As we begin to implement Tate’s digital strategy for 2013-15, the Art Maps project is shaping how we think about the role of the museum as a platform for audience engagement and the issues raised by the project are proving to be fundamental for our work in the years ahead.

  • Richard Long, 'A Hundred Mile Walk' 1971-2
    Richard Long
    A Hundred Mile Walk 1971-2
    Pencil, map, printed text, photographs and labels on board
    unconfirmed: 216 x 483 mm
    Purchased 1973© Richard Long

The Art Maps project and its research questions has coincided with a wider transition at Tate from audience interaction being a marginal activity to one that is informing much of our thinking about the future of the organisation.

The museum of the future is not just a place where objects related to cultural heritage are cared for and displayed. It is not just a place where the stories of these objects and their significance is presented. It is a place where visitors (real and virtual) can interact with those objects and those stories, with the museum’s staff, and with each other. Through these activities, the museum of the future is a platform where new ideas and meanings are generated, exchanged and preserved.

At the heart of the Art Maps project is an exploration of this vision of the future museum. Throughout the project we have been considering the kinds of ideas and meanings – both personal and art historical – audiences might generate around artworks and geographical locations. Furthermore, we have been exploring how to help generate, collect and share these ideas and meanings with others. Exploring these areas is critical to the museum sector as they have implications for the kinds of experiences (real and digital) that we will need to create in the future and for the associated technology and interface design.

With this in mind, it seems timely to consider some of the impacts that Art Maps has had, and is having, on our thinking.

Scaffolded and unscaffolded experiences

Through design, workshops and testing, Art Maps has sought to explore the extent to which the generation of audience content needs to be or should be open ended and the extent to which it should be a scripted or “scaffolded” experience. The early workshops were very successful and were a scaffolded experience, with instruction sent live by members of the Art Maps team. This success left us wondering how we could scale this experience to larger audiences through some form of automation. It seems very likely that this is something that will inform our thinking at Tate in the coming years.

For less scaffolded experiences we trailed a kiosk at Tate Britain where visitors interacted with Art Maps without human intervention and developed the forthcoming crowdsourcing website. We are hoping that in addition to the the-thing-depicted-is-at-this-location factual responses there will also be this-reminds-me-of personal responses, showing that less scaffolded experiences can lead to creative and personal content. The final outputs of this aspect of the project have yet to be seen and will doubtless inform our future work.

Use of third-party platforms

As with a number of other audience participation projects at Tate, Art Map’s integration with and use of social media platforms has been successful. We have previously used Flickr (several times), MySpace, Instagram, Tumblr and other platforms to work with user-generated content. We have built our own platforms such as the Ai Weiwei interactive screens at Tate Modern, and also taken hybrid approaches that used both.

The advantages of using third-party platforms are clear: audiences are already active on these platforms, they know the platform’s tools and features, there is no need for Tate to invest in complex software development, and there is frequently little or no financial cost.  However, it is necessary to work within the constraints (both functional and legal) of the chosen platform.

The early Art Maps workshop with the public successfully used Posterous, a microblogging platform with strong multimedia capabilities, although navigating the site by a chosen user was less than ideal.

We are also developing a dedicated Art Maps website, based on the open source Wordpress platform where the crowdsourcing aspect of the website will take place, not least because there is no platform available for this component of the project which would not involve a prohibitive amount of copyright clearance to illustrate the artworks on a third-party website. In addition to giving us greater control of the experience we will also have complete control over the copyright licence provided by the contributor of the content, which will be an increasingly important consideration for work in this area moving forward.

Preservation of audience generated content

Museums have robust policies, software systems, hardware and off-site backups for their digital assets such as digitised collections, which are the product of substantial investments.

Through Art Maps we have been considering where digitised user generated content is preserved and maintained. Museums are now generating a new category of asset that needs to be cared for. In a zine, which I edited with Sarah Hromack from the Whitney Museum of American Art for a session at the the 2013 Museums and the Web Conference, I published a short provocation text in which I suggested that user-generated content associated with the collection should be stored in the museum’s collection management system (the system heart of a museum’s IT infrastructure). I was only half joking. I think something along these lines is going to be required.

Since the Art Maps workshop, Posterous has closed down. All content generated through the workshop is no longer publicly available. Art Maps has reminded us again that longevity of digital platforms is the exception rather than the norm (Anyone remember Geocities?).

If the museum of the future is a platform where ideas and meanings are generated and exchanged, digital technologies will likely be key to enabling this. Art Maps is showing us that there are complex issues that need further investigation and new research: use of third-party platforms can be successful but short lived; judging the right level of user experience scaffolding is not trivial; and critically, preservation and sustainability of the resulting content will need addressing both technologically and legally.


John, I'm glad you were only half-joking. This is an encouraging foray by a major museum into participatory practices that have already proven invaluable in other fields.

For other efforts to get crowdsourced data into museum collection management systems, see the forthcoming book Re-collection (

John Stack's picture

Hi Jon

Thanks for your comment. I'll certainly read your book when it is published.

One of the related things that we've been discussing with our colleagues in the Learning Department is the use of technology in our forthcoming Digital Learning Studios".

When we have workshops and activities of this kind, participants will be able to assign the museum the rights to preserve and republish the resulting content.

However, many of the activities planned are informal with visitors dropping in and using the space. In these circumstances, it will be harder to ask for and document these visitor responses to the collection leaving the resulting content in an unstable position from a legal and preservation standpoint.

Perhaps it is in part about the museums' appetite for risk and that some kind of (probably unenforceable) "browse wrap" agreement might be placed around such activities, though that doesn't seem like a very good solution.


Hi John, fascinating piece. At the UKMW conference next Friday - at Tate of course - I've got a 5-minute open-mic slot where I'll be presenting GathrIt. It's an idea that I had over three years ago, to create a cross-collection browser-based crowdsourcing platform providing a rich toolset to collections visitors. It provides for things like dates, geotags, tags and comments; it also allows users to favourite items and curate their own collections from items across multiple sources; there are embedded tools like social sharing; and finally the intention is that all the data will be available via an easy API so that others can create interesting stuff, and collection owners can retrieve anything relating to their own collections. With a bit of time on my hands I've finally got down to developing a prototype. You can get a brief intro and a few sample screengrabs at, but let me know if you want a closer look before I open it up on Friday.

Aside from my specific idea, do you think based on your comments here that there's a place for something between bespoke and 3rd-party, perhaps an initiative within the sector or at least a partnership of a few organisations, pooling resources and creating a unified toolset tailored specifically to the needs of the sector? As I've been finding with GathrIt, some of the interesting knock-on benefits are things like a powerful cross-collection search engine, and discovery of similar objects from outside of the host collection (see e.g. I appreciate we've already got the likes of Europeana doing that to some extent, but this is much simpler to implement, in fact as this shows it can be done without the collection holders even knowing!

It would be good to talk with you about some of the legal areas you raise too, as Tate is in an interesting position with that.

mattmaldre's picture

As a public spaces artist I LOVE this statement you made:

The museum of the future is not just a place where objects related to cultural heritage are cared for and displayed. It is not just a place where the stories of these objects and their significance is presented. It is a place where visitors (real and virtual) can interact with those objects and those stories, with the museum’s staff, and with each other.