Big and slow: Adventures in digital storytelling

Danny Birchall, Wellcome Collection, UK, Anna Faherty, Strategic Content, UK


Museums are full of possibilities for deep engagement, open-ended learning, and thoughtful reflection. Online, we have adapted to a digital culture dominated by the brief and transient: from character-limited tweets to evanescent snapchats. In the process, have we lost the ability to craft digital experiences that offer the depth and pace of our physical galleries? The news industry has struggled to develop business models that support the publication of quality "longform" digital stories, like the New York Times’ "Snow Fall." Museums have the assets and the audiences to develop storytelling experiences that are both "big" in their scope and "slow" in the rewarding pace of interaction and engagement; these experiences come naturally in the gallery, but creating equivalent digital experiences seems harder for museums. The Google Cultural Institute’s "virtual gallery" format seems only to have scratched the surface of what is possible. We will use Wellcome Collection’s "Digital Stories" as a case study in an attempt to create a "big and slow" digital product, exploring how the project broke some unwritten rules of digital practice in museums: putting stories before collections and allowing public engagement priorities to determine digitisation schedules. We will look at how the production process worked (and sometimes didn’t) and share results from the project’s multidimensional evaluation, showing how the public engaged (and sometimes failed to) with a big, slow digital museum experience. This paper will synthesise learnings from both old and new storytelling forms to explore the challenges and best practice for writing and designing big stories in museum contexts. Embedding our case study in a survey of museum experiments with "longform" and beyond, we hope to offer a combination of provocative thinking and practical insights to support other organisations exploring their own digital storytelling platforms and ambitions.

Keywords: storytelling, longform, experiences, journalism, case study

1. Introduction

In an age of rapid technological development, a highly competitive attention economy, and an evanescent meme-based culture, being “big and slow” might be too metaphorically close to a dinosaur for comfort. Certainly for museums, adjusting to the pace of a digital culture and the needs of online audiences has been a challenge that twenty years of Museums and the Web conferences pay tribute to.

We’ve come a long way, even to the point of thinking of ourselves as “postdigital” (Parry, 2013), but the bathwater of so much cultural change can’t be completely free of babies. In accelerated times, museums offer an increasingly rare space for stillness and personal reflection (Balzer, 2015). Unfortunately, where the immersive and reflective characteristics of museums are valorised, they are all too frequently posited in opposition to the speed and superficiality of digital experiences, and of museum-designed digital experiences in particular (Rosenbaum, 2015). Rhetorical defences of technology in museums tend towards discussions of inclusivity and ownership rather than consideration of whether “quiet contemplation” is truly possible in a digital environment (Palmer, 2015).

In this paper, we argue that a large scope and slow pace are part of the historical nature and inherent appeal of museums, and that where digital technology has increased both the accessibility of collections and the participation of audiences, it also threatens a risky atomisation of the museum experience that must be addressed online as well as in museum venues. We look further afield to the emergence of interactive longform journalism and how organisations such as the New York Times have struggled to create digital forms of journalism that involve the user in multiple dimensions. We ask how museums have responded to these developments, and in this context take Wellcome Collection’s Digital Stories product as a case study, looking at the life cycle of its inception, production, release, and evaluation.

Through this, we hope to situate contemporary digital practice in its historical museum context. Going beyond the single dimension suggested by “longform,” we use the idea of “big and slow” to explore the possibility of more multi-dimensional and reflective online experiences.

2. From big and slow to large and atomised

Even before museums became physically large, they were spaces that encouraged slow and reflective experiences. The original renaissance cabinets, a mixture of natural, artificial, and scientific objects often found only in a single room, spoke to their owners’ desire to know the world and express their privilege of ownership in relation to it. The visitor to the cabinet would have been expected to express awe at the multiplicity of marvellous things contained within the cabinet, and their expression of a wonderful creation (Schubert, 2000). Peter Mundy, visiting John Tradescant’s Ark, arguably the first public museum, in 1634 “spent that whole day in peruseinge, and that superficially, such as he had gathered together” (Mundy et al., 1907). The sense of a visit to a museum being an experience that took some time and yet did not exhaust the potential of the museum itself was one that would persist.

The museums of the eighteenth century were often demanding, even for their educated and knowledgeable visitors. Visiting London in 1786, novelist Sophie von La Roche spent a mere three hours in the British Museum, enough only to make a “rapid survey of everything.” At the Leverian Museum in Leicester Fields, she found the collection “so tightly packed that the mind and the eye are quite dazzled by them, and in the end, both are overwhelmed” (Roche, 1933: 156, 115) (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Watercolour of interior view of Sir Ashton Levers Museum, London. Painting by Sarah Stone, 1785. Wikimedia Commons / State Library of New South Wales.

Figure 1: watercolour of interior view of Sir Ashton Levers Museum, London. Painting by Sarah Stone, 1785. (Wikimedia Commons/State Library of New South Wales)

By the nineteenth century, museums and art exhibitions were becoming very big indeed. The largest exhibition ever held in the United Kingdom, and possibly the world, was the 1857 Art Treasures of Great Britain exhibition, held in a specially constructed iron and glass exhibition hall in Old Trafford displaying over 16,000 works (Figure 2). Nathaniel Hawthorne, at the end of his consular duties in Liverpool, took up residence in Manchester for six weeks to make a dozen or so visits to the exhibition; like many visitors and commentators, he managed the experience by breaking down his visit into separate sections. Others concluded that the manner of approaching the exhibition was key and that “the pace of walking should be moderated so as to accommodate both economy of motion and also aesthetic receptivity” (Leahy, 2007).


Figure 2. Manchester Exhibition of Art Treasures, Manchester, England: interior gallery. Wood engraving by W.E. Hodgkin, 1856. Wikimedia Commons / Wellcome Library.

Figure 2: Manchester Exhibition of Art Treasures, Manchester, England: interior gallery. Wood engraving by W.E. Hodgkin, 1856. (Wikimedia Commons/Wellcome Library)

The twentieth century brought some simplification: the “white cube” style of display found its apotheosis at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s (Maak et al., 2011). Overwhelming arrangements and decorative environments were replaced by white paint and an organisation that brought works of art into a much more direct relationship with the viewer, a “meditative void … without distraction” (Fagan, 2014). If simplicity reduced some of the cognitive burden of a gallery visit, size has very much remained on MoMA’s mind: the museum seems to be in a near-continual process of refurbishing and expanding its midtown Manhattan premises, creating an ever-larger museum complex (Pogrebin, 2014).

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the emergence of the Internet and digital media, both as forms of popular intellectual culture in competition with the museum and as used by museums themselves, has changed the picture significantly. Perhaps two innovations stand out. The first is the ability to make available a catalogue of collections, first as records, then supplemented by digital representations of the objects themselves. The tremendous effect of making information about collections accessible far beyond on-site card indexes is tempered by their being available in no particular order. Where the cabinet offered an aesthetic and perhaps spiritual arrangement of objects and the enlightenment museum evolved a taxonomic and historical display, online collections catalogues typically come with a single daunting and empty search box, inviting the user to look within. Canned searches and themed collections do little to replace the structured and immanent experience of a museum visit. The associative, expandible, and multi-axial approach pioneered by the presentation of the Cooper-Hewitt design catalogue (Cope, 2012) offers a more authentically Internet-like approach to the contents at the expense of any authorial direction or curation centred in the museum itself. So if museum collections are still big, they are big as a product of their many components, rather than being a single, if daunting, experience.

The second innovation to dramatically affect museums has been the possibility offered by social media for direct and participative communication with museum audiences. The relationship between an individual and a museum can now feel much more intimate than even regular visits and the anticipation of new exhibitions. We can catch up with our favourites on a daily basis, ask curators questions directly, and even contribute to the content of exhibitions. But like the collections, this is also partly disintegrated; these conversational transactions are brief, transient, and also part of a highly competitive attention economy where the duration of engagement is not highly prized or rewarded.

Digital immediacy has brought significant benefits to museums, at the cost of a certain disintegration of the experience of our collections. A kind of engagement possible even through “dazzling” and overwhelming physical museum experiences has dissipated. This begs the question of how we might use digital to restore a sense of the scale and pace of museum experiences.

3. Longform storytelling and digital engagement

When information is atomised, as it is within digitised collections and social media, it is removed from its context, a process that encourages snacking rather than longer engagement (Tanner, 2015). One way of reinstating that context, while also creating meaning, relevance, and empathy, is through stories (Haven, 2007: 125). Traditionally, stories “contained” within printed books or newspapers focused readers’ attention, minimising distractions within an immersive environment (Bulger, 2010). Retaining this focus while delivering long and slow experiences isn’t simply a challenge for museums—the transition from print to digital journalism is an instructive source of inspiration for creating meaningful stories that might hold attention in a distracting digital landscape.

Narrative-led longform journalism has experienced two heydays. In the 1960s, 15,000-word magazine features, such as Gay Talese’s legendary Esquire story “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” engaged readers with rigorous facts and vivid storytelling (Talese, 2007). The success of this “new journalism” was as much about technique—descriptive writing, narrative, research and interviewing—and the slowness of this technique as it was about length (Cooper, 2009). In the following decades, commercial pressure for faster and shorter journalism undermined these values (Orchard, 2014), sparking a “slow” journalism movement that cherishes accuracy, context, and storytelling, though it may not deliver a slow read (Greenberg, 2007; Berkey-Gerard, 2009; Le Masurier, 2014).

One standout longform piece in this bleak period was the Inquirer’s 29-episode “Black Hawk Down,” which, in 1998, increased print sales by 20,000 copies each day it ran. In a move that now appears ahead of its time, the Web version included explanatory graphics, audio, video, and the opportunity to chat to the writer (Shepard, 2002) (Figure 3). Yet it wasn’t until the launch of the iPad a decade later that longform, in a new interactive guise, truly saw a resurgence (Tow Center, n.d.). In 2012, the award-winning and much-imitated New York Times’ digital story “Snow Fall” combined rigorous research with an evocative narrative, in a long (17,000-word) feature. To deliver an immersive and contained experience online, this new “new journalism” also made use of design and multimedia. “Snow Fall’s” scrolling “curtain effect” layout enabled the gradual and dramatic revelation of content, giving the reader a sense of playful exploration (Dowling & Vogan, 2015) reminiscent of page turns in picture books or graphic novels. Graphics, animation, and video were employed to tell parts of the story difficult to express through text alone (Spooner, 2014) (Figure 4). Many of these individual elements might be described as “big content,” where value lies in the synthesis of ideas and good design as much as the size of the output (Meyers, 2012).


Figure 3. Early interactive longform: Blackhawk Down, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1998.

Figure 3: early interactive longform: “Blackhawk Down.” (The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1998)


Figure 4. Ground breaking: Snow Fall, New York Times, 2012.

Figure 4: ground breaking: “Snow Fall.” (New York Times, 2012)

“Snow Fall” received 3.5 million views in its first week, drew in new readers, and reported impressive dwell times (Romenesko, 2012). Its well-crafted story and interactive elements involved readers, a key factor influencing engagement with digital stories (Yaros, 2009). However, some commentators felt the multimedia components lacked meaning and drew readers away from the narrative (Johnson, 2013). In fact, although users spent an average of 12 minutes on the site, this is only sufficient time to read about a quarter of the feature. Readers were therefore encountering “cognitive kick-outs” that disengaged them from the contained story. These might be reader fatigue, lack of focus (Manjoo, 2013), or even the scrolling design (Sarnis & Svenonius, 2015).

While it’s fair to assume that solidly researched material, contextualised within a story and held in a well-designed container, will engage digital readers, “Snow Fall” highlights the importance of balancing text and interactivity, while also questioning how we measure engagement in the first place. Since stories help us situate and make sense of information, they should reduce our cognitive load rather than add to it (Bulger, 2010). Good storytelling requires assiduous editing, simple interfaces, and the excision of extraneous information (Wyman et al., 2011). From a journalistic perspective, multimedia elements should be included only if they service the reading experience and improve the story (Johnson, 2013). However, newspaper publishers may be driven by conflicting aims, measuring interaction and dwell time on individual webpages rather than reading progress (Spooner, 2014). Cultural organisations may also employ alternative metrics.

4. Longform storytelling in the cultural sector

Deceleration, simplicity, and narration have all been suggested as antidotes to overwhelming museum websites (Kraemer, 2007), so it is no surprise that cultural institutions have themselves experimented with a number of digital longform experiences. Some of these have clearly been influenced by developments in the journalism sector.

The power of narrative in online cultural experiences was demonstrated in a pre-iPad project that explored potential methods for enhancing access to, and appreciation of, cultural works and information from multiple institutions. Participants in this IBM initiative were found to be more engaged by narrative multimedia experiences with a human voice than interactive databases of cultural artefacts and knowledge. They also called for “less clicking, more watching,” suggesting a desire for focused immersive experiences (Vergo et al., 2001).

Hundreds of museums have since signed up to Google Cultural Institute (GCI), a project with similar goals to those IBM had earlier flirted with, but where story often takes a back seat to objects and artworks. GCI’s linear presentations of text and images, which are swiped through horizontally, are described on the home page as “exhibits and collections.” Project staff have also positioned the platform as a tool where assets (or “instances of knowledge”) are overlaid by stories rather than being selected or influenced by them (Seales et al., 2013). GCI “stories” may be solidly researched, but many present a chronological timeline or subject overview, lacking the narrative approach of longform journalism, where stories are situated in space and time. The prose can also be indirect, academic, and overlong (Figure 5).


Figure 5. Sideways scrolling: Celebrating the Saxes, Google Cultural Institute

Figure 5: sideways scrolling: “Celebrating the Saxes.” (Google Cultural Institute)

These common museum tendencies—integrating too many objects or delivering too much context—weaken stories (Simon, 2013) and are therefore likely to lessen engagement. In an evaluation of story-centric multimedia narratives at the Acropolis Museum, Athens and the Cité de l’Espace, Toulouse, a sound and coherent plot was found to be key. It gave meaningful context to the exhibit information and helped visitors understand, connect, and recall what they encountered (Vayanou et al., 2014). In terms of writing style, journalists advocate using clear, direct, and conversational text, which evokes atmosphere (Little, n.d.).

Some museums and cultural institutions have developed their own “Snow Fall”-style experiences, displaying a varying balance between research, story, and interactivity. The National Museum of American History’s “Adventures with Objects” site—produced using the web-based drag-and-drop design tool Creatavist—incorporates full-width images, galleries, and videos, but could be described as more of an essay than a story. Conversely, the Australian National Maritime Museum’s “Digital Stories,” built using a custom WordPress framework (Firefly, n.d.), are managed by a member of staff described as an “in-house ‘journalist’” (ANMM, 2015). The BBC’s “iWonder” guides take a different approach (Figure 6). Though story is key, user interaction is the core priority, with video, audio, infographic, and text content selected to create a balanced experience (Pipes, 2014; Spooner, 2014). “iWonder” users tend to prefer shorter journeys and, as with “Snow Fall,” many don’t complete the guides. However, this is not a key concern for the BBC so long as the material stimulates and sparks curiosity while building users and reach (Spooner, 2014).


Figure 6. Educational: Learn to sing Welsh rugby anthem Calon Lân with the BBC’s iWonder.

Figure 6: educational: Learn to sing Welsh rugby anthem Calon Lân with the BBC’s iWonder.

On a smaller scale, some scholars, museums, and archives use tools like Omeka and Neatline to build digital resources and stories. The samples showcased on Omeka’s own site tend towards chronological histories, with text prioritised over images or other media. The writing style also tends to be informational and exhaustive rather than evocative and direct. Where longform journalism struggles to balance narrative and interaction, digital museum stories struggle with balancing objects and the story itself and, in particular, with developing engaging storylines and text.

5. Wellcome Collection’s Digital Stories

Digital Stories was developed by Wellcome Collection in 2014 to make the outputs of our ambitious digitisation programme both accessible and meaningful to an audience beyond academic researchers. Each story is arranged in six chapters, following a narrative arc or thematic thread: each chapter takes the form of a long scrolling page containing frames of text, interactives, graphics, and video. Image Galleries and further interactives are accessed by hotspots on the pages. Each image is accompanied by a link to the original source and an option to download. At the end of each chapter, full digitised resources relating to the content are available to browse in our “player” for digitised texts (Figures 7–10).

Figure 7. Lush graphics: opening montage from the ‘Merchants of Light’ chapter of ‘The Collectors’. Wellcome Collection.

Figure 7: lush graphics: opening montage from the “Merchants of Light” chapter of The Collectors. (Wellcome Collection)


Figure 8. Simple text: panel from the ‘Ignorant Bride’ chapter of ‘The Collectors’. Wellcome Collection.

Figure 8: simple text: panel from the ‘Ignorant Bride’ chapter of The Collectors. (Wellcome Collection)


Figure 9. Exploring seventeenth century death: Bills of Mortality interactive from the ‘Death Collector’ chapter of ‘The Collectors’. Wellcome Collection.

Figure 9: exploring seventeenth-century death: Bills of Mortality interactive from the “Death Collector” chapter of The Collectors. (Wellcome Collection)


Figure 10. Original sources: the Wellcome Library Player interface, used to browse digitised source material. Wellcome Collection.

Figure 10: original sources: the Wellcome Library Player interface, used to browse digitised source material. (Wellcome Collection)

The first digital story, Mindcraft, written by Mike Jay, tells a story of mind control and hypnotism, from Anton Mesmer to Sigmund Freud, taking in James Tilly Matthews’ fantasy of an all-controlling Air Loom and the antisemitic stereotype of Svengali along the way. The story is told with text, video, animation, and comic-style panels. The Collectors, written by Anna Faherty, hops back and forth in time to tell the stories of six individuals whose thirst for knowledge led them to collect everything from obituary data to fan mail. Starting with John Tradescant’s “Ark” of curiosities in Lambeth, it uses text, images, animation, video, an “infinite canvas” of Sir Henry Wellcome’s collection, and an interactive infographic showing causes of death in the seventeenth century.

6. How we made it

The project of making Digital Stories and what we thought of then as “longform storytelling” began a little earlier, in 2013. Our venue, an outstanding success with visitors since its opening in 2007, was being redeveloped to add more gallery, event, and catering spaces. As part of the redevelopment, the Wellcome Library’s Reading Room was being transformed from a traditional study space open only to library visitors into a public space that aimed to draw visitors into a closer and deeper relationship with our collections, particularly those of the research library itself.

At the same time, we were becoming aware that our presentation of digitised collections material in the “Explore” section of our website was far from fit for purpose in creating online engagement. A large-scale digitisation programme was in the process of creating a world-class research resource, but public engagement around the digitised content was sparse and ineffective.

The Reading Room’s content was developed along interdisciplinary thematic lines: rather than representing distinct parts of the collections, material was grouped according to broad themes of the human condition such as breath, the mind, and travel. Displays consisted of objects, freely shelved books, facsimile reproductions of digitised codices and books from the collection, and interactive activities such as games and toys.

Initially, we thought that the Reading Room, as a complex and innovative arrangement of things, might suffer from an interpretation deficit, and we concentrated our digital thinking on mobile device-based solutions. Some research and thinking in collaboration with the agency Frankly, Green + Webb reformed our thinking as we realised the limited return on investment we would get on a mobile experience designed specifically for a single gallery in the building.

We embarked on a process of product development, working with the design agency Clearleft. In a process of ideation followed by winnowing and refinement, we worked through ways of reaching our goals of deeper and more meaningful engagement with our digital collections, without trying to turn casual users into researchers. We were attracted by the emerging form of “interactive longform” journalism represented by “Snow Fall.” Bobbie Johnson’s Medium post “Snowfallen” was highly critical of this new approach, but Johnson also created an open spreadsheet to collect examples of this new form, which gave us sources of inspiration (Johnson, 2013). The BBC was also concurrently developing the first iteration of its “iWonder” product, expanding educational content with high quality Web video.

Our conceit was to adapt this form to the shape of our content: replacing the journalistic wordiness of “Snow Fall” with a richer mix of digitised objects, lush graphics, and modular interactives, while keeping the narrative-driven approach that “iWonder” lacked. In the Reading Room, interdisciplinarity allowed us to make interesting juxtapositions between very different kinds of objects. Online, it allowed us to use storytelling to structure digitised content from across the full range of our collections.

Entering into production, it became apparent that we were trying to do three things from scratch simultaneously. First, we were trying to develop a new format: we had inspiration in the form of “Snow Fall” and “iWonder,” but this didn’t provide a template to work from. Second, we had to write each story, working in the interactive possibilities as we went. Last, we had to choose the digitised materials to be used and schedule any further ones for digitisation.

Nominally, this allowed for user-focused design thinking and iterative development. We held workshops with writers, content specialists, and designers. The writers blocked out chapters, the teams matched modes of interaction, and the ideas were refined by UX designers. This drove some interesting early development. But in the longer term, the structure that we had devised for ourselves became more problematic: Clearleft’s design team and our in-house production team never became fully integrated.

As a result, the role of the writers, Jay and Faherty, became increasingly central to the production process. This also brought their different talents to the fore. Jay, whose practice is predominantly exhibition curation and writing books, found that the experience took him back to a much earlier experience of writing content for commercial CD-ROMs (Mitchell, 2014). Faherty, who also wrote the book-format interpretive guide to the Reading Room, was able to rapidly assimilate and structure large amounts of information, writing detailed scripts for animations and infographics as well as the textual content of the chapters.

7. The writer’s perspective

The role of “writer” for the second of Wellcome Collection’s Digital Stories, The Collectors, entailed a diverse range of activities including subject research, story scoping, detailed storyboarding, asset research, briefing of third-party content providers, and copywriting. Although the word count for the published product is relatively low (7,000 words), briefs and proposal documents amounted to at least as much written output again.

Overall, the content development was story-led, but with one eye on available assets and an awareness of the design direction and likely interactions. Once scoped out, the story changed little as design and production progressed, though the multimedia elements provided opportunities to reinforce messages, incorporate additional context, and layer information to explore sub-stories.

For a non-specialist author, the biggest challenge was getting to grips with the subject matter and identifying potential assets that could contribute to visual and multimedia design. After selecting the overall theme from a shortlist of three, ideas for individual chapters were sourced through a workshop with Wellcome Library staff. This provided a useful starting point, but the resulting list of potential topics and collections prompted more questions than it answered. As with the detailed investigations required of longform journalism, substantial research into a number of story concepts and related archive content followed. Some initially appealing ideas dropped out at this stage due to lack of available material in the Library or copyright issues.

A key driver at this point was the digitisation schedule, which called for books for the “player” layer to be identified before much of the detailed content research had been completed. This requirement was difficult to meet, and the material in the player would be more closely aligned with the story content if this deadline had occurred further into the project.

The storylines for each chapter were scoped out and presented in a document including brief introductory text, bulleted plot points (which might later become individual screens), and a conclusion. Interestingly, this 1,800-word summary is similar in length to the highest level of text encountered in the finished story (if a visitor chooses not to click on any galleries or hot spots). This textual storyboard was shared with the production team in a visual slide presentation of fifty images, which operated as a verbal brief for the design.

While several collaborative discussions with the design team and animation developers then took place, these focused around how to visually present and reveal the story without, usually, challenging the overall narrative or detailed text. This is similar to how many writers collaborate with other creatives, such as children’s books team Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, who do not interfere with the illustrations or story, respectively, and graphic novelist and filmmaker Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins, who recognise the “absolute sovereignty” of each other’s expertise (Davies, 2011; Jenkins & Moore, 2015). Both teams highlight the importance of trust in collaborative partnerships, and there was certainly a benefit to following the first Digital Story, since there was less uncertainty about the end product and working methods.

As the multimedia design progressed, it created additional demands in terms of asset and subject research and copywriting. Two interactions alone (an infographic and a scrolling “canvas” of 100 images) account for almost half of the entire word count and visual content. These images needed to be sourced (and checked for factual accuracy), along with information that provided the basis for descriptive captions. This highlights an important issue: even captions of as little as twenty words may take a substantial amount of time to research, fact-check, and compose. This “big” content, therefore, has both schedule and budget implications, making it worth considering whether levels of reader engagement support its development.

8. Learning and evaluation

Mindcraft was launched in December 2014 and The Collectors in February 2015. Our marketing strategy for Digital Stories was based on a social media-centric launch combined with a specially created trailer for Mindcraft, and an “influencer strategy” designed to reach individuals whose personal reach would extend beyond our own brand’s on social media.

During 2015, we carried out several types of evaluation: an analysis of our overall reach, proxies for engagement, and customised event tracking using Google Analytics; an expert review of the codebase; and a user-based evaluation carried out by Frankly, Green + Webb that included survey analysis, in-venue intercept interviews, and accompanied surfing (Mann, 2015).

The reach was good: overall, Digital Stories has been visited just under 35,000 times to date. Demographic analysis shows that, as the New York Times achieved with “Snow Fall,” we reached a wider and more engaged audience. Users, coming from beyond the existing geographic reach of the venue and brand, spent much longer on Digital Stories than on visits to the venue’s website (3 minutes, 51 seconds per session versus 1 minute, 48 seconds) (Roberts, 2015). There was a high level of user satisfaction: our users were keen to explore the new and engaging format and were engaged both by the content and its treatment, which was consistent with an understanding of our venue and our brand (Mann, 2015).

Looking at the depth of interaction painted a slightly less satisfying picture: though “completion” (reaching the end of the narrative) was not as important an objective for us as for some other interactive longform products (Chan, 2013), we were disappointed to find that only 23 percent of visits used the “deeper” interactive elements accessed through the hotspots (Roberts, 2015). This might reveal some problems with either the UX design (the users failed to understand what was on offer) or continued engagement in the main narrative and resistance to the “cognitive kickouts” observed in “Snow Fall.” There was also limited engagement with the books presented in the “player.” This can be partially understood in relation to the player’s UX design: it is a multifunctional research tool, designed to enable academic researchers to effectively investigate digitised resources, and much of its functionality is irrelevant to the casual user. Perhaps more fundamental is the question of whether access to fully digitised resources adds value for nonacademic users, and whether the addition of more context might aid that.

9. Discussion and conclusion

Digital Stories was certainly big and slow for Wellcome Collection as a project. The time and effort that we put into both content research and design was reflected in the depth and complexity of the final product, and it’s perhaps worth reflecting on parallels with the slowness of “new journalism” that cross the obvious analogue/digital divide. Digital Stories has a slower pace than most digital outputs produced by museums, and our evaluation appears to show that users are experiencing something more unified and consolidated.

Size was slightly more problematic. The failure to build a user experience that adequately supported accessing the extended gallery and interactive content suggests that there is more work to do on creating a digital experience that resurrects a larger museum-like space. Where visitors to the Art Treasures of the 1850s, having committed to a visit, could adapt their experience to the scale of the building, visitors to Digital Stories can simply opt out of certain elements of the experience. In comparison with readers failing to complete “Snow Fall,” this is perhaps unsurprising. However, “Snow Fall” and its many imitators have their roots in linear, flat media. In their best new digital forms, they use interactivity to enhance an earlier reading experience, without disrupting the fundamental offer. Museums, on the other hand, might experience a tougher transition to the digital world.

While these issues of scale and pace remain to be resolved, the role of narrative as a scaffold for “big and slow” has proved absolutely essential. Where for “Snow Fall” interactivity and user involvement were a way of enhancing an existing commitment to “longform” narrative journalism, for Wellcome Collection, the introduction of storytelling was a way to tie together existing collections elements in pursuit of increasing engagement. That the eventual outputs are comparable suggests not just the possibilities of the Web pointing in the same direction, but that storytelling might be as fertile digital territory for museums as it is for journalism. Nevertheless, it’s also clear that there are kinds of behaviour that are less well supported by narrative. As such, it is a first step towards delivering a digital experience that offers the depth and personally driven pace of a physical museum visit. The challenge remains to construct digital architectures that encourage and support other “big and slow” aspects of the museum experience.


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Cite as:
Birchall, Danny and Anna Faherty. "Big and slow: Adventures in digital storytelling." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published January 30, 2016. Consulted .