasons, the partners remained committed to the concept of providing 'one-stop' access to their combined collections. By its capacity to attract a cross-section of the combined web audience of the five museums, the portal site would increase awareness of and access to all of Manchester's Designated collections. This is expected to increase audience for the museums individual web sites because of the potential for audience crossover. As the Great Expectations report found that visits to museum web sites were not seen as a substitute for real visits, increased awareness of the partner museums and their collections is expected to result in an increase in real visits as well as virtual visits. The portal would assist the planning of a physical visit by making it easier for both local and remote web users to identify the museum or museums that hold the material that they are interested in.
This rationale was sufficiently persuasive to result in the award of a grant of £30,000 from the Designation Challenge Fund to develop and evaluate the web portal over 2002-2003.
The web portal model
While much of the data structure of KE EMu, the shared collections management system, is fixed, disciplinary variations are allowed for and have been applied in the partners' individual systems. This means that the data sets are not automatically compatible for cross-collection querying and an intervening process is required. In order to save time and effort, the partners agreed to adopt a tried and tested mechanism for museum data exchange the extended set of Dublin Core metadata elements that was developed for the CIMI Dublin Core testbed project. Before opting for this approach, they undertook a preliminary exercise of mapping their EMu data fields to the 15 CIMI Dublin Core elements to ensure that it would be a workable format. The only problem that emerged was that a few of the metadata elements would have required additional data development, so those elements have been omitted from the model.
The process of developing the web portal model has been greatly assisted by KE Software's decision to develop a generic web portal facility for EMu. This decision was prompted not only in response to the Manchester museums web portal proposal, but also in response to the desire of other client museums for EMu to be in some way interoperable with other collections management systems. For example, one of KE Software's major clients is the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, which, for obvious reasons, wanted to be able to exchange data with other branches of the Smithsonian that use different systems. The generic EMu portal facility exports data from the collections management system in XML format to the EMU portal, which can also receive data in XML format from other sources, as illustrated in the diagram below. The configuration of the portal query interface, which can be set up to meet the client museum's requirements, determines how the data is accessed and presented. Query formats and display records are created using the generic set of PHP tools developed by KE Software for the EMu web interface function.
In the case of the Manchester web portal, the dynamic cross-collection query interface is the core of portal, but it is supported by static web pages that assist users to get the most out of the site. These supporting sections include an 'About Us' section that will provide background information on each museum/gallery and its collections, a 'Query Tips' section that will provide additional guidance on how to format an effective search and a 'Contact Us' section for emailed enquiries and feedback. The web portal resides on the dedicated EMu server shared by the Manchester Museum and the Whitworth Art Gallery, which are both part of the University of Manchester. All partner museum servers have the appropriately mapped Dublin Core filters installed. As shown in the diagram below, the way that the portal query interface works is that the query is sent to each museum's server, where it is translated through the Dublin Core filter so that matching data is identified in the EMu database. The query results are then returned, back through the Dublin Core filter, to the portal. Users will have the choice of a basic keyword query that will search all fields or an advanced query featuring selected individual fields.
As the data fields that are accessible through the web portal are restricted to the Dublin Core elements, the level of data available to users is less comprehensive than the data available through the museums' individual web sites. Therefore, the portal data display screens have a link to the individual web sites, so that a user who wants more information is directed to the source of the fullest available matching record. For example, to reduce storage demands and data transmission times, the portal web site will only contain thumbnail images, whereas larger images may be available on the individual web site.
Assuming that the findings of the planned evaluation demonstrate that the Manchester museums web portal provides a valuable service to users, there are various ways in which it might be extended and enhanced. The current phase has followed a 'no frills' approach, as the first stage of the portal development inevitably needed to focus primarily on the 'nuts and bolts' of the portal functionality. As any further development depends on funding availability, the partners have currently focused on ways forward that would meet the objectives of two new funding streams: Renaissance in the Regions and Culture Online. The first of these initiatives, Renaissance in the Regions, is a nationally funded programme that will establish nine regional museum hubs in England. The primary mission of the regional hubs is to increase access to museums for sectors of the population that are currently under-represented amongst museum audiences. It is perceived that this objective can best be achieved through museums working together more effectively on a regional basis. Extending the Manchester museums web portal to include other hub museums in North West England would provide a means of improving understanding of the region's collections.
The second initiative, Culture Online, is another nationally funded initiative, with a budget of £13 million. Its vision is to use digital technologies to "build a bridge between learners of all ages and the rich resources of the cultural sector", the cultural sector being defined as encompassing museums, galleries, libraries, archives, theatres and orchestras. Culture Online is still at the formative stage, but the Manchester museum partners have already submitted an 'expression of interest', which is the first stage of the funding application process. The premise for the Manchester bid is that the Manchester museums web portal could be extended to incorporate more partners and then functionally enhanced by developing a series of interactive components, which would make the content more appealing to a wider audience. Two examples of ways in which collections information could be presented in a way that is more responsive to user interests and offers greater user participation are: virtual exhibition tours led by avatars, which could be pre-configured but also custom-built; a 'curate your own exhibition facility', whereby users choose what they want to put in the virtual exhibition and the type of setting, and develop their own interpretation.