Case Study: Yours Truly, an interactive archives project

Archival documents play a critical role in shaping the human story of a cultural site. In many ways they are the closest we can get to understanding the intent behind the creation of such places. Yet very few visitors are able to access them, or know where to start when those archives are available online as part of a collections management system. Over the course of 2020-2021, I managed development of a project that leveraged human-centered design principles to contextualize archival correspondence and humanize the founder of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens while illustrating some of the thinking that went into teh Estate’s construction.

“Yours Truly, James Deering” (virtualvizcaya.com) helps visitors to Vizcaya as well as online audiences get an answer to their most-asked question: who founded the Estate and why? Despite his great wealth, James Deering was a private person who did not marry or have children. What we know of him comes from the letters and telegrams he wrote during the construction of Vizcaya in the 1910s, which to this point have been inaccessible to the public. This project fashions his correspondence into an online storytelling experience that gives the user choices regarding what aspects of Deering’s personality they want to explore and guides them into a process of crafting their own narrative about who he was.

On-site visitors are able to activate the mobile experience through QR codes placed in the museum and gardens. Aside from the digitized letters, the experience also extends the narrative with additional multimedia content (e.g., 3D scans, 360 maps, etc.). Collectively, Yours Truly offers visitors context, discovery and surprise in Vizcaya’s storytelling approach.

Human-Centered Design

In 2019 the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation asked Vizcaya to participate in a cohort aimed at instilling the values of human-centered design in museums. That involvement resulted in the Yours Truly concept.

The project’s goals and outcomes include the following:

  • Established a digitization plan for archival materials
  • Procured modern digitization equipment and digitized more than 3,000 pieces of correspondence
  • Development of a responsive content management system based on WordPress that forms the basis of all future interactive experiences on the Estate and online
  • Human-centered design process that is now applied for all audience-facing projects
  • Installation of site-wide wireless access for visitors to the Estate
  • Experimentation with expanded forms of multimedia storytelling
  • Development of a user/visitor tracking system “Personamatic” based on Google Sheets/Forms/Data Studio for user studies

CLICK THE IMAGE TO SEE A PDF CASE STUDY OF THE PROJECT

User Expectations

Team members worked to avoid prescribed interpretations of James Deering’s correspondence, wanting Vizcaya’s visitors/users to gain an appreciation of them based on their interpretation of his words. In the age of smartphones and tablets and times of pandemic, expectations for interactive technologies have changed significantly. The initial intent was to heavily use kiosks stationed throughout the museum that would be updated via a newly established wireless access mesh. With the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset, the development team shifted to using a bring-your-own-device model to access the experience triggered by QR codes on signage throughout the Estate.

Visitors can often be seen in museums using pinch-and-zoom gestures, swiping, and scrolling through content. In much the same way, expectations have also changed regarding how museums and heritage institutions tell these stories effectively. The goal is to create enough novelty and intrigue—use just enough narrative to evoke emotion, inspire memories from the experience—to leave the user with a thirst to know James Deering in the museum and beyond. Vizcaya worked to achieve these objectives with an approach that will inform its future interactive endeavors.

Experience goals based on user testing and capabilities of the technology/online platform

  • Establishes “hooks” (highlighting letter excerpts) to provide focus considering the depth and complexity presented in the content.
  • Refine narratives and navigation keys to improve satisfaction for onsite or remote users in reading and using the interactive experience.
  • Foster user curiosity and encourage deeper exploration of collections with interest-based drop-down options for digital media within the platform.
  • Host a creative platform to reimagine James Deering’s personal life and business trades by combining digitized archives and other digital media.
  • Enhancing onsite and virtual visitor engagement by creating feedback mechanisms for sentiment, reflections and feature requests.
    Explore-by-Map interface in which users can find context-driven content using the floor plan of the Main House.

Digital Strategy Components Advanced during this project

Interactive Experiences CMS
Yours Truly establishes a scalable content management system that serves as a repository for Vizcaya’s archival and object collections, and platform that allows contextual ties that engage users.

Personamatic Audience Studies Platform
Yours Truly is the first project to leverage this unique mix of Google Forms, Sheets and Data Studio to record and visualize audience testing feedback. As data from additional projects is added, the more refined and powerful our audience analysis will become.

Beyond Vizcaya Storytelling Platform
Beyond Vizcaya (also funded by Knight) is an emerging multimedia storytelling platform wherein content has the potential to be co-created by audiences. The lessons learned from Yours Truly development directly informed the structure and technologies behind this platform. With both, Vizcaya is learning how to tell stories in the digital space.

Sitewide Wireless
Vizcaya underwent a total replacement of its IT infrastructure as Yours Truly was beginning. As part of the process of making Yours Truly available to on-site visitors in a bring-your-own-device scenario, Vizcaya was able to offer wireless access to the public for the first time, covering most of the Main House and some of the gardens.

Digitization Infrastructure
Also as part of Yours Truly, Vizcaya developed its first plan for archives digitization and was able to procure modern equipment, as well as the needed help, to make part of the correspondence collection accessible for the first time. Additionally, Vizcaya was able to add four terabytes of storage to its servers to store the digitized collections and their derivatives.

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