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Nine of the UK's biggest museums have recently launched an online project which aims to make greater use of their websites, as well as providing educational and social resources for students and the general public.

The £1.5m government funded project also involves the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Portrait Gallery, the Tate, Natural History Museum, the Wallace Collection, Royal Armouries, Sir John Soane's Museum and Imperial War Museum.

Webquests is an online educational tool for students and teachers which pulls together content from the various museums to create projects and teach research skills, while Creative Spaces is a social application that enables users to search across the museums' content and create groups around their interests.

I've been talking to Steve Gardam, who is head of corporate education of the Imperial War Museum, who has been working on the collaborative project:

Why link the nine museums up online?

It’s as simple as the fact that it hasn’t been done before. There was an opportunity to get funding for the project from the government meant that we could get by linking the nine museums together online.

We wanted to make more of the content available on the nine museums websites, and show the government the benefits of linking up online. We also benefitted by sharing ideas and collaborating on the project together.

Collaborating between museums online has allowed us to show a broader picture to users of the Webquests. For instance, the story of the Sikh Warrior Tradition uses material on Indian soldiers in both world wars that comes from the Imperial War Museum, but we can also use material from the British Museum and the V&A which goes back further and gives a broader picture.

Webquests - Sikh Warrior Tradition

What were the challenges involved in getting the project going?

There is a real range in terms of the size of staff and resources in the different museums involved, and the levels of resources allowed for each museums online content, while there were also technical challenges.

There is not one standard system for all of the websites, so combining resources and providing a lot of different content in detail was a challenge. The technology required to create a federated search across the nine museums’ content wasn’t that complex though.

However, we had to take time to listen to other people’s opinions, so there had to be a lot of talking before we could launch. Basecamp was incredibly useful for a collaborative project like this; it’s the first time I have used it and I found it immensely helpful, and the ability to log in, track discussions, upload files etc had been a real asset for the project. For some museums, the project required a sea change in thinking, taking an inherently non-digital thing and making it accessible online.

There were other issues such as copyright which had to be overcome, especially in the case of artworks by living artists. While some museums had the rights to display certain content on their own websites, this didn’t necessarily stretch to sharing it online across the nine museums.
One way we got around this was to use Flash for Webquests, which prevents users from copying and pasting images, while we have showed detailed views of sections in some cases, rather than the entire image.

How long did the project take?

I joined it in July 2007, but the whole project was 4 or 5 years in the offing from the original idea to actually starting to get it off the ground.
Now we are getting towards the end of the beginning; we have the Webquests and the federated search function, and we will continue to use these resources.

For instance, the National Portrait Gallery has said that it will write four more per year, and we will be doing more around our exhibitions.

You have also launched a Creative Spaces website as part of the project – what is the focus?

This is aimed at a much broader audience than the Webquests, who are often defined by the catch-all term ‘lifelong learners’. It’s an online community site where users can create groups around their interests across the museums.

For instance, history teachers could create a group for students around a particular topic, using content from the nine museums and restricting access to a select group. We can also create groups around exhibitions at the museum to get people more involved. We have got the resource out there, and we’ll see how people want to use it.

How have you used the Imperial War Museum website so far?

It has mostly been about providing information on opening times for visitors, letting them know about what’s on offer, and advertising upcoming exhibitions. However, we have a Head of new media starting this year and we will start to do more online around the exhibitions at the museum.

What this project has allowed us to do is look at learning online, and we’ll be cresting more Webquests and digital spaces around the exhibitions at the museums, allowing people to experience the museum online and contribute from a distance.

One example of this is a project we ran last summer, where we took students to Hiroshima to see the effects of the Second World War as well as meeting survivors of the Atomic bomb. While there, students posted blogs and video diaries online, and people could post questions for the students to ask the survivors of the bomb.

This is the kind of direction we want to head in, making the website and the museum into a social space, and not just a one way flow of information.

Graham Charlton

Published 18 March, 2009 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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