Museums and online learning: a case study

The role of museums in online teaching, learning and research is a sophisticated yet concise paper that gives an account of how the J. Paul Getty Museum has developed its thinking and practice in providing digital resources to support teaching, learning and research, based on its collection.
The paper is interesting for its frank assessment of mistakes and surprises experienced over several years of developing resources. It combines an appreciation of the fundamental disciplines of cataloguing with the importance of open standards, and it touches on the need to realign organisational structures and resources to match emerging structures and practices.

This year’s trendy technology for visitor attractions seems to be the handheld, location-aware PDA that visitors consult to help them interpret a collection (see this recent posting, and I’ve just reviewed a usability paper on a tourist information PDA for an academic journal). Thus Kenneth Hamma’s paper gives an account of the use envisaged for the GettyGuide PDA.
More interesting to me are the account of how the Getty staff went about understanding their users and the distinctions they made as a result. After interviewing users, analyzing statistical use data, and convening focus groups from several user communities, they identified key differences in user perspectives between ‘visitors’ and ‘researchers’. A user interface and architecture designed for what Hamma calls a ‘visiting audience’ could actually obstruct and delay someone principally concerned with in-depth research. The paper explains how they dealt with this problem, by abandoning a ‘one size fits all’ approach and by grounding a new dual approach in established institutional practices of exhibitions and education.
If I have one concern about the paper it is a theoretical one: the language of ‘task oriented users’ and the focus on the needs of individual visitors as atomistic selves divorced from any social context are both borrowed from what I’d call ‘old school’ Human-Computer Interaction theory. Over the last 25 years, HCI has moved away from this as it has understood the importance of social context in understanding human behaviour and the patterns in it (for example, by providing rich scenarios that explain the grounded settings of users’ actions). But this is a technical quibble that does not undermine Hamma’s conclusions in the paper.
Kenneth Hamma is Assistant Director for Collections Information at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. His paper is one of a series from the Fifth Annual Conference on Libraries and Museums in the Digital World held in March this year. Thanks to Infobits for the reference to these resources.

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