Category Archives: museums


As we have explored in the module, digitisation is a large, complex, and multi-layered world for museums and galleries to enter. It offers advantages of broader and more in-depth visitor engagement and participation, but also raises questions over digital literacy, technological experimentation, and possible social exclusion.

Technology is developing and evolving so quickly that by the time a museum has invested in something, an update or better version becomes available (QR codes, for example – whatever happened to those?). The problem lies in the fact that it is near-impossible to predict the future, so it cannot be guaranteed what will be the best long-term investment. On the other hand, this also makes it exciting – who knows that will be invented next?!

It does, however, make me feel quite sad and worried for museums as we know them. There are many wonderful qualities about the digital age, but equally as many wonderful things about the pre-digital age. Some museums are a bit dusty and old-fashioned, but that’s how I like them. They offer a step back in time and escapism from the modern world (at least, they do for me). As I wrote in my first post, museums should be careful to select and invest in what is most suitable and appropriate for their individual needs and audienceship. More technology will not necessarily equal more visitors, and what works for one museum will not always be successful for others. However, I feel it may have reached the point whereby museums need to engage with digital practice (however small) in order to stand a chance of competing for the public’s attention in both the physical and virtual worlds. I don’t think a non-digital existence is possible any more for these institutions. As Peter Walsh discusses, if it is not seen on the internet, then it simply does not exist!

Undoubtedly, as we have paid witness to throughout the module, technology and digitisation may enhance the publics’ visiting and learning experience, but by no means should it replace it. Museums are unique and varied institutions and thus should maintain this through unique and varied digital engagement. I am interested to see what their future holds, so long as they make careful and relevant considerations that complement – not consume – their roles as public educators and caretakers of history.


Walsh, Peter. 2007. ‘Rise and Fall of the Post-Photographic Museum: Technology and the Transformation of Art’ in: Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse. Eds.,Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press (pp.19-34),  p.30.


This blog has been specifically created for the module Online Museums and Galleries as part of the MA Museums, Galleries and Contemporary Culture course at the University of Westminster. I have decided not to continue it beyond the completion of the module, but will leave it online for future posterity. Thank you for reading.

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The session about museums and their use of social media was food for thought. There are now so many different platforms that it can be hard to keep up. By the time a museum grows accustom to one, another more popular one takes its place. Should they try and use every platform available to reach out to more people? Should there be a limit? To that I answer yes; even if their audience (or, indeed, competition) have an account with all the various sites, there should be a focus on quality over quantity. At the end of the day, they still have an institutional reputation to maintain and thus their methods of engagement should reflect this.

On browsing related articles, I came across a blog post on the Tate website which poses the question: should museums be using social media more creatively? Using the Tate’s Twitter account as the primary case study, the blogger Kirstie Beavan looks at how Tate had been using their social media in alternative ways than just ‘broadcasting’ or self-promoting their collections and exhibitions. She raised an interesting point in saying that Tate wanted to inspire creativity in their audience, rather than push creative projects or initiatives that require participation exclusively via social media. Even since this blog was published four years ago, new social media sites have been developed and grown in popularity, raising the potential for museum-public engagement. As we discussed in class, national – even international – online events such as #MuseumWeek have the scope for involvement across, and in partnership with, different platforms.

Scrolling through their past activity on both Twitter and Facebook, I would say that Tate falls comfortably under the Level 4 category of Nina Simon’s Hierarchy of Social Participation pyramid (“Individual, Networked, Social Interaction with content (Me to We with Museums)”). They have created a platform for audience discussion and interaction with the shared content, the experience improving as more people join in.  They may even have reached into Level 5 (“Collective Social Interaction with Content (We in Museum)”), particularly given the strong drive and influence of Tate’s Digital Strategy 2013-15. There is direct interaction between users and, occasionally, with Tate itself through the asking of questions, holding contests, and creating thematic hashtags (which, effectively, builds an online community who contribute towards a mutual topic).

Looking at a selection of the posts and tweets from the Tate pages, it would seem that they typically pose a question or prompt a topic and then let the fans/followers start conversations and debates with each other. As far as I could see (though I could be mistaken), the Tate do not get involved with the comments at all. However, in their social media how-to guide, the Association of Independent Museums (AIM) emphasise that responding to participator’s comments is important for strong and successful engagement and communication, showing that you are listening to what they have to say.

In the blog post’s comments, the general consensus seems to point towards wanting a more one-to-one interaction with the Tate through its social media, bringing individual personality to an otherwise impersonal institution. But is this a good idea? On the one hand it would provide a relatable name or personal contact, breaking down the barriers between the institution and the public (which, as discussed in class, is now becoming a priority for many museums today). On the other hand, is it better to maintain a sense of professionalism and have marked separation? Where do you draw that line between professional and personal?

I do have some concerns about having a designated ‘tweeter’ as the face of an institution’s social media. They would, essentially, become a spokesperson – would this put pressure on them? If they only answered some of the queries, would they be accused of only engaging with certain people and ignoring others? There may be a risk of alienation. There’s also the difficulty of communicating through the written word; sometimes things can be misinterpreted if not worded carefully, and it is often tricky to placate debates or arguments without speaking face-to-face.

The Tate blog post was originally written in 2011 and, on looking at the pages today in 2015, there have been changes made. In the Twitter ‘bio’, the names Maria and Bea are mentioned, adding a more human touch. The feed still maintains the same broadcast-y messages as before (after all, they need to promote their exhibitions and opening times!), but there are now more casual tweets such as:

Importantly – whether a message or #XmasQuiz – each contains an image of something from the collection, making it personal, casual, and fun whilst maintaining institutional relevance and education. They also retweet complimentary messages, use emoji icons, and respond to the odd question about booking tickets and visitor complaints.

For comparison, I had a look at a few other major London museums. The V&A follows in a similar vein to the Tate; there are retweets of followers and reviews praising current exhibitions and staff promoting good causes (for example, the Gallery Assistants wearing jumpers for #ChristmasJumperDay), and responses to questions about specific gallery opening times. The same can be said for the Natural History Museum, the Horniman Museum, the Science Museum, the Wellcome Collection, and the Imperial War Museum. Notably, only the Horniman reveals the names of those tweeting on their behalf.

It’s still a relatively new area for museums, so there will inevitably be a lot of change over the coming years as experience and knowledge about the effect and impact of social media grows. As to whether museums should be creative in their published content, I think so long as there is relevance to the institution and a sense of professionalism in what they share, museums should continue to experiment with social media and engage with their audience in different ways. Although you can’t please everyone all of the time, given the variety of things that can be achieved through the digital medium, there is the capacity to be a bit different and do something more creative and fun with the content. It is a way of connecting visitors – past, current, and potential – from all over the world, and allows engagement in ways not easily achieved within the physical gallery spaces themselves. It will be interesting to see what role and impact social media will have going forward into 2016.

Should museum social media pages have designated and identifiable contributors?

Is producing ‘creative’ content more important than ‘broadcasting’ information?


Beaven, Kirstie. 1 September 2011. Should museums be using social media more creatively? [], accessed 26/12/15.

Simon, Nina. 20 March 2007. Hierarchy of Social Participation [], accessed 26/12/15.

Stack, J. Spring 2013. ‘Tate Digital Strategy 2013–15: Digital as a Dimension of Everything’, in: Tate Papers, no.19, [], accessed 26/12/15.

Zeuner, Diana., ed. 2014. Association of Independent Museums: Successfully Getting Started with Social Media [], accessed 26/12/15.


Horniman Museum Twitter: [accessed 26/12/15].

Imperial War Museum Twitter: [accessed 26/12/15].

Natural History Museum Twitter: [accessed 26/12/15].

Science Museum Twitter: [accessed 26/12/15].

Tate Facebook: [accessed 26/12/15]

Tate Twitter: [accessed 26/12/15].

V&A Twitter: [accessed 26/12/15].

Wellcome Collection Twitter: [accessed 26/12/15].

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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 [accessed 20/12/15].

National Army Museum: [accessed 20/12/15].

Nielsen, Jakob. 9 October 2006. The 90-9-1 Rule for Participation Inequality in Social Media and Online Commnunities [], accessed 20/12/15.

Ridge, Mia. 15 August 2013. ‘Tips for digital participation, engagement and crowdsourcing in museums’ [], accessed 20/12/15.

Waterloo Lives: In Their Own Words: [accessed 20/12/15].

Further Reading

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: [accessed 20/12/15].

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As an undergraduate, I was taught that ‘edutainment’ was a taboo within museums due to the reluctance of staff members wanting to engage with new-fangled digital practice, and because it was where all of the little funding was being focused. Now, however, the tables have turned and this concept has become almost wholly integrated into everyday practice for a lot of museums (whether the staff like it or not!). As such, I was initially a little sceptical about the increased focus of museum ‘gamification’ and was wary of the number of museums using Minecraft as a way of enticing children through the door. However, having read through many articles describing the successes of this foray into the virtual, playable world, I can more readily see its potential.

The only connection I’ve personally had with the game Minecraft is watching my brother play it, but recently it seems to be following me everywhere: in shops, in books, and now in museums. The more I Googled, the more museums I found jumping on this pixelated bandwagon. There have been Minecraft projects at the V&A, Norwich Castle Museum, Gallipoli Museum, the British Museum, and Tullie House Art Gallery, to name but a few.

I remember seeing a poster advertising ‘Tate Worlds’ last time I visited Tate Britain (it is free to download but only if you have the game installed already). The worlds are designed to look like paintings from the Tate collection, aiming to create an immersive and challenging game environment that ‘uniquely’ combines “art, history and adventure”. As I begrudge paying £17.95 to purchase the original game, my only window into ‘Tate Worlds’ is through watching the accompanying videos that, from a non-player perspective, didn’t really capture my interest. The paintings they’ve chosen – in my opinion at least – are lesser-known pieces from the collection. Although this gives them a chance to shine over the more popular or favourite artworks, it may not work as effectively if they are not currently on display. How would the players then be able to engage with them in real life?

Although I could not find anything specifically relating him to ‘Tate Worlds’, artist Adam Clarke was shortlisted for the 2014 IK Prize at Tate Britain for his Tate-Minecraft game ‘TateCraft’. This, in a similar vein to ‘Tate Worlds’ uses the game as a foundation for engaging players with British Art – even recreating the galleries using the pixelated blocks. Not only does it teach history, art, and architecture, but it promotes teamwork, friendships, creativity and imagination and – perhaps most closely linked with the Tate’s mission statement – having fun with learning. As Clarke said, “[i]t doesn’t seem like education but it is… It feels like an adventure in art and culture.”

The intricacies of the Minecraft world are only really known to the initiated but, as Rhiannon Looseley discussed, this can be empowering. With the Museum of London workshop, there was an obvious shift in power as the children were explaining things to the adults, helping to create a more engaging experience whilst building relationships with the museum, the collection, and their family and friends. The adults came away from the workshop having gained new knowledge.

With this move into the digital realm, why not utilise a popular game such as Minecraft to help attract new audiences? It is something that already has an established following, so it seems beneficial to use it as a means of ‘learning through doing’ – interacting with a subject on a more experiential level (using the senses as well as bringing in personal experience and emotions). It’s taking something that children are already interested – and obsessed – with and using it as a platform to create a new fun but educational experience. It is introducing them to history, art, and culture through a medium they are happy and comfortable with, helping to eliminate any ‘threshold fear’ barriers they may have about the museum environment.

The Minecraft fad won’t last forever, of course, but neither will it be the end-all museum experience for these children; it will open doors to new opportunities and introduce them to an alternative way of viewing art and history. It is an accessible pathway in to the museum, which the children may not have had otherwise.  If playing it – and, indeed, any museum based game – sparks a little bit of interest or imagination in the children, then it is a success. The inspiration, of course, can work both ways: the museums might want to use this as a learning opportunity for themselves, finding similarly creative ways of encouraging and engaging children.

As a final closing thought, the V&A held a very interesting Minecraft event that saw specifically-created physical objects placed within display cases across the museum. The real life and virtual worlds collided – something that becomes even more interesting if thought about in relation to the ongoing debate about how to display the digital within physical spaces…

What other popular games could be utilised by museums?

‘Tate Worlds’ requires Minecraft to already be installed. Could this be seen as an act of exclusion against those who are not able to afford to buy the game, but want to join in? 


Anstey, Tom. 24 June 2014. Revealed: How Minecraft can get more kids into museums and galleries [], accessed 08/12/15.

Anstey, Tom. 29 September 2014. British Museum turns to Minecraft in attempt to lure new audience [], accessed 08/12/15.

Lefebvre, Rob. 14 August 2014. Minecraft lures kids to museums like nothing else [], accessed 08/12/15.

Lufkin, Bryan. Date unknown. How To Keep Museums Alive In The Age Of Minecraft [], accessed 08/12/15.

Reynolds, Matthew. 8 September 2013. The World of ‘Minecraft’: How the V&A Museum has embraced games [], accessed 10/12/15.

Warr, Philippa. 30 September 2013. Games and art: Minecraft at the London Victoria & Albert museum [], accessed 10/12/15.


Gallipoli Museum project: [accessed 13/12/15].

British Museum: [accessed 13/12/15].

Norwich Castle Museum: [accessed 13/12/15].

‘TateCraft’ project: [accessed 13/13/15].

Tate Worlds: [accessed 13/12/15].

Tullie House Art Gallery: [accessed 13/12/15].

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The session with Rhiannon Looseley, member of the Digital Learning Team at the Museum of London, demonstrated the benefits and challenges of using digital and virtual media as part of the learning programmes. As the next generation of museum-goers are growing up with technology in everyday life, it seems sensible and appropriate to utilise these tools in their education (though, as Merete Sanderhoff points out in her paper, just because this generation have been given the title “digital natives” does not mean they automatically understand what exactly they see and read online. Museums offer a ‘truth’ in their content, which gives them an educational authority over questionably-sourced websites such as Wikipedia. Today’s children may be born into a digitally-dominant world but they need guidance in how to utilise this to its full learning potential).

The end goal for the Museum of London is for digital technology to become part of the learning tool box both inside and outside the physical building – it will no longer be considered a separate entity or alternative medium. Given the rate of technological growth and the current experimentations, this goal of becoming a “postdigital museum” sounds very achievable. The lines are beginning to blur, but museums are still very much in the transformative phase.

Using online games for educational purposes is not a new concept (I remember the BBC Bitesize games being a staple of revision during my GCSEs, a tool very much encouraged and welcomed by the teachers), however recently in the museum world, it seems to be an increasing venture with various levels of output and prerogatives. Are they successful in achieving their educational goals, or is this overlooked in favour of playing something just for fun? Is it a case of “chocolate covered broccoli”, or do they strike a balance between education and enjoyment?

As we looked at the Wellcome Collection and Museum of London’s games prior to and during the class, I decided to turn my attention to another large institution that is integrating digitalisation into their everyday practice – the Tate. Digital learning is generally aimed at children and families, but I will obviously be considering them from an adult perspective.

The Tate has an interesting and varied compendium of games on the ‘Tate Kids’ website (also listed on the regular Tate site under ‘Learning Resource’), ranging from simple drag-and-drop activities to one that uses a webcam. A star system rates the difficulty/skills level, presumably taking the depth of involvement, commitment, and concentration into consideration. It is also interesting to note the differences in art styles and graphics – from the Microsoft Paint-esque ‘Street Art’ (a game I’m not sure I agree with – should we be encouraging children to graffiti, albeit virtually?!), to the sophisticated Tim Burton-esque ‘Cuboom’. The simplistic games seem more aimed at encouraging creativity and the sharing of achievements, than learning about specific subjects.

I was most intrigued by the Secret Dancer game – a collaborative project with the Royal Ballet School, inspired by Degas’ Little Dancer Aged 14 sculpture. At the beginning, the game states it will last approximately 20 minutes, though it is possible to skip sections. The narrative is based on the ‘night at the museum’ premise, whereby the security guard sees an object – in this case, the Little Dancer – come to life after dark. The ballerina leaves behind clues and activities for her to solve, for which the prize – SPOILER – is a performance from the dancer herself. The learning element is in the story of the model and inspiration behind the sculpture, Marie van Goethem, presented in the guise of puzzles, maths riddles, and a navigational treasure hunt. The majority of the story takes place within the tanks of Tate Modern, adding an interesting – if slightly spooky – behind-the-scenes-at-the-museum element.

Although I am not the intended audience for this game, I nonetheless found the activities quite enjoyable. Overall, though, it did feel too long, and some of the acting and scripting was a bit ropey. The final dance was lovely to watch, but it was a rather long-winded trip to get to that point. From an educational standpoint, I did learn about the Little Dancer’s model and followed up the experience by finding more information about her online. This, in essence, is the aim for such games, though I question whether a younger audience would do the same. I can now sympathise with Rhiannon’s concerns about the challenges of creating long-form activities and being able to create narrated content that will stand the test of short attention spans. Are skippable sections the way to go?

My favourite game on the website was ‘Wondermind’, created with support from the Wellcome Trust (and thus has a very different feel from the rest of the compendium). It is a highly educational game based on Alice in Wonderland, combining challenging activities with trivia and quizzes about the workings of the brain. ‘The Tea Party’ was especially difficult, and I found myself playing it several times to try and better my score. Of all the games, I feel this one has the most educational output, though perhaps a little too much for a very young audience. I was also unsure how Alice in Wonderland related to the Tate, as there were no mentions of any particularly artworks like the other games. I was also unsure how Alice in Wonderland related to the Tate as there were no mentions of any particularly artworks however, on consulting Google, I discovered there was an Alice exhibition at Tate Liverpool a few years ago.


Source: ttp://

As is evident from the ages of those who have shared their finished works on Tate Kids, age is not a barrier when it comes to playing these games. Rhiannon said that digital learning tends to be aimed at children and families, but why exclude adults from this? As the Wellcome collection has shown through its compendium, it is possible to make fun, educational, and challenging games (or ‘interactives’) for adults too. Perhaps there is room for Tate to offer something in the future as part of their ongoing digital revolution. After all, adults want to have fun when learning too!

Does it matter if the ‘fun’ to ‘educational’ ratio is skewed in favour of overall enjoyment?

Is there a market for adult-oriented museum games, or are those largely intended for a young audience more universal in their ‘edu-tainment’ output?


BBC Bitesize Games: [accessed 01/12/15].

Bouchard, Sean. November 2011. Chocolate Covered Broccoli: Building Better Games [], accessed  01/12/15.

Museum of London Games: [accessed 25/11/15].

Rodley, Ed. 11th September 2011. ‘Tracing the contours of digital transformation Part One’ in: Thinking About Museums [], access 01/12/15.

Sanderhoff, Merete. 29th January 2015. Wanna play? Building bridges between open museum content and digital learning in public schools [], accessed 01/12/15.

Tate Kids Games: [accessed 25/11/15].

Wellcome Collection Interactives: [accessed 01/12/15].

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My mind boggles slightly at the idea of museums collecting apps. How do you display something that is, by its very nature, intangible? Why is there even a need to collect them? What criteria must they meet before entering the catalogue?

Even more fundamental, perhaps – how will they be preserved?  As I learned during a work experience placement, data that has been stored on CDs and VHS tapes has now been rendered invalid until such time when the museum can obtain the equipment and expertise to convert them to a new format. However, in a decade’s time, this current technology will become outdated – and so the cycle begins again. If apps have only been created for platforms that exist today, what will become of them in the future? What if replacement platforms or emulators cannot support them?

Furthermore, would the evolving nature of code limit the kind of apps that can be collected? Museums would only be able to acquire apps that will not need updates or patches in the future – or would they? If an update was released, would the museum’s version be updated too or left in its original state? Does this make apps ‘live’ objects, possibly subject to change over time?

There seem to be so many questions, and yet – despite reading around the subject – no concrete answers. Is this a case of collect now and think about the intricacies later?

In terms of displaying the non-physical, it might be beneficial to treat apps in the same way as performance art. Particularly in the case of a one-off event, performance art tends to be documented through mediums such as photography, video, oral recordings, and related paraphernalia – evidence that the performance took place. It gives life and solidarity to something which no longer exists in a physical form.

A similar process was used in MoMA’s acquisition of games. They also collected interviews with the designers so they could preserve their thoughts, intentions, and ideas about the product, as well as authenticating any key information that may help future conservators. Likewise, the V&A have tweets and statistics to accompany their acquisition of Flappy Bird. Such documentary elements also enable the museums to show the process behind the apps’ creation: the designs, the decisions, and the evolution of thought. This encourages you to think more about the everyday things we take for granted – especially where technology is concerned – and allows visitors to experience them from a different, behind-the-scenes angle. When something cannot be truly replicated – as may happen to the apps in the future – this kind of evidence is the next best thing, despite the ‘aura’ of the live experience being lost.

What criterion determines whether an app should enter the museum’s collection? In the case of Flappy Bird, the V&A (as part of their Rapid Response programme) argued for its significance as a world-wide, everyday object of design. This falls within the institution’s mission statement…

“To be the world’s leading museum of art and design. To enrich people’s lives and inspire individuals and everyone in the creative industries, through the promotion of knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of the designed world.”

… and as the creative industry is currently one of the fastest expanding and developing industries, it seems sensible to cater to – and spark interest in – this particular market.

As Kristian Volsing discussed in her blog post, now the V&A has acquired one app there will inevitably be more to follow (perhaps this was part of the argument for its acquisition – that it would be the start of a new generation of digital objects?). I think having more apps in the V&A catalogue will justify the procurement of Flappy Bird, because it currently seems a bit obscure and out of place as a standalone item.

The V&A and MoMA are not the only museums to have started an app collection. Interestingly the Smithsonian, who acquired their first app in 2013, wanted to incorporate their acquisition into the visitor experience. This demonstrates one of the advantages of collecting apps today; the technology is still around to enable visitors to engage and interact with them whilst they still can. Clive Thompson’s article raises similar questions to those I asked above, and equally is unable to provide definitive answers.

So, to return to the titular question – are apps appropriate for museum collections? As objects of contemporary cultural, social, and design significance, it seems sensible that museums try and preserve them for future generations. However, this creates a myriad of questions about the technicalities of collecting intangible objects – the answers to which seem to be more hypothetical than determined. Furthermore, I question whether apps belong in institutions such as the V&A or MoMA, who seem to prioritise the art and design element over other aspects such as gameplay.  They seem more suited to science or social history museums because of their role in contemporary culture and their technical nature. However, if displayed and explained with care, such digital acquisitions may have an interesting role to play in the future of museum collections.

Given that it’s still early days, evidence of its successes and appropriateness will come in time. Nevertheless, it might be wise to stop and work out the issues of technicalities before delving head first into this new digital world.

What will the acquired apps be able to teach future generations about the culture and society of the (current) past?

Should more museums seek to expand their collection of virtual media? What benefits might it have?


Antonelli, Paola. 29th November 2012. Video Games: 14 in the Collection, for Starters [], accessed 05/11/15.

Brownlee, John. 6th September 2013. To Preserve Digital Design, The Smithsonian Begins Collecting Apps [], accessed 17/11/15.

Farmery, Jim. 12th Feb 2015. Creative England awarded £8m to boost the Creative Industries   [], accessed 17/11/15.

Thompson, Clive. September 2013. How Does a Museum Acquire an iPad App for its Collections? [], accessed 17/11/15.

Volsing, Kristian. 16th July 2014. The Rise and Fall of Flappy Bird and the Collectng of the V&A’s first App [], accessed 05/11/15.

The V&A’s mission statement [], accessed 17/11/15.

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