Digital Review 2016-17

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As part of our current round of Arts Council England grant funding, I’m required to write an annual review of our digital activity. Last year this took the form of a 33 page data heavy document which included not only tables and graphs, but footnotes and appendices too. While useful — particularly as a document of user behaviour that surprised many of my colleagues — it was hard reading, and not the most accessible or persuasive format.

This year I have decided to write this review in the form of a blog post. While much of what I discuss here will likely be of little interest unless you work in a museum or with digital media, I hope that it will provide an insight into our work behind the scenes, what we have learned over the last year, and where we are headed.

I’ve tried to keep this post relatively light on statistics, but all figures used have been taken from 2016-17, and all comparisons are against the previous financial year.

Screen grab of home pageOur main website (ie. the one you are looking at) was redeveloped two years ago, and is our biggest point of connection with the public. Overall, the number of sessions on the site (ie. visits) has grown by a modest but healthy 4% to over 577,000 a year. But what is more important is that we’ve seen big changes in how people use the website this year. Views of our event pages have more than doubled, and revenue from online ticket sales has grown by 48%.

This big growth in sales is largely a result of our investment in a new front end to our ticketing system that we introduced in October 2016. This was the last part of our website to be optimised for smartphone and tablet use, and was a vital change. Almost 55% of the visits to our website last year were conducted with a mobile phone or tablet, and mobile use in particular is growing rapidly: that was up 16% on the previous year.

Aside from big shifts in the transactional use of our website, we have also seen it grow as a publishing platform. Views of our blog have increased 31% this year, to almost 70,000 page views a year. For me, our blog is the place where our online presence best reflects the diversity of our collections and buildings. We’ve posted some cracking stories this year, both short and long, ranging from the discovery of a framed cat’s whisker to suprising links between Rasputin and Preston Manor. It’s also a great means of showcasing some of what we do behind the scenes, whether it’s the work that went into our Fashion Cities Africa exhibition in Brighton Museum, or gilding techniques used in the Royal Pavilion.

This is a caricature from 1824 of George IV with bandaged gouty foot sits in front of mirror with images of himself in various costumes in the background.

Over 120 authors have contributed to our blog since it began in 2010, including staff, volunteers and guest contributors. It contains a variety of voices but also proves that it’s not just our curators who have good stories to tell: I’m particularly pleased that the most popular post written this year was a piece about George IV’s health problems by my colleague Meg Hogg, a member of our front of house team.

Online Collections

Our blog is really just an assortment of stories about our collections and buildings, and the great success we have enjoyed with this shows how well narrative content works online. However, blogs present stories in a fragmented way, and while that is great for organising by theme or optimising for Google searches, it’s not always the best platform for grouping stories together within a particular context. As a result we’re taking what we have learned from our blog and are experimenting with using more narrative techniques in other areas of our online presence.

One early example of this approach is Tales from the Pavilion Archive. As part of a project documenting the digitisation of this collection, we are focusing on key items in the Pavilion Archive using rich media to pull out the stories they can tell. It is principally aimed at visitors to our website who are browsing through the Royal Pavilion history pages, and would normally expect to see the history of the building presented chronologically or thematically rather than told through individual objects.

It is difficult to measure the success of this at present, and I think we’ll need another year and more content before we can judge. But I can make one observation right now: in the first few days after we launched these pages, not a single person would visit this section and click through to read more about ‘Humphry Repton’s Red Book, 1806’. Once it was presented as ‘The Pavilion that might have been’ users were curious enough to click through to find out more.

But this approach can only work when resources are applied to focus on a small number of objects. At the time of writing we have almost 20,000 digitised objects online, and almost 70,000 published records in total; making these accessible is more of a challenge.

One criticism made of our website on launch was that it was hard to locate information about the collections. In response to this we made some tweaks to the presentation of our online collections last year, with a more obvious pathway to the collections pages from the home page, and a clearer description of the ways in which users can search our collections. But while views of the collections search page have increased by 38%, the number of searches conducted has grown by only 4%. Indeed, the evidence from our analytics suggests that there is relatively little public appetite to use a collection catalogue, and its principal use is by ‘researchers’ — in other words, those with a specific question that needs to be answered.

Making a large set of collection data and images more appealing to a wider audience means dealing with a complex set of problems. But we are beginning to see some promising results through a ‘reboot’ of our digital asset management system. Two years ago we moved towards a policy of more open licensing of our collection images and data, and this has opened up new possibilities for how we can present our online collections. Newly renamed the Digital Media Bank, we have spent time in updating the design, improving the metadata structure, and integrating it with our collection data API. As a result, we’ve not only seen a steady growth in traffic and dwell time, but regular bursts of social sharing by users through Facebook and Pinterest. This is certainly something we want to encourage, so my colleague Dan Robertson has started a series of coffee mornings with the popular Brighton Past Facebook group, showing them the Digital Media Bank and its new features.

Map showing where bombs landed in Brighton and Hove, 1944

While it is early days, it looks as if the Digital Media Bank could evolve into a well-used repository and access point for our digitised collections. We have yet to unpick precisely why it seems to work, but I think there are three reasons.

First, the Asset Bank software which powers the system is sufficiently flexible to enable us to quickly set up thematic runs through the assets, making it browsable as well as searchable. Second, the ability to download images of our collections gives it greater value; it does not simply show you what’s in our collections, but gives you something to reuse and repurpose. Third, it blurs some of the boundaries and language around online collections. With its basket functionality it looks like more like an e-shop than a museum catalogue, and as it is not solely reliant on collection data, it offers access to a wider variety of media than images from the collections. Indeed, the most viewed item in our Digital Media Bank is a 1944 map showing where bombs landed in Brighton during the Second World War — something that was originally scanned from a book and edited for use in a 2009 exhibition at Hove Museum, and not formally part of our collections at all.

We know that local teachers have expressed an interest in this map, and at least one school in Brighton & Hove have used this experimental zoomable version of the map on a whiteboard in class. But it’s worth recognising that if teachers (and many other users) are more interested in subjects rather than objects, a more thematic presentation of our digitised collections will be essential to ensuring future engagement.

Gallery Interactives

Most of our digital activity over the last few years has been concentrated on our online presence, reflecting the commitment in our Statement of Purpose to engaging with our ‘virtual visitors‘. But this is also caution on my part: digital gallery interactives can be enormously expensive to develop, and hard to sustain. Like many museums we have an ongoing problem with digital interactives running on ageing hardware built with obsolete software. It’s often next to impossible to migrate these interactives without rebuilding them from scratch — and that is difficult to fund.

With the introduction of free wifi in our museums, we have begun experimenting with web-based interactives that are quick to develop and deploy. At the time of writing, the two best examples of these can be seen in the Indian Military Hospital Gallery in the Royal Pavilion, and the recently opened Visions of the Royal Pavilion Estate exhibition.

Interactive in Visions of the Royal Pavilion Estate display

We are still evaluating the success of these, but they are certainly cost-effective and quick to produce. They are built with a simple set up: an iPad in a stand using a kiosk app to access a dedicated WordPress website that’s developed in-house. In the case of the Indian Hospital example, we decided to proceed with it on a Thursday, built the site on a Friday, and it was up and running on the following Monday. That brings the cost of this down to hundreds rather than thousands of pounds (the only cost is staff time if reusing the equipment), and as the interactive is built with open source software using HTML 5 it’s likely to be much more sustainable — if the iPad breaks we just need another device that can access the web.

Aside from being cheaper, this approach also gives us the chance to develop these interactives iteratively, and test new pieces of content. For instance, one of the reasons for installing the interactive in the Indian Military Hospital Gallery was to showcase a video of last year’s Dr Blighty and other pieces of community and artistic interpretation of India’s role in WW1. Yet in the context of the gallery far more visitors select a page labelled ‘Man in the Mirror’, a simple zoomable image of one of the hospital wards in the Royal Pavilion. This small and simple content experiment is hugely useful to us, as it suggests a strong preference for touching rather than watching, and how ‘curiosity gap’ techniques can work in attracting attention within a gallery space.

Audio Tours

Last summer we introduced a free alternative to the audio guide handsets that visitors to the Royal Pavilion can hire. This is a simple mobile optimised website that contains all the audio and visual content from the regular guide. The main difference is that it’s free of charge, and visitors can use their own mobile phone to access it.

Royal Pavilion mobile audio tour


The mobile audio guide was originally introduced as a rapid response to an emergency: the supplier of our handsets had run low on stock just as our busy summer season was about to begin, so we put together the web version in two days as a stop-gap.

It’s proven surprisingly successful. Of those surveyed users who completed the tour, 92% found it easy to use, and 90% expressed an interest in using something similar at one of our other museums. While surveying users at the end of the tour obviously produces a more positive slant on the responses, it does seem that the biggest barrier to use has been getting onto the wifi and negotiating occasional blackspots — issues we are working on.

Like the gallery interactives mentioned above, the mobile audio tour shows how control of a couple of key ingredients (ie. managing a web host and domain names; a basic knowledge of WordPress) can enable a frugal innovation approach to digital. Aside from being much cheaper, it means we can spend more time concentrating on content and audiences, with much less focus on technology.

In the case of the mobile audio tour, we have also learned three key things which we will build on:

  1. While the majority of visitors to the Royal Pavilion will continue to hire a handset, there is evidence that some visitors have a clear preference for using their own devices for this sort of experience.
  2. People quickly forget it’s a website, and start calling it an ‘app’. Having developed a couple of apps in the past, I’m well aware of how costly apps can be to develop, and how hard they are to maintain. In this case, it’s clear that users are looking for a mobile experience that supports their visit, and once they are comfortable with that experience, the technology becomes invisible.
  3. Front of house colleagues are essential for testing and supporting new digital products. I am particularly grateful to many of my colleagues who spent time testing the site on their own mobile phones, and stress testing the tour to get a sense of its likely impact on battery life.

Screeng rab from protoype Brighton Museum mobile tourWe are currently looking at developing similar mobile tours at our other sites, and have begun testing a prototype tour for Brighton Museum. This is a more complex proposition: while a visit to the Royal Pavilion is a guided, linear experience, visitors to Brighton Museum will navigate it in a variety of different ways. There is still a lot of work to be done on content creation and user testing, but we hope to make this publicly available by the early autumn.

And there’s more…

As digital becomes an element of most of our work at Royal Pavilion & Museums, there is a lot more I could talk about. The areas of work I mentioned above are important in terms of informing our direction of travel, but they aren’t the only highlights. Below is a quick list of links to some of our digital work this year:


Kevin Bacon, Digital Manager