The World Beach Project is managed by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London with artist-in-residence Sue Lawty. It launched in October of 2007 with a very simple and understandable idea: to produce a global map of pieces of art made with stones on beaches. The World Beach Project does not exist in the V&A Museum. It doesn't involve visitors coming to the museum at all. It's a project that requires people to do four things that are both simple and complex: go to the beach (anywhere in the world), make a piece of art using stones, photograph it, and then send the photos to the museum via the Web.
The World Beach Project is one of very few online museum projects that has truly "gone viral," enjoying press attention and growing participation from people all over the world. In the first two years of its existence (Oct 2007 - now), the World Beach Project received more than 700 contributions, including submissions from every continent except Antarctica, and submissions continue to come in each day. Run a quick search, and you'll find references to the project in over 1,400 blog posts, mostly from individuals around the world who love art, or beaches, and who share their discovery and delight in the project with their small networks of friends.
What makes the World Beach Project so successful? It's not marketing hype. The project has not had any heavy marketing campaigns or contests associated with it. The artist, Sue Lawty, maintains a blog with her reflections on the project and occasionally celebrates particular contributions, but this blog is fairly contained within the project website and is not a major source of web links. The beach artworks are not on display in the physical V&A galleries, nor will their creators receive prizes. Visitors to the website can't even comment on the photos or mark them as favorites. These are not shareable objects beyond the beachcombers who tread the same shores and the people who light upon this part of the V&A's website. The act of making art, and the recognition on a simple website, are the only rewards.
And yet this reward, mixed with an intelligent project design, are enough to make this project attractive to people all over the world. The ask is clear, the activity is compelling, and the display of contributions is simple and inspires greater participation. Let's look at how each of these aspects--the ask, the activity, and the display--contribute to the overall success of the project.
The ask is clear.
The World Beach Project doesn't have a flashy website or fancy animations. It features three parts: very clear instructions on how to participate, a map of all of the contributions to date, and photos of the contributions. The simple statement "I want to add my beach project to the map" is always accessible and obvious in the upper corner of the map, allowing inspired consumers to quickly transition into participants.
While contribution may take many steps, the website instructions are written to make contribution as simple and painless as possible, using phrases like "it is really easy to join in" to convey in everyday language welcome and support for would-be participants. The World Beach Project also uses the classic format of encouraging visitors to the site to browse the content before participating, which encourages people to view model content and further understand how they might be able to contribute. Beach art is democratic, and while Lawty, a professional artist, modeled the activity by making beach sculptures of her own, the artistic endeavor required to be successful is attainable by anyone, and participants didn't need encouragements or instructions to know how to make beach sculptures.
Each contributor is required to submit her name, the location of the beach, the year of the creation, a photo of the finished artwork, and a brief statement about how the work was made. Contributors can also optionally upload two additional photos: one of the beach and one of the work in process. The process is well-designed to remind participants what will be asked of them and how to meet the criteria, and the V&A provides participants with legal terms and conditions explaining that you are granting the museum a non-exclusive license to your contributed content. While the terms are written in legalese and may not be understandable to all participants, I appreciate the V&A's placement of the terms out in the open (rather than asking you to agree to something you have not read). Many museums do not provide participants with clear terms surrounding their submissions, and for savvy people (especially artists!) such statements are a must not only from a legal standpoint, but to promote mutual trust and understanding between participants and institutions.
The activity is compelling.
Contributing to the World Beach Project is not easy, and yet, the Victoria and Albert Museum has received many more submissions than other museums receive for much simpler photo- or video-based online contributory projects. I have browsed hundreds of contributions that are beautiful, thoughtful, and on-topic. What makes the World Beach Project so successful? This is a project in which participants immediately and self-evidently perceive the personal benefits of participation. You aren't trying to win anything; you're just going to make a piece of art on a beach and share it with others. Sue Lawty, the artist who initiated the project, is a textile artist, and she wrote about the World Beach Project being "a global drawing project; a stone drawing project that would speak about time, place, geology and the base instinct of touch." Through her own personal take on the project, Lawty encouraged participants to think of themselves as part of something greater--part of a community of artists and a geologically-connected ecosystem.
In their personal statements, beach artists wrote about profound connections to nature. They celebrated structures that disappeared after ten minutes but were "worth it." People shared stories of coming back to visit their creations again and again, seeing how the ocean and other people had altered their designs. The World Beach Project is, in its own small way, important. It isn't about collecting photos for a marketing campaign, or making a quick-e-card to send home. It's about making art, connecting to the earth, and being part of something greater.
By asking people to do something that is complicated, Lawty and the V&A express their respect for participants' competence and artistic ability. Yes, many contributory projects succeed by asking people to do something quick and easy - to register an opinion or share a small personal expression. But these are only as successful as the ask is genuine. Visitors, like all people, want the opportunity to show the world (and themselves) that they are interesting, capable, and worthy. Too often, we look at dismal rates of participation in basic contributory projects and assume, "this is too complicated for visitors." But in many cases, visitors may simply choose not to submit a photo for a contest or a thought into a comment box because the request seems insincere, demeaning, or silly. No one likes to have their time wasted.
In her research on happiness and gaming, Jane McGonigal has stated that people need four things to be happy: satisfying work to do, the experience of being good at something, time spent with people we like, and the chance to be part of something bigger. The World Beach Project accommodates all of these goals for participants. In other words, it's a contributory project that is optimized to make participants happy. And that sets it apart.
The display is easy to navigate and inspires participation.
As noted above, the display of the beach artwork is blended well with the ask, so visitors can easily transition from spectator to participant. That said, the World Beach folks recognize that this is a fairly hefty ask--not everyone can get to the beach--and I assume that many people come to the site, like myself, to enjoy the artwork without making their own contribution. The content does not live behind click after click; instead, you can access every submission from the world map. It is easy to move around and zoom in on the map and access contributions directly in the form of photos and text statements. These contributions don't send you to another page; instead, they pop up over the map, encouraging you to surf quickly from one to another. If you want to dig deeper into a particular submission, you can click to see other photos and longer statements from the artists on dedicated collections pages.
It is a bit strange that the World Beach Project is housed within the Collection subsection of the V&A website. I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, it's a pain to have to find the project hidden beneath the textiles category of Collections (who would think to go there?). And the project might be more attractively displayed on its own site, outside the fairly staid templates of the V&A's overall site design. On the other hand, placing the project within Collections reinforces the idea that these beach artworks are accessioned into the museum's collection, and that the project exists within a larger context of dialogue about what textile art is and can be. The World Beach Project is a gem hiding in a vast space populated by other objects and experiences. Maybe that's where all great museum experiences live.