Mapping the way to a more digitally inclusive museum

Alyssa McLeod, Royal Ontario Museum, Canada


How can museums implement digital methodology from the start of a project to its end? All too often, we graft digital assets or tools onto the ends of projects rather than letting them play an integral role in our planning from the beginning. This digitally exclusive approach frequently results in what Koven J. Smith calls "analogue products with a digital finish" (Smith, 2014a). In the fall of 2013, the Web team at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) launched a cross-departmental collaboration to create an iPad-based interactive digital map for an exhibition on Beijing's Forbidden City. This public-facing instance of mapping heralded a more widespread use of open-source digital-mapping tools across the museum. Museum studies students are now using Google Maps Engine to display their research in our galleries, collections managers are taking a geographical approach to organize their discoveries, and the Web team is holding well-attended all-staff workshops to teach the basics of online mapping. This paper proposes that staff enthusiasm for mapping technology at the ROM is directly related to the familiarity of the tools being implemented. It outlines the process by which staff across the museum integrate digital mapping into their day-to-day workflows and suggests a model for digital inclusivity for future projects. When digital tools play an integral role in the research and planning stages of an exhibition or public-facing project, what we display to our online and on-site visitors becomes a more authentically digital and more fundamentally usable experience.

Keywords: maps, exhibitions, agile, methodology, digital

1. Introduction

Museums have generally been quick to pick up on digital tools. The earliest museum websites date back to the mid 1990s, when household Internet connections were still relatively uncommon and personal e-mail was a new concept. MuseumNerd (2014) documents some of these gems in a recent blog post, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1996), American Museum of Natural History (1996), and British Museum (1999). The Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) first website dates back to 1996 ( Technology-inclined staff were quick to embrace the Internet as a means to promote on-site visitation and share their workplace’s educational mandate.

Yet today, beyond sending e-mails and creating spreadsheets and Word documents in Microsoft Office, how successful have museums been in integrating digital tools into their staffs’ daily workflows? Although many museums produce high-level technology, the producers of this content often work in digital-specific departments or have digital-specific job descriptions. In his address at MuseumNext 2014, Koven J. Smith suggests that this digital divide exists because “we’ve treated digital work as a skillset, not as a methodology that could be adopted by anyone inside the organization” (Smith, 2014b). As a result, many projects end up as analogue-digital hybrids that do not quite meet visitor expectations.

This paper argues that museums too frequently graft digital initiatives onto the end of non-digital projects rather than letting digital tools play an integral role in project planning from the beginning. Of course, this separation of workflows can be an inevitability in museums: by definition, most curatorial staff work with non-digital collections (one notable exception being the Cooper Hewitt’s recent decision to start preserving code (Chan, 2013)). Digital tools such as websites, social media, and kiosk interactives necessarily become a means of communicating non-digital information. But this digitally exclusive approach frequently results in what Smith calls “analogue products with a digital finish” (Smith, 2014a): online exhibitions that mirror on-site exhibitions, in-gallery interactives designed to accommodate extra object-label text, and so on.

At the ROM in Toronto, Canada, this divide between “digital” and non-digital labour is true of many projects. The Web team at the ROM was often pulled into print-only projects at the last minute, having to adapt print-only material to Web use. But when the team began to plan an iPad-based map kiosk for an upcoming exhibition, we inadvertently stumbled across a tool that allowed even our less computer-savvy staff members to take a more digitally inclusive approach to project planning: digital maps. So many mobile and desktop users are already familiar with Google Maps, Apple Maps, and (for the more old-fashioned) MapQuest that introducing the tool as an end goal (in this case, an in-gallery digital interactive) quickly led to staff members taking things into their own hands.

This paper will outline the process by which online mapping evolved from a public-facing display tool, utilized by the Web team for exhibitions and online communication, to a flexible, inclusive methodology employed across the ROM. We have found that implementing a digital tool that users are already familiar with has a much higher engagement rate than encouraging staff to learn a new skill on the job. What’s more, when digital tools play an integral role in the research and planning stages of an exhibition or public-facing project, what we display to our online and on-site visitors becomes a more authentically digital and a more fundamentally usable experience. Digital mapping can pave the way to a more digitally inclusive museum, for staff and visitors alike.

2. The problem of digital inclusivity

Digital uptake at the Royal Ontario Museum is relatively high. We moved from a static PHP website in 2011 to a Drupal-powered, mobile-responsive website, leading more and more staff to grow comfortable with directly adding and editing content in the content management system’s WYSIWYG editing interface.

In spite of having a small Web team of only four, the ROM has over fifty content editors active on our website right now, including about eleven curators who are directly responsible for updating blog entries and the information on their staff pages. We also have over fifty ROM staff members active on social media, mainly due to the support and encouragement of our social media coordinator, Ryan Dodge.

In terms of project development, however, we still face the challenges that should be familiar to many people who work in digital media. The digital aspects of a project are still frequently addressed in the second stage of development for an exhibition or a program, and the ROM Web team routinely adapts material intended for print to work on the Web. While we are still satisfied with the results of most of our efforts, the process of adapting non-digital design and content to the digital realm can often prove lengthy and inefficient for all involved.

In her response to Koven Smith’s MuseumNext keynote, Colleen Dilenschneider (2014) argues on her blog that this disjointed workflow is a result of a misunderstanding of what digital means as a concept:

We are breeding a culture of misunderstanding around the important role of “digital” in the future of our organizations and, frankly, it imperils the vibrancy of the very future that we are trying to ensure. “Digital” has been allowed to become an “other” (i.e., “not within my scope of work” and/or “something I don’t ‘get’”) … An online donor is still a donor. For visitor-serving organizations, a website visitor is still a visitor (a person connecting with your brand and mission). The difference is the platform (“connection point”), and the goal is the same as “in real life.” Digital – when it is used with audiences – IS “real life” and organizations will benefit from treating it as such.

Dilenschneider goes on to conclude that the digital should be about people, not technology. Digital tools are just one more way to reach out to the public and to each other. As Lynda Kelly (2011) points out in her invaluable blog post “Agile Development for Museums,” museums are not necessarily the best adapted to rapid development or change, since the exhibition model is so different than the agile methodology embraced by most tech companies today. But if, as the 2013 Horizon Report indicates (Johnson, Adams Becker, & Freeman, 2013), museum visitors are expecting a seamless experience across all devices, and between their devices and physical gallery space, then we will all have to adapt, to become what Smith calls “authentically” digital (Smith, 2014b).

There are no digital tools; there are only tools, employed to various degrees of success.

3. Digital mapping at the ROM

In a recent blog post on observational research, Andrew Lewis, digital content delivery manager at the Victoria and Albert Museum, maintains that visitors expect familiar technology when they encounter “digitally-mediated museum experiences” (2014). Interfaces that look like touch screens should respond like tablets or smart phones:

It was interesting to see how familiarity affects expectation. On the Cocoon touch tables, there was evidence that children expected touch screens to react like their familiar technology – things they all use frequently like smart phones and iPads. They appeared to find interaction difficult if it worked differently to their normal daily experience of interaction. They have technology pre-expectations which may cause them tension if not met by museum experiences. (Lewis, 2014)

The more familiar the interface is to tools that visitors already employ in their day-to-day lives, the easier the learning curve is for museum visitors. At the ROM, we learned that this same rule applies to museum staff expected to implement digital tools in their daily workflows.

In the fall of 2013, the Web team at the ROM joined a cross-departmental collaboration to create an iPad-based interactive digital map for an exhibition on Beijing’s Forbidden City. Initially conceived of as a means of fitting in extra-contextual information about the layout of the city, the plan was to install a series of iPads in our special exhibition space on which a Google Map featuring a satellite view of the city would be prominently displayed. On the map would be a series of icons, each containing a description of the place and its historical significance in the city. The project team consisted of a digital producer (Rob McMahon), manager (Cheryl Fraser), Web designer (Alyssa McLeod), videographer (Seth Mendelson), project planner (Jason French), and interpretive planner (Courtney Murfin).

The Web team created a trial version ( using the Google Maps JavaScript API v3. The interface had its limitations, particularly from a design perspective: the colour on the Google satellite view is dark, which would have been an issue in our already low-light exhibition, and the Forbidden City itself does not point true north (figure 1). It is impossible to rotate Google Maps in any other orientation, at least without some coding trickery.

Satellite image with red pins on it

Figure 1: screenshot of the trial Google Maps version of the Forbidden City map interactive

Moreover, Web-based Google maps simply do not function as smoothly on iPads as they do on desktop computers. Google Maps JavaScript API v3 is designed to load a tiled series of new images every time the user zooms in or out. If the user has a slow Internet connection, this tiling effect can be tedious and rather frustrating. Our Wi-Fi connection in our special exhibition space was too weak to accommodate the robustness of the API. (The Wi-Fi issue with this particular exhibition was actually the catalyst that led to stronger Wi-Fi installation in that exhibition space.)

Due to these technical challenges and design limitations, the ROM Web team ended up creating a customized, Google Maps-like interface using HTML5, jQuery, and a high-resolution satellite image of the Forbidden City that we had purchased from a satellite imagery retailer. Because of the exhibition space’s low Wi-Fi signal, we needed the content on each iPad to work locally, using the iOS kiosk app Kiosk Pro. The Web team essentially hacked its own open-source version of a very familiar interface (figure 2).

Satellite image with red pins on it. The title says "Explore the Forbidden City"

Figure 2: screenshot of the initial screen of the ROM’s HTML and jQuery-powered Forbidden City iPad interactive

As you can see from figure 2, which is actually a high-resolution jpeg, we were able to orient the top of the city to the top of the iPad, which was important to our exhibition design team. The Web team was able to create a series of iPads that showed the city from different angles and perspectives, which we organized around a three-dimensional scale model of the city just outside the entrance to the exhibition (figure 3).

An iPad next to a scale model of a city

Figure 3: a horizontally oriented map in front of a scale model of the Forbidden City. Photo by Brian Boyle.

As in our initial Google Maps version of the interface, users of our new iPad experience can use their fingers to pinch-zoom in and out of the map, exploring the details of the satellite image and the surrounding view of China. Clicking each Google Maps-like pin on the interface opens a pop-up window that gives more contextual information about specific buildings and locations within the Forbidden City (figure 4).

A pop-up window overlaid over a satellite image. It features a smaller map of the Forbidden City, an illustration of a man, and a photo of the gates to the city.

Figure 4: screenshot of a pop-up window from the Forbidden City map interactive

Our aim was to create a strong sense of place in our users and form a visual connection between the mysterious Forbidden City of the past and the Palace Museum that now stands on its grounds in modern day China. We designed the red-walled mini maps on the upper left-hand side of each pop-up window to compensate for our interface’s lack of the sense of place that accompanies Google Maps’ pop-up windows (when the user clicks on a pin in Google Maps, the map shifts so you can see the pin’s location while you read. We were limited by the size of our iPad screens). We also took advantage of the HTML structure of our custom interface, adding accessibility features like text resizing, and interactive features like the ability to zoom in and out of the images in the pop-up windows and easily swipe through multiple images in a carousel at the bottom of each window.

To further emphasize the geographic distance between Toronto and Beijing, we added a Google Earth-generated video that traced the path from one city to another (figure 5). We wanted to emphasize the distance the objects had traveled to get to the ROM, and the distance travelers from Canada would have to travel to see the Forbidden City.

A Google Earth-generated satellite view of the Royal Ontario Museum

Figure 5: still from the video of the Forbidden City map interactive; note that the video ends at the ROM

We next created a series of maps that led the user on a specialized tour of different residents’ experiences of the city. There were five maps in total, each expressing a different understanding of the same city. Each map appeared in its respective section of the exhibition (figure 6).

A picture of a museum exhibition panel with an iPad below

Figure 6: the Power and Privilege section of Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors. Photo by Brian Boyle.

Explore the City offered an overview of the city and was loaded into the iPads that were installed around the scale model at the entrance of the exhibition. Life in the Palace revealed what life was like for many of the unseen, unheard residents of the inner city, including concubines. Power and Privilege offered visitors an understanding of the power dynamics and complex political system that occupied the lives of many who lived within the city. Studying and Collecting outlined the scholarly endeavors in the city. The Palace Museum reviewed the contrast between the ancient city and the museum that now stands in its location.

All things considered, the process behind creating these iPad map experiences was not born digital. The project started out as a collection of Excel spreadsheets, Dropbox folders, and notes taken in meetings. The project team ended up doing a lot of digitization work over the course of the development, including scanning images and rewriting text for the Web. But the maps were a great success. Many visitors to our exhibition requested that we provide even more multimedia elements for our next major exhibition, and our online, Google Maps-powered version of the iPad experience ( consistently proved to be one of the most popular pages of our exhibition microsite.

The success of these maps was partly related to the familiarity of the interface. Most visitors we watched interact with our kiosks knew automatically to pinch to zoom, to click the pins for more information, and to use their fingers to scroll around the map. But the maps were a success also because they helped to spatialize the narrative of the exhibition to frame the content in an easily digestible, interactive way that brought the past to life.

4. Mapping in museums

Digital mapping is growing more popular in museums, universities, and libraries internationally. A visual system of organizing information geographically, maps function as an excellent tool for structuring data that might otherwise prove difficult to understand. Moreover, as more museums make what the 2013 Horizon Report defines as “collection-related rich media” available to the public (Johnson, Adams Becker, & Freeman, 2013), maps provide an excellent means of structuring that content.

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Digital Explorer Map ( is an excellent example of a map used to structure a complex amount of data. A Web-based, responsive-to-mobile experience that uses HTML5 to manipulate SVG vectors (Lewis, 2013), the Explorer Map is less clunky than most websites and more accessible on various devices than an app. The Map is linked to the V&A’s collections API and has been designed for what Andrew Lewis (2013) describes as the “leisure” of tablet use: only 1 percent of the Map’s users make use of the excellent search function; the rest browse. With maps, particularly interactive digital maps, getting there is part of the fun.

The Digital Explorer Map embodies the two types of online exhibitions Jennifer Mundy and Jane Burton of the Tate define in their paper on the online exhibition The Gallery of Lost Art: a rich media catalogue of art in a two-dimensional setting, and an online replica of a gallery (2013). The Explorer Map is equally immersive and useful whether it is accessed in the museum or online, and, like the ROM’s Forbidden City maps, it allows visitors to spatially conceive of the museum in a way they may not be able to imagine in a strictly two-dimensional representation of the Tate’s collections. 

Another fantastic immersive interactive approach to museum mapping is at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (Chiles & Blaser, 2014). On the floor of what once was a transitional space between galleries, the Great Map allows visitors to use tablets or mobile devices to experience maritime stories geographically and to contribute their own anecdotes. Again, this digital/analogue hybrid map succeeds because it allows visitors to spatialize narrative in a unique way.

The Het Scheepvaartmuseum (National Maritime Museum) in Amsterdam similarly takes advantage of this spatial approach to history with its impressive Streete View (, an interactive, high-resolution seventeenth-century map of Amsterdam. Using the Google Maps API, the museum created an extremely familiar interface with digitized maps and images of Amsterdam, including a “street view” similar to Google Street View that links users to illustrations of the city at street level. The museum effectively hacked Google Maps to create an educational experience.

5. Mapping takes over the ROM

After the official opening of the Forbidden City exhibition at the ROM, the Web team began to notice a trend among our colleagues that had major implications: ROM staff, including those whose job descriptions were not officially “digital,” were already creating digital maps using whatever tools they had available. Our Forbidden City project was, in fact, already capitalizing on a trend that had already started within the museum. No wonder the iPad map experience was so successful.

The first example is Toronto Underfoot, an amazing map (and now also an amazing exhibition) created by April Hawkins, New World Archaeology technician at the ROM. Originally a simple Google Map (,-79.439049&msa=0&spn=0.147421,0.220757&mid=z3bx9SlyP30Q.kRcHxDZE-lME) that she used to track the site locations of First Nations objects found around the city of Toronto, Hawkins gradually turned this map into an exhibition ( that explores time and space in the city.

The original map should look quite familiar to frequent users of Google Maps (figure 7).

A Google Map of the city of Toronto with First Nations objects on it

Figure 7: screenshot of the original version of April Hawkins’s Toronto Underfoot

By clicking on the objects located on the map, users learn about the history of each artifact and about the modern-day sites on which the artifacts were found. With the help of a volunteer, Hawkins created an interface that spatialized the narrative of Toronto’s history, connecting the Toronto of the past to the Toronto of the present by featuring archival images of each discovery site.

The map has proved to be incredibly popular. It has received tens of thousands of views over the past few years, and April Hawkins was even interviewed about the project on a popular local radio program ( When Hawkins decided to turn this digital success into an on-site exhibition, the ROM embraced the opportunity to convert an online exhibition into an in-gallery experience, which is not a pattern common in most museums. The objects in the display case were arranged on top of a map of Toronto to communicate the sense of foundedness these artifacts carry: the digital interface of the map informed the physical layout of the exhibition.

The Web team’s interventions to the map were minor, and we simply designed the preexisting map to work better as a kiosk installation on an iPad (figure 8).

A Google Map of the city of Toronto with First Nations objects on it

Figure 8: screenshot of the customized version of April Hawkins’s Toronto Underfoot; view a live version of this map at

To create this map, we exported the data from April’s initial map and created a custom Google Maps API-powered interface. The map colour palette was brightened to make the iPads stand out more in the gallery, and extraneous information like minor road names and landmarks was hidden. We wanted the interface to emphasize the neighbourhood in which the objects were found rather than the pinpoint location of each object. We also made the map bilingual, part of our mandate as a government institution, and added a “Post-it note” to encourage users to click the objects on the map. Interestingly, the more dissimilar the map became from a typical Google Map—in this case, using images instead of pins—the less likely our visitors were to identify the map as an interactive tool. Instructions were necessary to encourage user interaction.

April Hawkins’s Toronto Underfoot was the first of many digital maps created at the ROM by staff outside the digital team. Nora Venezky and Desiree Fuller, students from the Museum Studies program at the University of Toronto, created a map with Google Maps Engine ( to outline the history of social work placements in Toronto. Venezky and Fuller created the map as part of a course in the Museum Studies program; with minor adjustments by the Web team at the ROM that mainly consisted of embedding the map directly on the ROM website, Venezky and Fuller’s final product went on display in the gallery. ROM curators have been using Google Maps and screenshots from Google Earth in blog posts (e.g., to communicate information on their research, and other departments have been looking to use Google Maps Engine as a way to collect visitor feedback.

Noticing the increasing popularity of maps throughout the ROM, the Web team held an all-staff workshop last fall to discuss the more intricate details of creating custom maps with Google Maps Engine. The workshop outlined the basic steps in creating a custom map, and even went as far as to teach the basics of working with KML (Keyhole Markup Language), a form of XML that stores geographic data to be used in Google Earth or Google Maps ( Staff reception was positive, and the workshop led to increased enthusiasm for digital projects at the ROM.

6. A model for future projects

Based on the Web team’s involvement with digital mapping at the ROM in the past year, we have identified three major principles that should govern all projects in the museum that contain a digital component. This would include any digital engagement or communication of museum activities, anything that appears on the website or on social media, or anything that appears dually on the Web and in the gallery.

The principles are as follows:

  1. Digital methodology should be integrated into the project from the initial planning stages. Digital strategies for any project should be developed alongside the print/gallery strategy, not afterwards.
  2. Digital methodology should be employed by all team members working on the project, not just the Web team. This could be as simple as using Google Drive instead of a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, or collecting data in a shared online form. Remember: not everyone has to do everything. But digital work should not be limited to the departments or employees that specialize in it.
  3. The last two steps will be easier if we start realistically; that is, employ a digital format or technique familiar enough to staff that they will feel comfortable enough to employ it in their work. Transition to Google Drive from Microsoft Office when sharing Web-ready text: Google Docs and Sheets are similar enough to Word and Excel that most staff will be able to adapt to the new platform quickly. Use Google Maps to organize geographical information. Coordinate staff or groups within staff via Facebook Groups, Twitter lists, or hashtags. Write exhibition text in short, straightforward paragraphs that will work well on in print or on the Web. Design your wordmarks so they work well on mobile and in print. These suggestions will end up saving time and creating more fluently digital results.

Of course, these principles are not something that we can profess to practice in full. Things change slowly in museums out of necessity, and staff can be slow to uptake new techniques or methodologies, especially if there is a learning curve. Like staff at most museums, we are often too busy to evaluate our own work strategies. But if museums make use of familiar tools, it is possible to establish a basis for a digital workflow that will in turn be adopted in more and more projects.

7. Conclusion

Maps are just one way that the “digital” can become a methodology instead of an end goal. Digital engagement can be tricky to encourage among museum staff, especially since so much of the work that goes on in museums occurs offline: preservation, conservation, hands-on research, and so forth. But promoting digital inclusivity in a museum can be as simple as having a project team develop a digital plan alongside their non-digital strategy. It is easier to move from print or gallery space to the digital world if the project planners have been strategizing for both from the beginning.

Education is an important aspect of creating an inclusive digital methodology in a museum. The Web team’s Google Maps tutorial was just one session in a monthly series of staff workshops we hold to encourage digital involvement among all ROM staff, and to educate others about what our department does. Past session topics include an introduction to Google Drive, how to tweet at an advanced level (including tagging other users in pictures and the proper use of hashtags), Minecraft (which proved much more popular than we could have ever anticipated), and how to edit images for the Web using free tools such as Pixlr Express. The role of the Web team at the ROM is gradually expanding to mentorship and guidance, which are necessary to encourage digital engagement in the rest of the museum.

Maps have proved to catch on quite successfully at the ROM, but this approach may not work in every museum. The key to this technique is to find out what the staff in your museum are already using, and work within their interests. Ultimately, digital tools are simply tools, and it is doubtful whether we will still differentiate between digital methodology and other forms of methodology in ten years, or even five. Museums are both physical and digital spaces, and our work should reflect that duality.


Thanks to Cheryl Fraser, Noman Siddiqui, Yoon Kang, Ryan Dodge, Rob McMahon, Seth Mendelson, Courtney Murfin, Jason French, Dave Hollands, April Hawkins, Sandy Bourne, Xerxes Mazda, and Janet Carding.


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Cite as:
. "Mapping the way to a more digitally inclusive museum." MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published January 31, 2015. Consulted .