As we work on publishing an announcement over on the excellent British Museum blog, I thought I’d sneak a Friday morning post over here about this new project. It’s for THE BRITISH MUSEUM! Yes, that big one in London! Woo!
The Waddesdon Bequest
In 1898, Baron Ferdinand Rothschild bequeathed the collection he and his father had amassed and displayed in the New Smoking Room at their Waddesdon Manor. It’s almost 300 finely crafted objects, to be “placed in a special room to be called the Waddesdon Bequest Room separate and apart from the other contents of the Museum and thenceforth for ever thereafter, keep the same in such room or in some other room to be substituted for it,” as Rothschild wrote in his bequest.
This year, the museum opened a beautiful new gallery to house the collection, Room 2A, and the new collection explorer we’ve made is part of a suite of digital accompaniments, along with a new app called Baron Ferdinand’s Challenge and another secret thing soon to be revealed.
In Gallery vs Not
The British Museum team came to us knowing they wanted people to use the new explorer while they were standing in Room 2A, and hoped it could deliver more than the labels could provide during a visit. At the start of the work, I sat quietly in the corner of the gallery, and watched people come in and out for about an hour, surveying the sights.
Points of interest
I was particularly looking to see how many visitors were holding their phones as they entered, and it was about 70/493 people. Most people were holding the phone passively, not looking things up. Lots used them to take photos. If anyone managed to get on the somewhat weak WiFi, they’d stop still – one chap for about 10 minutes – and mostly message with a friend.
While it’s definitely a qualitative peek into activity in the gallery itself, it seemed fairly obvious that the gallery was mostly a bit small to have these 500 people going deep on the collection in the space itself. But, it certainly wasn’t something to discourage wholeheartedly at all. It just made us wonder about the much larger audience out there on the web, and how we might be able to help them appreciate the experience of being there too.
What’s it like being in the gallery?
It was then that I decided to make all our views gallery-centric, sorting everything (all lists etc) by “next neighbour”. That turned out quite nicely, I think, because you can see typological and material similarities in-gallery represented online. We also had a floorplan and case numbers to work with, so we integrated them into the display.
Here’s a view of one of my favourite cases, Case 5A.
You can tell from our summary sentence that the 37 objects in this case are made of gold, enamel, copper, silver, steel, earthenware and metal. They were made in Limoges, Germany and Netherlands. Four of them were made by Pierre Reymond. That provides yet more spelunking and jumping opportunities, and we wrote these kinds of summary sentences for a few of the other views too.
Hannah Donovan, a designer who’s working mostly in music, just gave a great talk at Web Directions in Sydney where she recognises several discovery-related issues in her presentation called Souls & Machines: Designing the Future of Content. Her point is that we have access to too much stuff now, and “when I don’t know what I want, I need context, connection and perspective“. She notes:
- Content without context is meaningless
- Content without connection isn’t relevant
- Content without perspective has no feeling
It’s that nutty problem we’re all facing now as we present vast
warehouse management systems metadata sets online and make them easy to navigate. There’s a vast expanse between dry metadata and curatorial depth, especially en masse.
I hope what we’ve made feels very, very simple. We’ve arranged the objects in the collection using all the facets we could present well, like size, weight, maker, and technique. While these lists are straightforward, they also start to hint at Hannah’s context, connections and perspectives. You can start to make deductions about the collection — most of the things are enameled, lots from Germany and made in the 16th Century — the kind that aren’t possible if you’re only presented with a list of search results ordered by, say,
At Good, Form & Spectacle, one of the threads running through our work is to always look for small tools to share with others, and we found one in this project.
One of the dimensions we used to help people explore was to look at each object’s size, or more accurately, its volume. I have never found dimensions written in text on a page to be particularly useful or comprehensible, so we decided to draw each shape. That’s not much good either, unless you have something for scale, so we chose a tennis ball, because we guessed that lots of people would have seen one, and that sized object fitted between the smallest and largest in the collection.
It’s brilliant to make a Tiny Spelunker for such a prestigious institution and glorious collection, especially after our R&D work on Two Way Street. Thank you to Dora, Chris, other Chris, Ellie, Gina, James and Lesley for being open to it.
- Visit the Waddesdon Bequest Collection Explorer at the British Museum