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I stumbled upon, as one serendipitously does on the Internet, a wonderful find of a cultural heritage museum with compelling, evocative, and wonderful interactive resources: the Tenement Museum.

The American Immigrant
Its mission to preserve, discover, and convey the storied history of the American immigrant from the late 19th and early 20th century (as well as 21st century programs) resonates with me personally.  My father, an Italian/Polish Jew, arrived in America after WWII from war-torn Italy on a boat like many millions of immigrants to Ellis Island in NYC.  He never forgot that ride and how he cried as a little boy at the site of the Statue of Liberty while entering the harbor and his entry onto Ellis Island.  Here’s a picture of Michele Roberto Heliczer (my father) grinning on the ship upon his arrival to the United States.

So many immigrants came into Ellis Island, poured into the bowels of New York City, with so many poignant and colorful stories.  So fitting was it to house the museum in a 1863 tenement apartment building in Manhattan’s Lower East Side (97 Orchard Street).

The Tenement Museum and its Digital Artists in Residence Program
Interestingly, the Tenement Museum supports an initiative that is called the Digital Artists in Residence Program(DARP), sponsoring online development about historical and contemporary immigration.  DARP has been instrumental in creating some highly successful online interactive resources such as “We are Multicolored” (Making Your Own Flag) and “Five Songs for the Five Points” (Mix a FolkSong.)   I believe the Tenement Museum’s digital mission and integration is shown in how compelling these seemingly simple interactive resources are.  I was impressed by them.  These interactives do not seem to be for a particular age group (thought it does seem for a youngish crowd, with Webcomics seemingly more fitting for the age group) as it is offered as a “Play” option for all visitors to the Tenement Museum.  I like that because often the kid games are supposed to be just for kids and we adults need that interactive fun too!

The three innovative interactive resources covered are:
1) We are Multicolored (Make a Flag)
2) Five Songs for Five Points (Make a Folksong)
3) Immigrant Game: From Ellis Island to Orchard Street with Victoria Confino

Interactive Resource #1: We are Multicolored (Make A Flag)
This is very akin to the wonder inherently seen in Prof. Twidale’s showings of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s World Beach Project and Design Your Own Arts & Crafts Tile.  Users create their own custom flags from a mashup of three selected countries, comment on it and the flag and commentary becomes a record and piece of art for the global “superflag” community of 40,000.  The screen below shows the Superflag – each little square represents a user’s custom flag.  The square I clicked on brought up this user’s particular flag.

“We are Multicolored” also provides an innovative offering called “Symbolism.”  If you click this page, you can identify, group and compare flags by shape, symbol, color, and meaning.

You’ll find interesting groupings of flags such as when I picked flags that stressed a color signifying “land fertility,” often these countries were poor or rural-based. The color “green” also can mean something quite different in one country than another.  Here Ireland’s green means the “Gaelic tradition” (and here I thought it was for leprechauns…)

Here is how one creates your own flag.  First, you are given three choices:
1) Where is your home? United States
2) What other country has affected you? Mexico
3) Where have you dreamed of going? Ireland

It is difficult to be limited to three –  if one has multiple homes, if more than one country has affected you (I’m a mix of Italian, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Scottish, German and Mexican – so that’s a stew), and if you’ve dreamed about traveling the globe.

Then with the 3 flags that come up, you can create your own flag – with options to break up the shapes (loved that one), rotating, and bringing to front and back. Once finished, you can comment on your flag and add it to the Superflag.  It now becomes part of the global project and a statement of individuality.  This is a lot of fun and addicting.

Interactive Resource #2: Five Songs for the Five Points (Mix a Folksong)
This is a wonderfully addicting soundmap (Flash technology) that allows you to mix and create your own urban folksong.  To create your own music from the sounds of the Lower East Side, you can explore and pick different sounds one hears in this area from the map by clicking and dragging the white circles to the colored sound spots on the map.

These colored sound spots represent different categories: field recordings (train, birds, hydrant, men working, manhole cover steam), spoken word, music, and folk songs.  You make your composition by mixing these five tracks, and can adjust the layering of the sounds through volume.  You can also save your mix.  Having grown up in New York City and exposed to the Lower East Side, I can completely relate to the complexity of sounds heard in the urban environment – trains, vendors selling, a musician on the corner, men working, birds and honking horns, voices, and more.  This is a beautiful, succinct capturing of this phenomenon and thus captures the spirit of NYC’s Lower East Side and the color of the immigrant experience.  This is something one can get immersed and lost in.

Interactive Resource #3: Immigration Game

This is a quite enjoyable interactive experience that allows you to become immersed in the identity of a 12-year old boy or girl from Europe and experience the travel and transition to America.  Called From Ellis Island to Orchard Street with Victoria Confino, the tour provides a friendly “immigrant” guide from 1916 (who’s been there and knows the ropes).  This is quite clever and inventive.  Victoria offers advice such as when going on the ship, bring food because the ship food is either horrible or very little and when arriving to Ellis Island, forewarns you of a shoe pick used to pull on the lower eyelids for examination and not to be scared of what they are doing.  If only immigrants could have had her help with these to-do’s and not-do’s before going on the voyage! Here is Victoria Confino:

In an old-fashioned movie theater, an old black and white movie plays, setting the scene of 1916 and identifies your journey as an immigrant.

The journey comprises:
1. Creating an immigrant passport
2. Picking your belongings
3. Going on the voyage
4. Passing inspection at Ellis Island
5. Making choices and experiences in new life in Lower East Side

1.  Immigrant Passport
In choosing my character, I decide to go for a boy, name him Guiseppe Fiorentino from Italy.  It would have been nice to perhaps had more choices from different countries but it was still fine.  I also would have liked to have seen the passport stamped with a sound effect.  Once you input these items, these are handwritten on the online passport including the “date of departure.”  One of the nice features of the system is that there is a visual progress map on the bottom to see where you are, what you are doing, and where you are going.  That visual progress map now contains the photo of Guiseppe, making it more personalized.  Following the red old-fashioned pointing hands is also very well done for navigation.

2. “What will you bring?” is a powerful and poignant exercise.
In this activity, you can only select three items to pack and take with you on your journey.  First, to think you are only allotted three items to take with you from your homeland to a strange country…

This was tough because food and bedding seemed to be critical.  I was hoping Guiseppe had someone with him so I counted on that and picked clothing, shoes, and a toy.  I know my father could bring one of the few items and it was an Italian Dumbo stuffed toy that he held onto for dear life.  It was his trusted companion, and one of the first experiences in entering America was the authorities taking his toy away – nasty!  Here’s Guiseppe’s belongings:

What would you bring?

3. Going on the Voyage
This shows a visual of the ship leaving Europe and arriving to New York City.  Here, Victoria offers that insider information and tells of her experience crossing over.  This is one spot I would have liked to have seen some historical images of immigrants on the ships and what the conditions were like (as shown as in activity – “Passing Inspection at Ellis Island’).

4.  Passing Inspection at Ellis Island
In this exercise, one gets the sense of what it must have been like getting to Ellis Island, the thrill, and then the fear, confusion and overwhelm of the health inspection.  Again, Victoria gives you helpful advice of exactly what to encounter in the entire process.  In addition, images of immigrants entering Ellis Island are intermingled in this space.  You are even asked some questions to see if you’ll pass the inspection.  One interesting idea would have been if you had failed the inspection, what would have happened?

5. Making Choices and Experiences in New Life in Lower East Side
You’ve made it into America and now what is your life going to be like, what are you going to do, where are you going to live, and what experiences will you have?  You enter into “Welcome to the Lower East Side” that has some visuals of your new neighborhood.  Here again, we are placed within a tenement apartment with Victoria describing it and what is is like.  The apartment works as a interactive visual map and you can select numerous choices – such as food experiences, jobs, etc.  This is the place of “enculturation.”

The Immigrant Game is a very enjoyable, profound, cogent, and  visceral interactive experience that I think should be widely emulated.  It brings history to life, makes the museum a real space, brings the visitor inside the experience as if an immigrant walking in his/her shoes.  Though perhaps it could be modified in a few minor areas (might be nice to include at end real images or short stories of say your possible immigrant neighbors that live at 97 Orchard or perhaps as another possible interactive activity), it really is a superb, first-class offering that truly honors American immigrants and makes palatable and real to us their immigrant experience.  Kudos, Tenement Museum.



A museum informatics user test was performed with the volunteer assistance of Margaret Herndon, a 50 year old professional manager who frequents local prestigious museums with her husband, is a general user of the Internet (ex: shopping regularly online and reading news) and only uses museum websites in a cursory fashion, such as to obtain physical site visitation information. The museum website chosen for this usability test was from the Norton Simon Museum located in Pasadena, California ( This is a museum that she frequents on occasion but doesn’t use the website.


Eight user tasks were presented and the tester recorded each of these tasks by paper, by watching, and by using the recording software Jing.

1. “Can you provide me with hours to the museum, and tell me when it is closed or if there are any free days to get in?”

2. “Can you find any information about any works of Vincent van Gogh?”

3. “Can you tell me what the current traveling shows going on are today, the temporary collections?”

4. “If you wanted to purchase an item from the current featured exhibition of Ingres, how would you do this online?”

5. “From the website, can you tell me who is Norton Simon, why is the collection so important and what the mission and vision of the museum is? What makes the Norton Simon Museum so special? With only using the website, can you elaborate on that?”

6. “Can you locate a floor map for the Norton Simon Museum and tell me where I can find the Asian collection?”

7. “Are there any materials, any guides online to the current exhibits, particularly ‘Portraits After Ingres’?”

8. “Can you locate a piece of art by its material, specifically sculpture? Can you find the European sculpture in the Norton and then locate any sculptures by the modernist Barbara Hepworth?”

User Task One:
“Can you provide me with hours to the museum, and tell me when it is closed or if there are any free days to get in?”

Margaret took a cursory look over the home page and couldn’t locate anything about hours. Looking at the navigation bar, she thinks it has to be under “Visit” or “Information.”

Margaret: “I don’t see hours. There’s something called visitor information.”

She selects “Visitor Information” under “Visit” since it looked like a likely option through her process of elimination. The subject finds what’s required of the task regarding hours but struggles with the next part.

Margaret: “Here are the hours. It is closed on Tuesday. That’s peculiar – normally museums are closed on Monday. This is very hard to read. It is very small and hard for my eyes. I can’t find free time information.”

She continues to scroll up and down and finding it hard to read as she squints. It begins to fatigue her. Finally, she finds text under “Admission Prices,” detailing that first Fridays of the month are free.


Fig 1.  Visitor Information

Observation: The subject wanted to first find that information on the home page. When she could not, she started first by looking at the main navigation bar. The main navigation bar was relied on heavily throughout the test. I agreed with Margaret that is was a bit hidden to not have the words “Hours and Admission” listed since in that same “Visit’ dropdown, “Directions and Parking ” is clearly listed.

She comments: “Anything can go in Visitor Information. Then they should just have one page for all that information.”

Even though Margaret found the hours and admission information from the “Visit” navigation bar, she did not see a section called “Visit” on the home page – even though this was where she wanted to first look. This information is tucked in the lower-right hand corner of the page and is very hidden from view. Interestingly, it lists “Hours” here but not in the dropdown as Margaret had suggested that should have been better worded. Also, this selection takes you to the same “Visitor Information” page from the navigation bar. So, even the “Hours” designation on the home page should be “Hours and Admission.” This is an example of a user showing how even the most basic museum request need of “hours and admission” can be unnecessarily veiled.


Fig 2.  Hidden Visit Option on Home Page

User Task Two:
“Can you find any information about any works of Vincent van Gogh?”

Margaret: “Assume under collections, different choices, European, I guess I could pick European Art 19th century. Well, now it takes me to ‘Highlights’ and no images look like van Gogh. Here’s ‘More Highlights’ and I see a screen of small image icons. It’s 21 pages. This will take a long time. I’m tired.” [Shoulders droop.]


Fig 3.  Looking for van Gogh in European Art 19th Century

Margaret: “So, ways to find van Gogh. There’s ‘Advanced Search.’

Oh, here can type by artist. No results found? That is strange. Well, you can look under artist on this page – browse by and nothing listed.

[User tried to search under Monet and see the function worked. Finds Monet, so looks troubled. Margaret still can’t believe there is way to find van Gogh on here.] It’s not showing van Gogh and went under artist and 19th century and don’t want to go back there.”

“I know his work ‘Mulberry Tree’ is there. I can go by title ‘Mulberry Tree.’ Here it is. That’s strange. They have van Gogh and one of the special things about Norton Simon is they have a number of van Goghs, which is very unusual. I don’t know where else to look. Under gallery, there’s a picture of his paintings. ‘Browse by Gallery’ just gives ‘Exhibitions.’ I don’t know [dejected.] I just have to go to the museum to see the van Goghs.” User gives up.


Fig 4.  Looking for van Gogh under a title work or in the gallery

Observation: This user task was complex and fraught with difficulty, frustration, and eventually ended without complete success. However, this was not a user error but issues with the interface and cataloging options. Since Margaret was a casual visitor to the Norton Simon, she knew that he had collected a significant amount of impressionist art, and in particular, a stunning selection of van Goghs. To not find van Gogh in the collections was not only extremely frustrating for her but an example of a serious flaw in the website. The first flaw was in the “Browse by Artist” option. This should have been an easy to find exercise since it was an alphabetical listing/choices for artists. However, when Margaret searched under “V” for van Gogh, it was not there. Those who put the alphabetical listing should note that often van Gogh is sometimes listed under “V” rather than “G.” Patrons don’t normally think of “Gogh” as last name of Vincent even though “van” is “correctly” alphabetized as a subordinate. When Margaret had to dig deeper and use the advanced search screen, she did not see the little pop-up line selection when she typed in “van Gogh” that offered a choice “Gogh, Vincent van.” It was incredibly small, in bright yellow, and was easy to miss.


Fig 5.  The problem overseen – smart selection “Vincent van Gogh” missed and search by artist is under “Gogh” not “van”

User Task Three:
“Can you tell me what the current traveling shows going on are today, the temporary collections?”

Margaret: “Usually don’t they have them on the home page? [Exasperation, deep sigh.] There’s no home button. There’s no home button on the bottom either.”

Margaret spends a great deal of time looking in navigation bar, using the search option. Tester states to locate another option besides the browser back button. After clicking on practically everything on the page, she finds that the Norton Simon Museum logo is clickable and can go back to the home page with. New lesson is learned.

Margaret: “I didn’t realize that clicking on the museum logo would take you back to the home page. I still want my “home” selection. When I’ve used the Getty and Huntington websites, they both have a home button – because I always like to go back home so that I know where I am.”

User then completes primary task.

“I like the showing of images of the exhibitions. They have two exhibits: Rembrandt and Portraiture after Ingres. How annoying, it’s hard for me to read about them when they keep flashing images on the screen above. I liked it at first that they had the images flashing of the current shows but now they are just flashing images from the Norton Simon collection. How annoying. It’s making it difficult to read.” [Blinks, forehead creases, eyes, squint.]


Fig 6.  “Current Exhibitions” under home page

The tester suggests there is another place to get information about the exhibits. Margaret looks in disbelief, as to say “What more? I’ve already found it.” But she obliges that “nasty” tester and continues to look.

Margaret looks under the “Exhibitions” choice on the main navigation bar. She chooses “Current Exhibitions” and it brings her to the immediate information. This subsequent task is completed with ease and swiftness.

Observation: As a tester, I tried to use words that didn’t simply say “Exhibitions,” since that would have possibly ended the task in one minute or so. Instead, I suggested other words such as “traveling show” or “temporary collections.” This caused Margaret to think a bit and think back that often museum websites post their “hot” temporary exhibits on the home page. This should have been straightforward except for three things – one, there was no home button she was used to in order to navigate to; two, it was difficult to read those exhibits when there were flashing images on the home page; and three, the tester required her to locate the information elsewhere besides the home page.

Many user studies have brought up the fact that no matter what level of Internet expertise, it is most common to go back to the home page to reorient oneself. Margaret was not able to this because she could not locate any home button or home hyperlink. This is not her problem. More experienced users realize that often the logo is what is used as a home page. However, this is not evident to several users, and really should be a choice selection no matter what. The ability to go to the home page is also the ability to reorient oneself in the searching and browsing capacity. Note the fascinating words she said: I want a home button “because I always like to go back home so that I know where I am.” This is psychologically and powerfully telling. I would suggest to the Norton Simon Museum to put a home button/home hyperlink as part of their navigation scheme based on this scenario. Also, when she did finally find the home page and saw that the current exhibits were shown as she thought on the home page, she was disturbed by the flashing images above and couldn’t read or focus enough. At first she liked it because the flashing images or “slide show” went over the current exhibits and included some text. But then the slide show started to show other images that had no context except for being in the museum. This showed how that element made her not want to stay on the home page very long and could signify that information is then missed on the home page. Lastly, she was able to determine that this information could be found under the “Exhibitions” option on the main navigation bar and thus reflected an easy option choice.


Figure 7.   “Current Exhibitions” choice

User Task Four:
“If you wanted to purchase on the current featured exhibition of Ingres, how would you do this online?”

Margaret: “Well, normally you would go to the store to do any shopping. And I love to go to museum stores to shop. So, here’s “Store” [located on main navigation bar] and ooohh… I want to go directly to the store. They just give me choices [dropdown selection of books, DVDs, gifts, etc. then accidently clicks directly again on “Store” and it brings her in. What is not so obvious is that the toolbar looks the same as before but now they are store choices and unbeknownst to Margaret, she in a different website altogether:] It looks like…. They don’t have any. [Moans.] Just want to search the store.”

She looks under “Books” and “Museum Publications” and gets overwhelmed by icon choices. Margaret doesn’t want to go through all the pages. [Sighs of exasperation.] She finds by accident that the site has a “Search Store” box and types in “Ingres.” She easily finds cards and a special exhibition book.

Margaret: “They should really bring out their exhibit. I don’t really like this website – shopping it. Look, it says it’s an online store. Look, I can’t go back to the museum. I want to get out of there. [Uuuuuh.] I don’t know how to go back. [Face gets read, brows arched, fuming.] I’ll just hit the back arrows. That’s annoying. Navigation bar looks the same. [Clicks by page by page and finally back to museum page.] That was nearly eight pages back. I don’t like that.”


Figure 8.   Museum Store

Observation: Some significant items were noted in this task. First of all, Margaret is an avid shopper and spends most of her money at museum shops when at the museum. She likes to collect books and items from all the special exhibitions she attends – even if she never uses them later. It makes her feel that she has a “part” of the collection or of the “experience.” With its museum website, the Norton Simon should be targeting these eager buyers. However, Margaret’s exercise brings out some inherent defects in the store purchasing experience that could stop someone from shopping online. The three shortcomings included: 1) No home page to navigate back to the museum; 2) No visual differentiation of the navigation bar, the logo, positioning of times to tell the user that he is in a completely different website and that it is only the store site now; 3) Does not feature special exhibition and collection items on the store home page; and 4) Hides the “search store” option in same place as “search site” option and instead should be search within the body of the store site.

User Task Five:
“From the website, can you tell me who is Norton Simon, why is the collection so important and what the mission and vision of the museum is? What makes the Norton Simon Museum so special? With only using the website, can you elaborate on that?”

Margaret: “Let’s see here. I’m going back to the home page. Maybe there is something on the home page. [Finds nothing.] Where is “About?” Should be under “About.” [Looks under “Information” on main navigation bar.] Here it is. [Locates “Norton Simon Bio” on dropdown.] Why is it so special? They should really bring it out. [Looks at additional dropdown menu choice of “Museum History.”] Museum History. Doesn’t tell you anything about mission statement, Poor, very poor information. Just lots of text. They could have mentioned a quote of his here. Oh here. I’ve seen this documentary on in the museum theater. [Bottom of Norton Simon bio discusses documentary on Norton Simon with hyperlink to information on it for viewing in the physical theater space. Clicks on it but cannot be viewed online.]

It’s done by the Guggenheim. It’s very professional. They should really have this here. I should let them know.”


Figure 9.   Hidden Jewel: Norton Simon Documentary

Observation: This was an exciting exercise with much enlightenment and new information given by the user. Here, Margaret has become a valuable resource to the Norton Simon and is actually providing solid re-design information without knowing it – simply being a good Norton Simon aficionado. First, this exercise brought up that the Norton Simon museum does not currently present or offer a mission or vision statement on the website. In addition, it is hard to gleam from all the text what the museum is all about. It would behoove them to change “Information” to “About” and in that “About” section really discuss and show the “aboutness” of this museum and its collection. Margaret noticed interesting quotes within the body of the text that she said she would have liked to see brought out. Most importantly, she recognized a crown jewel that the museum website is not using – a high-toned Guggenheim-produced 30-minute documentary that should be on the website prominently in the “About” section, giving potential visitors a great overview of Norton Simon and the collection.

User Task Six:
“Can you locate a floor map for the Norton Simon Museum and tell me where I can find the Asian collection?”

Margaret: “So, that means… [Raises voice.] I WANT THE HOME BUTTON. [Uses back button again to go to home page.] It’s not here. I think I remember… [Looks under “Visit” in main navigation bar.] There’s no floor map. [Pauses and keeps looking.] Here is something called ‘Gallery Map.’ Oh, that’s beautiful. That really should be on the front of the website. It shows what the museum looks like and what the collections are. Here it is. It is ‘South and Southeast Asian’ and it is in the lower level of the building. [User completes task in efficient manner.]


Figure 10.   Floor Map is called “Gallery Map”

Observation: Again, we notice that terminology is an important navigation and information-seeking item. I used the term “floor map” which is common in museums. However, it took her just a bit of time as she was seeking specifically “floor map.” The name given by the Norton Simon Museum was “gallery map.” This was a bit of a mind-bender, but she selected it anyways. She was astounded not only the beauty of the map, but that it really showed visually the museum architecture, gardens, collections, layout, and mapping captured in one image. She noted that it should be used more prominently by the museum – seemed too hidden. Another fascinating piece that came out of this was again two-fold: 1) Terminology and 2) Home Page Hiding. There was actually another choice to find this map and it was located in the “Visit” section on the lower right-hand corner of the home page as “Interactive Map.” Here we see that even though Margaret suggested that the museum highlight this and put it on the home page, it had, except it didn’t highlight the map and hid it under different terminology altogether – “Interactive Map.” Through this activity, Margaret was able to identify significant flaws that took away from the excellent, interactive floor map that the website actually contained.

User Task Seven:
“Are there any materials, any guides online to the current exhibits, particularly ‘Portraits After Ingres’?”

Margaret: [Breathes heavily.] “Well, let’s see. That should be under ‘Exhibitions,’ then here ‘Current Exhibitions.’ And they have, I will go into that. Well, I don’t see anything. They give me choices – press release, podcasts, and lots of text. I don’t see anything. [Scrolls up and down, heavy breathing.] Now, what was the question again?

I don’t see guides. Maybe under ‘Information,’ under ‘Visit,’ under ‘Education?’ No. There should be something under ‘Guides.’ [Goes through each choice in navigation bar and finds a section called “Multimedia” and finds “Brochures.”]

Brochures? Is that it? Why would they stick it here – under multimedia? Here it is – a brochure on ‘Portraiture after Ingres.’ [Comes up in a viewer in small size with control buttons.] Oh, how nice – you can actually view it like in a book format. [Struggles with control buttons.] Oh, you can page through it like a real book. That’s neat – it makes ‘turning pages’ sounds. Oh, I want to make it bigger – I can’t read it. [Struggles to enlarge and finally does.] Oh, this is really nice. I love it. I can read it – very lovely. Very nice – I love their literature and I can still see it here. Oh, I’d like to print it. There is no print button. At least I can see this here – very nice. Oh, darn, now how do I get out of this and go back HOME?”


Figure 11.   This is a brochure?

Observations: This exercise brought up some frustration by the user. It was interesting to note that the strain of looking for this item caused her to forget the question and task at hand. Locating literature or materials on the current exhibits was not clear. Margaret spent a great deal of time looking at all the options she could figure out. Finally, she discovered “Brochures” under “Multimedia.” She found it confusing to find this under multimedia. This brings up an inherent discrepancy again about how to define – brochures are often thought of in a print or print online fashion and not as multimedia. However, when you use this, it is somewhat multimedia-like because it paginates, makes sounds, is graphic, etc. Perhaps, it more logically should be termed “Interactive.” Also, there are some users who will not understand what the category “Multimedia” is. However, it could be beneficial as a “catch all” for interactive, audio, and video components, but wonder if this term is outdated. This would be interesting to further test. Again, this “brochure” function should be something to bring out more in the website and is too hidden from view. It as well can work as both a promotional device to get people into see the exhibits or for reviewing the material afterwards for better absorption.

User Task Eight:
“Can you locate a piece of art by its material, specifically sculpture? Can you find the European sculpture in the Norton and then locate any sculptures by the modernist Barbara Hepworth?”

Margaret: “Ok, there is a search button but it doesn’t have advanced search. [Goes back to home.] I don’t see anything here. How about ‘Collections’? [Dropdown with choices of time periods and browse options.] AAAH. I don’t like this dropdown. Browse by Artist, Title, Object Type, Provenance… I don’t see it. Here’s Advanced Search. Well, here it gives me artist, title, type, origin? What’s that – oh, origin – that’s different places? [Selects Object Type]. Now that’s strange – I wouldn’t have thought to look this under “object type.” [This dropdown lists the material types and user locates sculpture choice.] What a strange name.  [This brings up 62 pages of small icons of all varieties of sculpture, but finding difficulty narrowing down.] This is too much to look at. What if I wanted to see certain sculptures, modern sculptures? Aaargh. I’ll go back to advanced search again under collections. Oh, I see, I can type in European under Origin and it gives me lots of choices. Oh, I see now I can search for Artist in this search. I’ll type ‘Hepworth’ and see. Oh, here she is. Here are her pieces. Oh, how nice. I really like her work. Yes, that’s very nice.” [User smiles finally, exhibits first signs of user satisfaction – perhaps because she has reached the end of this usability test.]


Figure 12.   Collection “Advanced Search” Option

Observations: Oddly, this task produced the greatest user satisfaction and perhaps the only time I truly saw Margaret smile with contentment. I personally was surprised and thought this would be the most difficult task and one where she would throw up her hands in dismay or at least throw something at the tester. In fact, though it was difficult, she worked her way through and then located the Collection “Advanced Search” option. Here she had some good choices to narrow her selections from once she learned what those were. Once again, we look at issues of terminology. The use of “Object Type” to describe the material or form of art seems very intellectual or too “insider-like.” This threw her off immediately from the choice of “Browse by Object Type” under “Collections.” She only discovered what that meant after looking at this dropdown choice in “Advanced Search.” This exercise pleased her immensely because it allowed her to locate specific items in the collection and give her a sense of “power” and “ease” in accessing the collection.

Conclusion and Readings
In “Come on Down! A Game Show Approach to Illustrating Usability Evaluation Methods” by Michael Twidale and Paul Marty, the authors demonstrate the quality of material and insight that can be produced from quick or rapid usability testing. Though the game show testing methodology was not applied here, it still demonstrates the efficacy and profoundness of what emerges out of even simple, face-to-face user testing. Twidale and Marty comment on “the remarkable robustness of user testing and that any test is better than no test. This is demonstrated effectively in the user test with Margaret Herndon. This brief and informal user testing provided significant findings that would be highly beneficial to the Norton Simon Museum enterprise. In actuality, it would be cost-effective.

Margaret herself brought out changes that the museum should do in its website to promote itself – the hidden Guggenheim documentary on Norton Simon, the redesign of the Museum Store highlighting special exhibit items, and the observation that the “Floor Map” with too many names should be a big piece of the website. In an additional article by Twidale and Marty, “Lost in Gallery Space: A Conceptual Framework for Analyzing the Usability Flaws of Museum Web Sites,” the authors stressed the use of scenario presentations or questions, in high-speed format, to facilitate locating top-level usability flaws and patterns. A fascinating result of this user test supported their findings. In each task, particular flaws were brought to the surface quickly. Many of these were semantic-based, others were orientation-based and some were quite insightful in their blatant “errors.” One of the several usability issues mentioned by Twidale and Marty is the characteristic of “museum professional” mindset in designing websites. This is observed in controlled vocabulary lingo, such as Norton’s use of “Object Type” when Margaret was trying to find an art piece by material. Again, the authors emphasize what seems to be common sense but so terribly overlooked in seeing the value of usability and its cost-effectiveness over the expenditure on website design without it. They state succinctly that “not analyzing for usability can mean users will fail to discover and appreciate this rich content…” Through the user test, Margaret found these rich resources, such as the Interactive Floor Map, the unused Guggenheim documentary on Norton Simon, the Paginating Online Brochure, and the powerful Collection Advanced Search Screen. By performing such a fairly simple and inexpensive usability test, the corresponding results were provoking, essential, and, of course, usable.

Parry, Ross, et al., “How Shall We Label Our Exhibit Today? Applying the Principles of On-Line Publishing to an On-Site Exhibition,” in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2007. Consulted March 11, 2010.

The LIVE!Labels Project:

A seven-month partnership between the University of Leicester and Simulacra with three UK museums (New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Dinosaur Gallery, and National Space Centre) resulted in the production and evaluation of a digital, wireless, editable and dynamic labeling system (with web-based authoring tool) for on-site museum exhibits called “LIVE!Labels.”  Ross Parry and Mayra Ortiz-Williams of University of Leicester and Andrew Sawyer of Simulcra presented their findings on their dynamic labeling system in this paper.

The “Enduring” Museum Label:

Imperative to the process was first to understand the historical context and heritage of labeling. The curatorial practice of creating and displaying text-based labels originated from two Renaissance European cultural traditions – the use of emblems (combining image with motto/legend) and classification (combining image and explanatory text).  With the growth of collections, came the impulse to classify.  In the Age of Enlightenment and scientific systematic order, exhibition labels were placed in museums at the end of the 17th century for “a museum had a collection, but giving order and meaning to this collection.”

The Traditional Museum Label honored in LIVE!Labels:

The over 400-year practice of exhibit labeling has been considered the primary curatorial means of communicating its exhibits to its audiences were its labels.  Textual labeling is thus a heavily studied, structured, formalized and entrenched tradition.

Ross Parry and staff respected this tradition, and instead of completely wiping out exhibit labels or turning them into touchscreens or multimedia devices, designed LIVE!Labels as simply labels placed next to or nearby exhibits.

Key Design Requirements Included:

  • Not to disrupt curatorial practice but for the label to blend in, be “powerful but polite,” be ambient with gallery environment.
  • Ability to easily modify and change labels including remote updating capability.
  • Ability to incorporate user-generated content and tags by phones, mobiles, and websites.
  • Provide remote and automatic/timed label updating.
  • Reduce cost and impact on existing IT and on printed labels.
  • Ability to modify and change labels based on time-driven.
  • The 6.4 x 10.4 slim LCD “labels,” with built-in wireless that connected to a web-based content administration system, would be placed next/near to object.

Triggers and Generators of LIVE!Labels Content:

Ross Parry and team named events as “triggers” and authors as “generators.”  Generators could be not only curators, but visitors and approved third parties.  Triggers to the system could be time-, news-, event, and visit-driven.

Four Concepts of Generated Content Could be:

  1. Contextual – new, different, changing information about the object
  2. Promotional – highlight events, services related to object
  3. Directional – direction to related objects and themes
  4. Responsive – highlight visitor responses to object

The Museum Sites Tested:

In testing the system, the team identified three museum types that would provide a range of response.  At the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, the labels were placed next to objects in their German Expressionist exhibit with updated and blog-like entries from the curator.  At the same gallery, the labels were placed next to dinosaur objects with the activity being children submitting postings of their interpretations – i.e. “curator for the day.”  Finally, at the National Space Center in Leicester, labels were used to give daily updated information on Near Earth Objects next to exhibits.

The Results:

The results from the trial were interesting and varied.  Statistics showed that 50% did not look at the labels, with only 20% reading the labels.  Only 20% could identify the labels as “live.”  Most visitors said it did not “change” their experience and almost all said it did not make the museum experience negative.  Interestingly, those in the science museums expected the labels to be touch-responsive compared to traditional art museums.

References cited in article:

Callery, B. G. and R. Thibadeau (2000). “Beyond Label Copy: Museum-Library Collaboration In The Development Of A Smart Web Exhibit”. In D. Bearman and J. Trant (eds.). Museums and the Web 2000: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, 2000. Last Consulted January 25, 2007.

In this study, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries, the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History participated in a joint collaboration to create a “Smart Web Exhibit” (SWE) prototype in order to provide targeted and timed information online to a varied user base. This was in response to the modern-day dilemma of the limit of collection objects that may be exhibited at one time which then limits label copy, thus reducing the museum visitor’s learning and understanding of these objects.  SWE would provide the accessibility of digitized archived material, with ability to select based on level of interest.

DeRoux, K. (1998a). Exhibit Labels, Some Basic Guidelines for Small Museums. Alaska State Museum, Bulletin no. 5 (summer). Available, last consulted January 25, 2007.

DeRoux, K. (1998b). Basic Techniques for Making and Mounting Exhibit Labels. Alaska State Museum, Bulletin no. 6 (fall). Available, last consulted January 25, 2007.

McKay, T. (1982). “A Hierarchy of Labels”. Exchange, a newsletter published by the Wisconsin Historical Society 24, no. 4 (July/August), available, consulted January 25, 2007.

These articles referenced within “How Shall We Label Our Exhibit Today? Applying the Principles of On-Line Publishing to an On-Site Exhibition,” address the orthodoxy and practice of proper museum exhibit labeling. Parry and team reference DeRoux several times throughout the study.

Other references:

Nina Simon.  ISO Understanding:  Rethinking Art Museum Labels. Museum 2.0 Blog (March, 3, 2007).  Available at

Though not referenced within the study, Nina Simon from the Participatory Museum, once again brings clarifying thought to the issues of rethinking and re-invigorating the art museum label.

She identified four key ways in which museum labels of today can be modified:

  1. Labels that instruct you where and how to look.
  2. Labels that answer the stupid questions in our heads.
  3. Labels that expose the curator’s thought process.
  4. Labels that tell contextualized stories and involve visitors.

In the Hunt Museum Design Case Study, I appreciated their design focus which was instead of showing “gee-whiz” technology, embedding that technology so that the it blended within the museum space – in particular, and I believe critical – in protecting and presenting what they called the “ethos” of the museum. I believe it is important to know what your museum is as one crafts exhibit spaces, exhibitions, technology, and events because they become extensions of the museum and carry its spirit. In the article, the authors called this also the “intimate link between the exhibition design and the actual location of the exhibition in situ in the Hunt Museum.” Here in the “Re-Tracing the Past” exhibit at the Hunt Museum in Limerick, Ireland, the team wanted to stay close and emulate not only the museum but John Hunt’s set up and study room. That was quite fascinating in their attempt to recreate John Hunt’s study room and the secret room in the created Study Room and the Room of Opinion. What was vitally stressed was understanding a museum as a “place.” Their concept of place was stressed as extending “the concept of physical space so that it encompasses not only its structural, geometrical essence, but also the dimension of its experience by human actors.”

What was also quite innovative and bright was hiding/embedding the technology within everyday objects, including 19th century ones, that created a nice interplay. The picture showing the extensive and messy technical guts behind the curtain of the hidden technology reminded me of the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. One can see by the pictures within the article that the visitors seem to be quite engaged and “comfortable” in these areas – free to explore. The ability to open and explore the “Cabinets of Curiosities” hearkened me back to our study of Wunderkammern (“Cabinets of Curiosity”). I remember visiting the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands and it had on display cabinets of items that were collected in those years of Wunderkammern – and the irresistible urge to open them and explore. At the Hunt Museum, visitors can open “Cabinets of Curiosities” without being reprimanded and hauled off by a security guard! It seems apparent from the article the exhibit was a success and I always find comments from visitors/users the most telling, such as: “getting away from the mundane textbooks,” “context merge with interactivity,” and most wonderfully, “it really brought the past into the present.”

A screenshot of the Van Gogh Letters Blog:

Peereboom, M. et al., Van Gogh’s Letters: Or How to Make the Results of 15 Years of Research Widely Accessible for Various Audiences and How to Involve Them. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted April 29, 2010.

Read more: Archives & Museum Informatics: Museums and the Web 2010: Papers: Peereboom, M. et al., Van Gogh’s Letters…
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives

This scholarly article from the currently held Museums and the Web 2010 nicely dovetailed into my Olympia project, as the online Van Gogh Letters project played a part in my “inspirational bibliography.”

The paper addresses the 15 years of academic research by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to the complete Vincent Van Gogh correspondence and documents that were “re-transcribed, annotated, dated, translated” and then digitized.  The collection encompasses 902 letters (819 written by Van Gogh, 83 written to him).  What makes them additionally wonderful are the sketches of his famous works that are embedded in the letters.

A cross-media strategy (in book form and on website), including mixing in new media that included a blog, an iPhone application, and a multimedia tour, the strategy was to bring access and life to Van Gogh’s letters, his world, and the man himself.

The component of the article that was most relevant to the Olympia Project was the discussion on the Van Gogh Blog and its mission to make it current and dynamic by presenting Vincent Van Gogh’s letters as blog postings to be submitted on the month and day of their original writing.  What was quite edifying was their idea of how Van Gogh would address a blog today.  Their answer: “If Van Gogh had been alive today, he would probably have been an active user of blogs and social media.  After all, he wrote very personal letters, often several a day.”  This is was exactly my thought – the critics of the Paris Salon in 1865 would have been blogging like mad, and their denunciation of Manet’s Olympia would have been viral.

The Van Gogh team used WordPress also and attempted to use as many letters with sketches to give visual appeal.  Because his letters were so long, excerpts were provided with links to the Van Gogh Letters website to read further and look at the originals at the same time.  New posts were given notice through RSS Feeds as well as Twitter and Facebook using to generate interest into other social network avenues.  The blog was successful in generating as much interest in it as the website of the Van Gogh letters.  A key lesson they learned from the process was that the blog was very time-consuming (can relate) and that a blog can attract a lot of spam (need for anti-spam plugins, Akismet).

One aspect that was not brought up in article though which I observed in visiting the blog was looking at the tag cloud.  Part of my argument or idea for my Olympia blog was that the tag cloud is telling about the discussion and ideas of Olympia.  The same can be said about the things that Van Gogh talked about the most and this I find most fascinating – the primary one being “colour.”  Now, that was very delightful for Van Gogh is not only known for his incredibly tactile brushstrokes, but for his incredible color that sweeps over you and engulfs you.  Also other primary tags were Gauguin, Millet, painting, sky and trees.  How very telling.  That alone can speak yards regarding the content of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters.

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