institution: Royal Academy of Arts, London
category: Exhibition and Collection Extension
In May 2018 the Royal Academy of Arts in London will open new spaces to display our Collection for the first time. The RA is known for blockbuster loan exhibitions, but fewer people know that since 1768, we have existed as a group of artists whose aim is to promote the appreciation and creation of art. We’re still led by artists today.
This makes our collection unique: it’s not an encyclopaedic collection, or one put together by curators over time. It’s been chosen, donated and bought primarily by artists. Thousands of paintings, drawings, letters, artist materials and ephemera tell a unique and esoteric story of British art.
Even with these new spaces we can only show a small subsection of the RA’s collection. Around 200 works will be on display, while the Collection contains thousands of objects from our 250-year life, telling the story of the artists who have always been at the centre of the Academy.
The RA’s Collection was previously displayed on a dedicated microsite which was starting to show its 15 years. While the Collection continued to grow, with new works coming in every year from our graduating class of students, as well as the diploma works submitted by practising artists as they are elected to the Academy, the site was not reflecting the rich variety of the collection and its ties to the artists that lead us.
We wanted to take advantage of the opportunities that digital platforms afford us. While a gallery space gives a unique chance to see a work in person, digital can not only show more works but we can also create new ways in to the collection. As inclusive as any physical display aims to be, it is intrinsically tied to the method of curation, the opinion of one or a small group.
Not to mention the broader challenge: how do you interest a new audience in an institution’s collection? How do you make something 250 years old – and in some cases much older – feel relevant to today’s audiences? How do you explain what ‘a collection’ even is: do you actually need to?
We had clear and challenging audiences objectives for this project. We knew we needed to continue to serve our expert audience, to give them the tools to use the collection site as a resource into the story of British art. However, we also needed to expand our horizons, to find a way to present our content in a way that was accessible for new audiences, curious but unconfident about art.
The RA has done a lot of thinking about its audience in the past four years. We have mapped out three key groups: our committed followers (our members and repeat visitors) and two newer target audiences, who are slightly younger, crucially creative and interested, but time-poor and less devoted to single institutions. Identifying the key needs and behaviours of these groups, we’ve begun to design content and products to serve their needs.
For this project, we decided to target two of these audiences. Firstly, we wanted to reach our committed audience in a way we hadn’t before, introducing them to another side of the RA. While they knew us for our exhibitions, their knowledge of the Collection was poorer. Secondly, we also wanted to welcome one of our target segments, who we’ve termed Life Enthusiasts. They are enthusiastic but easy-going; creative in their personal lives but not professionally so; and more likely to live outside of London than our traditional audiences. They’re looking to digital for inspiration and less formal, more immersive ways to engage.
Finally, we had another audience group to consider too, our experts. The RA’s Collection site has long been a respected resource for researchers and more well-informed non-professional users, with advanced search functions and a deep well of information and rich data. But as we looked to the RA’s future, we knew we needed to start bringing the Collection to audiences far broader than that. So, as with many museum and gallery projects, w had to balance carefully the needs of expert and new audiences.
What we learnt
We began by approaching all three audiences for user testing. At this stage we were faced with a challenge.
Our committed audience and our ‘Life Enthusiasts’, we learned, felt that our historic Collection wasn’t ‘for them’. More accurately, they felt that the familiar or traditional approaches to presenting such a collection – essays, timelines, academically-driven themes – wouldn’t appeal. Time and again we heard people speak of these approaches as ‘great for someone else’ or ‘a brilliant resource for students’. That was not what we were looking for.
To attract this wider audience in the age of Netflix and Spotify – particularly the digital-savvy creative professionals and inspiration-seeking segments the RA is targeting – we needed to take a different approach. In the past, museums dictated the experience. See this painting; read this about it; then move onto this one. Now, our users’ habits had changed, and so must we.
We also found that both our non-expert audiences struggled with defining what a Collection actually is. While some were familiar in the context of other institutions, other were not and the majority believed we did not have one. We realised that where we placed the Collection and what we called it were as important as how a visitor might engage once they were there.
What we did about it
Of course, disrupting an accepted – and perfectly valid – way of working within a large and historic institution comes with its own challenges.
We knew we’d have conflicting demands on what the site should do, and who it was for – the tension between bringing in new audiences while maintaining our loyal, more specialist ones.
With design agency Fabrique, we developed an approach: we would keep the user groups’ experiences distinct, maintaining the advanced search functionality that our specialists expected, and creating a new, separate experience for our new audiences. Having the basis of our audience segmentation and content strategy established before embarking on this project allowed us communicate and agree these decisions more easily (though not without hurdles along the way).
Three ways in:
The neverending journey
More than ever, algorithms drive the content we see and form the connections between one piece and another – whether it’s the next episode of a series served up on Netflix or YouTube, or Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” feature. While for some these algorithms may limit, we wanted to try to build on the feeling of ‘stumbling upon’ those unexpected connections between two pieces of content. We wanted to allow, indeed encourage, that sort of light, effortless experience in a museum context. One that was seemingly endless and limitless, and required no commitment. One that puts the user in the driver’s seat – for whatever experience they want. We wanted to give them permission not to have to learn, but just to lose themselves in the Collection.
For these new audiences we created a visual explorer: a way to display the connections between our objects and allow users to choose their own journey, navigating by theme, artist, medium or simply colour. This uses the data structures of the database to create a beautiful, app-like experience where it’s possible to waste half your lunchbreak, surfing from object to object. A user can go from a JMW Turner to a painting by the current President of the RA, Christopher Le Brun, through their shared use of a dramatic sky. In this way we can show the vibrancy and the eclecticism of the Collection rather than telling our audience about it.
Our committed audience were looking for a little more guidance, for someone they trust to take them on a journey. They were less interested in hearing from curators, but more from someone whose opinion interests them and relates to them. Where better to start than the artists who run the RA? Artists often have a more personal, less academic relationship with artworks. So, we’ve worked with them and other cultural figures to select works from the collection. We’ve created an audio series – an illustrated mini-podcast – called ‘top picks’ which provide a more curated way in to the collection, with a personal touch.
Our experts were concerned mainly with not losing any functionality. We had a relatively sophisticated search in the previous iteration of the site. So, we worked hard to keep and improve the functionality, while making the searches and results easier to understand, with tooltips and more visual interfaces. We’ve also been able to make the transcriptions of our archives easier to see alongside the digitised image and clearly mark the images available to download through Creative Commons.
Art & Artists
We found a home for the Collection in a new part of the site that we called Art & Artists. Through testing with a tool called Optimal Workshop, asking a series of questions with this additional item in our navigation, we found that most users were looking for the type of content we have in our Collection (art, objects, books and people) under Art & Artists rather than a more traditional Learn/Collection/Research language, or where the Collection has previously lived – under About.
We have also taken care to ensure that the Collection is now woven throughout the site. The level of integration means that Collection objects can be pulled into anywhere on the site, whether this is an event, an article, an exhibition or a ‘Collection’ page. This approach allows a user to begin their journeys at any point across the site, they don’t even have to be looking for our Collection, they’ll simply stumble upon it.
An unexpected advantage
While we had expected that integrating the Collection across the site would give our audience serendipitous interactions with and allow users to navigate through the Collection, integrating the site has also given our digital editors the tools to incorporate our collection across our digital estate. While we were aiming for this on the website, as they also make use of the more thematic and idiosyncratic ways of finding objects, they too are discovering the hidden delights of the Collection and making use of these across our platforms.
How have audiences responded?
This project was looking to create effortless interactions with the Collection, to bring people closer to our art and artists without making them work for it. Since launching, we’ve had a wonderful response from our users. We’ve seen the audience for our Collection content on the site and the length of time on page more than double as well as an increase in engagement and awareness across our social platforms.
We’ve also had encouraging qualitative data. When we launched the site we put a feedback form up to gather our audience’s opinions and have had responses not just from our existing expert audiences, but new expert audiences alongside those who are simply enjoying the beautiful art.
“i love these beautiful paintings”
“Fascinating, thought provoking, creating unseen links and where has the time gone? Thank you”
– Jac Fletcher
“Please digitise more and make it available online, it can be of real benefit to researchers on the other side of the world working on British art held in major post-colonial collections.”
– Nat Williams
We’re now using the insight from the redesigned offer to develop our future plans for our Collection online.