Curator/Collections Researcher

User research for collections content

Kathleen Lawther
Date Published
  • Cataloguing
  • Collections
  • User Research
a user research workshop taking place at a community centre. Two women are standing and talking, other women sit listening and discussing. There are shelved with Somali cultural objects in the background.

Who are the users of the information that museums research and record about their collections? In many cases full collections records are only accessible internally. That information may then be mediated through curatorial, interpretation, and other teams to create a public facing output.

While studies exist about users, ‘the focus has primarily been on user groups that are easier to access, such as experts, researchers and museum staff.’ There is a further conversation to be had about the user experience for these users and how it has a knock-on effect for interpretation, but for now I am interested in the experience of people outside the museum who are interested in accessing information about the collections.

Who are these museum users and what are their needs? There is an assumption that if collections are digitised and published online, they are accessible to everyone. But just as with onsite interpretation, there remain barriers to access. Making collections content available digitally does not automatically increase access or the diversity of audiences. To increase access to collections, museums need to think more carefully about the information they include when they catalogue their collections, who this information serves, and where and how the information can be found.

Museums now research their audiences and potential audiences in order to provide a better user experience, but user research is more common with existing on site visitors and audiences who are local to the museum. Museums also recognise the need to engage with people who have cultural links to the objects in their collections, but often when so-called ‘source communities’ are involved in museum work they are consulted as just that: sources of information. If not done equitably, projects which seek to add new information to collections records through dialogue with source communities risk replicating extractive colonial collecting practices.

When working with collections from other parts of the world, particularly the former colonies of the British Empire, there is a further historic relationship between the museum, the ‘source’ community and the ‘local’ community to consider. Museums have historically thought of some communities as ‘sources’ or informants and other ‘local’ communities as users of their collections. It was the museum’s role to communicate to the local community about the source community using objects, photographs and information gathered from them. This presentation was frequently othering, exoticising, and/or explicitly racist.

What happens when the ‘source’ community is also the target audience? Despite the problematic nature of ethnographic collecting and past presentations, some of the material that museums hold remains culturally significant for people. It is the museum’s job to make this material available to interested people in ways that meet their needs. The existing problematic presentations of collections are unlikely to meet these needs, so some user research is needed to better understand how to serve those audiences.

Potential user groups for Somali photograph collections at the Powell-Cotton Museum

The Powell-Cotton Museum already knew that they had a significant collection of material from Somalia (one of the largest in Europe). They knew from previous work with Somali participants that many people were more interested in the photographs than the objects in the collection. The museum was also aware that their target audience was not one homogenous ‘Somali community’. The project focused on the needs of three specific groups:

  • Direct descendants of some of the people in the photographs and their extended networks.
  • Somali diaspora communities in East London. The museum is located in Birchington, a village in Kent. The area is predominantly white, and the nearest city with a significant Somali population is London.
  • Somali and Somali diaspora communities online. I worked to engage this broader group using social media, and having written about using Instagram to engage people with these collections.

For the first group, the museum was already in contact with members of the Bajuni diaspora community in Kenya who had recognised family members in photographs from the Bajuni islands. Such a direct connection was a rare opportunity for the museum, both to share more of the photos with the family and their networks, and with their permission, to record more information about the individuals in the photographs. You can see some of these photographs and read about the process here. 

User research

In order to better understand the second audience, I used some of my Headley Fellowship research and development budget to organise a workshop with Women’s Inclusive Team (WIT), a Somali-led organisation in Tower Hamlets, who were introduced to the museum by collaborator Abira Hussein.

With 6 months to work on the project, I knew that I would only be able to do a limited amount of user research. I wanted to organise an event that would be mutually beneficial, combining an opportunity for the participants to see the photographs with an opportunity for me to talk to them about how the museum might improve access in the future.

I often think about the conundrum of whether museums need to sort out their collections before they can make them accessible to people. I wanted the participants to have a good experience and be able to answer any questions they had about the collection, but I also wanted their interests to shape the work I did on the collections. In preparation for the workshop I discussed with the then Head of Collections ‘If we are to share the Somali photographs with people at an event, what is the minimum we need to do?’ We decided:

  • They should all have a unique identifier so that we can refer back to them
  • They should be reproduced to a high enough standard that people can look at them on screens or printed copies (in the end I created surrogate copies of the photograph albums for people to look at on the day and left some copies with WIT).
  • The event is intended to spark conversation and find out what people would want to know about the photos and how they would want to access that information – so there should be a follow up where they can see that this has been acted on (the group were keen to visit the museum site and the Powell-Cotton team is hoping to welcome the group for a visit in the future).

One of the tensions of this project for me was what I should be spending my time researching. I was very aware that the point of the project was not for me as an individual to learn about or study Somalia and Somali culture. What I wanted to learn was how to do effective user research in order to make collections more accessible. But in order to do this well I did need to have some awareness and understanding about the people I was hoping to work with. I wish I had taken this into account more when planning the session. For example, when organising the workshop the subject of language barriers came up, and I arranged with WIT to have members of their team at the workshop to help translate. CEO Safia Jama did an amazing job translating my presentation about the collections and museum to the group, and their responses back to me and museum colleagues, but I underestimated the impact that this would have on my ability to have in depth conversations with the participants about the photographs.

Another consideration was managing expectations about the photographs. Although the collection is one of the largest of Somali material in Europe, Diana only travelled in the south of the country, between Mogadishu and the border with Kenya. Most of the Somali diaspora people in the UK are from Somaliland (in the north). Although people were able to find commonalities in the photographs, some women expressed disappointment that the museum could not show them anything from Somaliland. This example is an argument for doing more research about the collections, and having a decent understanding of them yourself before you attempt to show them to people.

How these conversations impacted the project

One of the assumptions that the museum team and I had made going into the project was that geography would be a good way for people to connect with these collections. When I started adding images to Instagram I used hashtags which referred to particular locations in the photographs. But talking to the participants at WIT, many were not familiar with those locations because they did not have a connection to that part of the country. They were more interested in the way the photographs showed what was happening in Somali society at the time (including histories of slavery and European colonialism), and photos that showed how people lived.

Many participants talked about wanting to teach their children about Somali culture, and suggested ways that the images could be combined with spoken word interpretation and film to make the stories come alive for people. Creating such interpretation was beyond the scope of the project. I hope that the work I have done to digitise and catalogue the photographs will lay the foundation for the museum to work with some of the Somali curators and community members who are now aware of the collections to seek funding for further interpretation and use of the photographs and objects.

In the meantime, I shifted the focus of the hashtags which I was using on Instagram (and to pull images through to the dedicated page on the museum web site) from place names to themes around daily and cultural life, including ‘crafts’, ‘food and drink’ and ‘nomadic life’. This is ironically similar to the way Diana Powell-Cotton had organised her collections, and how they have been historically displayed in the galleries at the museum. The museum still has work to do however to ensure that the presentation fits the needs of Somali diaspora people wanting to learn about, or teach their families about, Somali culture. The collections and the broad themes may be the same, since without a new collecting initiative the museum has to work with what it already has, but I hope that the user insight and collections research from this project will enable to museum to tell more nuanced stories with and about these collections.