The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Kathryn Eccles: Lessons from the Museums without Walls: Crowdsourcing to understand public interactions with cultural heritage

Kathryn Eccles, Oxford Internet Institute


As much of our cultural life moves online, we are moving towards a digital cultural experience that closely resembles what Malraux described as the ‘musee imaginaire’, or museum without walls (Malraux, 1947), where anyone with access to the Internet may move through their own virtual museum. Digital cultural resources are democratising access, production, curation and engagement with our cultural heritage. A recent report from Nesta, ‘Digital Culture: How arts and cultural organisations in England use technology’ shows that digital innovation in the cultural sector is producing what they term a ‘cultural digerati’, members of which are increasingly likely to create new born-digital works of art, use data in the development of new products and services, and to embrace new technologies in developing strategy and generate new revenue (Nesta, 2013). Malraux argued that museums change the nature of the objects they house, and the digital turn in museum culture can be argued to have accelerated this process, by reorganising and sometimes removing the context of resources, and by changing the nature of objects and the experience of viewing them. What impacts have these changes had on visitor engagement?

Crowdsourcing initiatives, long embraced by the research and citizen science communities can shed light on the impacts of these shifts. Heralded as serving as important outreach projects connecting the general public to important research and resources, breaking down borders between academia and the public, and providing new and intricate means of knowledge exchange, pioneering projects such as Galaxy Zoo, e-Bird, and Foldit have revealed the potential impacts of these projects (Lintott et al., 2008; Raddick et al., 2010; Sullivan et al., 2009; Good and Su, 2011). Crowdsourcing initiatives have also been keenly embraced by the cultural heritage communities, with a range of crowdsourcing initiatives to transcribe manuscripts (Transcribe Bentham), tag images (Library of Congress Flickr), create contextual data (History Pin) and co-create collections (History Pin, 1001 Stories of Denmark) (See Oomen and Aroyo, 2011 for an excellent typology). Such endeavours can reinvigorate, renew and reinforce existing communities surrounding (both analogue and digital) resources, and contribute to sustainability by providing a cost-effective means of creating or enhancing data.

The cultural heritage or Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) sector has been at the forefront of crowdsourcing developments for a number of reasons. As Holley suggests, institutions within this sector are already experts in the first step of crowdsourcing: social engagement (Holley, 2010). The mass digitisation of heritage resources has offered new opportunities for preservation of archives and collections, the widening of access, and new opportunities for discovery, contextualisation and deeper engagement with resources. As these institutions are public facing, and often host publicly owned materials, there is a great incentive to become leaders in using digital technologies to promote engagement with these holdings. Other sectors (such as science) may benefit from the experiences in the GLAM sector, when introducing crowdsourcing for the collection and improvement of research data.

Crowdsourcing projects offer numerous opportunities to gain new knowledge about the ways in which the public interact with resources, who is likely to volunteer and what motivates them to get involved, how the design of certain crowdsourcing endeavours affects participation and creativity, and what impact public involvement in such projects can have on a wide range of stakeholders. These projects propose tasks that cannot be automated; they require a human being to participate, whether e.g., to tag digital art, or to transcribe handwritten manuscripts. The Internet offers the possibility to navigate through these resources online, but crowdsourcing projects reveal the need for a human interpretation of these resources, and a humanistic architecture for exploring them.

Crowdsourcing projects to catalogue, enhance, and shape cultural heritage collections are, however, potentially highly disruptive, interrupting traditional processes (such as curatorial and archival practices) and transferring responsibility for such activities to the general public, creating a new model for museum and heritage activities where these institutions and their users increasingly occupy the same space, whether physically or digitally (Simon, 2010). Empowering the public in this way can have a transformative effect, creating new (and reinvigorating old) communities surrounding the resources, fostering knowledge exchange and creating new opportunities for education, conservation and resource enhancement. 

Understanding the audiences around these crowdsourcing initiatives and the resources that form their core enables the cultural sector to reflect on the range of different experiences sought by visitors, and the extent to which offering a digital visitor experience enhances engagement with institutions rather than creating distance by removing the context of the museum. The paper will reflect on an important case study, an empirical study of the BBC/PCF collaborative project Your Paintings Tagger, in which the public were invited to contribute vital metadata to a new virtual collection comprising every publicly owned oil painting in the UK. The paper presents a portrait of the Tagging audience, the range of experiences sought and the extent to which the Tagger promoted engagement beyond the crowdsourcing platform. 

Good, B.M. and Su, A. (2011) 'Games with a scientific purpose', Genome Biology 12:135 
Holley, R. (2010) 'Crowdsourcing: How and Why Should Libraries Do It?', D-Lib 16:3/4 

Lintott, C.J., Schawinski, K., Slosar, A., Land, K., Bamford, S., Thomas, D., Raddick, M.J., Nichol, R.C., Szalay, A., Andreescu, D., Murray, P., Vandenberg, J. (2008) 'Galaxy Zoo: morphologies derived from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey', Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 389:3
Malraux, A. ‘Le Musee Imaginaire’, (Paris, 1947)
Nesta, ‘Digital Culture: How arts and cultural organisations in England use technology’ (Report published online, 2013)
Oomen, J., and Aroyo, L. (2011) 'Crowdsourcing in the cultural heritage domain: opportunities and challenges', Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Communities and Technologies, Brisbane, AU. 
Raddick, M.J., Szalay, A.S., Vandenberg, J., Bracey, G., Gay, P.L., Lintott, C.J., Murray, P., Schawinski, K., (2010) 'Galaxy Zoo: Exploring the Motivations of Citizen Science Volunteers', Astronomy Education Review 9:1 

Simon, Nina The Participatory Museum (Santa Cruz, California: Museum 2.0, 2010)
Sullivan, B.L., Wood, C.L., Iliff, M.J., Bonney, R.E., Fink, D., Kelling, S. (2009), 'eBird: A citizen-based bird observation network in the biological sciences', Biological Conservation, 142/10

Kathryn Eccles