e-culture in the Amsterdam Museum

On: October 18, 2011
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About Leonie Nijenmanting
New Media enthusiast, especially interested in participatory practice. Read more about participatory culture and research on Pearch In addition, I'm a rock climber and one of the bloggers for Vertical Athletes


With recent government cuts on funding, cultural institutions have to find new ways of making money, working in a more cost-efficient way and targeting audiences in new ways. Amsterdam Museum has launched numerous innovative projects in recent years, and shows that the combination of history and new media works very well, when implemented correctly. However, this is not a relation that developed naturally. Through trial and error, Amsterdam Museum learned what makes e-culture projects successful.

The Amsterdam Museum has gotten a reputation for launching innovative projects where they allow the public to actively participate in either content or financing for the museum. In an interview with Hester Gersonius, new media expert for the Amsterdam Museum, I ask how the museum got to this point, what the secret is behind the success, and try to find out what the future holds for cultural institutions and their implementation of e-culture concepts.

In 2009, Hester started at the Amsterdam Museum to work on the social media strategy. The museum got funding to revive the new media department. They focused on people, not on technology, to get the public actively involved in the museum and exhibitions.

Storytelling website

Amsterdam Museum initiated several storytelling websites as part of exhibitions. Geheugen van Oost is an example of a very successful site. It is run by volunteers who collect and contribute stories to the website. The community is now growing rapidly, and more volunteers want to contribute stories to the site.

The development of storytelling websites is a learning process. This was evident for the Buurtwinkels website, part of the Buurtwinkels exhibition. These communities do not grow overnight, you need to give it time for people to become familiar with the website. Also, you’re asking for quite a lot of participation from people when you ask them to write stories on a website. Therefore, you’ll need volunteers to go out and collect stories or photographs, because especially in the beginning, people won’t come to you by themselves.

Because of this high threshold, the Amsterdam Museum relies on lower grades of participation as well. People who ‘like’ something on the Facebook page or the websites, people who comment on blogs or share articles participate as well and the Museum tries to stimulate that behavior. When people become more and more familiar with that level of participation, you can slowly start asking more from them and when they are involved with a topic, people are more likely to spend time on a larger contribution.

Museum app

The Museum App is a guided tour through Amsterdam for your iPhone. It’s part of Amsterdam DNA and uses gaming elements to guide the user through different exhibitions and by historic locations in the city. Because the Amsterdam DNA uses a good communication strategy, the App is well received and popular. For now, the Museum App is only available for iPhone, but the aim of the Amsterdam Museum is to publish the App for other platforms as well.

Crowdfunding Napoleon

On October 9th, exactly 200 years after Napoleon visited Amsterdam, the Amsterdam museum revealed one of the biggest painting of the Netherlands: De intocht van Napoleon by Matthieu van Bree (1813).

This immense painting (6 x 4 metres) has just been through the first phase of restauration and now has a permanent spot in the famous Schuttergalerij. During visiting hours of the museum, this gallery is free to visit, and the audience will be able to witness the next phases of restauration right in front of their eyes.

This restauration costs money, however, and with recent budget cuts on cultural funding, the Amsterdam Museum takes on a new approach to funding this restauration. That’s where the Crowdfunding Napoleon project comes in. Anyone can ‘buyt’ a little piece of the painting, by making a small donation in the webshop of the museum. There are different parts of the painting on sale and after you’ve donated, you’ll get more information about the piece you adopted, and even a certificate that shows you donated for that piece of the painting.. With this crowdfunding strategy, the Amsterdam Museum wants to let the audience participate in preserving ‘our’ cultural heritage.

The goal is to collect over €30.000,- for this project. The project got quite some coverage right of the bat, with an item on the national news and numerous blogpostings. After only 5 days, donations added up to €10.000,- already. Moreover, when I interviewed Hester on October 14th, she told me over 200 people had donated through the website. A great result for a project that was launched less than a week before. So why is this project so popular? According to Hester, it’s mostly the personal character of the project. There are people on the painting, who have a name and a story, and that story is shared with anyone who donates. People feel involved, especially when they have a connection with one of the people in the painting. There’s been a small town who had a historical connection with one of the men in the painting and therefore decided to collect money and donate to the museum. Also, there are people who write an e-mail saying: I think I’m related to one of the people on the painting. The museum will try to find out the genealogy and share it with that person. That personal touch makes people want to participate. There is a low threshold for participation, and a great amount of added value for people who buy a piece of the painting.

New Media in the museum

For the Adam Man & Mode exhibition, interactive installations were used to attract the ‘young professionals’, the target audience for the exhibition. Visitors received an RFID card which could be used to activate the installations and interact in different ways. They could take pictures, fill out questions, vote and ‘like’ parts of the exhibition. At the end, they could compare their results to other visitors and see who was their match or mismatch. The results only showed recent visitors, so you’d have a chance of meeting your match. Over 13.000 people participated. The information collected on the card was not published online, in part because the questions were quite personal and people might not want their choices to be visible on their profile.
The success of these installations showed at the MuseumNacht, where people were standing in line just to use the installations. Especially the younger audience appreciates the additional layer of interactivity in the museum. By adding these interactive elements to a very historic exhibitions, you’ll engage a broader audience with a subject, without taking away from the content.

The integration of e-culture in musea is quite new, and there are still some problems that need to be overcome. Most of all, there is still a somewhat sceptical attitude when it comes to interactivity in a museum. Hester explains that the e-culture department is often approached too late, or there is no budget for integration of interactive elements in the exhibition. The Amsterdam DNA project for example, includes interactive elements, but the usability is very bad. They are working on fixing that now, but these things should be considered earlier on in a project.

Not all departments recognize the importance of the web. The website receives over 10.000 visitors each weeks, yet still not everyone feels motivated to write something for the website. That is a shame, because it is an outlet that allows the museum to reach out to much more people. And it’s not just one-way communication. There are people who write comments on the blog, and the museum even sees discussions taking place in these comment sections. A community site would contribute to that apparent wish of communication between people interested in the museum. Therefore, according to Hester, it is crucial that the e-culture department becomes a regular part of exhibition developments.

Also, usability is an importan focal point when it comes to involving the audience. An application or website should be easy to use and provide the right information. The fewer steps a user has to take, the more likely they’ll be to participate. Interaction design is very important, and there is still a lot of ground to be won for interactive installations and their success. However, what the projects of the Amsterdam Museum have already shown so far that there is an interest from te public in these collaborative fora and that different target audience are all willing to engage with these new technologies to enhance their museum experience.

For more information about the museum, visit amsterdammuseum.nl.

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