Category Archives: General

Social Media brings connections, lessons in ‘User Studies for Digital Library Development’


Interestingly, my involvement in this book came about because of social media. Voices of the Past had been going a couple of years, when I got a message out of the blue via Linkedin. Milena Dobreva said she was co-editing a book on user studies in digital libraries and asked if I would write a chapter on social media engagement.

Though I have been fortunate to write material for a few edited volumes, this would be my first international publication (the publisher, Facet, is out of the U.K.). I was intimidated by the stature of the other chapter authors on this project, and that I was the only American. So much so, that at one point I tried to persuade Milena to go with another author I knew to be very experienced in digital libraries and archives. Here’s how she replied:

“Many thanks for this suggestion. I am inclined to ask you once again to contribute because from what I have seen from your work you would bring quite a fresh point of view and I see this as a good potential input which I would really really appreciate.”

With those words, any doubts about my suitability to the task vanished. It was still a grueling process to get the chapter written, but incredibly rewarding.  In addition to surveying the applications of social media to the digital library landscape, I got to talk to fascinating people innovating their field at institutions like the following:

Many of the connections for the case studies were crowdsourced through social media. For all the agonizing, and more so because of it, this ranks among my favorite career experiences. It brought home every message I had been preaching about social media: you can leverage it to find your voice, engagement in it will lead to unexpected opportunities, and the connections you make will strengthen your faith in yourself and others.

The book was well received, (see its reviews herehere, and at Amazon) and though social media platforms have evolved, the bedrock concepts about how digital libraries should work from a user perspective are evergreen. I know that it has been used as a text in classrooms, a well deserved result of the hard work of the editors. I am grateful they gave me a chance to help shape it.


Knight Foundation makes a digital heritage dream possible

I’ve worked the past 13 years as an advocate for strategic digital initiatives at cultural institutions. Much of that time has been spent building  buy-in,  seeking resources, and working to keep the tech functioning. Oh yes … and building in time to see “what’s next,” then repeating the process. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to take a moment in gratitude when an idea takes root.  Thanks to Knight Foundation, this is one of those moments.

This past week, Knight awarded a $100,000 Museums and Technology grant to Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, where I am contracted as digital strategist. The grant will enhance the visitor experience by using 3D documentation modeling and printing to allow visitors to explore spaces of this National Historic Landmark that are not accessible to the public. Those spaces include Vizcaya’s Barge (seen above), a partly submerged breakwater decorated with mythical sculptures by Alexander Calder, and the swimming pool grotto  which has a ceiling depicting an elaborate undersea scene designed by Robert Winthrop Chanler.

Vizcaya's Chanler Ceiling 3D Documentation Knight Foundation Grant
Chanler ceiling at Vizcaya

The project combines many of the interests I and many of my Vizcaya colleagues share–historic preservation/conservation, technology, and helping audiences internalize the interpretation of heritage resources. That extends to Vizcaya’s leadership team, which has been incredibly supportive of this holistic approach to 3D documentation.

We’ve got a very talented partner team on the project as well. The University of Florida Historic Preservation Program captures our 3D documentation, including both photogrammetry and laser scanning. Our technology partner will unlock ways to adapt UF’s point clouds into kiosk-based and virtual reality products. Additionally, Florida International University’s Miami Beach Urban Studios will be strategizing the development of 3D prints based UF’s laser scanning/photogrammetry.

It’s an exciting time to work in this field. Five years ago, the tech was not mature enough to attempt this concept. Now, we’re confident that we’ll create a model that can other cultural sites can replicate. We’ll be documenting our progress in a GitHub site. While this concept was always an intention, the Knight Foundation’s entry into the museums and technology space advances our efforts by years.

If you’re interested in learning more about 3D documentation, here is a primer to get you started.

Cathy Byrd of Fresh Art International recently interviewed my colleagues about digital initiatives at Vizcaya. Hear what they had to say at the SoundCloud embed below:


Oral History: The enthusiast’s guide to getting started

One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways we can all preserve our heritage is through oral histories. Who doesn’t like to have a conversation with an interesting person? Oral histories require just a little time and some inexpensive recording equipment. And you can start right now.

Whether you’re looking to interview a family member or someone you’ve never met, there are a few rules of thumb to prepare for your journey. So take out a pad and pen. Sketching the outline for your oral history project will only take about 15 minutes if you follow these steps.

Plan your project around specific people and topics that engage you. Talking to grandpa because “somebody needs to do it” won’t result in an enjoyable experience–or useful information–for anyone involved. Genuine interest will show through and your interviewees (a.k.a. informants) will respond to it with trust and historical gems you never saw coming.

You can start by listing five people from your community that most fascinate you. These can even be people who have passed, so long as you can still talk to folks who knew them well. What period of their history most excites you?

Going with the goal of just getting grandpa’s life story won’t be enough to sustain your interest in a series of interviews over time. Write a simple one-sentence mission statement for your project. This statement will give you clarity about what you want to achieve.

For example, the mission for my college thesis was to “record the traditions and folkways specific to the mill-centered communities of north Louisiana’s piney woods.” While this was still a broad topic covering many generations of people (including some of my family) it still defined a unique time, place and group of people.

Now use your mission statement to break down the project into about five elements based on historical events (from personal to international), social viewpoints, work knowledge, etc. This will give you topics for scheduling follow-up interviews. It will also help you build a project timeline, including the all-important end date.   

Remember, you aren’t the only person making a commitment in the process of recording an oral history. The people you’re interviewing are being kind enough to take time out of their lives and reveal deeply personal information. Take out your calendar and identify a regular time each week to work on the project. Even if it’s just one hour, make sure it’s an hour you can commit to as you would an important work task. Look for times when your routines make an interview convenient for you and your informant.

With your mission, list of interviewees and schedule in hand, head to your local library or archives and begin your research. You don’t need to go in-depth here, but you need to have some general historical context about the time and place you are interested in.

The world is full of historical accounts, whether it be courthouse records, meeting minutes or news archives. While these documents shape history, they rarely capture the true context of how we as humans have shaped our civilization. An oral history project will do that for you–and the community you share it with–in a very meaningful way.

Here’s a form I put together to help plan oral history  projects. Feel free to download and begin your journey today.

Oral History Project Planning Form by jkguin on Scribd

Where Technology Meets Interpretation Workshop Resources

This past week, I had the privilege of co-leading a interpretation workshop focused on technology with Stacey Kutish, digital interpretive strategist at Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia. There were about 30 attendees from gardens and related cultural sites. I’m sharing the slide deck with speaker notes, which includes the following topics we covered:

  • Audience Research
  • Setting Strategy
  • Tools and Techniques
  • What Makes Good Digital Content

Thanks to everyone who came out to this introductory workshop. Related material:

A more in-depth explanation of the strategic planning process can be found in the post Strategy Kit: Goals, Objectives and Tactics for #DigitalHeritage Outreach Planning.

Interpretation Workshop Symposium

Augmented reality tactics for heritage interpretation

The ultimate potential digital technology can bring to people visiting historic sites is context — that it deepens the experience of being in the space.

Even the most relevant and informative digital interventions can shift attention from the act of experiencing a historic site. A great value of visiting a historic site is its ability to help a visitor feel as though they have stepped into another time. Augmented reality (AR) may help future visitors achieve a pleasant balance of historic and digital. Unlike virtual reality, in which a device (usually goggles) immerses the user in a world that is all they can see, augmented reality is a technological approach that adds a context layer over the user’s current field of vision.

Using the Wikipedia definition, augmented reality is “a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.” The term was first used in 1990 with functional prototypes developed soon after. AR’s first use in a cultural heritage setting was was Archeoguide in 2005. The system required The equipment made up by a Head Mounted Display, a laptop, and a wireless router. Today, a similar experience can be replicated with one of the smartphone apps that began to appear in 2010.

This technology is evolving to function as the “ultimate label text.” Museum visitors will be able to point their mobile device (or tech-enabled glasses) at what they want to know more about. It will be an asset that can be called up when needed but does not need to be always on or actively navigated, like a tour app.

The most effective implementations of the technology for cultural heritage settings today typically take one of the following approaches:

  1. An outdoor “site” (building, street, archaeology) with some distance between it and the feature. Typically, archival photos from the same vantage point are displayed.
  2. An object or collection of objects that loosely grouped, and fairly close (as in a gallery). Additional text is displayed or the scene becomes animated. These feature a specific subset of collections content, or a limited area of the gallery.

The following examples show effective and emerging approaches to augmented reality in cultural heritage settings.

Museum of London Streetmuseum App

Streetmuseum was one of the first history-related augmented reality apps for iOS. Its last update was in 2014 and the app is not in active development, though it is still available on the app store. The app allows users to select a destination from a London map or use geo-tagging and Google Maps to discover their location. Once selected, a historical image of their London location appears on the screen, which can be expanded and explored in detail, along with historical information about the subject. The historical image can be overlaid onto the current view of a given site.

Skin and Bones App

This downloadable app by the National Museum of Natural History was developed to be used by visitors to the Bone Hall, an exhibit of nearly 300 vertebrate skeletons that was first opened in 1881. The app highlights 13 skeletons, including one of a swordfish, and shows 3D animations of the animals and how they look and move with their muscles and skin.

Though a highly impressive visual experience, the app is very limited in its useful time, even at the site.

Transparent Image Displays

Transparent image displays feature a clear panel that can overlay imagery that can be watched (like moving label text) or interacted with like a multi-touch screen. It can house an object, or be placed in a room as a freestanding panel. Cost of the Hypebox interactive (shown left) is approximately $9,700 for the equipment. An additional budget would be required for custom development of graphics.


The Perceptoscope updates the classic concept of stationary binoculars seen traditionally used at landmarks, museums and scenic roadside vistas. But the Perceptoscope is a device that fixes the augmented reality experience to a single location. Such a device could be stationed overlooking a historic site’s gardens. Visitors looking through the eye pieces could rotate the device and see historic photos or interpretive information overlaid on the landscape from a similar perspective, perhaps with the ability to scroll through a timeline of imagery, beginning with construction all the way through a historic site’s evolution. It uses 3D vision and motion tracking. This product is newly developed through a Knight Prototype Fund Grant and is currently looking for implementation partners among museums and historic sites. It was created by Ben Sax, who says “The idea is that there’s a lot of stories and hidden histories to every place you’re in, so how could we create a tool to let you expose those things … I see this as a tool for historic sites, museums, parks.”

This technology has several advantages:

  1. Stationary device means there a focused approach to interpretation (no expectation by visitors that every room be interpreted equally), and fewer potential issues with tracking technology or facilitating app downloads for visitors.
  2. It is one of the few technology approaches that can serve the outdoor nature of gardens efficiently.
  3. Users are able to contextualize many elements of the historic site’s cultural landscape in one experience.


Augmented reality only achieved mainstream use in summer 2016 with the release of Pokémon Go. The impact of museums and historic sites has been mixed. As popular “Pokéstops,” where gamers catch characters and gain points, these sites do see more (and younger) visitors, often in groups. Frequently these new crowds miss interpretive opportunities entirely, and sometimes damage the site by lack of awareness or deliberate acts of vandalism.

Museums are actively trying to capture the attention of Pokémon Go users, and several tactics are emerging from this effort that could be replicated.

  • A Facebook event was posted advertising an opportunity to walk together through the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens attracting one thousand people and inspiring the hashtag #PokeGoWalk.
  • The Philadelphia Museum of Art created a Pokémon meet-up during the museum’s “pay what you wish” hours.
  • Share screenshots from the app throughout social media using the hashtag #PokemonGO.
  • The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, FL, has been internationally noted for catering to the platform’s players. Morikami uses it as a cultural connection, as Pokémon was created by the Japanese game designer. It has engaged the community on social media to attract players, despite problems with vandalism.
  • Cross-promotion with other museum programs with potentially similar audiences.
  • Use an in-game app purchase “Lure” (method described here) to get Pokemon players to arrive at a specific Pokestop for 30 minute intervals.

Resource Links:


Layar is one of the earliest augmented reality apps still in active development. From the user’s geographical position, the various forms of data are laid over the camera view like inserting an additional layer. Data in the browser comes in the form of layers.

The National Museum of Australia successfully used Layar in its “Garden of Australian Dreams” digital exhibition. More than 100 collaborators produced 700+ images, texts and sounds for the exhibition within two weeks. The project began with a visit the Garden of Australian dreams to find five symbols or locations that had personal significance or resonance. The points were photographed and uploaded to a website database, and the GPS location was marked on a Google map. The way-points were then visible on database, and would pop-up in the Layar browser when users were close to the GPS coordinates in the garden.

The next stage was to create a personal journey through five chosen waypoints, using text, image and sound. Visitors to the space could then use the Layar browser to follow an individual journey through the garden, or view the range of responses to a particular symbol or place, such as the Chinese character for “home”, or a town like Wagga Wagga, New South Wales.

Other institutions that have created layers in this platform include the Andy Warhol Museum and the Powerhouse Museum.

Related Linkset

Mobile tour platforms for museums and cultural sites

Increasingly, museums are seeking to move beyond the one-way communication common for most of their existence. The tool being used for this purpose are app or mobile-optimized websites that allow visitors to create their own experiences while gaining deeper knowledge of collections-based subject matter. Museums increasingly seek to evolve their interpretation into multimedia experiences that engage visitors more deeply, and provide them with a “keepsake” of the experience which they may continue to explore after their visit. Additionally, these apps provide the organization with useful information about the visitor experience. But will these experience provide a deeper level of understanding sufficient to offset the additional complications of technology support and content production required? What the options for service providers, and what is the cost involved? This post details the features, costs and considerations regarding some of the major content delivery systems.  

Platform: Cuseum


  • Content management
  • Beacon support
  • Indoor wayfinding
  • Social sharing
  • Multimedia support
  • Data analytics
  • Recommendation Engine


  • MIT List Visual Arts Center
  • Boston Atheneum
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
  • Lyman Allyn Art Museum
  • Art Gallery New South Wales
  • Asian Art Museum
  • Bellarmine Museum of Art
  • Milwaukee Art Museum
  • Finnish National Gallery
  • Davis Museum
  • Empire State Plaza Art Collection
  • National Museum of Wildlife Art
  • Dallas Contemporary
  • Denver Art Museum
  • Contemporary Art Museum Houston


Cuseum is a platform that works using a CMS from which a mobile-optimized website and downloadable native app can be created. Its visitor-facing experience is cleaner and more sophisticated than many of its peers in this field. Typically, it features a unique interaction bar at the bottom of the screen that allows users to like, comment on and share content. Additionally, it allows users to view a map that shows them where points of interest are near them, and can recommend options for exploration based on their actions. 

Platform: OnCell/Toursphere


  • Content Management System
  • Data analytics
  • Social sharing (on personal devices)
  • Multilingual support (manual input; does not translate languages)
  • Ability to create downloadable app for iOS, Android
  • Test flight capability


  • MOMA: Murder at the Met*
  • Texas Historical Commission
  • National Park Service: Saratoga National Historic Park
  • Henry Morrison Flagler Museum
  • Denver Botanic Gardens


Oncell recently acquired Toursphere to create one of the largest providers of guided tour experiences in this format. The basic subscription includes a dedicated template website with a limited number of color schemes. It is functional and well supported. Tours are built using a collection of widgets (i.e. buttons, text, audio and video) that can be dragged and dropped into the desired location on a page. Custom apps can be created from the tour content, though the price goes up considerably to build such an experience and the result looks very close to the web-based templates offered by Oncell/Toursphere.

Platform: Guidekick


  • 3D map of institutional space as a tour interface
  • Content Management System
  • Wayfinding with beacons and indoor positioning technologies
  • Analytics (with heatmapping)
  • Social media sharing


  • Hearst Castle*
  • de Young Museum


Guidekick provides a custom-built option that includes three-dimensional models of the museum and gardens. Of the platforms examined, Guidekick functioned most smoothly and exhibited the most “wow” factor with its 3D aerial interface. Other than the 3D map, Guidekick’s unique selling point is that it offers a custom-built experience around its CMS, which allows the institution to achieve a product that reflects its needs for connecting to audiences. The costs are higher than those of other apps mentioned here, but they are drastically reduced from the typical costs of custom-built apps.

Platform: GuideOne


  • CMS “G1-Curator” designed “specifically around the needs of Museums”
  • Wayfinding with beacon technology
  • Multilanguage support
  • Accessibility features
  • Ability to integrate 2-D maps (e.g. in Longwood Gardens)


  • Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach
  • National Park Service Kids App – Independence
  • Longwood Gardens
  • The Barnes Foundation


GuideOne is an established mobile app developer based in Brooklyn. It develops custom applications much like Guidekick. The Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach organization launched an app with GuideOne in September 2015. Key points about the experience were related by the organization’s executive director, Sharon Horowitz:

The purpose of an app is to provide more depth about the memorial, and the history it represents, to visitors. Visitors often left with many of their questions unanswered because there are no interpretive staff on site. Representatives of the Jewish Federation went to the Museums and the Web conference in Boston and interviewed several tour app vendors. GuideOne stood out because they had produced several successful products with historical organizations.

Memorial staff contracted GuideOne for approximately $200,000 to work on development of an app and an accompanying micro website. They dedicated another $200,000 to content development, working with subject matter experts in Los Angeles. Three people from the Jewish Federation also assisted. GuideOne helped locate experts to translate the tour into multiple languages. The process took about one year of dedicated effort to launch. The site was prepared with increased Wi-Fi capability and beacon technology to trigger points of interest on devices. The Memorial’s visitor center has information about the tour, and has iOS devices available for users to borrow. They are currently finding that people prefer to use their own devices. Staff strongly encourage visitors to download the app, and will help them do so. Visitors are often reluctant to wait for a download of the app as they are anxious to get to the Memorial site, but they report that the app greatly enhances their experiences afterward.

A primary market for the Memorial is school groups. The app and microsite are offered to classes that are planning visits and sometimes staff will make presentations on the content and its online availability beforehand. The site even includes lesson plans to prepare these groups to make the most of their visits.

Since launching in September 2015, the app has been downloaded about 2,000 times. The microsite has experience a great deal of traffic from school groups and others who are researching Holocaust subject matter.

Platform: Acoustiguide


  • Custom app development
  • Social sharing
  • Interactive maps
  • Multimedia capability
  • Beacon wayfinding


Variable. They work with the highest profile clients of the firms documented here, indicating a higher price point.


  • 9/11 Memorial
  • The Art Gallery of Ontario
  • National Gallery of Art
  • Musée du Louvre
  • Guggenheim
  • Kimbell Art Museum
  • The Barnes Foundation
  • Smithsonian Institution

Analysis: Acoustiguide is a Canadian company that traditionally has produced audio guides for museums. It is a prolific developer, with dozens of tour apps available on the iOS app store. Most of these are moderately sized cultural institutions whose tours are based on the same template. Higher-profile clients like the Guggenheim and the 9/11 Memorial have custom swipeable interfaces. The 9/11 memorial has an element in which users can post a tribute. They can also pinch and zoom a field of circles to view tributes by others. There is also an interactive 3D map (simplified) where points of interest can be selected and then maximized and scrolled through gestures like pinch, zoom and swipe. The costs for using Acoustiguide are highly variable depending on whether the organization opts for the templated approach or the more customized experience.

Platform: TourBuddy


  • Multi-Guide Starter (User chooses from multiple guides to download within the app)
  • Social Sharing
  • AppBuilder CMS
  • Geolocation triggers (audio automatically plays at predetermined GPS points
  • Multiple language tours
  • Embed capability for video and web links


  • The Ringling Museum, Sarasota, FL
  • City of Savannah, GA


This platform seems to be used more for walking city tours than museums. The Ringling Museum is the most prominent museum-specific app by TourBuddy that is currently active. Its interface is primarily text and images, with embedded maps for points of interest. One interesting feature of this app in particular is its robust settings menu, which allows the visitor to configure GPS trigger settings and media play settings. Otherwise it is an unremarkable platform based on available app experiences.

Platform: TAP

Features (authoring tools):

  • TAP CMS (for managing content)
  • TAP iOS (iPhone/iPod Touch)
  • TAP iPad app
  • TAP Web app


Free to reuse code via GitHub. Would require development assistance for custom configuration.


  • Indianapolis Museum of Art: 100 acres
  • Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
  • National Air and Space Museum: Co-Pilot
  • National Museum of the American Indian


TAP is a collection of free and open-source tools (developed through an IMLS grant) that support the creation and delivery of mobile tours. The tools also serve as examples of producing and consuming tour content using the TourML specification. Currently TAP consists of authoring tools built on top of the content management system Drupal, a native iOS mobile application, and a web-based mobile application built upon the jQuery Mobile library.

A number of museums adopted TAP at one time or another, though considerably fewer still have active applications that can be reviewed. The interface for those that can accessed tends to be less refined than other tour experiences. The institution retains full freedom to customize and retain control of all aspects of content development and delivery.

Publishing the resulting product requires an iOS developer account to publish on the app store. The code is sporadically updated, which means it may not be fully compatible with the latest operating system versions.

Platform: TourMate



  • Bata Shoe Museum
  • Spadina Museum Historic House and Gardens
  • John Hopkins Medicine, Baltimore
  • The Biltmore Estate
  • The Alamo

Analysis: The TourMate platform offers similar capabilities to other systems reviewed here, but has a higher price point. Its customer service is extremely responsive and its costs for development are high, but realistic. However, based on currently available applications, its user-facing interface is dated and mostly skewed to the Android platform. It does offer numerous products on which to play tours without requiring a web connection, though its focus seems to be heavily on audio tours.

Platform: Google Cultural Institute


  • Ability to easily curate app tours from Google Cultural Institute account.
  • Integrates user-friendly Google tools like YouTube and Streetview
  • Content sharing capabilities


There is no cost to use the platform or develop an app based on content you own


  • MAO Museo d’Arte Orientale
  • Emergence Festival
  • Rijksmuseum van Oudheden
  • Palazzo Madama Torino

Analysis: This platform has the option to publish an app free for organizations who are members of the Google Cultural Institute and have content there. It has a clean and easy-to-navigate interface, with options for multimedia integration, and easy sharing of content. However, it is for the Android platform, using only Google tools such as YouTube and Google Street View. It is not available for download on iOS devices, which is the platform many organizations have invested in to this point. 

Considerations for adoption

Location Positioning Technology

The most challenging aspect of any mobile tour will be making the application aware of a visitor’s position in relation to points of interest (POIs). Wi-Fi signals can help triangulate position, but this depends on Wi-Fi signals that are strong and varied. Even in defined galleries, it is very difficult to maintain a consistent Wi-Fi signal across a large area. All museums struggle with this issue–even those housed in newer, compact facilities with fewer thick walls. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons are more accurate and have a high industry uptake. Of the museum app developers offering location-aware products, BLE is the default technology due to its relatively low cost and more refined positioning capability.

The vendor chosen to facilitate a mobile app will have to work closely with the institution regarding beacon placement. While beacons respond to proximity, they can’t necessarily extrapolate which direction they are coming from, which could cause some confusion in wayfinding. An interactive map can mitigate this confusion.  

3-Dimensional scans and artwork

The Guidekick 3-D animation of the museum and ground is a desirable model interface for a tour system. It also factors greatly into the additional cost of that platform. The Guidekick-produced 3D map would draw upon references such as CAD data, floor plans, GIS data, and a detailed maps of the grounds / gardens. From here, software tools process the references and 3D-artists work on details such as props, embellishments, texturing, and lighting.

Content Allowance

The applications considered in this document are very focused in the amount and type of information they provide. This is primarily to prevent “app bloat” in which the app becomes too large to accommodate a reasonable download time. Apps downloaded in reasonable time initially. Upon launch, however, most required a content update of 100MB-plus before the app could be accessed at all. These updates took between 1-5 minutes to download on standard Wi-Fi. It is often desirable for a mobile-optimized website be developed concurrently with the app so that visitors can point their phones to a web link if they wish to begin the tour immediately using their cell connection without downloading content. For devices that an institution would loan out, the pre-loaded native app will provide a better quality experience, but options for sharing the content on social are limited since users cannot log into their accounts on those devices.

Content Development License

For the purposes of search, and for content ownership, the institution should procure its own developer accounts for the iOS and Android app stores. This will cost $25 (one time) for the Android license and $99/year for the Apple license. Both the iOS App Store and the Google Play Store take 30 percent of revenues from any paid app.


Cisco Whitepaper on Artlens:

MW2015 Talk on Triangulation and NFC:

Google Cultural Institute Free Apps

The Manual of Museum Learning: “Wayfinding the in the Digital Age”

APPS v WEB and other digital grudge matches

Tour a Museum from Anywhere (New York Times)

Best Apps for Visiting Museums (WSJ)

Museum tour apps for <$25k at Museums & Mobile conference

Mobile experiences in museums

Digital media approaches in gardens and historic landscapes

Digital strategies and tools in use for museum collections and built heritage are extremely well documented. But what are best practices when an institution’s collection is living, and its story changes with the seasons? Here’s an overview of tactics used by gardens and historic landscapes for collections management, on-site technology and online outreach at institutions with a core mission built around gardens and historic landscapes.

Arnold Arboretum

As part of Harvard University, Arnold Arboretum’s mission is to “increase knowledge of the evolution and biology of woody plants.”


The institution uses BG-BASE with several other platforms to achieve a high-quality records search experience. This includes the following features:

  • User ability to favorite records with “My Visit” functionality. Includes the ability to print results or export to a CSV file.
  • Map zooming capability tying in Arc-GIS and Google Maps.

Arnold Arboretum Resources

Digital Media

The website is based on WordPress. It has a modern design that balances imagery between plants and people. The navigation lacks contrast between the text and background, but otherwise works very well, empowering the user to find a lot of information quickly.


Arnold Arboretum has a Flickr image pool which encourages people to upload photos from their visit. Flickr is also the platform powering the image search capability on their website.


Arnold Arboretum has four blogs, which are essentially categories of a common blog. Posts from the Collections is written by Director William Friedman and highlights ephemeral moments in the life cycles of plants at the Arnold Arboretum. Library Leaves is published online by the staff of the Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library. Plant Profiles describes various plants. The ARBlog is a aggregation of all blog content. These are valuable institutional memory sources that can be continually updated and reused as social media fodder.


This page has a following of about 25,000 people. Engagement averages about 50 per post, but can range from 16 to nearly 800. The most popular posts were images that were updated to be the page’s profile photos, such as the image below.


Arnold Arboretum began using the platform because so many visitors were tagging them in pictures they posted on Instagram. They currently have 960 followers about average 70 favorites per post. Videos, which show people or animals in the gardens, routinely receive twice as many favorites as images.

The problem Arnold Arboretum sees with this platform is the institution cannot post links, so there is no way to drive traffic back to their website and blog.


Though content is posted to Twitter almost daily, it is not suited to the conversational nature of the platform and only receives about two engagements per post.


The channel was last updated a year ago. Its most popular uploads include scholarly presentations, demonstrations of plant care, tutorials on using their GIS plant map.

On-site Technology

There is a large monitor in the visitors center. Explorer is on it, so people can interact with the map to provide context for their experience in the gardens.


Chicago Botanic Garden

The mission of CBG is to cultivate the power of plants to sustain and enrich life. The Garden today is an example of a successful public-private partnership. It is owned by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and operated by the Chicago Horticultural Society.


The CBG Plant Collections Department acquires, documents, and studies all of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s permanent plants and their associated environments. Their “Plant Finder” page integrates living collections search into its main website, which is built on the Drupal CMS. The search form overflows into the website’s footer in some browsers.

Results (example: Corpse Flower) are attractively rendered, with information desirable to the general public or gardening enthusiasts. Map locations and related photos are linked as well.

Chicago Botanic Gardens also has a science-based plant conservation database. As part of a National Science Foundation-funded Conservation GIS Laboratory in the Plant Conservation Science Center, the program partners with Seiler Instruments, Trimble GPS, and CartoPac Field Solutions to automate and streamline its field data collection procedure for its Seed Bank. This helps them manage, and visually map within a GIS environment, the data-intensive information associated with its 300-plus yearly seed collections. Data is collected in the field with Trimble Juno GPS devices and directly uploaded to the database online.

Digital Media

To celebrate its 40th anniversary, CBG created a website with a timeline of significant events from its history.

Another website functions as the organization’s “digital annual report,” which integrates its strategic plan, and is illustrated with YouTube videos.

CBG’s Pinterest page has more than 10,000 followers. It’s most successful boards feature DIY gardening tips.

On Instagram, their approach is to showcase high-quality close-up photographs of flowers and plants. They have 19,000 followers there and average 500-600 likes per post, but generally fewer that 10 comments for each. Engagement typically doubles when video content (such as this video) is posted.

On Flickr, CBG created a group photo pool, which has 600 members and more than 14,000 contributions. It includes a map, which shows where the images were taken.

Its Twitter page employs a similar emphasis on gardening tips and has 19,000 followers. The posts there include high-quality photos of people interacting in the gardens. Hashtags are generally overused, including uses in mundane words or marketing terms that are unlikely to trend. It frequently retweets appropriate posts other accounts.

It’s Facebook page has over 104,000 likes and leverages holidays related to plants and animals for content. Most recently, it has begun featuring PokemonGo-related cross-marketing. It attracts some likes, but relatively few comments from page followers.

On YouTube, CBG has a highly respectable subscriber count of more than 5,000. Videos are uploaded multiple times each month and curated into playlists. The most unique playlist includes video annual reports that are hosted by the organization’s president. Their most popular videos are gardening how-to demonstrations such as “How to Repot an Orchid” (251,000 views). Other popular approaches include the use of timelapse photography of its famous corpse flower, a tactic that has been frequently employed by numerous other botanic gardens as noted in this Wikipedia entry.


Launched in 2013, the GardenGuide app features an interactive map, tour guide, event calendar, What’s in Bloom, Garden plant finder, and general plant guide.The app works on iOS and Android. Visitors without smartphones can also access the plant finder while they are at the Garden or at home. Visitors can pin favorite places, and mark their parking space and personalize their home screen. Search can be customized as well. It was funded by an IMLS grant.

Note: Attempts to use the plant finder feature in this app failed on several occasions in the research of this article with a reported server error message.

UC Davis Arboretum

The UC Davis Arboretum was founded in 1936 to support teaching and research at the University of California. The Arboretum occupies 100 acres along the banks of the old north channel of Putah Creek, in California’s Central Valley. Its collections include 22,000 trees and plants adapted to a Mediterranean climate, with hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. The plants are arranged in a series of gardens that represent different geographic areas, plant groups, or horticultural themes.

Collections Management

Access to collections is integrated into the main website through a “Collections Search” page. This search allows search of some of the more popular species with a small amount of filtering options. Results are cleanly rendered, and information is targeted to the needs of gardeners.

Living Collections can be viewed through the Esri ArcGIS Collections Mapper. In this experience, living collections are pinpointed on a map. Clicking a point will result in a pop-up screen with summary collections data.

Digital Media

U.C. Davis is relatively strong and consistent with its online media. The Arboretum’s website is a subsite of the U.C. Davis website. It is primarily a list of resource links. It prominently features links to its social media in the top half of its homepage, including a preview to its YouTube “How To” series. The Arboretum’s blog is based on WordPress, and features news items, calendar events, and previews of social media feeds. Examples of blog content include:

  • Garden enhancement
  • Job announcements
  • Grounds maps
  • Charitable involvement


Approach is focused on marketing, with plant sales advertised in the header, Facebook events throughout, and posts about volunteer and employment opportunities. Posts usually generated 30-40 likes, with shared video generating the most likes and an updated visitor map generating the most conversation.


This account has over 3,000 followers and features close-ups for flowers and animals in the garden. It recently began to post PokemonGo images.

Overall engagement on Instagram is stronger than Facebook with average post favorites of 150. Video posts (which usually feature animals) have been favorited up to 900 times.


Linkedin is used for updates about project updates and for employment opportunities, which is an appropriate use of this platform.


The YouTube channel features interpretive videos featuring Arboretum staff. Videos are uploaded every 2-3 months and often examine the characteristics of a specific plant species. The most popular video on the channel is about Salvia (6,000+ views). These videos are sometimes repurposed and shared on other social media channels.

Missouri Botanical Gardens

Founded in 1859, the Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG) is the nation’s oldest botanical garden in continuous operation and a National Historic Landmark. The Garden is a center for botanical research and science education, as well as an oasis in the city of St. Louis. The Garden offers 79 acres of horticultural display, including a 14-acre Japanese strolling garden, Henry Shaw’s original 1850 estate home, and one of the world’s largest collections of rare and endangered orchids.


Until 2012, MBG was using an outdated database system, which after years of iterative development, reached the stage where an entirely new platform was needed. They developed a web-based “Living Collections Management System” (LCMS). This is a cloud-based system that is built to facilitate curation, documentation, inventory control, plant care, and interpretation to meet the needs of research, conservation, and education.

In 2013, MBG received a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT) to modernize its data collection system. This system advances the process of data collection using technology to solve many of the challenges and issues with paper-based methods. Utilizing mobile tablet computers and QR code technology, the data collection system interfaces directly with the LCMS. Eight wi-fi hotspots were installed throughout the gardens to accommodate data collection and 30 iPad Minis were purchased so that every horticulturist could have one.

The MBOT System powers Tropicos, which was made available to the world’s scientific community. All of the nomenclatural, bibliographic, and specimen data accumulated in MBG’s electronic databases during the past 30 years are publicly available here. This system has nearly 1.3 million scientific names and over 4.4 million specimen records.

Online Media

MBG’s website is attractively designed, though weighted down with navigation options. It responsively reformats its content for mobile devices. It is a custom design.


The Home Gardening blog is updated monthly. It features a mix of  gardening tips, and content is categorized by season with appropriate tags applied to each post. Views per post range from a few hundred to about 3,000. Options for sharing to social media are added to the end of each post. Interestingly, the commenting function is not enabled on the blog.


Nearly 120,000 people like this page. Content is posted almost daily. MBG does respond to audience comments, specifically to clarify information on events. PokemonGo events are promoted, though response through comments is very mixed. Likes per post typically range from 100-300.


The MBG Flickr photostream was established in 2006 and contains more than 7,000 images. The profile page is optimized to point visitors to engagement opportunities, including group photo pools. It primarily serves as a repository for images related to events and projects at the garden.


The Twitter feed is embedded in the right sidebar of MBG’s website. The feed frequently retweets its visitors, resulting in more engagement on this platform than other gardens. There are about 34,000 followers for this account. They also retweet content from other gardens to build an online network. Garden events are thoroughly publicized, with a balanced mix of institutional and visitor tweets. They don’t consistently use a unifying hashtag in these cases, which could confuse current and potential followers.


MBG supports an active presence on YouTube, though its usage appears to be based on providing content for embedding to other platforms rather than engaging the YouTube community. It has relatively low 480 subscriber count. The channel is not optimized with playlists or institutional branding. Content uploads seem to be based on frequency of events at the garden. Commenting is disabled for videos. Most popular uploads include the following:


More than 23,000 people follow this account. Engagement averages 500-600 likes per post, and posting is daily. The account features mostly landscape imagery. The most liked post is the Corpse Flower, with 900+ likes. The plant was also timelapsed on YouTube. MBC altered its “About” language on Instagram to specifically promote its Japanse Festival.


This Pinterest account has more than 4,000 followers, 39 pins and more than 2,000 pins. The boards are extremely well conceptualized: clearly labeled with excellent images. Among them is a collaborative board with 15 participating gardens, which has 32,000 followers. Vizcaya could request to be added to this board and be seen by new audiences through its posts there. Other popular boards include:

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Fairchild is dedicated to exploring, explaining and conserving the world of tropical plants. Currently Fairchild has field programs in over 20 countries including support to protected areas in Madagascar and Africa and botanic garden development and renovation projects in South and Central America, the Caribbean and the Middle East. It has 45,000 members and over 1,200 volunteers. Its roles include museum, laboratory, learning center and conservation research facility, but its greatest role is preserving biodiversity.


Fairchild uses BG-BASE as its collections management system, but does not offer public collections access through its website. Instead, a downloadable PDF list of living plants is offered.

Online Media

Fairchild’s website is built on the DotNetNuke CMS. The Twitter feed is incorporated into the sidebar of the website. Their blog is incorporated into the site. It is updated weekly, but less frequently during the summer. The blog uses the Disqus tool for managing comments. Content is focused on project updates and garden how-to tips.


Nearly 46,000 people like this page. Content is visually very modest. They do ask questions of followers to increase engagement, but are not making use of hashtags and rarely respond to comments. Likes per post range from single digits to more than 200. Among the most popular recent posts is one about water lilies getting ready to bloom, which had more than 400 likes and 89 shares.


In contrast to Facebook, Fairchild’s Twitter stream is very visually engaging. It has a follower count of 7,700, and followers are frequently retweeted. Hashtags such as #bloomingnow, #funfact, #DailyView and #OrchidOdyssey are used often.


About 9,500 people follow this page. Content is landscape flora and fauna, average 300 favorites per post. The most popular post is a timelapse of the making of mango salsa, with more than 1,200 favorites.


This channel is used as a video repository and not an engagement platform. The channel has not been optimized with custom playlists or channel art. It was last actively updated 2-3 years ago. The video that is there was largely successful, with several thousand views on several of the posts. The most popular video is “Veneer Grafting” with 207,000+ views. The channel has more than 3,000 subscribers.


More than 600 people follow this Pinterest account. It contains 28 boards. Several are flowers organized by peak blooming months.

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden App

The Fairchild App replicates much of the feature set of their website. Including the following:

  • Events
  • Membership information
  • Google Map identifying garden names, locations, Wi-Fi hotspots, food and beverage,etc. This does not include interpretive information.
  • Links to social media

Though attractively designed, the app is not a visitor experience tool.

The Huntington

Building on the legacy collections, The Huntington’s mission is to encourage research and promote education:

  • Growth and Preservation of collections
  • Develop and support research with the collections
  • Display and interpret the collections to the public

The Huntington has a finely managed online presence. Visual media is elegantly presented and balanced by scannable text and engaging multimedia content.

Collections Approach

The Huntington is a long-time user of BG-BASE. Because of the amount of investment in the platform over the years, and staff comfort levels with using the software, they plan to continue use of BG-BASE in the future. The evolution of their collections management approach has been detailed in David Siversten’s presentation “Managing a Century of Botanical Collections in Southern California,” from the 2015 ESRI conference.

The Holden Arboretum has a grant to find a way to push information into BG-BASE from Arc-GIS. Arc-GIS has an excellent mobile device interface, which makes it handy for data entry.

The Huntington uses the ESRI Arc-GIS data model. There are free licenses for this for public gardens. Some gardens use volunteers to help document information for this system.

Online Approach

The Huntington actively curates the look and contents of its online platforms. Their design approach prioritizes clean lines and an image-centered “gallery” experience. The Huntington website features a two-level header, with the top level focused on visiting and the bottom level focused on the collecting areas of the institution. This is an elegant solution that Vizcaya could employ as well to avoid complex navigation common in other museum sites. A panoramic gallery slider includes content from across the institution. The center of the homepage promotes content from “The Huntington Channel,” which is their brand for audio and video content.

The institution uses several online media platforms to host and promote content that goes into The Huntington Channel, include a few that are unconventional.


The Verso blog is built on WordPress. It is produced by the Office of Communications. Through contributions from Huntington staff, visiting scholars, educators, and volunteers, it explores the many facets of The Huntington, a collections-based research and educational institution. Content is delicately balanced between museum, garden and library collections; imagery and text. Sometimes posts are blended with podcasts (embedded from Soundcloud) featuring staff members. The posts are added to the blog with transcription.


Items from the blog are routinely promoted on Facebook. This page also includes several image galleries. Featured blooms from the garden are intermixed with library and museum content, and are among the most popular posts. The page has 64,000 likes.


This account has about 19,000 followers. It is more garden focused than The Huntington’s other social media accounts. Posts include a mix of GIFs and video, but mostly include images. The posts get more engagement from followers than other Twitter accounts featured here, often approaching more than 20 favorites and retweets.


More than 21,000 people follow this account. Posts are evenly distributed among archival, garden and museum collections content. Video content, like the “30-second Mid-afternoon Monday Meditation” gets 4-5 times the engagement than standard image posts.


This is where scholarly insight and conversation is captured. Soundcloud is a “social” audio hosting site. Soundcloud content is embedded on the blog and website as part of other stories from The Huntington.


The Tumblr blog reflects much of the same content from the Verso blog. However, due to the platform’s “social” nature, posts are favorited or commented upon from 20-100+ times.


The Huntington has branded and optimized its channel well. Content is segmented into the following playlists:

  1. LOOK: Objects from The Huntington’s Collections
  2. Lectures and Events
  3. Behind the Scenes: Staff and Researchers at The Huntington
  4. Videre: Sights, sounds and sensing at The Huntington
  5. Through Artists Lenses


This online video platform is used for higher-quality content. The Huntington uses it to show museum collections stories. It does feature an interesting 10-minute introductory video for the institution that may provide a direction for Vizcaya to create something along the same lines.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew


Kew’s specialty Living Collections (LivColl) Database contains records of living and past accessioned specimens. The database contains 178,000 accessions, with data categorized in five areas:

  • Curation
  • Collections
  • Cultivation
  • Taxonomic
  • Scientific

Kew’s Electronic Plant Information Centre (ePIC) is a major project to bring together all of Kew’s digitized information about plants and make it easier to search. LivColl can be searched through this interface. Visitors can use it to pinpoint information of interest in Kew’s varied collections, bibliographies, nomenclatures and checklists, publications and taxonomic works, as well as links to information resources provided by external organizations.

Online Media

The Kew website is a Drupal-based site. It is functional and colorful, though older in design, which may cause minor rendering issues in some browsers. Site search is powered by a Google Custom Search.


More than 117,000 people like the Kew page on Facebook. Content likes average about 100 per post. Video content is typically 500 or more. For example, a video showing horticulturists pollinating a female specimen of Dioon spinulosum in Kew’s Palm House received 582 likes and was shared 124 times.


Much of the content posted on Twitter is geared toward promoting visits to the garden or events. Kew has 82,000 followers on this platform and gets higher numbers as a result. Posts draw and average of 50 engagement interactions (favorites/retweets).


The YouTube channel has nearly 4,000 subscribers and is optimized with promotional channel art and curated playlists. Videos are uploaded on average once per month. Most popular content includes timelapses, and “top ten” lists (e.g. Top Ten Attractions at Kew Gardens — in Two Minutes)


The Kew Instagram account has 51,000, and a high degree of interactions from followers. Image-based posts usually get 1,000 to 2,000 likes. For video, this can be as high as 7,000, even when very little motion is used in the video.


Kew has a promotional video on its YouTube channel to orient viewers to use of its app. The app is elegantly designed, making use of the user’s location, and providing notifications when beacon activated “Discovery Zones” are nearby. The Discovery Zone map guides the user through the Gardens, letting them pick out landmarks and attractions, as well as adding places of interest to their “list.” The app is available for iOS and Android.

UC Botanical Gardens at Berkeley

The UC Botanical Garden is a non-profit research garden and museum for the University of California at Berkeley, having a notably diverse plant collection including many rare and endangered plants. Established in 1890, the Garden, which is open to the public year round, has over 13,000 different kinds of plants from around the world, cultivated by region in naturalistic landscapes over its 34 acres.


The Botanical Gardens extension for CollectionSpace was implemented at U.C. Berkeley. The project was documented on a wiki as part of the IMLS Leadership Grant that funded it. The collections search interface is comprehensive, allowing the user to search 24 criteria, as well as the option to only search items with images. Search results can be downloaded as a CSV file. Results can also be viewed in tabs identified by Facets, Maps and Statistics.

Botanical Apps


Similar to iNaturalist, Pl@ntNet is an app to enable crowdsourced identification of plants with pictures. It is available for both iOS and Android devices. It features 247,000 pictures illustrating more than 6,000 species. “Projects” include Western Europe, Indian Ocean, South America and North Africa. Users of the app sign up for an account, capture photos and “observations” using the app. Pictures can be categorized by species for flower, fruit, leaf, habit and bark.


Leafsnap is an electronic field guide developed in 2011 by researchers from Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution. This free mobile app uses visual recognition software to help identify tree species from photographs of their leaves and is illustrated with high-resolution photographs. The City College of New York developed and tested curricular materials that use the Leafsnap app to help middle school students notice, group, and contextualize street trees in the patterns of evolution. It is available for iOS devices like iPhone and iPad.


Cultural Landscape Foundation

A non-profit established in 1998, The Cultural Landscape Foundation® (TCLF) connects people to places. TCLF educates and engages the public to make our shared landscape heritage more visible, identify its value, and empower its stewards. TCLF achieves this mission through the ongoing development of its three core programs:

  • What’s Out There®, North America’s largest and most exhaustive database of cultural landscapes;
  • Pioneers of American Landscape Design®, an in-depth multimedia library, inclusive of video oral histories, chronicling the lives of significant landscape architects and educators;
  • Landslide®, an ongoing collection of important landscapes and landscape features that are threatened and at-risk.

BGCI Care for the Rare

Care for the Rare provides free, easy-to-use interpretation resources that any garden can use to clearly communicate conservation stories of threatened plants in their collections.

Unique Spaces GIS

Unique Places GIS & Design merges advanced spatial technologies with the power of elegant design to produce stunning and informative visual creations.

Blue Raster GIS

Blue Raster helps organizations tell their stories through interactive mapping technology. User-friendly for both mobile and web platforms.

Garden Conservancy

The Garden Conservancy works to preserve and restore gardens in many ways, in both short-term and long-term partnerships.

Historic Landscapes Grants from NCPTT

The Preservation Technology and Training (PTT) Grants program provides funding for innovative research that develops new technologies or adapts existing technologies to preserve cultural resources. Grant recipients undertake innovative research and produce technical reports which respond to national needs in the field of historic preservation.

NCPTT funds projects within several overlapping disciplinary areas.  These include:

  • Archeology
  • Architecture
  • Engineering
  • Historic Landscapes
  • Materials Conservation

In order to focus research efforts, NCPTT requests innovative proposals that advance the application of science and technology to historic preservation in the following areas:

  • Climate Change Impacts
  • Disaster Planning and Response
  • Modeling and Managing Big Data
  • Innovative Techniques for Documentation
  • Protective Coatings and Treatments

Preservation social media leadership: The early days

In 2009, I presented to the Preservation Technology Advisory Board for the first time about preservation social media efforts. Though it was the first time the board members really heard about social media, they were incredibly supportive of the initiative.

The presentation features images by Hunter Wilson, who had a Flickr 365 project going on at the time. He would post a self-portrait every day for one year. Many of them featured compelling Photoshop effects. As I was presenting this, Hunter was at his high-school graduation. We had been interacting on Flickr for a time, and he was gracious enough to Skype in for a PR Campaigns course I was teaching at the local university.

That prior year was magic with connections that embodied the potential of preservation social media, before it became dominated by marketers and the walled fortress that is Facebook. The heritage fields were still skeptical of social media. Out in nowhere-you’ve-heard-of Louisiana, we were pioneering the frontier.

09 Board Meeting: Strengthening NCPTT’s Leadership on the the Social Web

Presentation to the NCPTT Board, May 2009

  • NCPTT Preservation Social Media Initiative and World Wide Web Clearinghouse
  • Conversation, facilitated by online tools that are: Platform-independent Free Interactive Easy to use
  •  Ultimately, it’s still about relationships [human-centered]
  • NCPTT was one of the first preservation organizations to use social media
  • Podcasting [Preservation Technology Podcast]
  •  Social Networking
  • Microblogging
  • Online Photo Sharing
  • Online Video Sharing
  • Preservation needs online leadership. The Future is Mobile
  • Training initiative provides expert guidance, connections for NCPTT [Training staff]
  • People everywhere are connecting in cyberspace to talk about heritage.
  • In 2009, many more heritage organizations have jumped on the new media bandwagon
  • … but progress is using new media effectively has been slow and lacking direction
  • Heritage is still trying to find its voice online.
  • Preservation still needs online leadership.
  • NCPTT’s role is to help the organizations make sense of social media and use it effectively
  • Communicating ourselves on the World stage can be an overwhelming task
  • We’ve been there before
  •  The right tools, mindset and people bring the job down to size
  •  Hard work and service to others unleashes the benefits of online engagement
  •  “We need to connect citizens with each other to engage them more fully and directly in solving the problems that face us. We must use all available technologies and methods to open up the federal government, creating a new level of transparency to change the way business is conducted in Washington and giving Americans the chance to participate in government deliberations and decision-making in ways that were not possible only a few years ago.” From Barack Obama’s campaign platform on technology Monday, March 9, 2009
  •  “We need to connect citizens with each other to engage them more fully and directly in solving the problems that face us. We must use all available technologies and methods to open up the federal government, creating a new level of transparency to change the way business is conducted in Washington and giving Americans the chance to participate in government deliberations and decision-making in ways that were not possible only a few years ago.” From Barack Obama’s campaign platform on technology Monday, March 9, 2009
  • You’re our heroes [advocacy role of board]
  •  What can we do to help? [Ideas, comments and discussion]

Crowdsourcing Historical Memory with TellHistory

I’m thrilled today to introduce a project that combines my biggest interests–oral storytelling and cultural heritage outreach through crowdsourcing. It’s appropriately called Tell History.

And it was developed by Alex Whitcomb and Sarah Hayes. They’re crowdsourcing video-based memories that they tie to themes, timelines and maps. We all have a friend or relative who has a fascinating story to tell. can help you help them to share that story in historical context. It’s also an inspiring story about how you can take your passion, and evolve it into a platform for the greater good. The interview starts with Alex and Sarah describing their own bit of history in the development of this project….

Crowdsourcing Historical Memory Topics

  1. What has the response been like?
  2. I know from personal experience that it can be very difficult to build engagement in digital projects. How have you gotten so many folks to contribute videos to the project?
  3. Tell me a little about how Tell History works …
  4. I think it’s interesting that you use a Theme of the Week to focus your contributions. How do you identify those?
  5. What kind of audiences are contributing to Tell History, and what kind of stories are capturing your attention? 
  6. You’ve made it very easy for folks contribute to Tell History. Describe that process …
  7. How have you been using social media to support the growth of Tell History?
  8. What kind of stories and themes are you focusing on for the future?
  9. Describe what your “big picture” goal is for Tell History …
  10. A project of this scope only happens because of people who believe in you and what you’re trying to achieve. Are there any folks who have contributed to the site that you’d like to give a shout-out to?
  11. How do folks connect with you online?

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2006/2016: What’s changed over ten years in #DigitalHeritage

It was 2006 when the digital heritage bug first bit me. I was working as public information officer at a remote National Park Service office serving a national constituency comprised of several very specialized technical fields. Oh, and there was no budget for outreach.

How to reach audiences, put the organization on the map, and perhaps feel a little less isolated?

The answer came at a Ragan public relations conference that October, when it was mentioned as an afterthought in one of the sessions: “watch the social media stuff. It’s going to change everything.”

I went back home to rural Louisiana and began investigating right away. To say things have changed a lot since then is an understatement. Scarcely two years later, the world had indeed changed. The place I was working got some notoriety for its social media involvement and our audiences grew.

Today, social media has become a big part of how we establish our identities. It’s the lens through which we view one another’s stories today, and will play a starring role in how history sees us in the future. So what has evolved in the attitudes and approaches in the “culture” of cultural heritage between 2006 and 2016?

The Awesome
  1. We’re more open and transparent. Whether it’s our data or our inner workings, we’re documenting heritage preservation and putting it on platforms ranging from Github to Tumblr to Wikipedia and The Commons.
  2. We’re valuing communication that goes beyond the broadcast model. My first podcast interview was with Nina Simon. Nina rocked my thinking regarding how museums facilitate visitor interactions with “me to we design.” Nina’s participatory  ideas have gone on to influence the way hundreds of museums do business. That Skype interview led to many other podcast interviews I have had with people from around the world.  A definite cure for the cultural isolation I had been feeling in those early days!
  3. The process heritage preservation is as valued as the product. We can go into institutions and see conservators and archivists at work, and even see them talk about their work online.
  4. Personal and professional interests are more blended. We’re becoming advocates for heritage preservation. Even when the tweets are presented as “views are my own,” we’re putting out content that reflects our values and beliefs, and heritage preservation is part of that no matter the context.
  5. Technology doesn’t scare us (as much). People don’t traditionally go into cultural heritage fields because they are early adopters. But we’re learning to embrace it with digital preservation and innovative outreach methods.
  6. We’re more focused on storytelling. That was always there to a great extent, I believe. But stories about cultural heritage are certainly more accessible now and people harness the power of online video, timelines and maps to support their narrative.
  7. History is shared like never before. Because of its presence online, the emergence of mobile devices, and tools like tour apps, people can share these newly accessible stories at the touch of a button.
The Scary
  1. Increasing lack of self-determination. I worry about Facebook taking over the internet and feeding us its version of events when the emphasis used to be providing sets of tools among providers to create our own experiences. Remember the emergence of RSS and Mashups and curating your own experience? I was on the verge of tears when Facebook bought (and suffocated) Friendfeed, which I still mourn. It’s hard for cultural heritage to compete with pop culture in our increasingly algorithmic world.
  2. When tech overshadows heritage. When I see my younger friends  repeatedly switch between social media apps during any given  conversation, I wonder if they will ever know the joy of being quiet and present (an even bigger worry for my 11-year-old daughter, whose device time I limit).  A great part of respect and preservation of history lies in being present with it–with an object or at a site and letting your imagination roll with historical implications. Will we lose that?
  3. Lack of knowing why we use these tools. Though my first product in this space was a strategic plan with audiences and outcomes, those are still relatively rare. As the adage goes–fail to plan; plan to fail (or spin your wheels in irrelevancy at least). Fortunately, some folks are putting their plans out there so no one has to reinvent the wheel.
  4. Digital preservation is a ballooning issue. There are certainly innovators out there, but many organizations are still either putting a bandage on the situation or ignoring it entirely.

In the final analysis, I believe heritage preservation has been served well by the transformation of digital and social tools. We’ve evolved from a recalcitrant attitude toward social media interaction to one of acceptance. Along the way, we’ve found new audiences and allies to make the field stronger.  Though the digital landscape is a bit more complex, these tools are still accessible to everyone–from history enthusiasts to small house museums to large-scale archaeological projects like Pompeii. We all have an opportunity to make our voices heard. The more we come together online to advocate for the cause, the stronger cultural heritage as whole will become.

This post was inspired by the WordPress blogging topic: Contrast