Paper Session 1: Engaging Audiences: Increasing Access and Improving Experiences

Tuesday, April 4th: 9:30am - 11:00am

Beyond Reach: Reassessing ‘best practice’ for digital audience engagement


For many small and medium sized cultural heritage organisations, following the lead of larger institutions within the sector has been the only way to keep apace with burgeoning trends in digital audience engagement. These larger organisations tend to have the resources to ‘buy in’ appropriate technical and strategic expertise for all things digital, and so it makes sense that the case studies formed from such projects are packaged and promoted as ‘best practice’ for the sector.

Or does it?

Digital audience engagement has become markedly more important to cultural heritage organisations – and this was suddenly pushed to fore during the Coronavirus pandemic. The highlighted internally, the different levels of maturity in digital strategies and ways of integrating digital in different areas of operation of cultural heritage organisations, as well as the skill levels of staff. In terms of outward facing, as more exhibitions, displays and events went online, quantitative data – such as ‘likes’, ‘clicks’, ‘page visits’, ‘shares’ and ‘views’ – became a ready and accessible means of gauging the reach of digital engagement efforts. Advice on how to grow our organisations’ reach and improve on these types of metrics is abundant – but it does not allow us as a sector to fully understand the impact that our digital engagement activity has had and continues to have on our audiences. Numbers only tell half of the story, and so it is important that relevant qualitative data is also gathered. Reaching out and offering diverse activities online at challenging times was carried out but several cultural organisations, but there were also several others that were badly hit by furloughs, staffing problems, and challenges accessing resources. Despite the numerous case studies of good practice highlighted by reports all over the world, what do we actually know about the quality and depth of digital engagement? The gap in this area has become acutely visible since the pandemic, but t

Proposal ID: 11043

Excavating complexity to engineer delight: Qualitative research strategies and outcomes at The Met


This paper will explore a number of qualitative practices that The Metropolitan Museum of Art\’s digital product design team employs to better understand its audiences, gauge the potential impact of its products, and iterate on its existing ones. Through multiple examples of research projects, it will present our learnings around the most effective methodologies to use per audience, product type, and project lifecycle stage. The paper will also discuss the practical application of these research projects: how our learnings gave rise to digital products and guided our process of ideation, design, and iteration.


To better understand the complex range of audiences that museums typically attract, The Met recently embarked on a series of broad audience interview projects focusing on physical as well as online visitors. The starting point for The Met\’s on-site audience research was John Falk\’s work outlining identity and motivation-based audience categorization. A similar set of interviews was conducted for visitors to the museum\’s online collection. Since Falk\’s audience categories are focused primarily on physical museum visitors, The Met\’s online audiences required unearthing a different (but related) set of needs and motivations, specific to peoples\’ online experiences. The paper will outline both research projects while detailing the differences in recruitment strategies, interview methodologies, and outcomes between each. Each project unearthed some key unmet visitor needs both in the museum and online, and the paper will expand on the interventions and products that were created (or are still in the process of being created) in response to these needs.

The paper will also discuss The Met\’s adaptation of lab-based and asynchronous usability testing methodologies in order to best respond to the complexity of the museum experience. Visitor experiences usually involve a high level of depth as well as subjectivity and unfold over a long period of

Proposal ID: 11063

Striving for Universal Access: Image Descriptions at the National Gallery of Art


Since the summer of 2020, more than 1,000 fully accessible textual descriptions of works of art in the National Gallery of Art’s collection have gone live, and they cover 60% of traffic to museum’s collection pages. Learn how we leveraged a large-scale, interdepartmental project to make this a reality, from documenting the process through publishing description guidelines, and focusing on all users through an inclusive design approach that supports the National Gallery’s mission for universal access.

Description is the cornerstone of scholarly interpretation, but in that context, description will be selective, and will always be in service to that interpretation. By developing a specific approach to composing descriptions for the sake of description (rather than interpretation), we linger even more in the visual qualities of a work of art rather than in what we know about it. We attend to and respect the artefact, the thing that the artist has left us.

Moreover, a relatively objective description provides an equitable experience of a work of art. For instance, a person even vaguely familiar with Western, Christian tradition will glean specific information from a gallery room displaying with fourteen paintings, all of which show a woman wearing a blue cloak holding up a baby boy, both against a gold background. Many may immediately recognize the works as depictions of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, but how often do we slow down to really attend to the visual information, to wonder about and put words to what is found in that work – the way the woman looks, the way the child is shown, and how the gold is decorated in specific ways.

In order to achieve that kind of slow experience for listeners and readers with (and without) vision loss, we, at the National Gallery, developed an ongoing training system to bring in new authors, and we ensure that the finalized descriptions are available to everyone by making them public on our website. Learn how we developed

Proposal ID: 11077