Building Secure Foundations: MoL Picturebank

Posted on by

Martin Bazley

DLNET talked to Rhiannon Looseley, the Online Learning Manager at the Museum of London, about the new Picturebank.

Hi Rhiannon, welcome to the new look DLNET website.  Can you tell us about the Picturebank which has been introduced to Museum of London Website?

The new Picturebank at was built to replace a previous version which had loads of great content, but was beginning to show its age and had few key disadvantages that this new one corrects.  The Picturebank supports (and was developed alongside), the Pocket Histories – short introductions to areas of London’s history which use the Museum’s collections to tell their stories.  The Pocket Histories are intended to be for a general audience which includes school and college teachers/tutors and students but also generally interested adults, parents looking for homework resources etc.  The Picturebank, on the other hand, was developed specifically for schools and colleges.  It takes images from the Pocket Histories and explores each object further in an interface that was built with the needs of the classroom in mind.  Users can browse by period or by topic, or simply search by key word. Each object page can be viewed in a variety of different formats with just the enlarged image, or with a description and/or suggested discussion questions that can be turned on or off.

Why a Picture Bank?

One of the things that often emerges in consultations that we carry out with teachers is that the key thing that museums can support them with is access to ‘stuff’.  Teachers tell us that they know how to teach and what to teach, but that we can provide them with images and information that can enhance their lessons and provide the ‘wow factor’ of seeing images of real historical objects that teachers cannot provide themselves.  They might use our images because they want to get their students enthused about the objects they will see at the Museum, or it might be completely independent of a museum visit as part of teaching a particular topic.  Teachers might use images for classroom displays, or to create their own presentations or worksheets, or students might use them in their own work.  Objects are a great starter for discussion and enquiry-based learning.

I think access to images of objects is the very first kind of online learning resource museums should think of offering.  The web is so full of teaching resources these days but what museums have that makes us unique, our USP if you like, is our collections and the knowledge that we hold about them.  Images are the most versatile learning resource that a museum can provide, particularly on a limited budget because there are so many different ways that teachers and students can use them, regardless of ability or language.  We developed some resources for teachers of students with special needs last year and it became immediately clear that it’s very difficult to produce a small number of resources that cater for the range of learning difficulties that we wanted to cater for.  Teachers already have access to skills and tools that allow them to make their own resources that are tailored to the needs of their particular students. By providing images of objects, we hope to provide teachers with more source material from which to construct these resources.   

How is the Picturebank populated?

The back-end of the Picturebank is something that I’m quite proud of.  I mentioned the previous iteration of the Picturebank earlier.  It had two key disadvantages in my view, one was that adding  images to it was quite a laborious process, the second was that it was difficult to keep up to date. The new Picturebank is linked to the Museum’s collections database using the new Collections Information Integration Module which also powers the Museum’s Collections Online facility (…). The CIIM has enabled us to add project-specific data to core object information from the collections database, allowing for audience-specific titles, captions, discussion questions and other information particular to this resource. This system has two big advantages. Firstly, if core information is changed in the database as part of the Museum’s routine collections management practices, for example a new image added, a location changed or an object removed, the Picturebank will automatically update.  Secondly, the CIIM makes it possible to add to and edit the Picturebank as and when the Museum needs to.

Do you think using museum websites in this way produces a positive learning experience for users?

When we think of digital learning resources these days, we increasingly think of quite interactive experiences, maybe games where users become a character and immerse themselves in a particular experience, or interactive whiteboard presentations or films. Of course the Museum of London also provides this kind of resource.  In comparison, particularly for younger audiences, a Picturebank of static images and text may not appear to be the most exciting and engaging resource.  I would argue, however, that it’s a really important foundation upon which to build other resources. As I’ve already said, a museum’s collections and its knowledge of them are what makes it unique. We know that the public have an inherent trust in museums as a reliable source of information. The now ever-present web, which offers anyone the opportunity to create content about any subject that they choose is an incredibly rich source of information for any learner, and many of those creating such content have budgets and opportunities which far outweigh those available to museums.  I think, therefore, that there is an important place for museums providing access to simple, easily accessible sources of reliable and trustworthy information and objects as a foundation to their digital learning resources.  As other resources are then developed, in an ideal world, they will feed in to these banks of images so that learners can find out about more about the objects that they come across as part of other museum learning experiences.

What do you see as the future of the Picturebank?

I’m currently looking at the possibility of developing a jigsaw tool add-on to the Picturebank which would allow people to create their own jigsaws using the images.  The aim of this would be to provide a fun and alternative way of looking at and engaging with each of the images.  Meanwhile we are continuing to add content to the Pocket Histories and the Picturebank so expect more images to appear over the coming years.