Museums and the Web 1999

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Published: March 1999.


Museums and Libraries in the Age of the Internet: Lessons Learned from the Invention of a Collaborative Website

Deborah Schwartz, Brooklyn Museum of Art, USA

The Brooklyn Expedition ( is a dynamic, interactive and evolving educational web site created as a collaborative venture by the Brooklyn Museum of Art (BMA), the Brooklyn Children's Museum (BCM) and the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL). Sharing an interest in expanding public access to their institutions, these partners have designed a web site that expands and enriches educational resources available to young people, their families, and their teachers. Based upon a discovery model of learning, and driven by visual imagery, the site has inspired three cultural institutions to invent new software, and to look at issues of visual and research literacy in new ways. The site is designed for nine to twelve year olds, for use independently, or in a school setting, under the guidance of a teacher who chooses to integrate the site into pre-existing curricula.

The partnership represents a model of collaboration for a number of reasons. The concept of the site was developed from its very inception by participants with decision making powers from all three organizations. There was no "lead" partner, and no one served as window dressing for the project. Everyone had a reason to want the web site created, and each of the three institutions had something to learn from the other. The team came together with distinct expertise prepared to share and learn from the others involved. The initial team for the project included Kevin Allard-Mendelson, Director of Information Technologies at BPL, Cheryl Bartholow, Director for Programs at the BCM, and myself.

From the BPL the project had access to enormous technological expertise and resources; from the BCM a history of smart child-based program development; and from the BMA an approach to working with art objects that was based in decades of object based teaching in the galleries. In addition, the BCM had recently begun work with the Association of Science Technology Centers and the Exploritorium on a web site; the BMA, had just solidified plans to open a new multi-media resource center for use by teachers and kids; and the BPL was in the midst of a huge technological drive while simultaneously expanding its efforts to serve young audiences.

The initial discussions about the web site were prompted by several factors. First, each of the three institutions had new directors, all eager to collaborate and join forces in various efforts to strengthen the cultural resources of Brooklyn. Second, conversations with Bell Atlantic and the Brooklyn Borough President began to reveal the potential for financial and political support on a joint project that would focus on new technology initiatives that would benefit the cultural community of Brooklyn. As the project evolved, additional support was provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS.)

The goals for the project emerged slowly from a sustained series of conversations between members of the newly established multi-institutional team. Each meeting persuaded us that there was an important opportunity to seize in joining forces and that there was a shared agenda on which to focus. Conversation began in late 1996, and the project goals evolved over the next six months in an organic process of discussion, debate, and trial and error. At the time, the team had no idea that the IMLS would become passionately committed to supporting the joint technology efforts of museums and libraries in ways that would make this project an ideal model of such collaboration.

As we forged ahead we refined our goals, which, briefly stated are

  1. to create a dynamic web-based resource that increases access to and use of our collections by youth, families and educators in Brooklyn,

  2. to create a model for the concepts of research and visual literacy that will parallel the more commonly understood concept of reading literacy, using tools made available through the Expedition,

  3. to build a long term partnership among the three institutions that incorporates new strategies for collaborative programming and cross utilization of services, and finally

  4. to develop and evaluate a pilot program that could serve as a national model for the creation of mutually beneficial collaborations between museums and libraries.

  The plans are evidently ambitious, and it should be noted, that they became more so as the potential for the Expedition began to reveal itself. Our approach to planning the scope and scale of the project was based upon our willingness to imagine new approaches to our collections, to test out these ideas with feedback from children and teachers, to rethink and retool components of the project according to user feedback, and to expand the Expedition team based upon identifiable needs. What began as a small team of staff members from the three institutions, quickly expanded to include a project manager (Jill Fruchter), a designer (Catherine Eng), a writer and site developer (Andrea Moed), a group of teachers from a local public school (lead by Richard Goldstein and Mary Sue Sweeney Price, from PS 321 in Park Slope), an expert on working with teachers on the uses of new technologies (Bret Eynon, from the American Social History Project/Center for Learning and Technology, CUNY), and a consulting expert on evaluation and new technologies (Bill Tally, Center for Children and Technology.)

The substance of the site is built around themes that the Expedition team believed would provide great opportunities to highlight specific holdings from our collections, and at the same time, be meaningful to our targeted nine to twelve year old audience. The first two modules created were "Structures" and "Latin America." A third theme, Brooklyn, will be produced during the spring and summer of 1999. Because of our commitment to visual literacy, and to a model of inquiry-based learning, the site is driven by visual images, as opposed to text. There is no attempt on the site to represent a comprehensive historical or cultural context for the objects shown. Bibliographies and webliographies are prominently available throughout the site, so that users will be aware of our recommendation that the Expedition be used in conjunction with other resources, be they books, CD-ROMS or other web sites. In addition, each book or artifact featured on the site is linked to information about where and how to find it when you go to the owner institution (floor plans at the BCM and BMA, call numbers and information about local branches for the BPL.) All of this information can be printed out, along with free visitor passes to the BCM and (the library is already free!).

The Expedition team is eager to test our thesis about the relationship between the site and the experience found in our institutions. What happens if users only learn about our collections from the web? What happens if they begin their inquiries at the museums or library and then discover the web site? Have we created complimentary experiences? Are these enhancements valuable? Do they create deeper levels of curiosity? Do they encourage the development of visual literacy? Does the site help people with their understanding of how to conduct research at the museum or in the library? Have we provided tools for accessing more (or more meaningful) information than was previously available to our visitors? Or will users respond to the objects in our collections just as they always have? Does our site create a greater degree of confidence or a sense of intimacy for a nine year old? Does the site provide a window of introduction that will make the use of the museum or the library more meaningful?

The goal, or course, is to repeatedly remind the user that the information available on the Expedition is far more powerful when used in tandem with a visit to the museums and the library. A summary of a book, a critique by a child from a local public school and a biography of the author is helpful, but reading the entire book, is obviously the most significant use of the resource. Likewise, a careful exploration of the BMA's Huastec Life-Death figure on the site will only be complete when it has been seen "in the flesh." The size of the object, the quality of the materials it is made from, the subtlety of the carved designs on an authentic work of art, should be coupled with the virtual experience that the Expedition provides, rather than serving as a surrogate. Our interest in the visitor's experience of observing, questioning and investigating is represented by several components throughout the site. Beginning with a general introduction to the Brooklyn Expedition, the user is invited to explore the site through broad themes, or by logging on to their own personal journal which they will be able to keep throughout this and any future journeys on our Expedition. If a visitor chooses to use the journal they are also invited to participate in various activities and Expedition based "adventures" that are posed at the opening of the journal. These meta-activities, as we refer to them, might suggest a particular type of journey through the site and provide you with some basic tools (for example we might suggest that you approach the site through the lens of an archeologist, or an architect.) After entering a particular thematic area of the Expedition, the user is introduced to sub-themes, glossaries, bibliographies, webliographies and magnified details of particular objects. Information is revealed to the viewer in roll-overs, close up explorations of art works, activity sheets, "find it" maps and floor plans of the various institutions, galleries of related images, and challenges or games to be played at various points throughout the site. Of particular interest to many of our younger users have been the "build-a-bug" and "build-a-bridge" games. These are designed, in part, to help kids (and other users) learn how to navigate confidently with a mouse, and to be playful in thinking about the complex ways in which animals and building are the sum of their parts. Always, the user has the option of moving back and forth between the Expedition and the journal, which can capture images and text from the Expedition or any other web site. These texts and images may be edited together with the users own research, analysis, and interpretive writing about a subject of his or her choice.

The creation of the Journal was one of the biggest financial and time commitments made by the Expedition team during the evolution of the site. Its development was the result of formative research that shifted our thinking about the progress of the site. After we worked with a group of teachers at Public School 321 in Park Slope over several sessions, first when we developed the themes of the Expedition, and then later to show them the first prototypes of the site, they made it very clear to us that while the site had some interesting components, it did not have enough interactivity or depth to sustain continuous use in a classroom. They thought we might be interested in some particularly fine examples of some interactive programs that the fifth grade students in the school had created using a software program called Microworld. Startled, stimulated, and slightly depressed, we learned two important things at that consulting session. First, that we needed to create an interactive component for the site that would allow kids and teachers to create their own components of the site: activities, and projects that might begin with the Expedition, but most certainly wouldn't end there. Second, we learned that eventually we would need to enlist children to become active members of our development and production team. The first idea became the journal. The second will occur this spring with the creation of the "Brooklyn" theme.

One of the interesting and less public pieces of the Expedition story is the way in which our ability to work as a team evolved and became increasingly sophisticated. Meetings of various sizes and shapes remain the foundation of our work together. In addition, reporting out on these various meetings, via e-mail messages has been essential in keeping everyone "on the same page." Good and thoughtful meeting notes distributed to the entire group meant that if you missed a meeting you were not out of the loop. But the fast and furious reporting structure occasionally led to its own perils. When you had a question or opinion about a decision that had just been made, or was about to be made with whom do you communicate? The rounds of debate or the escalation of a problem could easily ensue. We quickly established protocols that placed out project manager at the center of this communication, and we were able to rely upon her to determine who needed to know what and when a decision was really and truly finally reached about future directions.

Perhaps the most dynamic aspect of the "behind the scenes" Expedition is the Production site. (It is not available for public viewing.) The production site allows everyone in the project to see work in the ongoing and rapidly changing development stages, to review the writers outlines, the designers prototypes, and the current set of digital images that have been scanned and are ready for use. It has become an essential tool in allowing us to work closely with curatorial staff who we are constantly asking to vet our scripts and our prototypes that are based upon their scholarship and expertise. As our Journal software is developed we are able to post specs for the software so that each team member may review it and get back to the project manager with questions. All of this communication may be second nature to designers, architects and multi-media developers, but this set of tools is only recently being introduced to other members of the cultural professions. The notion of shared prototypes, the ability to visualize scenarios in formative stages and to rework projects before they have any public manifestation opens new opportunities for staff to discuss and debate projects whose flaws are often unrecognized until the finished product is unchangeable. The potential uses of the "shared production site" in the planning of all types of museum and library projects is a profound addition to our bag of tricks.

The immediate challenges ahead for the Expedition are a series of Teacher Workshops in which we will introduce the Expedition to a range of fifth through tenth grade teachers, giving them tools for how to use the Expedition in conjunction with visits to the three institutions and in tandem with their pre-existing curricula. We expect to learn a great deal from their responses to the project. And as is always the case with teachers, we expect them to generate new ideas that will feed the Expedition's future shape and scope.

Simultaneously we will launch a qualitative study of how people use the site in home and school settings, and how they understand its relationship to the actual collections of the three institutions that have created it. The study will require a combination of careful observation, interviews with users, and long term tracking of Expedition use by people of various ages and in different environments. Our approach will trace how learning with the web site happens in and across social settings and relationships, and will look at the ways that different settings shape the use of our tools, while the tools, in part, transform the people using them. We are particularly eager to examine how a dynamic resource like the Brooklyn Expedition can serve to introduce our cultural resources to a diverse group of children and their families. These findings will be essential in helping us to think about what the Brooklyn Expedition will look like in 2001 and beyond.

The Brooklyn Expedition began much like any other project-an idea and an opportunity to utilize institutional resources. It evolved into a long-range plan for sustained work and growth by a group of diversely talented educators and technical experts. What lies ahead are as yet unanswered questions about where new technologies will lead our thinking about education and the internet, and how it will inform our understanding of how to make cultural collections accessible in effective ways to young audiences.