Category Archives: General

Promote the Heritage of Your Community with Interactive Google Maps Tours

For me, appreciating the heritage of a site is being able to understand the context of its location and where it fits in with its history. It makes you want to experience that site and imagine yourself a part of history. A good guidebook strives for this kind of understanding. You can do the same pretty easily online mapping programs like Google Maps, with a lot more functionality. I’ll show you how using a Google Maps Tours I created for the Cane River region of Louisiana, where I grew up.

Admittedly, this is a lot of fun to create but you’ll get the most out of the product by giving some thought to the goals you are trying to accomplish. What do you want this map to do for you and your heritage resources?

An online map can have a lot of really good uses: to drive heritage tourism, coordinate volunteers, and even illustrate a grant proposal. But each of those reasons require slightly different elements and you do not want to overwhelm your visitors with information they don’t need. Once your goals are set, here’s how you get started with the basics:

Step 1: Creating the Map

  1. Go to and sign in using your login from any Google service (gmail, etc). Get Started by clicking the red plus button in the lower right corner
  2. Give your map a title and description. The title should be a simple description of the site or collective area. Provide one or two sentences in the description that briefly state your area’s claim to fame. You’ll want to include a couple of external links that provide current authoritative information about the area you’re promoting.
  3. You have a map that saves automatically to the Google cloud!

edit button

Where possible, provide a link that includes contact information for touring your sites. If the site is private or otherwise not accessible to the public, note that as well.

Step 2 : Add Your Sites

As soon as your map is named, add several 5-10 placemarks to it right away by using the search field to find relevant locations. This will give you momentum for keeping the project going and spark interest from potential audiences and collaborators. If you have an address, just type it into the search box and click “search maps.” When the location comes up (and do check to make sure it’s correct on the map) click “Add to map …” and select your map from the dropdown menu. Press the Save button, and your first item is created!

save to map

That’s the easy way. Often heritage sites in remote areas do not have exact titles, addresses or even discernible zip codes (it happens!). If that’s the case, you’re going to have to locate it using the “Satellite” view in Google Maps. You’ve probably already used this function to find your own house. To enter Satellite view, just click on the button in the top right hand corner of your map. It may take a few moments to load.


Once you are in satellite view, it’s time to engage in a spy mission to spot your site.

  1. Go to the map you’ve saved and click the Edit button. Then simply click and hold on the map to move it in the direction you want to go.
  2. When you’re in the general area of where you know your resources is, use the slider bar on the right hand side of your map to zoom in (+) or zoom out (-).
  3. Grab the placemarker icon (looks like and upside-down teardrop) at the top and drop it on to your site. This will give your site GPS coordinates and place it on your map.

Step 3: Collaborate!

Increase the effectiveness of your map by adding collaborators, which is as simple as clicking the “Collaborate” link at the top of your maps and entering e-mail address of the best folks for the job. Start with a small group of people you trust and explain why your map is important as well as why you are asking them to collaborate on it. In my case, folks from my group have not only added important sites I didn’t know about, but also alerted me to sensitive sites (such as those with active archaeological excavations) where public attention might interfere.

Step 4: Blogify Your Text

Folks don’t want to read a treatise about your site within the context of an online map. Shoot for brief, descriptive and compelling narrative storytelling. In the short term, a couple of sentences is just fine.

By default the descriptions of your map items are in plain text. The rich text method offers ways to hyperlink text as in a word processing program. With your map still in edit mode, do this:

  1. Click the placemark. The info window will pop up.
  2. Choose Rich Text to type in your description text and use the “hyperlink” icon to add urls for related sites.
  3. After your text is in place, click the Done button. Remember, you can always go back and edit or add more later.

Step 5: Embedding Photos and Videos

With your placemarks and written description of your sites, you’ve done the bulk of the work to accomplish your goals. Now for the polish — those little elements that will captivate your end users. This starts with that bedrock principle of social media: embedding.

Assuming you have photos and videos on sites like YouTube and Flickr, here’s how to embed your media in each placemark description:

  1. Open your map and click the Edit button.
  2. Choose Edit HTML.
  3. Find the video you want on YouTube or Google Video. Copy the snippet of code that lets you embed the video into a website or blog.
  4. Paste the snippet of code into the description field of your placemark, line or shape.
  5. Click OK to save your changes.

Google Maps Tours Placemark

Note: There is a bit of bugginess with Google Maps and embedding videos. Many folks have had the experience of the embed code for YouTube videos mysteriously disappear from their placemark info box.

Next Steps: Optimize with layers

Another way to get your videos into the appropriate spot (besides HTML) is to use the Video layer. The Video Layer uses the geocoding in your video and will show up after you input an item’s coordinates into the video settings. The video will pop up as an icon when someone clicks the “More …” button on the map and selects “Video.” This also works with photos and Wikipedia entries! Be aware that this could take several days to show up on your map.

Make Your Map a Heritage Icon

Instead of using the default placemark, you can use icons to jazz up the look of your map or to differentiate types of resources at-a-glance. I used a plantation home, a church, a gravemarker and an old building icon (among others) in the Cane River Map. Here’s how you do it:

  1. Find or make icons that best fits your categories and upload them to a photosharing site like Flickr or Google Drive (which is more integrated. It can be put anywhere the image has a url.
  2. Go to your map.
  3. Click the placemark you wish to replace with an icon.
  4. When the info window opens up, click the paint bucket icon.
  5. Click “More icons,” then “Custom Icons” and paste the url for the icon you wish to use. The icon will always show up in “My Icons” from now on.

Notable Use:
The U.S. National Trust for Historic Preservation has famously used Google Maps Tours to visually document its Save America’s Treasures, Preserve America and National Heritage Area sites (see its “Historic Sites” map here. While maps on this scale can be overwhelming, they do make the case that historic sites are alive and well, and in likely in your neighborhood.

That’s all there is to it! Now you can embed your map into a web page, or share a link to it through e-mail and social media services. Here’s a preview of the Cane River Heritage Map I created. It’s a work in progress, but it’s a great way to help folks experience these heritage resources both virtually and in person.

Interpretive animations can activate audience connections to history

For me, enjoying a museum visit has always required a leap of imagination. After all, a glass case or a room barrier inherently separates you from objects. Interpretive animations as short-form video are one way to get a visitor into a state where they can better understand the context is which a space, object or event “lived” its historical purpose due to its interaction with humans.

I experimented with this concept as part of a partnership with University of the Arts in Philadelphia and my colleague, Michal Meyer. Abstracting the object or story with animation really helped focus on imaginative storytelling and more effective interpretation.

Here is a playlist of animations produced as part of this partnership.

Some are definitely better than others, but they increased in quality as we refined the process. One challenge related to this experience (where we were working with a class) is that there is much work in getting the students up to speed on the meaning of the content and desired outcomes for audiences. These were also semester-long projects for an animation class, so they are several months in production. Some animations were never quite finished.

Overall, I think they turned out wonderfully. My personal favorite is an animation of an old alchemical painting the organization had, which explained what was going on through the eyes of a creature featured in it. Here’s a preview to the high-resolution source image for that from Wikimedia Commons (click for original):

Interpretive animations Interior of a Laboratory with an Alchemist 17th century David Teniers II.tif
Interior of a Laboratory with an Alchemist by David Teniers II, 17th Century

I saw that painting almost every workday for three years. It captured my imagination all on its own, and was a no-brainer for this project. To give these project some extra attention, we “premiered” these as part of a live webcast that featured a graphic novelist and a comic book historian.

Drawing History: Telling the Stories of Science through Comics and Graphic Novels from ChemHeritage on Vimeo.

There are many examples of museums using animations as pre-visit prep (manners in the museum) as seen below, but few featuring sophisticated storytelling and animation.

There are also examples of animations being used in museum interactives, such as these at the Benjamin Franklin Museum.

I looked for examples of interpretive animations produced by other cultural institutions, and they are hard to find. If you know of something out there, please link to it in the comments. Of course, there are many examples of object-inspired animated GIFs being used throughout social media, but that’s another post.

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

A 3D Documentation primer for cultural and historic sites

In the last decade, 3D documentation has emerged as the pre-eminent technology to support heritage preservation around the world.

Organizations like UNESCO, the World Monuments Fund and Smithsonian actively participate in programs for 3D documentation of historic objects and sites.

More recently, the technology has evolved to impact digital interpretation as well. Advances in preservation technologies are aligning with those in interpretive tech, so bridging the two to create virtual experiences and kiosks is finally beginning to be possible. This post will describe two common 3D documentation approaches and related resources for institutions considering leveraging this technology.

What is Laser Scanning?

Laser scanning enables a large quantity of three-dimensional measurements to be collected quickly. Laser scanners are devices that can be placed on land or on aircraft such as planes and drones. The scanners measures distance by systematically illuminating a target with a laser light, and recording that data. The point cloud is the raw product of a survey. It contains a large number of coordinates that detail every aspect of a surface, measured in microns. There are 25,400 microns in one inch. These points form the skeleton over which a skin can be rendered to create a recognizable 3D model. 

Laser data is collected into proprietary systems, so the data will require messaging before it can be exported in a useful and shareable product. It can also be affected by environmental factors like humidity. Attention must also be paid to how the scans are registered. Though individual scans may be really accurate,  the finished model can have a lot of error due to the registration process. Be sure to evaluate the implications of these factors, as well as the scale of your project when examining the appropriateness of this technology.

What is Photogrammetry?

Photogrammetry works by taking many images of a scene from different locations using standard digital cameras (there are even smartphone apps) and then processing them through programs to determine the exact location from which these photos were taken. When the positions of the camera are known, specialty software looks for common points in two or more photos to determine where objects exists in 3D space. It can still produce a very detailed virtual model. The technology is useful on a small scale, to document objects or fragments of architectural detail on buildings. It can be used for more frequent visual detection of deterioration for at-risk heritage resources, at lower costs than laser scanning.

In terms of accuracy, photogrammetry can give repeatable measurable results well in the sub-mm range, with reports of repeatable measurements in the 5 100ths of a mm. Photogrammetry has an advantage over laser scanning in terms of archiving because archiving image sets is well understood.

As with laser scanning, the quality of a product of photogrammetry is determined by how correctly it was shot and processed. A good looking model can still have a lot of error.

What questions can 3D documentation answer?

Laser scanning, supported with photogrammetry, can provide critical insight into a site’s built heritage that cannot be accomplished as efficiently by any other means. These include the following:

  • How quickly a feature is changing. Laser scanning can contribute to a detailed record where a feature, structure or site might be lost or changed forever. Is the architectural detail on the barge measurably fading at a faster rate than that of the main house or the garden mound? Laser scanning can help predict the rate of deterioration, and inform conservation priorities.
  • How one feature in the landscape relates to another. What is the proportion of an institution’s grounds to its built structures? Based on the contour of the landscape, how will sea level rise affect the estate over time? Laser scanning can help inform study of the overall cultural landscape–how it was fashioned and how it compares to the surrounding landscape. It can also uncover previously unnoticed archaeological features in a landscape covered in vegetation or woodland.
  • The size of a structure. Laser scanning provides pinpoint accuracy regarding dimensions of objects and structures. This can be useful in planning for preservation projects by contributing to a record before renovation of a structure or landscape.
  • Improve accessibility. For tall structures, a frieze, tiling, or other architectural detail may not be entirely visible from ground level. For others, environmental barriers may block access. Often, objects in museums are blocked from close inspection and certainly from touching. A 3D scan can replicate the proportions and form on an object for access on digital platforms.
  • Aid expert understanding. Because of the detail it is able to capture, elements of an object or structure can be enlarged and examined on a virtually unlimited scale.
  • Improve engagement with the general public. Models produced as a result of scanning can be incorporated into interpretive kiosks and digital tour apps for mobile devices, allowing the public to manipulate, enlarge and examine objects from all sides. This can further enrich their connection to the site/objects and allow them to share their experiences through the web.
  • Replication. An accurate model is useful for producing a replica for display, or as a replacement in a restoration scheme. This could be useful in milling replacement replicas of the peacocks for the marine garden or sculpture on the barge that is at risk due to climate. Models can also be used by educational departments to 3D print objects as part of a handling collection.

Universities with 3D Documentation Programs

University Partners are highly aware of the grant landscape for laser scanning projects and are willing to collaborate on funding proposals. They also have excellent reputations for understanding how this technology can be applied to the entire range of cultural heritage documentation, preservation and interpretation.

In turn, universities benefit from a partnership with your institution because their students will have access to a living laboratory of historic structures, objects and landscapes to capture and evaluate. Here are a few universities that are capable of 3D documentation projects:

Ball State University Hybrid Design Technologies, Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts They have performed interesting projects on sculpture related to museum interpretation.

The University of Arkansas Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies describes its approach as “strongly multi-disciplinary and global in scope with current active research efforts throughout North America, South America, the Middle and Near East, and Europe.”  The program is funded through grant projects.

UA CAST research strengths
The University of Arkansas CAST program has a wide variety of research strengths including capture, analysis, preservation and education.

Oregon State University Pacific Slope Archaeological Laboratory focuses on archaeological assets. Their site lists rates for services and provides interesting online video about the applications of their work.

The University of Michigan 3D Lab provides 3D capture and printing as part of its processes. They can assist with all phases of projects including planning, design and development.


In 2012, the University of Florida Historic Preservation Program launched the Envision Heritage initiative with the mission of exploring how new and emerging technologies can be utilized to document, conserve, and interpret historic sites.

The University of South Florida Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies (AIST) is a Research and Education Support Unit in the School of Geosciences, College of Arts and Sciences, at the University of South Florida. Its research interest is “preserving and protecting the world’s cultural and natural heritage through education and global engagement.”

Related Questions

Q: How will I be able to access and use the file?

A: You could use Autodesk Recap (subscription; $300/yr – Smithsonian uses this) to access the actual point cloud and MeshLab (open source) for solid models, or Rhino3D ($1,000 for a license). The partnering institutions are willing to work out a plan to offer training to staff on the use of these technologies as well. This will empower the organization to make better use of the data and learn to capture small-scale scans for predictive conservation modeling.

  1. How large might the file(s) be?

A: File sizes vary by the scale of the object and resolution. Estimates regarding the point cloud for the are about 15 GB. A solid model would be more than 100 GB depending upon the level of detail. Video animations can be 1GB or more depending on length. These are large, but still manageable sizes to store and access.

Q: How often would scanning need to be done to track preservation/conservation issues?       

A: This will take time to determine. Laser scanning and photogrammetry could be used to focus on specific, collectively decided target areas and not record the entire structure each time. That would decrease time in field, processing, and cost. Of course, time intervals would depend on what we are monitoring for, and would be informed through a regular visual analysis by the conservation team, including observed rate of deterioration due to cyclical tides, storm events, etc.  

Q: Can we use the resulting animated graphic in  360 photo tours?   

A: The partner institution can provide the point cloud or solid surface file in a number  of different formats. 360 tour vendors could integrate a 3D model so that it can be opened within the tour as a web-poi. For an off-line version (kiosk version) it may be possible to have a normal poi (point of interest) featuring still angles of the 3D barge that could be scrolled through giving the appearance of it rotating 360 degrees. Regal 360 could also just come out and photograph on top of the barge, but that still leaves the water side undocumented.

Q: Who owns the product(s)?

A: The point cloud, solid model and video animations should be specified as the sole property of your institution. A partnership should be structured so that the documentation partner would seek permission if they sought to publish anything regarding the work they did at your site.

Strategic Directions

To fully realize its value, a 3D documentation project should inform a broader systematic program of capture.

Learning Experiences

Universities that teach 3D documentation skills and execute related projects internationally can be valuable partners. This expertise can be leveraged for knowledge among staff, and provide learning experiences for university students and the general public.

Staff Workshop: A partner institution could provide an on-site workshop for relevant staff on photogrammetry. Staff would be instructed in the significance of 3D documentation, how to perform it, and how to use it to inform their work. This would include targeted documentation training that would allow staff to see differences between the images they capture, and those resulting from an initial high-resolution scan.

Community Day: Your institution could hold a community event to introduce local audiences (including students) to the technology and how the institution is using it. The event would showcase commitment to preservation while enabling the public to see heritage resources in ways (both micro and macro) that were previously impossible. This event could include the following:

  • a presentation by the site and its partner institution to present preliminary data
  • A demonstration of the documentation technologies.
  • 3D printing of objects based laser scans that the public can touch and examine.

University Classes: University partners participating in 3D documentation could involve their students in the project. With an ongoing program of 3D digital scanning, a historic site could become a living laboratory for these students, providing a diverse array of architectural and environmental elements to round out their experience.

Grant Opportunities

A university partner is particularly useful in identifying and acquiring grants for 3D documentation projects. The following granting agencies have expressed past interest in funding such projects:

Additional Platforms

3D objects can be rendered in formats suitable to a wide variety of digital platforms, including the following:  

Mobile Apps: For institutions investigating app development for enhancing the visitor experience. 3D models could be judiciously integrated into such an app, giving visitors the opportunity to manipulate select objects as part of a larger virtual tour. Additionally, USF AIST has student developers within its program that could potentially create a custom experience centered around 3D objects.

Sketchfab: Many institutions worldwide publish the renderings from their project portfolios to Sketchfab. Sketchfab is a leading online repository for publishing 3D and virtual reality content. It integrates with all major 3D creation tools and publishing platforms. Files can be uploaded in almost any 3D format, directly on or using an exporter. Once models are on Sketchfab, descriptive text can be added and the resulting image can be embedded on any web page and are sharable on social media.

SCENE Webshare Cloud: SCENE WebShare Cloud is a cloud-based hosting solution from FARO that allows easy and secure sharing of scan data worldwide. It offers the ability to can see the renderings of structures or objects on an interactive map. It offers a the ability to include very detailed information, including measured distances, GPS coordinates, project descriptions. Though engaging for a general audience, it is most useful in working with contractors or managing entities. The degree to which it can zoom from estate map to details on architectural features also makes it a powerful computer-based solution to understand and analyze complex on-site conditions, including conservation issues. The base package for SCENE Webshare Cloud is $990, which includes 50GB storage.

YouTube: 3D documentation efforts can be rendered as video products that can be published to its YouTube Channel. These videos can be simple “virtual tours” of objects. They could also be stories about the process of documentation. Some of the University of Florida’s renderings can be viewed on the Envision Heritage YouTube Channel.

3D Documentation Specialists

Cultural Heritage Imaging (CHI) is a nonprofit organization, dedicated to advancing the state of the art of digital capture and documentation of the world’s cultural, historic, and artistic treasures. One of its goals is to create robust, low-cost imaging tools to document cultural heritage. It is noted for unique approaches to 3D documentation, its commitment to training people in these technologies, and its willingness to use social media as an outreach tool.

CyArk was founded in 2003 to ensure heritage sites are available to future generations, while making them uniquely accessible today. CyArk operates internationally as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization with the mission of using new technologies to create a free, 3D online library of the world’s cultural heritage sites before they are lost to natural disasters, destroyed by human aggression or ravaged by the passage of time. CyArk tends to focus on high-profile projects, supported by large grants.

3D Data Exchange

The ASTM E57 Committee on 3D Imaging Systems Sub-committee on Data Interoperability (E57.04) has developed an open standard for 3D imaging system data exchange. Working with partners to follow this standard is important to make maximum use of 3D products. The standard’s goals include the following:

  • Cross-platform
  • Open source
  • Easy to use API, designed for common use cases

The E57 File Format for 3D Imaging Data Exchange is capable of storing point cloud data from laser scanners and other 3D imaging systems, as well as associated 2D imagery and core metadata.

Supporting Documentation

The following documents will be helpful for partners assisting with 3D documentation projects

  • Strategic Plan
  • Historic Structures Reports
  • Blueprints
  • Cultural Landscape Plan
  • Related Archival Images

HABS/HAER/HALS Documentation

Participation in National Park Service Heritage Documentation Programs (HDP) would complement, inform and strengthen a built heritage site’s own 3D documentation efforts. In particular,  a documentation project as part of the the Historic American Building Survey (HABS), or Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS) are options for documenting in this way. Much of the work of HABS is done by student teams during the summer, or as part of college-credit classwork. An institution could sponsor a student team in partnership with a university with an architecture program.

The measured drawings, photographs and reports produced from these programs are archived by the Library of Congress and made accessible through their online database.  Efforts are being made now to connect HABS documentation to 3D documentation point clouds.

Related Research

Bennett, Michael J. “Evaluating the Creation and Preservation Challenges of Photogrammetry-based 3D Models.”

Kronkright, Dale. “Applications for Digital Photogrammetric Methods of Preservation Documentation of Historic Homes.”

Related Linkset


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