“Crowdsourcing is a specific form of audience participation that contributes towards a shared, significant goal or research question by asking the public to undertake tasks like tagging, transcribing, researching or describing museum collections.” – Mia Ridge, 2013.
Before the session with Ally Davies – Online Learning Manager for the Museum of London – I was unaware of the number of museums who are using crowdsourcing to enlist help from the public in order to undertake institutionally-beneficial activities. My only personal and previous experience of this is the Waterloo Lives: In Their Own Words digitisation project for the National Army Museum, which calls for volunteers to transcribe Waterloo-related documentation from the museum collection so it can be made available online. Additionally, important names, dates, and locations can be ‘tagged’ so a searchable database can be created. This is all achieved through the use of ‘Heritage Helpers’, an online platform specifically designed for audience-participatory tasks. As the name suggests, the participants are contributing to the preservation of heritage and history, making the material more easily accessible to current and future generations.
Each completed document submitted gives you points, which may later be exchanged for copies of these documents to download for personal use. It could be questioned whether this is a strong enough reward incentive, but those participating will each have their different reasons for joining and a documentary reward may not be one of them.
In the class, we were asked why museums should bother using crowdsourcing projects and, equally, why the public should bother participating. This made me question my own involvement with the Waterloo Lives project – what benefit would it have for the National Army Museum and what would I get out of it? I drew the following conclusions:
National Army Museum:-
- Enables them to digitise their collection using help from the public. Makes a large and daunting task more manageable and achievable.
- More cost effective to enlist ‘digital volunteers’.
- Can use the skills of the public to their advantage – for example, transcribing difficult to read handwriting or translating French.
- Coincides with the anniversary and therefore increased public interest in the Battle of Waterloo.
- Raises the profile of the museum, in addition to their other Waterloo-related projects. Builds excitement for their reopening next year, and engages the public with the collection.
- The open forum enables the participants to talk with each other as well as the project staff, building a relationship and creating dialogue.
- Contributes to the preservation of history and heritage and making it more easily accessible.
- Sense of cultural ownership and empowerment for the contributors.
- Outsourced to an external company – Heritage Helper – so there may be a need to deal with a ‘middle man’.
- Takes time – it is dependant on the commitment of the participants.
- Verification process requires each document to be submitted 2-3 times in order to be authorised as ‘complete’.
- Not all who wish to participate may have easy access to a computer.
- Points reward system may only appeal to a certain audience. Is it enough of an incentive?
- Allows involvement in the museum’s work and contribution to a major digitisation project.
- Being privy to unseen historical documents and learning more about the museum’s collection.
- Being able to give something back to the museum.
- Sense of personal achievement and enjoyment.
- Relates to my particular interests and previous museological experiences.
- Takes time – it can’t be guaranteed that the document will be a quick and easy one. It can be difficult to find the time to log on.
- Sometimes limited by the technology – for example, if the progress does not successfully save then you need to start again. I also found it better to use a desktop computer than a small laptop to complete the tasks, but don’t always have access to one. It is extremely difficult to do it on a tablet screen.
Having researched military museums for my undergraduate dissertation, I spent a lot of time thinking about how under-appreciated they are as a museum genre. The National Army Museum was one of my main case studies and, because they helped me a lot with my research, I wanted to help them with theirs.
Working and studying leaves me with very little time to fully engage with the project, which is something I feel a bit guilty about. However the advantage of this form of ‘digital volunteering’ is that, unlike a volunteer placement within a physical museum or gallery, there is no permanent commitment or obligation of attendance. It is possible to dip in and out whenever convenient, and from the comfort of home. If the page to be transcribed is only a few sentences long with little tagging required, it can be done quickly and efficiently. I personally prefer these shorter documents because I can more easily finish them and get that feeling of satisfaction. I once spent a whole day trying to transcribe one of the documents (it was an index page containing many, many names that needed to be individually tagged afterwards) which was arduous, frustrating, and boring, but did have a great sense of satisfaction – and relief! – once complete. This links back to the idea of long-form versus short-and-snappy activities; this is not an ideal activity for those whose attention wavers after a short amount of time!
Well timed with the anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Waterloo, this is a clever way of utilising the current public interest in the subject and reaching out to build the two-way museum/public relationship that Ally spoke about. It gives a rare opportunity to look at the famous historic event through the eyes of those who experienced it, using previously unseen documents to recount the memories and stories from 1815. As I explored in my undergraduate dissertation, this method of using personal stories is a current ‘trend’ in military museums, creating interesting and tangible human connections with the distant past. Offering this inside – almost secret – knowledge indices participants and, in a way, offers a sense of empowerment from being privy to information that others are not.
Because there is no requirement to input knowledge or facts, this task is open to anyone who wants to join in (though there is an option to highlight documents as being ‘noteworthy’ if it reveals something new or particularly interesting, which would require specialist knowledge to identify). You can select the reading difficultly level and say whether you prefer typed, handwritten, English or French – offering a tailor-made experience. Much like Ally’s ‘Tag London’ project, there needs to be 2-3 submissions of the same document in order for it to be finalised. This does, of course, slow down the whole process but ensures accuracy and consistency in the uploaded documents (a dedicated team checks these and not the curator[s] as with the Museum of London).
I can definitely see the benefits of using crowdsourcing as an engagement method, and will not be surprised to see more of it in the future. Particularly with low museum funding, it is a cost-effective way of getting help through utilising the museum-public relationship. I would like to spend more time participating in the Waterloo Lies project because it is enjoyable and I would like to help the museum, however I just cannot timetable it at the moment. Until I can re-join the 9% of ‘inconsistent contributors’, I will have to become one of the 90% ‘lurkers’ instead…!
What other rewards could be offered for this kind of project? Should rewards be offered at all?
How might an increase in ‘digital volunteers’ affect the role of ordinary volunteers in physical museums or galleries? Would it have an effect on the sort of work carried out in-house?
Heritage Helpers: https://heritagehelpers.co.uk/ [accessed 20/12/15].
National Army Museum: http://www.nam.ac.uk/ [accessed 20/12/15].
Nielsen, Jakob. 9 October 2006. The 90-9-1 Rule for Participation Inequality in Social Media and Online Commnunities [https://www.nngroup.com/articles/participation-inequality/], accessed 20/12/15.
Ridge, Mia. 15 August 2013. ‘Tips for digital participation, engagement and crowdsourcing in museums’ [http://www.londonmuseumsgroup.org/2013/08/15/digital-participation-engagement-and-crowdsourcing-in-museums/], accessed 20/12/15.
Waterloo Lives: In Their Own Words: https://heritagehelpers.co.uk/projects/view/details/project/armu [accessed 20/12/15].
Ridge, Mia., ed. 2014. Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage. Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
Simon, Nina. 2010. ‘Chapter 6: Contributing to Museums’, in: The Participatory Museum. California: Museum 20. Also available online: http://www.participatorymuseum.org/chapter6/ [accessed 20/12/15].