Monday, May 04, 2009

Creative Spaces - the National Museums Online Learning Project

one of the nine Creative Spaces websites

The collaboration of nine museums in the UK has led to the birth of the beta version of Creative Spaces, the National Museums Online Learning Project. The aim is to help to help to promote their collections online - and the associated learning which can take place as a result.
The project aims to get partner museum websites better used, engage new audiences and transform the way they think about and use existing digital collections. We have developed a range of innovative and exciting online learning resources across the nine websites for pupils, teachers, and lifelong learners. These resources provide greater access and usage of the museum partners’ online collections, and utilise new technologies to encourage and support user participation.
Royal Armouries - National Museums Online Learning Project
How I've been involved

Way back in February 2007, I was invited by the Victoria and Albert Museum to join a small group of people who were going to help get a new and important national project off the ground. We were in fact the pre-beta guinea pigs for this project! Both project and website have gone through quite a few changes since the first and second versions which I tested and fed back on in 2007.

One of the changes has been a change in name - from Creative Journeys to Creative Spaces.

The notion was that people who were using the museum were on a creative journey. I think it probably became apparent after a while that actually people have quite diverse interests and are used to surfing the web and collecting information as they go. A site which had a linear path-like model would not work as well as one which operated a bit more like a virtual 'cloud' version of the inspiration board that you might find in an artist's studio. That might contain items which form part of a group - or just odd items which you came across on your travels and found stimulating enough to want to keep it accessible.

What does the project provide?

Basically it allows you to search across nine museums and then save any items you like in a virtual notebook. You can also set up a group for any particular interest you may have - and control whether it is public or private and who has access to it.


This - in theory - should be the major benefit of the site. One search item can search across not one but nine different museums.

However there are problems with the search and I assume this has to do with the way museums have got items in their collections named and tagged. Here is the result of a search for "sketchbooks" across the nine sites. My first reaction is very positive - 110 results across nine sites. Until I realise that these are 110 individual sketches (ie not sketchbooks) across only two sites. Missing for example are the 300 Turner sketchbooks which are lodged at the Tate - each of which has a significant number of individual images. So 110 images suddenly looks like a very tiny slice of what is available online.

I then tried again and used "sketchbook" as the search term and this time came up with 1,915 items - with the Tate producing 1,685 items! The problem then is to search within the 1,685 items. In practice it means you pretty much need to know what exists in order to be able to find it.

So I then tried "Sketchbook Turner" which generated 4844 results! At which point I gave up as accessing the Turner sketchbooks via the Tate website is so much easier!


are intended to be for your own personal collection of images from the museums or museum visits and can be private or public. They can include notes, links, images, audio and video. Public notebooks can be viewed and commented on by other users.

I started a notebook for botanical art and it was great to see the range of items in different museums which was generated when I then did a search on botanical art. However the best method for searching to get the best and most relevant results is not obvious. Also, it may be my connection but I also found the pace at which I could save items to a notebook to be rather slow.


Groups are places to share common interests around themes relating to museum items. Again they can include notes, links, images, audio and video. Everyone can see and join a public group, but private groups are only visible and joined by invitation. The "Public, by your approval" type of group means that everyone can see the group, but membership is approved by you.

I've joined a group which is about botanical prints and drawings - but found a little bit later that I couldn't find it again when I searched for botanical art.

Personally I find the ad hoc nature with which items are added to a group to be quite confusing. Particularly when they are added by people who are not used to using tags. As with 'search' it seems to offer scope for a long list which would be very time-consuming to review.

beta phase: One has to remember that this site is still in beta. I think it's fair to say that there are a few problems which need fixing - a number of which relate to how 'search' works and how well items are described. Please bear in mind that as the site is in beta you may encounter bugs which need fixing. You can provide feedback.

What issues still need to be addressed

You can read other people's comments about the Project in these links:
I think we share similar perspectives.

It's good to see the project up and running in public. It's also good to be able to talk about it at last. It certainly has the potential to be a positive addition to online learning resources.

However I still have some reservations about the basic model and some of the principles which underpin it. I'm also not sure how much I want to experiment with it at the moment given the current level of functionality. That's not to say other people won't enjoy using it and get a lot out of it.

Design: The design is much improved and now has much more of a web 2.0 feel than the early designs. However there is scope to improve it further in terms of design and usability. However the important issue is 'why' would people use this site and how might they use it in relation to other sites they also use. Mike Ellis (Electronic Museum) who used to be the Head of Web for the National Museum of Science and Industry, UK has pretty much summed up my views on this topic in Creative Spaces - just…why? and I'd certainly endorse his views. (Plus I'd just note that I've had an about museum online projects just by finding his blog in a google search and then following some of his links!)

My initial issue with this project was about why would I want to write another blog about my experiences of researching stuff in museums when I have one already. My issue now is that I want the ability to access and incorporate stuff from the museums easily into my blog (or my school project submission if I was a school kid or my research dissertation if a University student). It's far from clear whether that is possible or encouraged.

Access: I find one aspect of the way that the project has been set up to be very odd. The reality is that there is no one gateway site into the project. There are nine completely independent sites which all share infrastructure and software and operate independently. I gather this constraint was imposed by the museums and I guess getting complete co-operation between nine museums on sharing costs for a joint gateway site was maybe a step too far.

I think it's a huge pity as obviously it's a lot easier to promote one URL for one gateway site (which then provides a link to nine separate and independent sites) to the schools and general public then nine different sites with nine different website addresses!

I looked to see how the project was highlighted on the different websites - which was generally variable and very poor in some instances. I'm not quite sure how a beta project can be assessed if it is invisible to the public.
Noticeable by their absence from the group are the Science Museum, National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland.

Oddly enough I also have to go to Google to get both a list of the museums websites and the individual creative spaces websites! For some reason the beta site does not list the participating museums or their websites or their creative spaces websites. More comments about access below.

Plain English: If museums expect children to use the website then the terms and conditions need to be written in Plain English at a level that an eight year old can understand. At present they're not. There's a best practice standard which can and should be used for all government funded websites and that's the Plain English campaign's Crystal Mark. Terms and conditions need to written in such a way that they are accessible as well as keep the lawyers happy.

Copyright: Portability is the other big issue. Until the museums sort this aspect out I don't think this project will take off. I'd like to see the portability of images clarified in relation to copyright - in plain English. What's required is acceptance by all the participating museums that it's OK to provide a web sized and pixel constrained image of an item without causing the museum's income to crash! The reality is that most of the items in museums are well out of copyright and the museums are also funded by the taxpayers money. It would really help online learning and education if it's made more explicit that it's OK to use small (in pixel terms) images available online in places other than the Creative Spaces website. 72dpi images of a reasonable size (eg 500-600 pixels) are never going to undermine the giclee printing sideline of any museum!


Finally, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Anne Fay, the Adult Courses Manager (Learning & Interpretation) at the Victoria and Albert Museum and Carolyn Royston the Project Manager for being given the opportunity to contribute to this project at the very beginning. They've both become very familiar with my my views about the pros and cons of this project! I know some of the issues I've raised in the past and present have been addressed and that others are still being addressed - and I'm grateful for the opportunity I was given to add my perspective. I look forward to seeing how the site continues to progress in terms of both design and funtionality.

Overall, although I still have a number of reservations about how this site is designed and operates I am in no doubt whatsoever that something is required which enhances access to museum collections and the online experience of lifelong learners. Like most major IT projects, the outcome you're seeking to achieve rarely arrives first time or comes fast. Perseverance - and the input of user views - is what will help this project get there in the end.


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