Title:The Community as the Centrepiece of a Collection: Building a Community of Objects with the National Vending Machine
Authors:Dennis Tap, Jasper Visser
Publication:MW2011: Museums and the Web 2011

Most modern-day museums use their existing physical collection and the events they stage as a starting point for online activities. Communities are built around (parts of) the collection or specific offline events of a museum. Literature such as Museum and the Web papers, describes numerous case studies of successful projects.

This paper examines the case of the National Vending Machine of the Museum of National History of the Netherlands. The National Vending Machine is an ongoing project focusing on everyday objects and their historical and personal significance. Its objective is to build a 'community of objects' that shows which historical objects are relevant to our audience. Visitor contributions are central to building this community of objects. Through it we gain an understanding of how to engage people with history, culture and the museum. After two instalments of the National Vending Machine at different locations and a number of related activities, a foundation for the community of objects has been established and a number of lessons have been learned about using communities to build a collection.

The project consists of a website and a redesigned traditional Dutch vending machine. Online and offline are linked by RFID technology. The curatorial staff of the museum chose about 100 everyday objects as a starting point for the collection. These were tested with a general audience, and 37 objects were selected to figure in the first instalment. Visitors could discover and buy the objects offline, and add their personal stories online. They were also encouraged to add their own ideas and stories online in order to help expand the community of objects. Although the project received positive feedback from nearly all visitors, only a handful of ideas and stories had been added after a three-month trial period. Interviews with visitors proved the project could be successful, provided some changes were made.

A two-day try-out of an improved interaction model followed, focusing more on personal stories. This led to a redesign of the website. Visitors and their stories were featured whereas the objects and the project were made less prominent. These improvements significantly fostered higher participation in the second instalment of the National Vending Machine.

This paper discusses the five main lessons learned with regard to putting a community at the core of creating an online collection: 1) A focus on the existing collection limits the freedom of visitors to contribute their ideas and stories, whereas 2) a focus on visitors and their stories increases participation and encourages the creation of a varied collection. 3) Offline encouragement is key to creating healthy online engagement. 4) Immediate rewards, physical or virtual, are a strong trigger for participation. 5) The design of both the offline and online environment should be centred on the participant.

The case of the National Vending Machine shows that it is possible, albeit difficult, to make a community the heart of a collection, thus reversing the traditional museum collection model. We believe these conclusions and recommendations to be of substantial value to museums that are planning crowd-sourced expositions or are looking for ways to increase participation with their online collections.