Connecting with Museum Visitors Online and on Site with Technology

I am a relative new comer to the Maritime Museum circle, not because of my age, but because I only recently became a member of a maritime museum. My involvement in maritime museums and writing this paper has allowed me to share two of my greatest passions – Boats and Technology. I am qualified as a Naval Architect having a Bachelors Degree in Engineering (Naval Architecture), but sadly I now work in IT building and managing large corporate web and software projects. I have been working in IT for nearly 14 years now and have been using the web since it first came out back in 1996. I’ve finally found an outlet where I can give something back to the Maritime community and I am currently working on re-designing several Maritime Museum websites.

So, I am here today to talk to you about connecting with visitors – both on-site and on-line. I’m going to briefly look at why we need to connect with people and then I will go onto various ways we can use our technology and history to make these connections.

24 years ago when I first attended High School, I was introduced to the subject of History. My History teacher and I didn’t really get on very well. He would ridicule me in front of the rest of the class because I showed no interest whatsoever in History. And then he taught me a very valuable lesson. He clipped me over the back of the head. Not abusively, but in a “wake up to yourself” sort of way. Then he did it again. The third time he went to do it, I ducked. And my lesson was learnt.

History teaches us the mistakes of the past so we can learn for the future.

The purpose of history is to educate the public, and so too is the purpose of museums. They make a unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving, and interpreting the things of this world.

Now I won’t go into why Maritime History is so important, and remind you all about how the earth started as one huge continent and then shifted over millions of years into the world we know today spreading it’s inhabitants across all 4 corners of the globe only to be separated by large expanses of water, but it is why we are all here. We all share a common interest in Maritime History.

So why don’t we all go out and buy a brand new boat and put it in our museum? Because it is current, it is from now. In 2000 years from now, there might be the question asked, why did they ever cart their vessels around on wheeled trailers? Because obviously back in the year 2010, the icecaps hadn’t melted and covered the earth – thank you Kevin Costner (Waterworld)!

But the point is valid. Looking back 300 years, you can ask the questions:

Why did everyone use sails to power their boats? why do some have square rigs etc ? Because steam engines hadn’t been invented yet.

Why did a tall ship need such a big crew? Because before the industrial revolution, things had to be done manually. That brought about steam winches and ultimately hydraulics, pneumatics, electronics, Integrated Chips & computer controlled systems – and so on.

That is the sort of basic stuff we educate the public about when it comes to Maritime History.

But how do we get this message to the public?

How do we educate the public about our Maritime History? A history that helped us to discover, explore, and build this great nation of ours?

Through books, written literature, historians, Educators, story tellers, and everyday people keeping accounts of their experiences.

I’ve recently become a fan of old maritime texts as a result of reading many of Harold Underhill’s books about rigging tall ships and thought if I were ever to collect something, I would like to collect a set of 1st editions of Underhill’s books, so I went online to search for any. There seem to be plenty of them around since I could buy a complete collection of them for around $300 US. Whilst I was looking for them, I found another book note as “One of the most famous technical manuals on the art of ship-building, by Cornelis van Yk called – De Nederlandsche Scheepsbouw-konst, open gestalt”. It was a first edition first published in 1697 and is signed by the author. It is available now if you are interested – for only US $20,440.91. Books go back a long way, but what else helps us to educate?

Media – there’s all sorts available to us these days. In some places, only 60 years ago, the only alternative to books might have been Radio, but now we have TV, live broadcast, VHS (do we still have that), DVD, Blueray, Interactive software and the internet. Let’s talk a bit more about the internet.

Now that the internet has been around publicly for about 15 years, almost everyone is aware of the importance of a web presence. How many of you have still don’t have a website? For those of you that do have a website, how old is it? And what is the purpose of your website? Is it an online brochure to direct visitors to your museum? Is it an online library of resources? Is it an online experience of your museum where users get the entire museum experience from the comfort of their own home?

Any one or more of these purposes are a valid reason for an online presence, and with recent technological advances that I will cover a bit later, there has been a strong tendency towards immersive online experiences.

But a website is not a “Fields of Dreams”. It is not a matter of “If you build it, they will come”. If you build a website, you must share your website address in all of your existing media channels – print, newspaper, radio, TV, etc. And not only that, you need to make your website address memorable.

So how do you select a memorable website address or domain name?

Take a look at Google Insights for Search and consider what keywords people use to search for your website.

Research around Search Engine Optimisation or SEO suggests that Google attaches most of its search rank weighting to the anchor text of inbound links. As a result, keyword based domain names typically result in higher ranked search results. For example a user searches Google with “townsville maritime museum” as the key search words, the No 1 search result is however a search for “sydney maritime museum” returns as the No1 search result and not the Sydney Maritime Museum or Sydney Heritage Fleet as it is now known.

Google also has a Keyword Tool and other great tools that you can use to help determine which combination of keywords will result in the most traffic to your site and you can see some great search trends to help with your online marketing.

One of the other features of a domain name is the suffix; i.e. .COM, .ORG, .COM.AU. This is often an oversight and is not given enough consideration when a domain name is selected.

More than 10 years ago an Australian Search Engine company started providing a local search engine for Australian sites and they registered the domain name Unfortunately, for a lot of unsuspecting searchers, if they failed to type in the .au, they were exposed to an American based porn site. There are lots more stories like this that highlight the need to understand what these prefixes mean. So lets’ quickly recap what is available to us.

.COM is for Commercial sites that want to take on an international footprint. This was originally the dedicated domain for US sites but was quickly adopted as the international norm. These domains are cheap and easy to acquire but names that have not already been acquired may be hard to find.

.COM.AU is for Australian Commercial sites. To Register one of these domain names, you need to provide evidence that you have a registered business using your selected or a similar name.

.ORG and .ORG.AU are for Organisations and are targeted to non-commerical entities such as charities, groups and not for profit organisations.

.GOV or .GOV.AU are for government related or government funded sites.

.EDU or .EDU,AU are for Educational groups, schools and training organisations.

But did you know there are quite a few others available? There is also .NET.AU, .ASN.AU and .ID.AU which both have particular restrictions on who can use them.

So lets’ take a look at an example. What is the website address for the Lady Denman Heritage ?

Sadly, a large proportion of web users are known to guess a domain name and given that the domain suffix is not a popular one, it would only be locatable in a Google search. It is perfectly acceptable and common practice to register multiple domain names and have them all redirect to one that is used in all marketing material. In this case, I’d recommend they register (which is currently available) as well keeping the existing .ASN.AU domain name so as not to lose any existing traffic or Google rankings.

Given that most Maritime Museums run as not-for profit organisations and rely mostly on charitable donations to run, website development and maintenance costs are a determining factor on the effectiveness of your website.

How much are you paying for your website? How much is too much? As a website professional, I have worked on website projects that have cost from nothing through to 5 million dollars plus. Some sites are very customised and tailored to their specific purpose. All too often when building websites for small businesses, price is the deciding factor. I find myself competing with 14 year old kids who can knock something basic together for a months’ pocket money compared to my 15 years experience in website development and a quote somewhere around the price of a new small car.

Once you have a website built, and it is up and running, how many of you rely on your website developer to update the site

every week or month or whenever you have a new exhibition or event?

I’m going to let you all in on a very simple way to setup a website that you can update your self, without any special

tools except for a browser. And it is cheap – so cheap, its actually free.

Let me talk you through the process – you might want to keep a pen handy.

So you probably all have a website which will be comprised of 3 key components:

1) A website address or Domain name or URL

2) A webhost – either a 3rd party host for your site accessible to the internet or your own server.

3) The website – typically a bunch of files and images that are stored on the webhost.

I don’t need to explain to all of you how to get a domain name. so I’ll jump to the webhost. There are thousands of local and international webhosts that will host your website and they offer a wide range of features, tools and specifications.

Costs can range from 4.95US per month for a basic package through to entire dedicated servers that can cost hundreds per month. They don’t have to be Australian based. International internet traffic speeds are not going to slow your users down. And the best part is you will get better prices because there is more competition overseas.

Webhosts offer a huge range of features including disk space, email accounts, sub domains, databases and hundreds of free applications and plug-ins to help build your site. Thanks, in part to the open source community, there is a wide range of free and commercial content management systems, or CMS, that are offered by web hosts. provides a great example of a free open source CMS system provided by many webhosts that is feature rich, and easy to use straight out-of-the-box.

A recent project I have completed for the International Congress of Maritime Museums involved setting up a new webhost account for about $100 for 12 months and installing the JOOMLA CMS which comes free with the webhosting package.

Joomla also supports multi-lingual sites as all content can be entered in multiple languages. There are also thousands of extensions available to provide more specific functionality such as image galleries, forums, shopping carts, Paypal and payment plug-ins, Facebook, Youtube and Twitter plug-ins. So you – not a web developer, can use it to update and add to your site, from anywhere in the world, so long as you have internet access.

You don’t even need to pay much for a design as there are thousands of templates available for download on the internet ranging from free to $65 each.

Other alternatives to products like Joomla include Drupal, WordPress, Dot Net Nuke / PHP Nuke and there are many other customisable CMS solutions.

So that provides you with a few ideas on how to improve your online engagement, but what about onsite? How can technology help you engage with visitors once they enter your museum?

Recent technical advancements have started to offer some unique solutions that can easily be applied to a museum experience and in some case are already being utilised.

Microsoft Surface. It has been around for 4 years now, however it has more recently became more visible in retail outlets due to huge increase in development of applications and a new 2.0 hardware release. It is still yet to become mainstream and is still only seen as a gimmick. But gimmicks can be fun and this is an extremely interactive tool.

I recently took my kids to the Australian Museum to see the Dinosaurs and we discovered an interactive surface-like product that I quite literally had to drag my kids away from. It was interactive, informative and most importantly, fun!

The same can be applied to Maritime History – you just need to get creative. E.g. imagine a 3D rendered image of a vessel in your exhibition. You can use your fingers to turn it around, zoom in for an exploded view, and click on areas of the ship to learn more and show videos relating to each area.

Let’s stop for a minute though and consider how people experience your museum. They pay their admission and walk through a maze of exhibits stopping to read information about things that attract their attention or present special areas of interest. There is a lot of visual stimulation and it can often be too much to absorb in one viewing. School children often have programs they follow where they are set an assignment to collate information, however their assignments typically only cover a fraction of what is on display and they race from exhibit to exhibit only stopping to fill in their question sheets and possibly take a photo. How we can give them more information about each particular exhibit that they are gathering information on? How can we allow them to continue the educational experience beyond the museum? QR & RFID Tags.

I would imagine that for those of you that frequently read the paper, you would have seen these popping up in some advertisements. Some of you may never have seen one before. What it is not is a Magic Eye Puzzle. This is a QR TAG – the QR stands for Quick Response. Just like traditional Bar Codes, this too is a visual representation of data – in this case up to 4296 alphanumeric characters. With advancements in Smart Camera Phone technology and an abundance of applications available for download, QR Tags have become much more prevalent in mainstream media. Essentially they contain a string of characters- most often a website URL. With modern iPhone, Andriod and other camera phones, you can simply take a photo of the tag and it will be saved on your phone as a URL for reference to later.

So how can these help you connect with visitors’ onsite?

As I said previously, you can only ever fit so many exhibits onto the museum floor. Every exhibit has a story to tell – where it came from, what it did, how it ended up here, what it looked like yesterday and the day before and the day before that.

I once read that the Louvre museum in Paris has so many items in its basement it could be filled 10 times over and I’m sure that’s the same for many maritime museums. There is so much data collected, research material, images and physical artefacts, they cannot all be shown at once. This technology can allow your visitors to continue their education beyond the artefacts on display and they can engage online based on their experience onsite.

Let’s take a look at an example exhibit from the ANMM– a photo album belonging to a Charles Brockhoff. All the information you would typically provide for this artefact would typically fit on an A4 sized label. In fact, here is the label that accompanied this particular image. So what other information do you want to know? Who was Charles Brockoff? Where and when was his yacht Fleetwing built? What became of Fleetwing? How can I see the other photos in the album? I’m personally a huge fan of gaff cutters so I’d like to know more about the boat and its dimensions, who built it and its racing pedigree etc.

Now add to that plaque a QR Tag and then you provide to your visitors an easy to capture, portable link to an infinitely wider array of data. It could simply provide a URL link to an archive request form with a unique artefact ID, or be a URL for a detailed mini-site dedicated to the life and times of Charles Brockhoff and his collection of photos and yachts.

If you want to challenge school kids to do more than race through the museum to complete their questionnaire assignments, and engage them online in actual research, then providing them with a portable link would be a great way to allow them access to more information that they can then take back to the classroom or home and share with others.

Another technology that has been around for many years, and is already being adopted by Museums for multiple purposes, is RFID chips. Radio Frequency Identifier tags or chips are extremely small chips, can be as big as a postage stamp like the one shown on the left and as small as a grain of sand like the one on the right, and are used to track parts or artefacts once attached.

Consequently RFID chips can be attached to a museum admission ticket and could be used to gather statistics on the most visited exhibits or artefacts by activating scanners within a particular proximity and updating a database. Additionally, the same proximity technique can be used to activate Audio Visual presentations for nearby exhibits – even turn lights on and off saving electricity. Proximity can be measured from within a few centimetres up to 20 metres.

With the latest smart phones like iPhone and Android Phones, Augmented Reality is another great technology we can look to utilise. Users can point their camera phones in a particular direction and see a computer generated overlay the live footage from the camera.

Using a combination of GPS and optical shape recognition, the AR software (freely available apps) can overlay text, images, even video. This unique technology can and is being used in museums already to assist with navigation and provide an additional layer of information to what the visitor sees. A freely available app called Streetmuseum from the Museum of London allows users to overlay historical photos over footage from their camera.

So let’s consider some ways that we might be able to utilise this AR technology in a maritime museum environment. Apart from guiding you through the museum and highlighting different exhibit areas, it can also help locate a number of artefacts that all belong to the same collection but are distributed throughout the museum e.g. Items from the former Melbourne Maritime Museum collection. You might want to only find items that belong to that collection, or alternatively switch to a layer that only shows video overlays and navigate your way to those artefacts where a historical video is displayed against a model, replica or the original artefact or vessel on display. Imagine looking at Australia II through your camera phone and seeing a video overlay of the entire crew slogging away on deck with waves and spray peppering them. Additionally, the AR provides an ability to provide additional information to what is already being displayed – virtual real estate where your visitors can scroll through pages more information – onsite or afterwards online.

So that’s a bit of how technology can help us engage with our visitors, but there’s still nothing quite like the real thing. To climb the rigging of a tall ship and feel the cold wind cut through you like a knife, or the sweat clinging to you in the heat of the boiler room of an old steamer, or to stand in the empty hold of a coastal trade ship and smell the pungent fragrances of the assorted cargoes that may have been carried.

It’s all about Sensory stimulus. Getting all 5 senses involved in the experience. Not reading a book and imagining the story being told, not seeing pictures of a boat, or even looking at the real thing, but actually touching, feeling, hearing, smelling, tasting.

Who here remembers a particular moment from their past whenever they smell a particular fragrance? It might be the small of Chanel No 9, or musk, diesel oil, or even dead fish? Whenever I smell Wisteria plants, I remember the house I lived in when I was a kid and the Wisteria plant next to the front steps.

What about when you hear a sequence of words, a song, or a particular piece of music- does anyone remember anything particular from their lives? Whenever I hear the song Bust a Move, I remember the girlfriend I had when I was 16 and the time we spent together.

Some studies say that we only remember a certain amount of what we see and even less of what we hear. Apparently Smell is one of the strongest catalysts for memory. So imagine the experience you get when you combine them all at once?

If our senses are an extraordinary trigger for our brain to remember things, then surely giving our senses a firsthand account of history would be a great way to learn?

Let’s have a listen to this firsthand account of a passenger from a cruise on the James Craig:

“It was quite windy and the crew worked very hard to gradually unfurl the sails. There
were a couple of new hands and the help and encouragement they got from the old hands was
good to see. I was amazed at the age span of the crew and how they all pulled their weight.
Watching how they turned the sails into the wind just by rope and pulleys was amazing to see.
The sails billowed out and the ship headed north, rocking in the swell and that amazing quiet gliding motion,
I could well imagine how this ship could get into your blood.”

“…By this time I had really got used to the motion of ship with the
rhythmic rocking and the occasional spray from an extra large wave.”

“Proceeding up the harbour the Sydney Heritage Fleet’s historic coal-fired steam tug,
Waratah came by to greet us with sounding of the horns and waving to each other’s

But we all can’t afford to restore our historic fleets and keep them in active operating “living museum” condition. As it is, some maritime museums with operating vessels already struggle with their own identity – are they a floating museum or a fleet of party boats for hire? Quite often one can’t go with out the other due to the much needed revenue streams that keep these floating museums going.

So if we as Museums can’t afford the real thing, then how do we give more of our Visitor’s senses the stimuli required to help us provide a better user experience and allow our clients to learn more?

It’s important that we don’t confuse the value of technology over the value of the artefacts and history itself. The Technology is simply a conduit to the education of our visitors.

Hopefully, some of the information I have shared with you today will be able help you to engage with your visitors online and onsite.

For any questions about the topics I have covered here today, I have provided a fact sheet of relevant links and a copy of the related slides from the presentation of this conference paper.

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