National Portrait Gallery online manager Gillian Raymond talks about using digital storytelling in the redesign of the gallery’s website.
The National Portrait Gallery is kind of an interesting institution, because it sits somewhere between a museum and a gallery. What we are fundamentally interested in is identity and people’s stories. This makes us a little bit different from an art gallery, who might be concerned with the authenticity of an art object, or a museum that may be just interested in the story that an artifact may tell but not necessarily the artistic or aesthetic merit of that particular object. We sit somewhere between the two.
The best portraits are often done by artists, because they are experts in seeing people and bringing something of their personality to the forefront. But in terms of the online program, we have the opportunity to go further than an actual physical object to an artwork, and we can start to delve into the stories behind the lives of the sitters and the lives of the artists who may bring something interesting to that particular story.
So obviously, people react strongly to faces. Ever since we’re born, we develop very quickly our ability to recognise a human face and to identify with our parents or people around us. And we wanted to bring that kind of idea to the website design, because, while we would like to get as much data and information to people, we also wanted people to be able to hop onto the site and browse, not just the artworks but also a lot of thumbnails or sort of images of faces.
If someone is looking for a particular person in our collection, chances are, whilst word searches will bring back a result, it’s nice for people to actually flick through the images of the portraits and identify with the particular person they are interested in learning something about. That was our main focus when we were looking at redeveloping the site.
We also wanted to open with a punchy splash screen, which I think we’ve done pretty successfully. We’ve brought images from the collection, cropped quite a few of them down to almost-life-size faces. So, that’s the first thing that people see when they enter the site and I think it conveys our message pretty strongly and effectively.
Obviously, it has its own issues in terms of access, but I think we should facilitate access for every person that we possibly can. People’s connections are getting faster, people are getting used to Flash content. So, I think a site that works well with both of those ideas and philosophies is probably quite a successful site.
Could you explain a little bit about the Portrait Stories element of the site?
Portrait Stories was a major part of the site redevelopment. We didn’t have them before we relaunched the site last December.
The Portrait Stories project developed out of an idea that we wanted to have an audio-visual tour, as seems to be expected from most galleries. But we wanted to take that a little bit further than your standard audio-visual tour that people may be used to. We saw that it presented us with quite a lot of opportunities in terms of what content we deliver to the public.
So, we basically went away and researched 60 works in the collection, found some interesting stories. The brief was that we had to discover a story, or a few stories, about the particular person that weren’t already written up in a label or weren’t already written up in the description about the artwork on the website. Something else, something different to the usual information that people can get about biographical information about people’s lives. So, we worked with a production company to develop these stories.
The great opportunity that the Portrait Stories project presented was the fact that we actually could get lots of video content. There were two aspects to that. We went away and researched all of the collections around Australia and overseas that may have artifacts, photographs, letters, old oral recordings. The collection at the National Library was fantastic. We approached all of those collections to get copyright permission to have those particular bits and pieces into our story, and then we wove those together into what we call a Portrait Story.
I think the most successful ones are the ones that have a little bit of the sitter’s voice involved. So, whether it is an oral recording, we interviewed a lot of subjects who were overseas, so we basically just did phone interviews. Andy Thomas spoke to us from the States. Chrissie Amphlett spoke to us from the UK. We basically just spliced those in with photographs from their lives, to illustrate the story. But we also managed to get some good video interviews with people, like Frank Fenner, who is now in his 90s, and it was a fantastic opportunity to get him to tell us a bit about his life.
I think that the dimension that this adds when people are standing in front of the artworks in the building with the eye touches that we’re using, when they can actually have that portrait speak through another medium, such as the Portrait Stories, I think there’s another layer, or another dimension, that our audiences can actually experience from our artworks.
Obviously, we went into the project with the idea that it was not just going to be an audio-visual tour for people who managed to make it to the Portrait Gallery. One of the key focuses was that all content should be able to be re-purposed across multiple platforms. So we have all of the Portrait Stories streaming on our website. But we’re also undertaking a project to syndicate them to YouTube and various other platforms, Facebook and various other areas that we are sort of trying to move into at the moment, albeit a bit slowly.
You are developing very valuable content behind these artworks. Has copyright been an issue to organise.
In order to syndicate the stories across multiple platforms, it was a little bit of a learning curve for us, and we did learn some valuable lessons in terms of copyright. And we made some interesting mistakes in terms of copyright as well. But the project is continuing, and I think we will approach the copyright in a very different way in the next couple of incarnations of the Portrait Stories.
When we initially licensed for the Portrait Stories, we licensed for our website and for display in the gallery, which was a big mistake in terms of actually not having permission to then display those stories on any other website.
So, we’re now investigating the Creative Commons licensing scheme, which we’ll build into our licensing for all Portrait Stories in the future. We will restrict things to ‘share-alike’. That is the most restrictive Creative Commons license, which will be more of a viral license, but we’re hoping that that will give us the flexibility that we need to send our content out to various different platforms.
We have a set of iTouches that people can borrow. They’re free of charge at the moment. We’re still developing them. We initially went into the entire project, our director, Andrew Sayers, is very supportive of the online program and very interested in technology.
We originally went into the whole redevelopment of all the development of the audio-visual guides with the idea that, actually, people would be using their own phones to download our stories, and that, coming into the gallery, they could accept a Bluetooth message from the gallery and they could download the content and use their own devices. We investigated that for quite a few months. And it actually turned out that whilst the technology is there, the telecommunication companies weren’t actually coming to the party, in terms of content delivery.
It would just be prohibitive in terms of costs for our public to pay for it. And if we were to enter into a sponsorship arrangement with one particular telco, then that isolates everyone else who happens to be on a different plan with a different company. So, unfortunately, it wasn’t quite at the stage in Australia yet where we could move towards that. But we have built the stories with the idea that that’s what will happen as soon as that kind of problem is sorted out.
You are the only one on the web team. You have done an amazing job planning and developing the strategy for the site.
I see my role as more of a project manager, designer sort of role. I do bring a lot of my design philosophy to the website. But we outsource all of the technology. So, while I would love to learn a little bit more about programming, I know that I’m never going to have the skills that are required, or, if I do manage to get them, be able to keep them up to the standard that we expect.
The real problem, I think, with our resourcing at the moment is the fact that we don’t have a copy editor, which I would absolutely love to have, because that’s very time-consuming in itself, collecting copy and rewriting it and re-purposing for the website. We’re just starting to move towards that now, which will make life a lot easier, and also mean that we can really start getting our message out there a lot more, if we have somebody in that role.
I think we will never move away from the outsourcing model. We have quite a few companies that we work very closely with that we have a good working relationship with, and has proven to be really successful for us.
Do you think that there will be a move in museums, generally, to outsource different sections, like photography, production, IT, building exhibitions?
I think so. I mean, I think that that kind of move already seems to have happened. For us here at the Portrait Gallery, we’re a staff of 52. Whilst our gallery is a lot more modest than the National Gallery of Australia across the road, I mean, the staff difference is phenomenal. They’re sort of sitting at around 250, I think, at the moment. Our output is actually quite similar in terms of programs.
We have outsourced conservation, for example. We’ve outsourced our photography. A lot of the core business has moved towards that outsourcing model. The way we have it set up seems to be working quite well for us at the moment. It would be interesting to do a cost-benefit analysis at some point. The skill that we’ve managed to get from outsourcing is the key thing for us.
You are very progressive in terms of how you’re doing things. Do many other museums operate in a similar way?
I think if it is progressive, it was forced upon us. Most other cultural institutions are statutory authorities, and we still sit very firmly within the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. Most were hoping to move to a statutory authority, which may change our entire operating basis in terms of whether we do continue to outsource or not.
It was sort of a model that was thrust upon us, and we’ve had to work within those parameters, but I think it’s worked quite well for the portrait gallery, we certainly have a high quality of output and a great following from the public, which is great for us.
Email Gillian to learn more on building digital stories about your collection.