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Exploring The Power Of Open Museum APIs With The Nasjonalmuseet

Tord Nilsen explains the benefits of open APIs for museums and explains how the Nasjonalmuseet’s recent project – My Collection – has used the API to expand reach and engage a broader online audience.

As Senior Advisor for Visitor Experience at Oslo’s Nasjonalmuseet, Tord Nilsen has a passion for presenting cultural heritage data using new technology to create innovative solutions. As his museum looks to digitise its collections, Tord believes that APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) are crucial tools in enabling cultural organisations to get their own systems interacting with others. He explains,

“The primary goal of creating an API is to help showcase the museum’s collection and resources, making them accessible to a broader audience. Online, that means making it possible to share from computer to computer.

“Through an API we can give developers, researchers and other institutions or organisations the opportunity to access our collections.”

According to Tord, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic proved a stark reminder to museums that they could not neglect their online audience. Fortunately for the Nasjonalmuseet, having a new website in place and strong digital capabilities made the extended periods of closure easier to navigate. Tord says,

“We shut our doors for nearly two years during Covid. This placed a focus on the delivery of digital assets and new ways to keep our audience engaged. There are two ways to use the API – providing our data set externally for others to use and internally for our teams to utilise.

“For example, we are currently using the API within our visitor app to help visitors see which artworks are on display in the museum and where they are on-site.”

My Collection: an API in action

Within the Nasjonalmuseet’s digital collection there are more than 50,000 objects. This is a much bigger number than the 6,500 works on display in the physical museum space at any one time. Indeed, it is a clear sign of how museums can use their online presence to showcase more artefacts and provide a different experience to a broad audience – anywhere in the world.

The museum launched its new website in 2019 and pains were taken to provide an accessible and engaging experience to people who could not visit the museum in person. From video tours to audio narrations, the Nasjonalmuseet has put significant time and resource into making virtual visits as immersive as possible.

But thanks to the museum’s API, it has also been possible to turn online visitors into curators by launching My Collection. Tord explains, “My Collection is driven by the idea of generating more engagement through the website. Of course, that’s the goal of every museum website but we wanted to give digital visitors the opportunity to create personalised spaces using the collections we have digitised.”

Once online, users can create an account using either their email address or a Facebook account registration. From there, they can begin to compile their own favourite objects, images, and multimedia content into a collection of their own – just like a music playlist or Pinterest board. As Tord explains,

“Users may create a personal area – or areas – that are segmented into topics or areas of interest. This may be individuals or it may be teachers who want to create a collection that they can present to students based on a specific theme.

“This functionality is very beneficial for educators because they can’t take school trips to see us every day. But teachers can use My Collection during lessons in the classroom and students can also create their own accounts – where they may share images with their peers for discussion.”

Tord continues, “Thanks to the API we have created, it is also possible to show users where their chosen artworks are within the museum. This can play an important role in encouraging online visitors to one day pay a visit in person.”

But a word of warning to organisations who want to create an API: “If you are going to develop an API that exposes all of your data it’s very important that you have good data!”

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