Digital Content, Storytelling and Journalism: A Genuine Museum Experience
Danny Birchall, Wellcome Collection, UK, Jennifer Trent Staves, Wellcome Collection, UK, Alice White, Wellcome Collection, UK
AbstractWhat does it mean to explore a museum digitally? How can digital content do the work of the museum itself? When does online digital content become a genuine museum experience? This paper looks at how both science and art museums use digital channels to engage substantial non-visiting audiences with digital media. Using Wellcome Collection, the free museum and library for the incurably curious as a case study, we will look at how digital transformation and a product-centred approach to the website allowed us to build a content team that works alongside other product teams to challenge people’s ideas about health and make connections between art and science. We ask what the experience of journalism brings to museum content and the role of social media in amplifying narrative content, creating dialogue with visitors and increasing our understanding of audiences. We’ll talk about the challenges we’ve faced in this approach and include the experiences of other digital content people, who have experimented with this approach in museums . Digital content can address a diversity strategy through bringing new voices in to speak through the museum. We will share insights about our analytics, audiences and how we measure the impact of our work and its value to the organisation. Finally, we ask what difference it could make to museums to commit to a strategy of using online digital content to reach audiences well beyond their visitor base, to participate in public debate, and to add to the overall public engagement with art, science and cultural heritage.
Keywords: digital content, journalism, science museums, stories, audience insights
As civic institutions, both museums and journalism share an interest in informing and enriching the public sphere. Traditionally, they have operated in very different ways, and at very different paces. The domination of other media by the Internet as a means of publishing and communicating with audiences, and the flattening of distinction in the social media feed has meant that both press and gallery can manifest themselves powerfully online. But this may also mean that in an online media landscape, the perceptible difference between them is lessened. (News journalism was particularly quick off the mark to borrow the term “curator” from museums to describe the function of selecting from a cornucopia of potential sources.) (Birchall, 2014).
At the same time, this public sphere is in certain respects becoming impoverished: on one side, cuts in public funding for cultural institutions are motivated by both austerity and right-wing populism; on the other, there’s the increasingly brutal economics of the newsroom. Should museums and newspapers be joining forces, or are they destined to cannibalise each other’s audiences?
Some have argued that with declining standards and failing publications, there are forms of journalism itself that now “belong in a museum” (Perrone, 2012). Elsewhere, at the level of disciplines like design, it has become more common for journalists to make a career move into museums, where they may be more able to explore their discipline in depth (Hobson, 2016). For others, museums and journalists share a converging interest in exploring the immersive storytelling possibilities of virtual reality (Storylab, 2017), a topic we shall be steering well clear of in this paper.
Alongside this, there is a growing recognition that exhibitions are not the only type of museum experience, nor should they be. Kaija Hartig in 2017 suggests that we “Define the starting point for the museum experience using a more neutral language, making the exhibition one of many end products, to help management and cross departmental teams embrace digital aspects and possibilities” (Hartig, 2017) In her article, she points to others who have been making similar points over the past six years (Kelly, 2011).
The Emerging Role of Journalism Inside Museums
The museum sector has been thinking about how journalism might work for museums. At the MCN conference in 2017, Erin Harper, Adam J. Martin, and Matthew Newton spoke on “Why Journalists—or at Least Journalism—Should be in Your Museum,” looking among other things at the common goals of museums and journalism (Harper at al., 2017). Louise Cohen and Kate Huckle from the RA in London spoke at MuseWeb 2018 in Vancouver about the role that journalistic practices have played in the RA’s digital content strategy in their workshop on “Creating Catchy Content Formats.” The institution’s strategy [PDF] was put forward for a GLAMi in 2017. Also at MCN 2017, Susan Poulter and Brad Dunn suggested that museums had role to play as credible and trustworthy sources during the current “information crisis” (Poulton and Dunn, 2017); museum activists also led February 2017’s “Day of Facts” about science and climate change (https://dayoffacts.wordpress.com).
In preparing this paper, we asked a range of GLAM institutions for their perspective on the journalistic approach. Some of these are organisations who are already thinking this way, while others have expressed an interest but aren’t sure where to start.
Erin Harper is a multimedia producer at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and former journalist at the Chicago Tribune. (These views do not necessarily represent those of her employer.) She talked about the power of flexibility in medium when producing stories:
Digital storytelling allows me to harness the power of a story in the most suitable medium possible. For example, if I have video recordings of first-person accounts of a historic event, I can choose to make a documentary film with historic footage, a podcast with a musical score, a bespoke website with written quotes, or an animated graphic with a soundscape. I let the story and its elements dictate the form that it takes.
The Field Museum’s Brad Dunn sees a journalistic approach as being as much about trustworthiness as narrative:
Many brands must manufacture stories and content about their organization, product, or service. The museum, by virtue of the scientific process, naturally produces an enormous amount of stories worth sharing. Our team’s job is to share these stories with the public in a way that is exciting and relatable but true to the original facts. In this way, there is some semblance of journalism in our approach.
Dunn’s colleague Caitlin Kearney attributes a professionalism in approach and consistency to journalistic method:
Our team also continues to work on a review process that draws from journalism. With the launch of the Field’s new brand in March 2018, a cross-departmental team developed the first version of a public-facing style guide for the museum. There are still many different processes across different departments, but our digital team makes a concerted effort to hold content to those standards. This is just one of many recent changes that affects how digital content in particular gets developed and reviewed.
While there seems to be a clearly emerging role for journalistic practice in science and history museums, the practice is perhaps not being taken up as quickly by art-based and interdisciplinary museums. Indeed, a few of the museums we approached didn’t feel ready to comment, though they were interested in exploring the concepts and having a similar impact.
But the role of journalism isn’t solely to inform: it can entertain, educate, challenge, opine, and investigate. The journalistic approach need not mirror the discipline of a museum—it can be a lens through which to see the museum. Melo, et al. (2016) outline the five different types of journalistic genres and their functions:
- informative: social surveillance
- opinionative: ideas forum
- interpretation: educational role, enlightening
- diversional: distraction, leisure
- utilitarian: assistance in everyday’s decisions
These functions are not dissimilar from the function of a cultural institution, though some may resonate more than others. Through looking at the role of journalism in the context of our own museum, a medium-sized interdisciplinary arts and science museum in London, we aim to help other institutions to explore the potential of a journalistic approach.
From Explore to Stories: Building a Journalism-oriented Platform at Wellcome Collection
Since opening in 2007 as a free venue for the incurably curious exploring the intersections between science art and life, Wellcome Collection has taken an interdisciplinary approach to creating exhibitions and events. Our digital approach has been similarly interdisciplinary, taking in casual games, interactive fiction, and digital art commissions.
In 2009, our website introduced an “Explore” section, adding individual narratives to themed selections of objects. At around the same time, we launched a blog, which like many museum’s blogs had a variety of functions: marketing events, ad hoc explorations of the collections, and pulling down the “fourth wall” to show how the venue operates. Meanwhile the library’s blog offered insight into our collections and newly catalogued archives, aimed squarely at researchers. But, we still lacked a means of bringing the richness of our collections and the potential of storytelling to an online audience as broad as our venue’s.
In 2014-15, we launched our original “Digital Stories,” an immersive narrative format inspired by the success of a new wave of online multimedia journalism like The New York Times’ “Snow Fall” (Branch, 2012) and The Guardian’s “Firestorm” (Henley et al, 2013), in collaboration with the digital agency Clearleft. As described in a previous paper (Birchall and Faherty, 2016), the project had high production values and involved professional writers. Evaluation revealed that visitors strongly associated the rich and provocative approach with the quality and values of the venue. Ultimately, however, “Digital Stories” failed to build a satisfyingly large audience because of a lack of sequentiality: each six-chapter story was published all at once, leaving readers with nothing to return to.
New Digital Strategy: 2016-17
In 2016-17, Wellcome Collection began a reorganisation to bring together the previously separate museum venue and library, recognising that we could best achieve our objectives by formally bringing the library and museum teams together into a single organisational structure with a shared mission and a common set of overarching priorities (Robertson et al., 2017).
A new digital engagement department was formed, bringing together museums and library web teams, focused on the iterative development of “a robust and open platform that provides the foundation for ongoing innovation in search and discovery of our collections and editorial content across the museum and library” (Scott, 2017).
Within digital engagement, the digital content team were given responsibility for a website and social channels which are Wellcome Collection rather than just promoting Wellcome Collection: creating original content that speaks to Wellcome Collection’s overall purpose, to challenge how we think and feel about health.
This team creates provocative, bold, interdisciplinary and imaginative content that engages, supports, and inspires our users. This content, which is targeted at the public is inspired by our collections, the public programme and our aim to explore life, health and our place in the world. (Robertson et al., 2017)
Some content might reflect exhibitions and events happening within the venue; some might not. Anything that the team commissions and creates needs to be good enough to stand alone and constitute an interaction with Wellcome Collection, whether or not the online visitor intends to visit the venue.
To begin with, our model eschewed specific formats, led by the interest of the content, in line with our interdisciplinary approach. But, doing this regularly and attracting a meaningful audience required a concerted shift and focused mindset to make the most of a journalistic approach.
Refining Content Formats
Readers like to know what to expect. When you pick up a book, you automatically get a sense of how long it is. You know whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. If you pick up your favourite magazine, you know the formats that are inside. There might be an editorial at the front, followed by short newsy pieces. After that, maybe two to three features, one of which is splashed on the cover. Finally, at the end, you’ll have listings, or snappy, tongue-in cheek items. If you’re in the mood for long-form content, you might jump straight to the middle. But if you only have a couple of minutes, you might just have time for the bits at the end.
Picking up what we had learned from the evaluation of the original “Digital Stories” format, we kept the six-chapter structure, but serialised it, releasing one new chapter a week over six weeks, trailing each new chapter. But, without further structure, the danger of clutter emerged: any story could be told in any format, at any length, at any time, in any number of parts. With a large number of combinations and possibilities, readers have less sense of what to expect when they begin reading. A multiplicity of formats also makes it harder to evaluate what’s working for readers and what isn’t. Is the content working, or the format?
Bringing together the museum’s mission “to challenge how we think and feel about health” with the user research we had done, we decided to limit and reinforce a set of recognisable formats:
- Digital stories have become serials, unpacking a narrative over six installments, each of which is around 1,000 words.
- Narrative journalism is found in essays, including opinion and personal experience pieces. These are usually about 750 words, but can be longer for the right story.
- Insight into the process of researching, curating, or creating a piece of work is explored in interviews of up to 1,500 words, giving voice to (both traditional and non-traditional) experts in a way that’s accessible and inspirational to a wider audience.
- Image galleries are set out in pictures: a set of images, either from our collection or commissioned, together with a short narrative that gives context.
- Our book publishing team provide book extracts from our popular imprint in collaboration with Profile and Thames and Hudson.
- A weekly comic, Body Squabbles by Rob Bidder is published every Friday.
We ruled out video-led content, blogging about activities going on in the venue, and speculative fiction. Speculative fiction was something we were interested in, but our readers didn’t like code-switching between narrative fiction and non-fiction.
Within these six formats, there is plenty of room for innovation: essays, for example, can vary widely in terms of content: a short, monthly essay from an anonymous GP, longer, research-driven essays written by researchers, and first-person pieces talking about the experience of illness.
Refining your formats didn’t stifle creativity — in fact, it helped. Constraints gave us something to push against and ensured we were creating for someone. Innovating within a set number of formats allows you to see which stories are delighting your readers the most.
The Pitch and Commission Model
Using these formats, we set ourselves the short-term goal of publishing three stories a week and a longer-term goal of five a week. With a limited team, we were writing many of the stories ourselves, which made also editing within the team difficult. To ensure editorial quality, we moved from an editorial model of writing and informal commissioning to one of commissioning.
Organisationally, restructuring the team members to work as commissioning editors was a big step, but it was the right one. It allowed us to look critically at each any every piece, and make it a good read. It also got us away from living hand-to-mouth for our stories. Stories are scheduled well in advance, working on a planner that looks at least three months ahead.
Since we had refined the formats, we could share pitching guidelines (Wellcome Collection, 2018b) with potential writers, so they know what we’re looking for. The guidelines also made clear that we were paying writers, which helped to refocus the relationship. We wanted well-written and researched stories that challenged how we think and feel about health, rather than blog posts or promoting projects. And to be able to insist upon the highest quality from contributors, we needed to pay them for their time and expertise.
We’ve been approached by some high-profile writers, including the Man Booker-shortlisted author Daisy Johnson, who wanted to tell her story of trauma in, “The meaning of trauma is wound” (Johnson, 2018).
This commissioning model has also made guest editors a possibility. We’ve been actively diversifying the range of authors we commission, but guest editors help us to ensure we have as many different perspectives on health as possible.
We can reach out to people beyond our field and our reach, and ask them to commission stories from us. We’ve discovered stories that our in-house editors wouldn’t have thought to commission, and people who have helped us to expand our audience. They help us to break down barriers and bring in people who wouldn’t otherwise see Wellcome Collection as a place for them.
Our first foray into guest editing was with Rhael “Lionheart” Cape, author of The Mute’s Rebellion, a collection of poetry exploring his selective mutism and anxiety. We approached him to ask him to commission five stories on anything he wanted, as long as it fell within our mission and used our formats. His area of interest was the relationship between architecture and mental health, and his five commissions brought new stories, including a feminist’s perspective on her mosque and a refugee’s perspective on what it means to be displaced (Cape, 2018).
Our next guest editor will be Bidisha SK Mamata, an established journalist and filmmaker. She commissioned five established writers—Anna Blundy, Rupert Thomson, Deanna Fei, Courttia Newland, and Hannah Partos—to excavate their own personal stories, inspired by an object or manuscript in our collections. These incredibly moving, personal, and challenging pieces will be published in June 2019.
Processes and Standards
In order to be seen and trusted as a quality producer of regular content, it was necessary to upgrade our publishing processes. By 2018, we were producing the same number of “articles” in any given month, but our ambitions for the content was higher. We wanted to move away from updating content after publication because a reader spotted a typo or challenged a claim.
We established some editorial guidelines to maintain quality and consistency in the content and to meet the needs of our audience. It’s a living document, so as new points are agreed by the team, they’re added, and it has a checklist at the top covering the following points:
- Use a style guide for consistency in spelling and expression.
- Suggest SEO-friendly titles, standfirsts and intros using SEO software.
- Add a single pull-quote or review quote.
- Limit all paragraphs to 1 to 3 sentences, keeping mobile reading in mind.
- Give readers an out to another story, about 250 words in.
- Link to references for any claims or quotations.
- Add subheadings at least every 300 words to tell the story in a skimmable way.
- Focus on one story, leaving out other stories and superfluous information.
- Check that the finished article answers any questions it set forth to answer.
- Check the article for tone, ensuring it is not too academic.
- Offer three onward journeys at the end of the story: to read another story, to research the topic more deeply in our collections, or to plan a visit for related events and exhibitions.
We follow a set process for each and every story.
- Anyone can pitch: writers and editors in the team, people across Wellcome, external contributors. If a pitch isn’t quite right but has merit, we work to develop it before deciding whether to commission.
- A member of the team commissions and acts as editor. If it’s a member of the team writing, someone else edits. With external writers, we agree to terms and the approach to the narrative and a fee.
- Writers send the first draft to us in a word document. The editor sends the writer suggested revisions and agrees a date for the second draft. The editor shares with our picture editor to discuss and agree upon image approach.
- The second draft is still as word document. The editor gives the text a full developmental edit. The writer is consulted at this stage but doesn’t have sign-off on the final text.
- Copyediting is done in a word document by freelance copyeditors, who check that content keeps to guidelines, check for tone, readability, accessibility, optimise for SEO and small screens, propose titles/standfirsts and subheads and flag any issues for checking.
- The articles are produced in our content management system by the editors, including images.
- Articles are then proofread, usually by the copyeditor who worked on the text. They ensure that the style guide is adhered to, references are linked to, and that image credits and captions are in place.
- Once the piece is published, the process of promotion, interaction, and discussion begins.
To manage this process we use Trello.
Thinking in Pictures as Well as Words
One of the most exciting developments in our journalistic approach has been visual, and in particular, photographic. Within our digital engagement department, we have a photography team who provide technical and creative photographic services, including taking responsibility for high-quality digitisation of our collections and for creative and engaging editorial photography.
Collaborations with photographers began with our team commissioning supporting imagery for specific articles. When photography wasn’t identified as the right approach by one of the team, images were sourced many different ways and varied in quality. We used images from our historical collections, provided by an author, stock photographs or illustrations, sourced through Flickr or elsewhere on a Creative Commons license.
Our image model needed to more clearly reflect Wellcome Collection and the journalistic approach we were taking, so we have shifted to using original photography, original illustration, and historical images from our collections.
In early 2018, we brought one of our senior photographers into the editorial team as a picture editor to commission photography across the site (specifically for exhibitions and events at first) and to make key decisions about concepts and approach.
In doing so, we’ve moved away from photography to accentuate a story and towards photography to tell the story in a new way. In our “In My Own Words” series, photographers Ben Gilbert and Tom Farnetti spent time with disabled writers telling their stories and documented their experiences, helping to challenge assumptions of how disabled people live (Wellcome Collection, 2018a).
In our “History of the NHS,” six decades worth of National Health Service workers were photographed, telling powerful personal stories (Flyn, 2018).
For “London, City of Lost Hospitals,” our picture editor commissioned established photojournalist Simon Norfolk, who has done work for National Geographic, amongst other outlets. Norfolk pitched that the strongest way to tell the story was using the historical photographs from our collections within the new photographs he was talking.
We always explore photography first, but we also commission original illustration too when it helps to tell the story better. Illustration has helped to tell the stories of our Secret GP, anxiety, sex on LSD, and mind control. We’re also using collage illustration, which incorporates our historical collections more strongly. Collage artist Eva Mlinar used images from our historical collections to create a new way of telling the stories in The Architecture Diaries (Sargent, 2019)
Renaming to Increase Understanding and Uptake
We evolved our new storytelling approach under the old banner of “Explore” that had defined a section of our site since 2009—which had the remit of being an opportunity to explore the museum and its ideas digitally. This gradually became less and less appropriate in pushing forward a storytelling approach, as audiences weren’t necessarily looking for stories. The label “Explore” also wasn’t helping—this could just as easily be understood as a way to search our collections or simply to find out more.
Working with the digital experience team, we used A/B testing to experiment with new names for this section of the website. Visitors to the website would either see the word “Explore” in the site’s master navigation or another name. We then measured the proportion of users who clicked through for each name and the resulting engagement after clicking through.
First, we tested “Explore” against “Articles.” We were already using the phrase “articles” on the site, so our hypothesis was that more would click on something called, “Articles” than “Explore.” The results of this test were inconclusive. We wondered whether this was due to the fact that museums don’t traditionally publish articles (and we know that the two primary ways people come to our stories are through social and through organic search).
Next we tested “Explore” against “Stories,” which felt more aspirational about what we were trying to achieve. We’d also been using the phrase when we talked about “Digital Stories.” Our hypothesis was that more visitors would click on something called “Stories” than “Explore.” This test was also inconclusive: “Stories” wasn’t significantly more attractive than “Explore”—again, we surmise, for the same reason.
Nevertheless, given that there was no negative impact from using “Stories,” we decided to change the label. It was more descriptive and of the type of content which we were producing and also wouldn’t confuse readers who might think of “Explore” as a search or browse function.
There was one place where “Stories” wasn’t working, however: the original “Digital Stories.” We knew anecdotally that when people referred to our digital stories, they weren’t always referring to our six-part series, they were referring to all of our content. “Digital” seemed superfluous—it’s all digital, after all.
We also knew that people weren’t always clear that there would be another installment of the story the next week. From the editorial user research we commissioned, users didn’t understand how each story connected to other stories. From the research, it was clear that there were editorial, design, and naming elements to this misunderstanding. Editorially, we needed to ensure a stronger narrative arc; design-wise, we needed to more clearly flag the connection to the NEXT story; and we needed to change the name.
“Series” didn’t work as a label: this is more commonly used to refer to collections of stories on a similar topic, and we already used series in this way. We had an epiphany when thinking about how Charles Dickens’ stories were published chapter by chapter in Victorian periodicals. Readers would know at the end of each chapter that they needed to come back should they want to finish it. The word “serial” was what we needed.
Revisiting Old Content with New Eyes
We knew that there would be a disconnect between some of our older content (pre-2017) and our new approach. The move from one content management system (Drupal and WordPress) to a new one (Prismic) gave us the opportunity to refresh the old content during a migration.
Updating and improving the content is good for search engines; the algorithms will prioritise pages that are updated. It’s also good for users, who will benefit from a consistent and holistic experience no matter where or how they arrive. For us, this was about reviewing our older blog content against our new content formats.
These are the groups we put each of our older stories in:
- Which pieces were already spot on and just needed to be brought up to scratch with a fresh pair of eyes?
- Which pieces were close to being the type of story we’d commission now, and with a bit of developmental editing, could meet the criteria?
- Which pieces were already significant drivers of traffic to our site, because of their search rankings, and would need more intensive work but could be worth it?
- Which pieces were not right for us anymore, and could live a happy life in the Internet archive and Wayback machine?
‘The relationship between science and art’ is one good example of many. Wellcome Collection understandably rank highly for those search terms.
46% of users bounced (left the page without interacting). Those who stayed spent on average 1 minute, 16 seconds on the page.
18% of users bounced; those who stayed spent 1 minute, 52 seconds on the page.
Evaluating the impact of change
We’ve moved to tell high-quality stories with focus, consistency, and clarity, taking a journalistic approach with our words, pictures and process. But the best story is that our readers are enjoying it too.
More people are coming to read:
- Year-on-year, we’ve nearly tripled our pageviews (total and unique).
- From July –September 2017, for example, our stories had 40,435 page views
- From July– September 2018, for example, our stories had 114,678 page views
They’re reading for longer:
- Average time on page from July–September 2017: 4 minutes, 28 seconds
- Average time on page from July — September 2018: 9 minutes, 37 seconds
Fewer people are coming to one of our stories and leaving without interacting:
- The bounce rate is 39% from July – September 2017.
- The bounce rate is 26% from July– September 2018.
The key stat for us is total reading time, which is climbing:
- October 2017–December 2017: 2,821 hours
- January–March 2018: 3,508 hours
- April–June 2018: 5,276 hours
- July–September 2018: 4,380 hours
And we’ve doubled our users:
- 2017: 155,412 users
- 2018: 323,215 users
As part of our user research programme, we’ve been continually checking in on the qualitative impact of these changes. In a session with five users, some of who had never been to Wellcome Collection, one person said, “I don’t get what stories there could be in a museum,” when asked what they expected to find when they clicked on “Stories.” But, once they’d had a chance to read some of the stories, we received responses like, “It’s a nice surprise to come across things like this,” and “[Not expected], but I think it’s a good thing.”
We tested “serials” qualitatively too in October 2018— it’s now clearer to readers that it’s part of an ongoing series, with them suggesting that they are like “episodes” or “chapters.”
Focus, consistency, and clarity are all good things to do for their own sake, of course, but ultimately we always keep in mind that this is for the reader. We want more people reading more content on wellcomecollection.org (https://wellcomecollection.org/).
More readers of our stories is a good result in and of itself, but more readers of our stories means more engagement with Wellcome Collection and more people who can follow a journey further into our site that suits what they want to do—whether it’s research a topic more deeply, plan a visit, or read another story.
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Birchall, Danny, Trent Staves, Jennifer and White, Alice. "Digital Content, Storytelling and Journalism: A Genuine Museum Experience." MW19: MW 2019. Published February 9, 2019. Consulted .