Custom collections content and generous interfaces

Julia Falkowski, Balboa Park Online Collaborative, USA


Visitors to museum collections websites are often greeted by the search bar, the standard of Web content exploration. Most search bars work best when users know exactly what they’re looking for and how to find it; many do not. Most Web visitors have little idea about the amount and variety of content that underlies the average search bar. Luckily, options for content exploration can go beyond this basic tool. From music to shopping to travel, websites from an array of industries increasingly allow easy content discovery. These websites take into account user preferences and patterns to help determine what they see. This paper looks at problems with current modes of content presentation on museum websites and examines useful models in and outside the arts and culture community that show possible ways forward. Outside the field, social media sites, advertisers, and especially music streaming services provide intriguing examples of content exploration. Within the field, institutions including the Rijksmuseum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art can serve as case studies for expanding and challenging traditional interfaces. The paper looks at the success of these models and traces Balboa Park Online Collaborative’s early efforts to design and implement custom content and a generous interface for the collections of Balboa Park’s twenty-seven cultural institutions, representing a mixture of museums, historical societies, and performing arts centers. The digital world has conditioned audiences to expect exploration and discovery. The technology is here. The expectation is here. Museums’ relevance and sustainability is based on their ability to satisfy this expectation.

Keywords: Generous, Interfaces, Search, Collections, Content, Custom

1. Introduction

Access is a core principle of both the Internet and museums. The Internet began with a great deal of free content, and that quickly became a user expectation. A 2010 Pew study found that, of different types of content users could pay for, only 33 percent of users had paid for music; 16 percent for videos, movies, or television; and 12 percent for digital photos (Jansen, 2010). A more recent source suggests, “With the explosion of content, time-starved consumers are increasingly selective of what they’re viewing and reading,” and that, “Content must be well-designed and easy to consume or they [content producers] risk losing their audience” (Adobe, 2015). The online world creates an expectation of free, open, and easy access. If Web users do not get access to content through museums, there are plenty of other places where they can find it.

Access is also important to the museum field. The American Alliance of Museums’ Code of Ethics explains that one of the key aspects of collections stewardship is, “The museum, guided by its mission, provides public access to its collections while ensuring their preservation” (American Alliance of Museums, n.d.). Using their missions as guides, museums are expected to make public access a priority. What better way to prioritize both access and long-term preservation than by making collections available online? The public expects freely available content online, and museum missions mandate access; it is up to museums to make this happen.

Even after collections are digitized and online, questions of access remain. When visitors lack the means to discover objects, it is almost as if collections do not exist. The search bar, the staple of the Google experience, tends to dominate collections sites. For many Internet users, Google is the Web and serves as the portal through which the online world is viewed. Museums turn to search bars to help visitors wade through huge amounts of information, but these content-discovery tools can limit exploration. This is less true for Google’s search bar; with the entire Internet powering their search, even unskilled surfers can find something. Can the search bars of museum collections be made to meet the power of the Google search bar? Quality tagging and metadata are necessary to sort and search content. In addition to making content searchable, quality metadata allows for content to be sorted in different ways, making possible custom-content recommendations in the style of “people who liked x also like y.” Adding metadata makes digitized collections accessible for both searchers who know exactly what they are looking for and the interested visitor who only has a vague idea.

While quality metadata is a great start, most search bars and even custom-content models work best if users have some idea of what they’re looking for and what terms would be best to find it; many Web visitors do not know this. In his paper “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections,” Mitchell Whitelaw (2015) cites a study of Dutch museum websites that found that while 29 percent of visitors sought specific information, 21 percent came to “engage in casual browsing.” Whitelaw argues these statistics show that search bars afford inadequate opportunity for casual visitor exploration. How can museums accommodate people who come to their websites in the hopes of finding content that interests and engages them, but with zero idea of what that content might be? In the physical worlds of museums and libraries, visitors can wander, pausing to spend time with the objects that catch their eyes. Can this browsing experience be replicated in the digital world? Whitelaw (2015) uses the term “generous interfaces” to describe sites that manage to visually convey the extent of materials available to explore. A generous interface might take the form of content categories weighted to show relative number of objects or even an interface that fits a full view of all the collections’ objects. However a generous interface is achieved, it can go a long way in making collections more accessible for all audiences.

These major concerns of online collections—creating free and open access and making collections easily searchable and browsable—are faced by a variety of content creators and maintainers in a wide range of fields. Industries including food, travel, and news all have huge amounts of digital content they work to make available in user-friendly ways. In finding lessons for museums, music streaming is one particularly analogous industry, with an array of content and an incentive to help users navigate and discover it. This paper takes examples from both music streaming services and museums and looks at how they are addressing the major challenges of content access and delivery. Spotify and the Rijksmuseum do a great job of creating free and open access. Pandora and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) have made strides in creating searchable collections. Apple Music and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) employ interfaces that can be easily browsed, making them accessible even for users who come in with no idea what they are looking for.

With these ideas and examples in mind, the Balboa Park Online Collaborative (BPOC) is beginning a major project, Lost in Balboa Park (LIBP). This project aims to digitize the Park’s collections—600,000 objects, 150,000 research volumes, seven million specimens, and more—and present them online in a way that maximizes access. Viewing Balboa Park as a single destination, its roughly 12 million annual visits give it a place alongside world-class museums such as the British Museum (5 million visitors), the Met (6.5 million), and the Louvre (9 million). Numbers show that content-rich museum websites attract high numbers of Web visitors. The leaders in the field include the Tate (17 million Web visits), New York’s Museum of Modern Art (19 million), and the Met (46 million). Data also shows that content-rich websites correlate to strong attendance numbers. In the examples mentioned here, Web visitation is anywhere from five to ten times the number of physical visits (Honeysett, 2014). BPOC believes that creating an innovative online experience that connects the virtual and the physical and that shares resources among all the museums can help the Park and its institutions better achieve their missions while making them models for accessibility.

As part of the LIBP experience, Web visitors will be able to view and explore an array of collections’ thumbnail tiles on the entry screen, and will also be able to navigate through and contribute to collections of similar objects. Taking the music industry as a metaphor, BPOC is designing an experience that allows visitors to explore collections based on individual interests and discover unexpected connections. “Playlists,” curated by both professionals and visitors, will be based on themes such as music, costume, or events such as Halloween, a saint’s day, or a date night. The playlists are designed to make unexpected connections between related objects throughout the Park. For example, the date night playlist prototype includes objects such as the miniature kissing booth at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum and the Iranian glazed ceramic “Romantic encounter in a garden” at the San Diego Museum of Art. It mixes these objects with experiences, such getting gelato at the Italian cultural cottage ( Constantly learning from research and examples, BPOC hopes to create an online experience that provides free and open access to collections through a searchable and browsable interface.

2. Problems and solutions

Despite the importance of access to museums, lack of access remains a major problem. In her presentation “How to Destroy Special Collections with Social Media,” Sarah Werner (2015) makes a tongue-in-cheek case for digital accessibility by listing all the ways, intentional or not, that institutions stifle it. Her top collection-destroying technique is the most simple: not digitizing. Digitizing collections takes a great deal of time and money that many organizations don’t have. Even if collections make it online, restrictive copyright interpretation limits their use. Many organizations use restrictive interpretations of copyright for their images, either because they believe they have a legal obligation to do so or because they would like to be able to sell the rights to the images themselves (Werner, 2015). While the reasons behind not digitizing and adopting strict interpretation of copyright are understandable, these practices prevent the ease of discovery that online audiences expect. In the world of Web 2.0, where flexible and up-to-the-minute sites invite users to create and comment, a static, informational site does not cut it (O’Reilly, 2005). Giving audiences the power to download and manipulate collections’ images and information encourages organic, participatory learning and positive publicity for museums. In the long run, this opens up new opportunities for revenue and keeps museums closer to their accessible missions.

When it comes to digitization, museums and libraries have been talking about the importance of incorporating metadata for a long time. Without quality metadata representing the various ways an object can be described and sorted, objects become virtually invisible to the casual searcher, but generating metadata requires time and money. Recent developments have made this process a little easier. Machine learning allows computers to automatically generate metadata tags. Crowdsourcing employs the online community to enter data. Gamification creates digital environments similar to that of a smartphone game that offer stimulation and reward to the crowdsource community (Earle, 2014). Quality metadata also allows for more complex systems of content delivery. Netflix and Amazon attach specific descriptors to films and objects in order to make new recommendations uniquely tailored to each user. Ads that go out through Facebook and Google are tagged with a variety of complex terms so that Web users will see the ads most likely to resonate with them. These methods narrow down huge amounts of content to a manageable size. Museums can learn from these models of customized content delivery.

Users with little idea of the breadth of content underlying custom content interfaces risk becoming isolated in certain pockets of content. This is fine for entertainment and advertisements but poses a problem for other content types, including news and politics. “Filter bubble” describes the phenomenon of custom-content algorithms isolating users from different ideas and opinions. In NPR’s efforts to make its One app the “Pandora of news,” it has incorporated opportunities for users to enter their interests and discover new content. NPR also hopes to pop listeners’ filter bubbles by keeping them on their toes with challenging content that may run somewhat counter to their indicated preferences (Weinberger, 2015). With educative missions, museums must also remain mindful of filter bubbles as they consider custom content.

Another solution to the problem of the filter bubble is providing the ability to actually see all the content that underlies a search. In the physical world, this would be called browsing. A father brings his daughter to the children’s section of the local library and lets her pick out the book she finds most appealing. A researcher writes down one or more topical titles from an online database, finds them in the stacks, and physically examines the surrounding books. Browsing allows for the discovery of sources that didn’t appear in an initial search, often because the new sources take a slightly different approach to the subject. Discovering alternate sources can reveal new ideas and perspectives (Montgomery, 2014). Browsing works because a person can actually see all of their choices. This is an experience that can be replicated in the online world. Combining the custom content model with generous interfaces can provide a manageable exploratory experience while simultaneously popping filter bubbles. Museums can explore this multi-approach solution to provide Web visitors with satisfying, educational, and exploratory experiences.

3. Alternatives in digital music

Believe it or not, the music industry and museums have a lot in common. They both have extensive collections to which they manage access. They both must navigate the role of copyright in the age of digital access expectations. They both must figure out how to classify, tag, and sort their collections objects. They both wonder how to get people to explore a wider range of content than just that produced by their favorite artist. A number of music streaming services are tackling these issues. Their strengths and weaknesses in addressing these issues can be valuable for museums to explore as they work to provide online collections access.

Spotify ( is an example of a service that provides free and open access to content, while finding ways to generate revenue. With over thirty million tracks to choose from, Spotify asks users to curate their own playlists, interact and share with others, and choose music based on activity or mood. Spotify users are encouraged to play with and remix content in different ways, sorting songs into their own playlists that they can then share with friends and followers. This mode of content delivery allows users to build community around shared content interests, keeping them invested in the site. Spotify’s model has proven a success since its founding in 2006, leading the music streaming field with seventy-five million accounts in fifty-eight countries as of July 2015. For Spotify, being able to offer free access to some is based on its ability to sell ad space and convince those who use the service for free that it’s worth paying to listen without ads. This model has been successful as well, with twenty million out of seventy-five million users paying for its premium accounts (Williams, 2015). Spotify proves organizations can provide free access to, and encourage creativity with, content in ways that maintain financial stability. While Spotify allows for many modes of content discovery, these is no generous interface equivalent. Users have very little idea of the variety of music offered by the site’s thirty million tracks.

Launched in 2000, Pandora ( was early to the scene of online music streaming and custom content. Pandora began with custom content in mind, as part of the Music Genome Project. The project started as a way to classify, tag, and sort music in order to discover the commonalities in the types of music people like. The Pandora website explains:

Each song in the Music Genome Project is analyzed using up to 450 distinct musical characteristics by a trained music analyst. These attributes capture not only the musical identity of a song, but also the many significant qualities that are relevant to understanding the musical preferences of listeners. The typical music analyst working on the Music Genome Project has a four-year degree in music theory, composition or performance, has passed through a selective screening process and has completed intensive training in the Music Genome’s rigorous and precise methodology. (Pandora, n.d.)

Pandora users start by entering a song they already like. Pandora generates a playlist around that song, introducing users to content they never knew existed. As users listen, Pandora looks for constant feedback to perfect each unique user playlist and improve its own metadata. Pandora’s algorithms improve as more people use it, in a form of low-commitment crowdsourcing. Pandora is a model for how data and information around content can make discovery easy. Users still do not, however, get a sense of the amount of content that underlies the recommendations they receive.

The newest streaming service, Apple Music ( launched in 2015, after Apple bought out Beats Music, which launched in 2014. Apple Music is notable in its lessons for museums in that it has its own sort of generous interface in its “For You” system. “For You” uses bubbles, representing genres, which users can add to, subtract from, and resize to reflect relative appreciation for the different styles the service makes available. The next screen provides a new set of bubbles that represent artists that fit users’ genre preferences. Users go through the same process of adding, subtracting, and resizing to help the site generate playlist, artist, and album recommendations. This interface creates an easy content selection experience for users unsure of what they want to listen to. By providing broad categories that users can visually adapt and resize, Apple Music has given users a sense of the content it has to offer and how users are choosing to shape that content. This creates a strong level of accessibility, but only for paid users; Apple Music is a purely subscription service. While these music services provide good examples for museums looking for effective modes of content delivery and discovery, none of them is perfect, nor perfectly suited for museums.

4. Alternatives in museums

Experimenting with presenting collections in ways that allow for maximum access and exploration, many museums are learning from other industries’ examples and innovating on their own to adopt content delivery models that uniquely serve their mission and audience. Amsterdam’s Rijksmueum has made full exploration and open use priorities, with hopes that expanding access will expand interest. With an open approach to copyright, the Rijksmuseum digitized “over 150,000 high resolution images for anyone to view, download, copy, remix, print and use for any purpose they can think of” (Pekel, 2014). The Rijksmuseum used these images to create a site that encourages browsing by categories that include artist, style, and story. They created Rijksstudio (, a platform that makes it easy to create personal digital exhibitions, download collections images, and upload photos of projects inspired by Rijksmuseum objects. Rijksstudio user creations range from bracelets, made from a cut up copy of a print, to a set of baby clothes inspired by a vase. The site has a connection with the crafting marketplace site Etsy, openly encouraging people to get creative with their collections. Lifting copyright restrictions and allowing others to make objects with their art was risky for the Rijksmuseum. But in terms of return, the Rijksmuseum has received positive publicity. The very creations of visitors serve as free publicity for the museum. Furthermore, the Rijksmuseum has become known as an industry leader in digitized collections with free and open access.

The Met, with over four hundred thousand collections items digitized and encoded with detailed metadata, allows for an exemplary exploratory experience. With many different ways to explore the collection, the serious researcher and casual browser alike can find what they are looking for. In addition to impressive search functionality, tagged objects allow for exploration through a variety of different interfaces ( One Met. Many Worlds. sorts objects based on basic features such as “organic” and “shimmering.” It is not just large objects that are tagged that way, but specific zoomed portions of artworks. This goes beyond creating data associated with a work to creating data associated with specific details. MyMet accounts allow users to save objects they appreciate into sets and get custom recommendations of objects that share similar qualities. Some of these recommendations are expected; others are not. The Met offers visitors custom content at its best. Its online collections interfaces and underlying metadata facilitate accessible, tailored, connective experiences that invite users to keep exploring.

When it comes to generous interfaces, SFMOMA’s ArtScope ( is a prime example. When visitors enters ArtScope, they are presented with a huge grid, featuring thousands (6,491 to be exact) of tiny art thumbnails. Once visitors have taken it in, they can explore by using zoom and drag functions. As they look around, sometimes it’s a color that catches the eye, sometimes an intriguing pattern, technique, or subject. The page includes a search function, but it does not take users away from the generous interface; it highlights the search results within the collections map. SFMOMA explains it designed the site “for wandering, for the chance discovery of artworks you might not have encountered before.” For visitors put off by the sometimes-intimidating world of modern art, Artscope provides the chance to browse and learn based on the objects that visually pique their interest. ArtScope makes the real life experience of browsing possible on the Web. SFMOMA is just one of many museums creating innovative access to their digitized collections that institutions thinking about designing an accessible online collections experience can look to for ideas.

5. Lost in Balboa Park

With ideas of custom content and generous interfaces, and models from in and outside the museum industry in mind, BPOC is working to make its LIBP collections’ interface a truly accessible experience. In terms of providing free and open content, the experience of curating and sharing object-based playlists will encourage user creativity and connection to objects. The issue of providing access in a financially stable manner is addressed by a strategy to integrate the project with two other Park initiatives: the Balboa Park App and the Explorer Pass program. The Balboa Park App, a collaboration between BPOC and local company Guru, is a wayfinding tool that facilitates the visitor’s experience of the park. LIBP playlists may be displayed through the app and integrated with its geolocation functionality, allowing for a holistic experience that combines the physical Park with its digital collections. Playlists are presented in black and white to encourage in-person visits where one can experience the full visual impact of the objects. The Explorer Pass is a ticketing system which can be purchased to allow daily, weekly, or monthly admission to 17 of the Park’s institutions. The playlist concept suggests a try-before-you-buy approach to selling the Explorer Pass. Visitors who subscribe to the Pass can experience objects from all the playlists covered under one cost. This model allows the entire Park to derive value from its collections content without limiting digital access.

In the process of digitizing Balboa Park’s collections BPOC plans to incorporate detailed metadata in a standardized way. This will result in the ability to access collections through both high-functioning searches and data-driven custom content. BPOC is exploring ideas of computer learning and gamification to make this a manageable, and even fun task. In addition to technology-based solutions, BPOC recognizes the importance of intelligent and detail-focused personnel, capable of not only designing a digitization process, but also acting as Park-wide leaders. The team working on this project must be able to get collections managers throughout the Park’s twenty-seven museums and cultural institutions to agree on metadata standards and digitization processes. BPOC believes the combination of right approach and team can undertake a digitization process that results in a truly accessible digitized collection.

BPOC also plans to include a generous interface in its collections site. Consulting with designers and user experience experts, BPOC is working to make a browsable collections platform. This platform would allow for a visual sense of all the objects in the collections throughout Balboa Park. A current idea involves a rotating globe of objects, grouped by institution. This potential interface would allow any Web visitor, regardless of knowledge level or background, to find objects that interest them. This model would further allow Web visitors to get a sense of the variety of institutions in Balboa Park. By combining accessibility, searchability, custom content, and browsability, BPOC believes it can provide a successful and engaging online collections interface.

LIBP is a unique opportunity to not only improve Balboa Park, but also test a model with the potential value to the wider museum field. Aiming to explore theories about the benefits of free and open access, BPOC will carefully monitor and document its process. Does visitation go up as more collections items come online? Does visitor satisfaction increase? Affinity? BPOC hopes to produce a successful model that is useful to all collecting organizations.

6. Conclusion

The digital world has conditioned audiences to expect exploration and discovery. The technology is here. The demand is here. Museums’ relevance is based on their ability to satisfy this demand. Other industries, including that of music streaming, have developed innovative, user-friendly platforms for discovery, but museums have a unique gold standard of content. Museums’ objects and stories are authentic and inspiring. The Rijksmuseum, Met, and SFMOMA serve as examples that Balboa Park, with its twenty-seven arts and culture institutions and millions of collections objects, is hoping to learn from as it begins this process. BPOC is working to create a collections’ interface that sustains free and open access and provides ample opportunity to search, browse, and discover. The ideas and examples set out in this paper are the backdrop for the ambitious LIBP. It is time be brave, bold, and creative, and take museum collections into the future.


Thank you to Nik Honeysett, the staff of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative, Amelia Wong, and Erin Blasco.


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Cite as:
Falkowski, Julia. "Custom collections content and generous interfaces." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published January 15, 2016. Consulted .