Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Museum Trails: I like... personalizing the museum experience

Last week, I spoke with Jim Richardson, managing director of SUMO Design, about their very cool new project with the North East Regional Museums Hub: I like... museums. Funded by the UK MLA and launched on July 9, i like... museums is a website on which visitors can search for museums in the North East region of England. But it's not a typical directory. i like... museums allows users to search by "museum trails," interests that range from beer to yucky things to dressing up to space.

SUMO has done an impressive job of combining clean design, quirky content, and multiple points of access in a site that is surprisingly useful. No more scanning the list of 80-odd museums in an area trying to figure out whether Lady Waterford Hall or Cragside or any number of enigmatic and not-so-enigmatic attractions are appropriate for your interests. Trails were developed by staff, community members, and are submitted on a continuous basis by visitors to the site. Each museum was asked to select three of the initial trails specifically applicable to them and wrote blurbs on how those trails relate to their content. Visitors who submit trails also add their own commentary about why certain museums were included. You can seamlessly click from trails to museums to other trails, wandering the museum landscape. And you can rate the trails and view their ratings, which presumably might help you prioiritize some trails over others.

Here's what I love about this:
  1. It supports reaggregation of the museum experience. Rather than searching by name, location, or self-defined genre, you can find museums that relate to your specific interest. There are trails like i like... keeping the kids happy, with helpful content for specific audiences. And then there are the oddballs. Jim told me one of the first user-submitted trails was i like... pigs. When users get to reaggregate the experience, they base their decisions on and distinctions that most museums would be hard-pressed to come up with on their own. I'd love to see these trails crawl into museums, allowing visitors to reaggregate the exhibits within, so they can share with each other equally useful information about where the coolest stuff is for different ages, abilities, and interests.
  2. It supports irreverence. Perhaps my favorite trail is the user-submitted I like... things to do with a hangover which offers art adventures to take your mind off the pain, religious memorials for divine intervention, and seaside castles for "big blast of fresh air!" I can't imagine a museum or museum association willing to publish such a trail (though they should consider it).
  3. It furthers the idea of museums as multi-use venues. The North East Hub is willing to let users play with what a museum is "for"--whether it be inspiration, a good cup of tea, or meeting new people. The site subtly gives you more and more reasons to visit a museum beyond viewing the collection.
  4. Combining forces is a low-risk, low resources way for museums to get involved with Web 2.0. This project was the outcome of a "marketing training programme" put on by the Hub, and all 81 museums in the North East area are participating in (and cross-marketing) the project. By functioning as a directory and advertisement for museum-going in general, i like... museums is a good way for many museums to dip their toes in the water and get a sense of their potential visitors' interests.
i like... museums is owned and operated by the Tyne and Wear Museums in their role as the regional hub for North East museums. It is part of a larger regional museum campaign by the Hub. As Jim explains,
this includes: Five weeks of press advertising in seven newspapers, advertising on public transport, advertising in cinema's and sports centres, beer mats in pubs, sponsorship of two radio shows in two local radio stations, a printed regional museum guide and nine printed trail leaflets which are available at the 81 museums in the region, web banners on seven websites including Facebook and a MySpace page.
In the last two weeks since launch, they've had about 10 visitor trails submitted, and are working those trails into upcoming advertising campaigns for the site. But many people are accessing the site as "lurkers," and, according to Jim, the trails are a hit.
People are browsing the website by theme rather then through the A -Z directory at a ratio of 10 - 1, so these seems to be a much more engaging way to tell people about what museums have to offer.
The goal is for i like... museum to "change perceptions of museums, to encourage people to go to Museums, and to encourage those who already go to Museums to try another venue."

Jim also commented that museums have access to the website data, and may use the information about most popular trails to develop new marketing and content strategies. This is the part I'm most curious about--to see how, if at all--museums might be changed by being involved in this campaign. It's one thing to allow visitors to create their own trails. It's quite another to follow them.

1 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

This topic appeared while I was commenting on a different one. What a fun surprise!

I find this trail thing rather intriquing and share your curiosity about how it will affect the museums.

I would like it to be more literal, though. I expected to see a map, showing the locations of each museum on the trail, with a trail from one to the next. Not knowing much about Northern England, I have no idea if the lists appear in any kind of geographical order or not. I would hope so. They already have links to Google maps on the site, so it would be easy enough for a web developer to create a link that would plot ALL of the museums on a given trail onto the same Google map, with directions from one to the other. Visitors could then remove museums from the map if they did not want to go to a particular one. (Google maps already have this feature.)

As a user, my inclination would be to create an actual narrative, where I would help create an experience for my trail-followers. It would be kind of a scavenger hunt. Let's say ten museums each had at least one artifact created by Inventor X. I could create a trail leading people to each of the museums AND each of the artifacts, helping to create a new experience about Inventor X, as interpreted by ten different museums. How cool would that be? My head is almost exploding with the possibilities.

This is actually a rather low-tech tool, which is nice because so many people could use it. Similar experiences could be created with GPS devices (see