People have often talked about wanting to make museums and their collections more accessible and one way of doing this is through an online catalogue. Now this is something that is standard for large institutions but may not be available for some smaller, local museums. But not all search facilities from larger museums function well in enabling people to access their collections. So I thought that I would make a quick blog post on several elements which I have seen in various catalogues which, I believe, really help to engage visitors with the collections and thus better involve them within museums.
- Make it easy to find – when a visitor visits the website of a museum, I feel that the catalogue has to be visible in the top navigation bar. Having it so prominent catches the visitor’s eye and may encourage to click and explore. This is just a simple thing but is something that would be simple to instigate and change.
- Allow diverse searches – by this I mean giving the visitor the ability to search different categories. A good example of this is the National Army Museum in London. They allow the visitor to not only search a generic term, but also war, person, battle even theme or regiment. This is such a brilliant search function. Sometimes when you just have a search function you could be overwhelmed and not know what to search or when you do search, what you want to come up may not because every tag is being searched. Yet with this example, it encourages the user to explore different categories (the different sub headings may inspire topics for searching) and also may come up more specific, relevant objects/ archives that are of interest. This is good for not only casual visitors but would also be better for researchers.
- Expansion – Where the National Army Museum falls down is that you cannot click and expand on the information that is in the catalogue. By allowing visitors to do this, you could give let them explore and learn more about the object. The V&A for example has a ‘further details’ link which, when clicked on, takes you to a page where you can take a look at the object in greater detail through magnifying the image. Furthermore it gives you not only basic information but also some more detailed information about the object and its history and also allows you to download the information as a PDF. The level of detail is so useful for researchers to have, helping them save time and target objects they need to see for their studies. But for those just curious in what a museum has, it allows for exploration and an engagement with the museum’s collection outside of its four walls. If museums want to be more accessible to people and to develop a digital platform, this is a really good way of doing so. The main issue however is with this idea of photos and information, it would take a lot of time and money in order to photograph, write and publish everything online. Some smaller museums simply do not have the funds to do this. However, by this criteria, it is surprising that the National Army Museum has not done this.
- Public Comments – Now this could be debatable but I like the idea of a public comments part in the catalogue. There are many members of the public with knowledge that curators just don’t know. This could be local knowledge about where something was or more personal knowledge (which one could almost say was oral history) detailing what life was like and how they remember using and coming into contact with the object. Allowing people to voice their memories or knowledge would help not only enlighten everyone on the object and help curatorial knowledge, but would help to share the story of the object and what it means to them. This brings in a whole new level of visitor engagement that museums do not seem to be doing at the moment. Yet I know this may not be the most practical thing for a museum. Museums have to ensure that the information they put out is true because people put a lot of trust that what a museum says is accurate. However people may get facts muddled up or purposely wrong to mislead. It would not be feasible or efficient to have a member of staff patrolling the comments and fact checking everything. How can you even fact check a personal memory? This is one of those where it is nice in theory, but I don’t think that it will work in practice.
- Related items – To aid in the exploration of the collection, museums could employ the same tactic that Amazon use. By this I mean related searches. This could be items that are of a similar make, design, period or could be ones that other people have searched for. The IWM is very good at presenting three options at the bottom of the page that relate to the primary chosen object. What this allows the visitor to do is to explore the collection more. They do not need to think of another key word. The search will suggest where they could go next. It’s a little bit like videos on Youtube. You search for one but you end up watching several because of the suggestions that pop up. The same principle could apply to catalogues. This facility is also of use to researchers who may find it beneficial to have documents suggested that either may not come up high on the search function, or they may not have thought of looking for. It would help to diversify their sources.
So here are some elements that I believe, if all put together, could create the ultimate search facility for a museum. When you look currently at catalogue searches they seem to have certain elements, but not all of them. Some are more feasible than others to do. But possibly by making catalogues easier to navigate/ explore and advertised better, it would encourage people to engage in the museum’s collection and thus inspire a visit.
- Imperial War Museum, IWM to Haig, Lady, < http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1020012431> [accessed 21/4/2017]
- National Army Museum, <https://collection.nam.ac.uk/inventory/objects/> [accessed 10/4/2017]
- The V&A, Maria Bjornson design, < http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O47818/maria-bjornson-design-costume-design-bjornson-maria/> [accessed 21/4/2017]
 National Army Museum, <https://collection.nam.ac.uk/inventory/objects/> [accessed 10/4/2017].
 The V&A, Maria Bjornson design, < http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O47818/maria-bjornson-design-costume-design-bjornson-maria/> [accessed 21/4/2017].
 Imperial War Museum, IWM to Haig, Lady, < http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1020012431> [accessed 21/4/2017].