Museums In the Digital Domain, Part Four – Generative Assets

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This is the last in a series of posts (and sorry for the delay in getting this one up; sickness followed by the Museum Computer Network conference prevented me from getting this up sooner). Part One, with a brief introduction, is here, Part Two is here, and Part Three is here. You can read all four parts together here.

New means of producing content are only part of the equation; to claim attention from audiences both new and traditional, museums will need to experiment with different kinds of engagement in both the online and physical spaces. Because content-plus-reputation is no longer a compelling enough reason for garnering attention, museums will need to focus on types of engagements that are not easily copied. Tech writer Kevin Kelly refers to these as “generative assets,” which he breaks down into eight categories, four of which are critical for museums at this juncture in their history: immediacy, personalization, accessibility, and findability.


Museums need to demonstrate value by providing up-to-the-minute content and information. Immediacy here could take a number of different forms, depending on the medium and the situation. Immediacy for many users might resemble something like what TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington termed “process journalism,” in which a story is chronicled in near real-time as it unfolds, before all the facts are completely known (which, by its very nature, necessitates corrections and clarifications later on). A great recent example of this in the museum world would be Brooklyn Museum’s real-time chronicling of the CT scanning of four of their Egyptian mummies–between regular posts on the Brooklyn Museum blog and literally up-to-the-minute Twitter updates, users were made to feel that they were witnessing a story unfold right before their very eyes. The fact that the museum was willing to admit that it didn’t (yet) have all the facts was somewhat arresting, and meant that readers of the Museum’s blog felt that they were part of something developing. A simple summary of this process, delivered via a few paragraphs after all the facts were in, would not have been nearly as fascinating.

Another interesting example of immediacy would be NPRbackstory, which was created by Public Interactive, a division of National Public Radio. NPRbackstory is a service that combs Google’s “Hot Trends” data for trending search topics, searches for those topics in NPR’s own news archive. If a story in the archive matches the trending topic, a link to the story is posted in NPRbackstory’s Twitter feed. What is interesting about NPRbackstory is that the process is completely automatic; the service runs without any intervention from human beings at all, and yet it provides an immediate value by providing context and background to an emerging topic. With their vast content reserves, this is the kind of approach that museums could very easily take.


Personalization involves tailoring content and content delivery methods based on user characteristics or selections. Personalization will continue to be the most difficult generative asset for museums to work with until their content repositories are finally deep and diverse enough to truly account for user preference.

A good example of personalization comes (again) from NPR. NPR introduced, at the end of 2008, a means by which listeners could create their own podcast streams based on preferences they select. Because NPR’s podcast archives are both deep and well-catalogued, it is possible for users to create not only personalized podcasts based on categories, but even on keywords. So, for instance, a user create a podcast feed that is updated any time an NPR-affiliated program runs an episode in which the term “MoMA” is featured. The ability to tailor this content specifically to a user’s preferences gives that user a powerful incentive to return to NPR’s archives for more content.


Accessibility refers to the ability to access a resource when and where it is needed. Because much digital content is free, there becomes less and less reason to physically house this material on one’s own desktop, laptop, or mobile device. Instead, many content creators and aggregators are pursuing a strategy in which all content is stored remotely “in the cloud” such that a user can access that content from any device. The most exciting recent development in this area is Spotify, a music player that is similar to iTunes, except that no content is housed on the local device–it is accessed entirely via an Internet connection. What this means is that a user’s mp3 library is always available anywhere with an Internet connection, regardless of the device.

Museums have already begun to make tentative steps in this direction with “my virtual gallery” features (a good example being the Met’s “My Met Gallery“), in which users are able to create a personal account to which they may save collection objects of interest for later perusal. The content in these personal accounts is stored entirely on the museum’s own servers, so theoretically, at least, the content is available wherever the user is able to access the museum’s Web site. This is an excellent start, and this idea should be expanded to include content outside collections such that a user, whether engaging with the museum’s information online or via a mobile device, is able to access contextual content “just in time.”


Findability is key to asserting value in the attention economy. Resources that are not easily findable may as well not exist, no matter how interesting or vital they may be. It is interesting to note in the last several years that although museums have continued to publish new information resources as they always have, albeit now digitally, the real response from the community only appears when museums actually create new means of accessing those resources that the community takes notice.

Increasing the findability of resources on the Web at least partially rests on simply having more content available, and ensuring that that content is identified such that it can be properly indexed by search engines. But this alone is not enough. Any findability strategy should be aimed at not only making resources easily obtainable, but also at ensuring that those resources are available when they are needed. Delivering information “just in time” has the net effect of increasing what Peter Samis refers to as “Visual Velcro,” or the likelihood that a user will spend more time with a given content resource.

Improving findability may also mean accepting that many of the most interesting experiments with museums’ information may happen downstream, outside their control. A good example of this recently would be with the Brooklyn Museum’s release of their collections API. Being one of the first institutions to make its collections available in this manner, there were no use cases out there demonstrating what value doing this might provide. But the Museum’s community itself provided that when a developer in Brooklyn (unasked, I might add), used Brooklyn’s collections API to build an iPhone application that would allow users to browse its collections.

But findability could have significant meaning in the gallery space as well. If we still seek to deliver information “just in time,” it is important that this information be available in the physical space as well. Lightweight finding protocols, like the QR (Quick Response) codes recently printed on wall labels at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, could theoretically be resolved to any Web-available resource. A museum without the resources to put its own content on a device could easily seek out high-quality content on the Web and use QR codes to make that content available in the gallery via a visitor’s mobile device. Doing this helps to foster the increased “stickiness” between visitors and objects that Peter Samis refers to (because information is being provided when it is needed), while also emphasizing a museum’s role as a “distributor of attention.”


It is time for museums to finally begin transforming themselves from “buildings with Web sites” into different types of institutions altogether, in which the physical visit is but one of many possible engagements. This transformation will not be easy, as it will involve recognizing the truly disruptive impact that the Web has on museums’ traditional modes of information delivery. Competing in this environment means going beyond simply finding new ways of presenting content digitally, but also learning how to properly distribute attention to that content. By focusing on the “generative assets” of findability, personalization, accessibility, and immediacy, museums have a way forward, if they choose to follow this path.