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Virtual visitors

By Ben Stevens, on 27 June 2012

The subtitle of Dr Melissa Terras’ Lunch Hour Lecture at the British Museum on 14 June asked an intriguing question: why would anyone want to visit the virtual British Museum (BM) collections online? After all, surely the allure of the Museum is seeing the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles or the spectacular Great Court in person?

The answer, as Dr Terras pointed out, largely depends on who you’re asking. The average tourist would undoubtedly say that they’d prefer to visit in person – hence why the BM received 5.8 million visitors in 2011.

However, when you look at traffic to its website in the same period, it received 10.5 million visits and 60 million page views. So, why the discrepancy?

As Deputy Director of UCL’s Centre for Digital Humanities (UCLDH), Dr Terras is well versed in analysing this sort of online user data.

For this absorbing talk, she drew extensively on some analysis undertaken by two of her PhD students Claire Ross and Vera Motyckova, alongside colleagues at the Museum itself. They focused their study on the BM’s online collection database during the period 18 June 2009–17 June 2010.

The database is the culmination of a computerisation process that actually began in 1976. It eventually went live in 2007 and currently offers catalogue records for two million objects, more than 670,000 of which have accompanying images.

That’s a phenomenal investment in terms of effort, time and money by anyone’s standards, but who exactly is using it?

By analysing the Museum’s web server logs and their Google Analytics reports – which reveal the number of times an individual web page is accessed and from where, using the IP address – the researchers found that 37,000 searches were made on the database during that period and 30% of the people using it were return visitors.

Dr Terras then explained how they used an online survey to get a better idea of the make-up of the database’s users.

This revealed that 29% of visitors were from the UK, while 18% originated from the US, and that the database was most used by those people who described themselves as postgraduate students or professors.

While cautioning that the results were not without their limitations, she felt that they still amply demonstrated that the database was having an appreciable effect on scholarship. This was backed up by the fact that 50% of respondents said that they used it predominantly for academic research, while a further 12% replied that their use was for non-academic research purposes.

You may ask, ultimately, why bother analysing who uses online databases such as the BM’s in the first place? The answer is that, like all public cultural institutions in the current economic climate, it has to prove that investment is justified in terms of use and demonstrable improvement in scholarship.

The good news for the British Museum is that its database is, in Melissa Terras’s words, “a well-used, well-loved resource” and armed with the UCLDH findings, the Museum can now confidently set about improving the database further.

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