User-Generated Content on Museum Websites

by Gail Durbin - consultant and previous Head of V&A Online (2002-2011)

User-generated content (UGC) is material created and shared by web visitors relating and responding to the content and ideas of the museum. Those with little practical experience of social media often think of it as word-based as in a forum, email list or other discussion. But it can be much more varied than this. People can contribute photographs, drawings, paintings or sketches, they can upload examples of their craft and art work or observations of natural phenomena in their own region, they can share memories or create poetry.

There are many benefits of incorporating visitor contributions on a museum website. UGC encourages engagement. It is a powerful means of connecting visitors with the content and ideas in a museum. Some visitors do this by visiting exhibitions and reading the labels and information panels, some through careful observation of the exhibits on display but many people respond more easily when they can do something practical. An invitation to make a contribution can motivate and trigger understanding or commitment or learning. Leonard Steinbach, in reference to visitor generated audio-tours, notes ‘…the process of authoring … content has an educational value and impact that outstrips what visitors will retain from passively consuming the museum’s message. User-generated content is about the process, not the product.’ The process is certainly an essential part of the user experience but I might also argue that, well handled, the product is an important contribution as well.

Visitor contributions on a museum’s website give a strong message about that museum. They suggest an organisation that is an open place, one that encourages participation and is willing to engage with a variety of opinion and ideas to create richness. It suggests the museum is a creative hub that visitors can join with in making something new and exciting.

Where should user generated content projects take place?
Should UGC go directly on museum websites or should museum’s set up web projects on social media sites? The Tate Gallery uses sites such as Flickr for the bulk of its UGC. Its approach is disciplined and thoughtful. Tate website takes visitors via a page called ‘Friends, Fans and Followers’ to the group on Flickr called ‘About Tate Gallery’ which explains the structure of the Tate Gallery. The default descriptions of the people who join a Flickr group is ‘Member’ but here the term ‘Contact’ has been substituted, presumably to make this distinction between Flickr contacts and members of Tate. On this page Tate take the opportunity to encourage people to sign up to receive information. Tate belongs to 12 Flickr groups and they are all formal Tate groups so people are encouraged to look at these from the ‘About Tate Gallery’ page as well.

In 2007 the Tate held an exhibition called ‘How We Are: Photographing Britain’. A Flickr group was set up called ‘How we are now’ inviting documentary photography and at the end of the exhibition a selection of images was shown on screens in the gallery and on the website. The following year the show ‘Street & Studio: an Urban History of Photography’ prompted a developed version of the activity and the output was ‘Street or Studio: A Photobook’ where Tate selected the 100 best images and produced a book via the online book making site Blurb that was given to the winners and is still available in Blurb’s bookshop. Tate rarely puts UGC on its own site with the exception of its sites for special audiences such as Tate Kids and Young Tate although its new Tate Online Strategy 2010-2012 appears to mark a change of direction.

Volume of activity is a good reason for museums to run projects on social media sites. If about 4500 photographs and videos are uploaded to Flickr every minute then there is clearly a large audience to tap. Additionally if a museum is ambivalent about UGC then there is benefit in experimenting elsewhere. It also distances the museum from such activity. What goes up on Flickr or YouTube is not a museum’s responsibility so it remains remote from any problem. On the other hand having the visitors contributing on the museum’s website puts them a click away from exploring more museum content and when UGC reaches the sophistication of drawing in museum objects then the activities really need to be on the museum website.

How to get started
There are many obstacles to getting started such as money, moderation and managers. The answer to all of these perceived problems is to start small. Experiment or do a pilot project, test the water. Use whatever arguments achieve change in your museum.  At the start avoid complex activity or a complex piece of software or a major funded project. Try something out and see if it works in your museum and then adapt on the basis of experience. At the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) our early activities were all based round inviting visitors to email some text or an image which someone uploaded to the web. This approach can still be used and enables you to be smart and flexible.

Planning a task
Successful visitor contribution is about task not technology. Start by choosing a focus. Will it be an exhibition, is it an area of the collection, is it a concept that the museum is currently concerned with? Uncertain what to focus on? Find a subject that is clearly related to the content or aims of your museum. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is not due to open until 2015 so, as well as a temporary gallery in the National Museum of American History and travelling exhibitions, it is keeping its audience engaged by opening a Memory Book. ‘Share your memory. Tell us your story or share a family photograph.’

Any UGC project should link to your museum’s mission. At the V&A we have a large collection of decorative arts and the museum was set up originally to make British industry more competitive by inspiring designers and encouraging creativity. Our mission is currently ‘To be the world’s leading museum of art and design; enriching people’s lives by promoting knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of the designed world’ and one of the key strategic objectives ‘to promote, support and develop the UK creative economy by inspiring designers and makers, and by stimulating enjoyment and appreciation of design’. This is a broad brief that opens the way to a variety of creative activity.

It is worth spending time setting the exact task. What do you want people to do? Do a quick and dirty test. Write the task down on a piece of paper and with no further guidance ask colleagues to provide responses. Review the outcomes. Are they interesting? Does introducing a constraint stimulate more interesting responses? Can rephrasing the task evoke more interesting replies? We failed to ask the right question when the V&A ran a Kyle Minogue exhibition. Asking ‘What impact has Kyle had on you’ produced pages of adulation from fans. Too late, we changed the question to ‘How has Kyle’s style influenced you?’ This was more relevant to our mission but it is very hard to change direction once an activity is running. Getting the task right and expressing it clearly will make or break an activity.

The very best tasks, as every educator knows, are the ones that can be done by a whole range of people at their own different levels. The V&A’s Design a Tile activity is one of these. It can be done by a child but, because users can alter scale and mask one motif with another, much more sophisticated output is possible  so that even an experienced graphic designer can tackle it and find satisfying design challenges. The World Beach Project has similar strengths.

Look for subjects where visitors hold the expertise. This may be different in character to museum expertise. For example, the V&A held an exhibition on 1960s fashion. Online visitors were invited to send in recollections and images, if they had any, of buying fashion in the 1960s (

When it came to shopping the visitors rather than the curators, some of whom had not even been born in the 1960s, held the expertise. What came in had a very different feel to the kind of information that curators deal in. Visitors’ responses played on the excitement and emotional elements of buying clothes. Here is a contribution:

“This is a photo taken in the Summer of 1967 of me wearing one of my favourite Biba dresses. I still remember trying it on in Biba’s communal changing room in Kensington Church Street, listening to Sergeant Pepper on the stereo. What an exciting time that was. I particularly loved this dress because it was cut in such a way that it fitted my petite figure perfectly and the halter-neck style looked very flattering.  I had never seen a dress like it before and I thought it was absolutely gorgeous!!! I don’t remember wearing this dress at any particular occasion, but I did go to a lot of parties with my friends that lovely summer and we often frequented the Café des Artistes in Chelsea and I would certainly have worn it there. When I look at this photo now I think how lucky I was to have been 21 in the Summer of Love.”

In the early days of our discovery of the value of visitor contributions the museum held an event on body art. People were invited to come to the museum and have their tattoos photographed and 1500 people turned up in one day. 750 of the resulting photographs were put on our website with information about the tattooists who had done the work, where possible. Whilst some of our curators may have their own tattoos, this another example of a subject where the real expertise lay with our visitors.

Consider tasks where visitors can join together to create something of significance that they could not do alone. The Natural History Museum in London  offers activities where visitors can pool scientific information. The Big Seaweed Search invites users to identify 12 seaweed species and report where they find them. Maps on their website plot frequency and distribution ( An urban tree survey works in a similar way.

If your imagination is flagging activites elsewhere on the web could provide inspiration and ideas that could be adapted. Frank Warren’s PostSecret sets a tight task: ‘Tell me a secret’  Reveal anything - as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before. You are asked to put your secret on a postcard with an image ( How could this idea be adapted? Postcards are very appealing and not as intimidating as a sheet of paper. Michael Kimball writes your life story on a postcard. ( What are the possibilities here? Connecting to portraits in a collection? Moving into fiction? Getting visitors to draw or map their lives on a postcard?

The Threadless tee shirt site is full of creativity ( and Illustration Friday offers a model for creative contributions even if the quality is not what one might hope for ( Ravelry demonstates how a variety of simple information provided by enthusiasts can be recombined to create engaging content ( Being alive to what is going on outside the sector can kick start fresh ideas for museum tasks.

Put some content on a site before launch. It is hard to contribute to an empty site and advance material sets the tone and guides and encourages  visitors.  If you want written responses your examples will establish a suitable length and the type of content you had in mind. If you want people to sign their work with their full names your examples should do this and help prevent a rash of ‘Flopsies’ or ‘Mickey Mouses’.

At the V&A we make a practice of displaying everything that is sent in unless it is offensive, incomplete or irrelevant to the task set. I believe very strongly that if someone has taken the trouble to send something in we should honour that effort by showing it. There have been few activities, other than competitions, that have been closed. Here I know we depart from practice elsewhere but I am keen to have broad variety on our site together with many means of contributing. I am not bothered if contributions slow to a dribble if the activity is a worthwhile one and that content is interesting to other visitors.

You need to be clear about whether you want to pre- or post-moderate. Pre-moderate if you deal with contentious subjects or pitch at children or if there is a lot of anxiety about user contributions. Videos that have to be watched in real time and debates that have to be read will be time consuming. Visual responses are fast to moderate. Post-moderate when you become more confident and have found ways to work with your users so that they become a largely self-moderation community like Flickr.

As part of the planning process define what you are going to do with the contributions. Sometimes running an activity as a competition with a winner at the end of the process may be what is needed but at other times this may feel invidious. Adding material to the museum archives would be a desirable outcome but  we have not achieved this so far. In anticipation, however, we have insisted that all contributors to our wedding fashion site name the couple and provide the date of the wedding as a minimum. This creates a properly documented collection of images with historical information that can be verified.

Issues: Here are some of the issues that are likely to arise
Moving from UGC to online community. For the V&A  a major issue has been how to move from UGC to online community where visitors who engage with our content start to engage with each other to further and deepen that interest. Starting with content areas such as wedding fashion, quilting, photography, tattoos where people have been actively contributing we aim to set up an environment where community can develop. Commenting opportunities will be broadened and small tasks will focus round providing book or exhibitions recommendations. We hope that through sharing creative output, knowledge and enthusiasms visitors will  inspire for others to develop their own work and ideas.

Accuracy: Museums fear the introduction of inaccuracy. Avoid this problem by setting tasks that have no right or a wrong answer. Visual responses or memories cannot be wrong. Alternatively if you are asking for verbal responses you may need  a community organiser with a good knowledge of the subject who is able to highlight conflicting information and edge the debate forward. In mature communities the organiser may emerge from within the participants rather than the museum. Observation on Twitter shows that some contributors create a standing for themselves by playing a social role of encouraging responses from others and smoothing tensions.

Quality: After several years working in this area my experience is that, if the task has been well set, the vast majority of contributions will hugely exceed expectations of quality. But even where the level of response is good it may become a bit repetitive and dull. If visitor contributions are to be a good experience for viewers as well as contributors then viewers need to see be offered the best content first. Staff can manipulate the content to show what is most interesting but a better approach is to involve the visitor in ranking content.

Jakob Neilson, in 2006, introduced the concept ‘participation inequality’ and the 90.9.1 rule. He predicted that in any web community 1% of people will actually generate content, 9% will contribute in some small way and 90% will simply observe what is contributed. Nina Simon, in her book The Participatory Museum, develops the idea further to show participation varies by culture, gender and age as well as activity. So the creative task for museums becomes how to convert observers into active participants in simpler ways than contributing content. Commenting, collecting, editing, recommending, organising, remixing, redisrtributing as well as ranking are all  steps towards engagement.

Issues of authority are at the heart of museum ambiguity over visitor contributions. Museums are the holders and generators of expertise about objects and are reluctant to be challenged by amateurs or resist the work of naive users being put on the museum website. But the world is changing and people expect to be active online. Ultimately museums may need to share some of their power and balance their hard-won authority against a recognition that visitors bring either their own expertise or different ways of seeing things that may be complementary. By working together, through the medium of the web, visitors and museums can create an experience for others that is greater than anything they could produce separately.

Gail Durbin
consultant and previous Head of V&A Online (2002-2011)


Neilsen, J, 2006.
participation_inequality.html, October 2006

Simon, N, 2010. The Participatory Museum, Museum 2.0, SantaCruz, California

Steinbach, L, 2008.