Developing Meaningful On-line Exhibitions:
John Dalrymple and Roxane Shaughnessy, Textile Museum of Canada; Barbara J. Soren, Independent Consultant; Diane Wolfe, Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, Toronto, Canada
Cloth & Clay: Communicating Culture is an on-line exhibition developed by the Textile Museum of Canada and the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art. It explores over 2,000 years of Mexican, Central and South American history, introducing ancient and contemporary objects and the people who made them to a global audience. The on-line environment brings the two museum collections together in an interactive and visually enticing environment not possible in a traditional museum gallery.
Cloth & Clay is a vast information resource that maximizes the exploratory, unrestricted nature of the Web. Careful information architecture and quality overall design combine to produce the very language of storytelling on-line. Every object in Cloth & Clay has a story to tell. Multiple paths of discovery lend multiple voices to the object's storytellers, enhancing presentation and broadening audience appeal.
The site was created over a one-year period, and offers a model for other institutions hoping to achieve meaningful museological expression on-line. The launch of the on-line exhibit on the Virtual Museum of Canada Web site in October, 2002, paralleled a temporary physical exhibition at the Textile Museum of Canada. We will outline the model we developed to create this product – which involved cutting edge audience research, unique curatorial perspective, indigenous consultation and contribution, academic advisors, institutional collaboration and managing technology – at the Museums and the Web 2004 conference.
Target users helped with the design of the site through front-end concept testing, formative evaluation of the prototype Teacher Resources section, and summative evaluation on-line. We will focus on the Summative Evaluation phase of our audience research. As small to medium-sized institutions, we wish to show by example the great potential the Web has for museums of any size to reach out in meaningful ways to a wide audience.
The creation of the Cloth & Clay Web site has had a significant impact on each partner institution, encouraging new investments in technological infrastructure and raising staff awareness of this medium's great potential for museums. The CD-ROM version of Cloth & Clay: Communicating Culture won the 2003 AAM Museum Publications Design Competition for CD-ROMs / Budget above $500,000. The 2003 winners of the Best of the Web competition based on Museum Web sites from around the world included Cloth and Clay in the list of five finalists (retrieved from http://www.archimuse.com/mw2003/best/final_virtual.html)
Keywords: Virtual exhibits, Museum audiences, Storytelling, Museums & the Internet, Museological models for Web exhibit creation, Museum collaboration, Mexico, Central America, South America, Systematic user testing
Through electronic networks, images and ideas from the world's cultural heritage can be brought together in a virtual space. In Cloth & Clay: Communicating Culture, we have devised a virtual exhibition that integrates a selection of Mexican, Central American and South American ceramics from the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art with related textiles from the collection of the Textile Museum of Canada.
The Web site Cloth & Clay: Communicating Culture http://www.textilemuseum.ca/cloth_clay is a joint project funded by the Virtual Museum of Canada. Exploring over 2,000 years of history, this rich and detailed on-line exhibition introduces ancient and contemporary objects from the two museums' collections, and tells some of the stories belonging to the descendants of ancient weavers and potters.
Textiles rarely seen outside of museum storage facilities and ceramics are featured in an interactive, image-rich environment which through multiple perspectives and points of view invites viewers along a path of discovery. A physical counterpart to this virtual exhibition was mounted at the Textile Museum of Canada (September 2002 – February 2003). It presented some of the objects featured in the Web site, showing the relationships discovered among them.
Key aspects of this Web site project were Front-end, Formative and Summative audience evaluation, the hiring of indigenous and academic advisors, and information architecture designed for accessibility (no plug-ins, or special downloads). The Web site receives over 160,000 visitors a year. Recently, Cloth & Clay was one of the five finalists in the international "Best of the Web" competition organized by Museums and the Web. The project has also won awards from the American Association of Museums and the Ontario Association of Art Galleries for publication excellence, curatorial writing, and Web design.
The Textile Museum Of Canada and The Gardiner Museum Of Ceramic Art
The Textile Museum of Canada (TMC) and the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art (GMCA) are medium-sized institutions with specialized collections situated in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Annual visitors to the GMCA number 60,000 and to the TMC, 40,000.
Both museums have membership bases of around 1,000. We mount several exhibitions a year and carry out active outreach and pubic educational programming centered on our collections and exhibitions. The TMC holds over 10,000 textiles and related artifacts from around the world. The GMCA has over 3,000 ceramics in its collection. Both institutions constantly seek new ways of providing broad and meaningful access to the collections we hold in trust.
The Web project was inspired by the desire to bring together collections from both museums representing similar geographic and cultural contexts. By combining them in virtual space, we wanted to discover the relationships among them. It was an opportunity to explore the potential of the Web for medium-sized institutions, provide on-line access to two outstanding collections, and deliver the best methodology we could develop for presenting cultural information on-line.
Front-End & Formative Audience Research
Collecting concrete audience feedback to the concepts, designs, and goals of an exhibition is crucial for any project meant to create a visitor-centered museum experience. User or usability testing at various stages of development provides in-depth qualitative information about users' on-line preferences, interests, and experiences. For example, Dowden, Sayre, and Wetterlund (2000) reported on user testing of ArtsConnectEd, a collaborative collections/resource database developed for teachers and students by the Walker Art Center and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (http://www.archimuse.com/mw2000/abstracts/prg_75000189.html).
User testing was conducted in three phases throughout the development and production of the Cloth & Clay Web site through Front-end, Formative, and Summative audience research. Dr. Barbara Soren developed the audience research, in consultation with John Dalrymple, the Project Manager (see also Soren, 2004, http://www.informalscience.org/download/ case_studies/report_68.pdf; Soren, in press; Soren & Lemelin, 2004).
Front-end testing occurred at the commencement of the project to test the preliminary content and design concepts for the Web site. Individuals were invited to the museum to participate in two-hour, one-on-one interviews with Dr. Soren. Every session was recorded on audiotape and observed by the Project Manager and Web designer. Participants in the testing were selected as being likely end-users and as representatives of key target audiences. Front-end test participants included teachers, students, museum professionals, artists/craftspeople, Web designers, Museum members, and general museum-goers.
Users were asked a series of questions relating to the objectives and concepts defined in the original funding application for the project. They provided feedback that helped the development team streamline and refine the stated goals of the Web site. An important area of focus for each user-test was participant feedback relating to individual objects. The curatorial team had selected 80 objects for potential inclusion in the exhibition: 40 from each institution. Digital images of each were arranged in sequence for scroll-through viewing on a computer screen. As the images of each object slowly scrolled by, users were encouraged to stop the scrolling and draw attention to any object they wished.
This unrestricted activity was crucial to discovering which objects tended to attract more attention, as well as to revealing the true opinions of users. Because the objects were presented without any formal design, important information was revealed about design considerations unique to presenting museum objects in the Web medium. For most objects, users were curious to know what it was, how it was used, where it came from, who made it, and why people made the objects. This helped the designer frame the presentation of much of the interpretive information so that it correlated with those questions. This also gave curatorial team members an opportunity to present each object from a variety of perspectives.
Through this process, the importance of storytelling became very clear. Many of the ancient objects have been damaged by the ravages of time, leaving them with missing sections or other injury. Others still, as products of another culture and time, did not appear to have any utilitarian purpose easily recognized by the user-test participants. Time and again, questions were asked relating to these issues. "What happened to that missing section?" "Who is that person depicted on that vessel?" People wanted to know the stories behind these individual objects. It became clear that this method of presenting information about how an object was made, used, interred and later rediscovered – in a narrative format – would be a meaningful way of building knowledge with the public.
The section titled "Let the Objects Speak" was heavily influenced in both design and interpretive approach by the feedback gleaned from users. It stands as an effective model for presenting this type of material culture in an on-line environment.
We determined that a key target audience for Cloth & Clay would be teachers. In order to make the Web site more useful and effective for them, resources were invested in the creation of a "Teacher's Resources" section containing themes and classroom activities related to the Ontario school curriculum, but useful to a global audience. Patricia Bentley, Education Curator at the TMC, developed these resources. As the success of this section depended on its actual usefulness to teachers, the development team identified it as an element appropriate for a Formative Evaluation. Therefore, the second phase of user testing, a formative stage to test the Teacher's Resources prototype for the Web site, was undertaken in the late spring of 2002, six months after we completed the front-end user testing.
Once the "Teacher's Resources" were defined and Web-developed, one-on-one focus group interviews were conducted by Dr. Soren with teachers and students from a variety of school boards, grade levels, and subjects. As end-users with defined and practical concerns, their feedback to the design and contents of this section was extremely useful to developers, allowing the team to refine the presentation to better suit the needs of school-based users.
Design Of the Web Site
In its design and presentation, Cloth & Clay represents the culmination of three years of inquiry into presenting Museum content on-line. The end result is not a flashy site. It is meant to be aesthetically appealing and it relies heavily on visual communication, but it is very straightforward. We wanted a design that would be democratic and easily viewed on a variety of systems. This is a cornerstone of museum practice- to make the artifacts and activities accessible to the widest public possible - so it was crucial to us that we not abandon this spirit when working on-line.
An important design imperative of the Cloth & Clay project was to see how far we could push the envelope of basic HTML. The designer felt that this basic coding system could still be used to create impressive, dynamic Web content that is accessible to all and cost effective to produce. Cloth & Clay requires no plug-ins or special downloads as all multimedia were formatted for play in default media players.
One of our main objectives was to provide information of the highest quality. While styles and tastes may change quickly on-line, the need for reliable and useful information will always be constant. We invested in academic advisors to ensure accuracy and indigenous advisors to create more inclusive content. The feedback we received from Front-end user testing informed our design and improved the site's ability to communicate.
Our desire to include useful and high-quality information produced a large body of text and images, far exceeding anything that would be digestible in a traditional gallery space. It was important that the design of the site creatively manage all of this information in a format that would not overwhelm the visitor.
The design of the information architecture is one of the most significant features of the Cloth & Clay design. Extensive labour was spent reformatting massive amounts of textual information – there are over 65,000 words of text on the site - so that it would be presented in a way that was neither overwhelming nor monolithic. The text was crafted and layered to allow users to explore their own paths of discovery, and to uncover more and more knowledge in greater detail as they move through the site in a trajectory based on their own interest.
Another important aspect of the Web site's design, one which helps manage the great amount of textual content, is the utilization of visual communication. The design team worked under the premise that casual Web users tend not to read in detail Web pages that feature many hundreds or thousands of words of text. It was key that each level of text presented be brief and succinct (but with links to more information). To bolster the succinct texts, it was important to utilize other forms of communication. Cloth & Clay relies heavily on the adage that one picture is worth a thousand words. Information about geography, ecology and culture is communicated through images throughout the site. Technical information about objects is also conveyed through high quality images.
Layers of Information
Feedback from the participants involved in Front-end testing made it clear that we were being asked to present objects from a variety of perspectives and to provide multiple levels of information. Therefore, we hired advisors with academic backgrounds specific to the subject matter presented to appraise the validity and quality of the product. All objects were researched in depth so that information at all levels could be presented on the Web site. A "Research Resources" section was developed for reference purposes, and a catalogue record was produced for every object on the site. More or less information could be accessed depending on the visitor's interests.
The Interpretation of the Objects
The wishes of the test group to know the stories behind the objects gave rise to the concept of storytelling, and the narrative format was adopted and used in this exhibition to contextualize the objects.
Based on this narrative concept, several paths of inquiry were developed to bring context and understanding to the objects: Let the Objects Speak for object analysis and storytelling; Exploring Landscapes, for placing objects in a physical and cultural context; and Learn How, for exploring contemporary practices through the stories of the descendants of the ancient weavers and potters.
But museums, individually, are at a disadvantage. In the words of George MacDonald, the first director of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, "No museum has in its keeping the sum total of human knowledge. Each holds pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle" (MacDonald & Alsford, 1997). Other pieces of the puzzle are held by other museums, collectors, and libraries - or have been lost over time.
Cloth & Clay (the virtual exhibition) brings separate pieces of our cultural heritage on-line in virtual space. School children and professional researchers alike can explore the objects, and information ranging from how objects are made to in-depth analyses of their cultural contexts provides a range of opportunities for knowledge building, depending on the interests of the visitor.
A Chimú loin cloth, for example, is pictured with its dimensions, the probable place where it was buried, a timeline of its place in history, an illustration of how it was worn, and details on its structure, with links to explanations of the textile techniques used to create it. It is also possible to delve deeper into the Chimú culture through the "Resources" section, exploring examples of Chimú pottery. A user can also find out more about the landscape of the Chimú culture through the "Exploring Landscapes" section and discover how the dry desert environment and the need to control irrigation contributed to the rise of the Chimú kingdom on the north coast of Peru.
The virtual space created by the Web site enables us to place these objects in multiple narratives or stories, providing the visitor with the opportunity to become a virtual curator engaged in the ‘discovery' of the object in a variety of ways of the visitor's own choosing (Mackenzie, 1997). These combinations of objects and their stories should lead the visitor to new insights and a more profound understanding of our ‘interconnected' cultural heritage.
Summative Audience Research
On-site / On-line Summative User Testing
Coinciding with the launch of the Cloth & Clay site was an in-gallery installation at the TMC. This arrangement provided an opportunity to explore the relationship between on-line and in-gallery experiences with the same objects. Significantly, the Web site preceded the gallery in execution, a rare occurrence in on-line museum activity.
Participants in both the Front-end and Formative evaluations were invited to this final user testing process. Research assistants for the Summative evaluation were Suzanne Einstoss and Gabrielle Trépanier, who were in the final year of the Museum Studies program at University of Toronto. The Summative user testing was an in-depth study with six people previously involved in the Front-end or Formative user testing invited to visit the physical museum and explore the Web site. These participants were already familiar with the project, had previously responded to the objects for the Web site and completed a participant questionnaire, and were thought to be like-minded in their interest in the on-site and on-line exhibition. They were asked to visit during a specified time when the exhibition was open to the public on a Wednesday evening or weekend. The evaluation team was available during those times to observe the Focus Group visitors and to compare their behaviours in the exhibition with casual visitors visiting at the time.
The group included three males and three females of diverse ages:
At the admission area to the Textile Museum, participants received a Textile Museum of Canada folder with their name on it, and inside were materials related to the Cloth and Clay exhibition. They were asked to visit the on-line exhibition after their experience in the exhibition at the Textile Museum, and to keep in mind or note:
Later, they met as a Focus Group within the gallery space to discuss their impressions and experiences, as well as to assess the project's success relative to the goals set.
Participants were paid an honorarium and given free parking. Two teachers in the group also received a CD of the Web site to thank them for their participation in the Formative Evaluation of the Teacher's Resource section of the Web site.
Average Time: The Focus Group visitors spent 31 minutes in the Cloth and Clay exhibition at the Textile Museum, a little longer than the group of Casual visitors who spent an average time of 27 minutes.
General Flow Patterns: For each group, visitors stopped most in the last ‘red' room where there were two mounted display cases with exquisite, stretched white lacy gauze fabrics; displays with mannequins in everyday costume; woven caps hung on the wall; and a display case of shoes. This gallery focused on the life of the weaver today in the various countries of focus in South and Central America.
In looking at the stopping frequencies of the Focus Group visitors and Casual visitors, the Focus Group visitors were more diligent with the texts and stopped in front of panels more often, while the Casual visitor group looked more.
Focus Group and Interviews
For the Focus Group, held in the popular ‘red' room of the on-site exhibition, we asked participants to compare their on-line and on-site experiences about the following general topics:
Reactions to Ceramic and Textile Objects
Which objects did you find interesting on the Web site?
Specific elements of objects on-line and on-site that participants particularly appreciated were the Moche fragments, the ability to restore the hair on one on-line object, and the objects speaking in the first person. Individuals were interested in objects that conveyed "drama and narrative," and felt quite strongly that an on-line image is never as compelling as seeing the actual objects. One of the teachers missed not seeing the Feathered Serpent in the physical exhibition, a theme in the Teacher's Resource section on-line (http://www.textilemuseum.ca/cloth_clay/research_teachers2.html).
Was there anything you wanted to know that you didn't find?
Content related to the objects that participants missed finding was:
The Maya expert interviewed missed the following:
People said, again, that when they were on-line they wanted to come to the Museum. There is "more information on-line" but "you can't beat the real objects." When they were in the physical exhibition they liked:
Suggestions to improve comparisons on-line and on-site:
Themes for the Cloth & Clay Exhibition
There are four themes on-line (Explore the Landscape, Let the Objects Speak, Learning How Objects were Made, Travel Back in Time). Which were most helpful?
People generally felt that links between themes on-line and in the exhibit seemed fairly parallel. One significant comment was: "Some text was identical - word for word duplicate, therefore I just skipped by the written information" in the physical exhibition. "I connected visually with the objects." Another thought it was important that the on-line and on-site exhibitions "are able to stand alone." Others felt that "Integration would be best," "It depends what the Web site is for. If you want it to stand alone then you need all that information" that is on-line.
The Maya expert saw comparisons between the Let the Objects Speak and Explore sections. Explore showed the environmental context for objects. But the "brutality for most cultures at the time was not there." There could be links to Canadian Haida culture (e.g., Michael Fortune making furniture out of mahogany) or an Inca / Mohawk connection with a cultural extension by trade. There could be a link to the Anthropological Web site.
One teacher spent two hours on-line with four Grade 8 students, two boys and two girls. One of the boys was a special needs students and the other a high-end reader. The two girls were high visual learners. They read and considered together on-line. They went to the Back in Time Adventure first, tried all the different responses together, then went to Let the Objects Speak and Explore the Landscape at the end to see how the objects were made. Students liked 3-D and "went for the pottery on-line." They particularly liked the pot with a head (a god eating a figure), which led them to the Nasca fabric piece (heads with hair on them) and were interested in this as the oldest remnant of fabric in the exhibition. They asked about techniques and if people still make the pottery, and wanted to visit the Museum to see the objects and then go back to computer. The teacher wanted to go back to the exhibition to see the trophy heads after she read materials with the CD she was given - she found the story so interesting, and the weaving was strange.
Design Aspects: Connections between the design on-line and on-site
Focus Group participants spent considerable time discussing the graphic and textual elements in the on-line and on-site exhibitions. Generally, they found the typeface small, and the amount of text intimidating. The colours were more appealing on-line, and the relationship of text to images easier on-line. Participants agreed that the on-line and on-site exhibitions were laid out in a similar fashion; the organization was more or less the same.
There were several important comments about the challenges of reading text on-line and on-site:
"It was very difficult to read text on coloured background. I prefer contrast of black and white in the on-line and physical exhibit. Bigger font would be good."
"I had an easier time reading on-line because I am relaxed and sitting vs. in the gallery where you are standing and walking. We all have the tendency to scan to get to what we want."
"I hate an overload of information. It seems to be the trend. The amount of information in the exhibit was intimidating. Hierarchy of information would be good."
"Keep fonts consistent, have a little more space"
For a person who does not need to wear glasses, the fonts were too small, the size has to be bigger on-line and at the Museum. At the Museum she had to get so close to read the text she worried that an alarm might go off.
One teacher (who had expertise in Xerox digital prints) and her students made important observations:
"It would have been nice to know more about types of dyes used. Brown, green, red, and yellow were clear in the exhibition at the Museum but more about blue, a primary colour, would have been helpful."
Her students suggested that the screen be re-organized with the text links to the left (i.e., Who, What, Where), the Objects in the centre, and the text box as it is to the right. This would give more of a sense of vertical space and use more of the space on the screen. They wanted more links throughout the Web site.A map of North / Central / South America was needed to know where exactly this area is geographically.
This exhibition intended to interweave the voices of the curators and the Indigenous peoples represented in Cloth & Clay. Did this come across in the exhibit and on-line? If so, how?
Focus Group participants all agreed that inclusivity was stronger on-line than on-site. They noticed the integration of ‘other' voices in the exhibition. Some felt inclusivity was stronger in the contemporary area, and not as much in the object area of the physical exhibition and the Web site, and that maybe the two areas (contemporary and objects) needed to be combined a bit more. Work made in the past and now, and indigenous to those areas, was clearly labeled with photos of people who made the work. But the aboriginal voice was missing.
Generally, users involved in the on-line and on-site Summative evaluation process confirmed that the goals of the project were clearly and effectively met. The ability to explore interpretive material relating to the objects on display in both virtual and physical mediums was recognized as a genuine asset. It was understood that the Web could never capture the inspirational sensation conveyed when in the presence of a rare or unique museum object. However, the Web can provide more user-directed and in-depth exploration by utilizing medium-specific information architecture. Thoughtful Web design can deliver many layers of curatorial information with multiple paths of discovery and exploration without overwhelming the user.
Cloth & Clay actively exploits the potential of the Web medium, most significantly by exploring many different points of view and perspectives and placing individual objects within multiple narrative streams. It is difficult to look at one object from several different angles or interpretive perspectives in a traditional gallery space, since the object has to sit where it is installed, whereas on-line there is no such limitation, as the design of Cloth & Clay demonstrates.
This project represented an important step for both the Textile Museum of Canada and the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art. It allowed us to work with complementary material and expertise, pooling our resources and knowledge with the goal of engaging the virtual museum visitor in an exploration of past and present cultures that survived the impact of European exploration. These cultures preserved and stimulated ideas which still inform our daily life. Both of our institutions are important centers of learning, but virtually combining the collections and establishing connections to provide context was an innovative experience for both. The benefits included new research on objects, improved knowledge of both collections, the introduction of the staff and Board volunteers to the potential of the Web, and increased enthusiasm and support for digitizing the collections and developing each Museum's own Web site. Finally, and significantly, both access to images of and information about the ceramic and textile objects have been made available to interested publics, scholars, school children and others around the world, raising the profile of both Museums within the international community.
We wish to thank the Virtual Museum of Canada, the Board of Trustees and staff of the Textile Museum of Canada and Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, the Harbinger Foundation, Cloth & Clay: Communicating Culture virtual project team members and advisors, and the artists who allowed us to tell their stories. We would also like to acknowledge the generous support of the Imperial Oil Centre for Studies in Science, Mathematics and Technology Education of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto for their interest in and funding of user testing for this project
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