ss Great Britain plots new digital course
By Ashley Smith Hammond
18 June 2012
Sally Cordwell and Nick Torday explain how the museum ship has created an online equivalent to the physical visitor experience
The ss Great Britain Trust – the heritage charity that cares for Brunel’s most famous ship – is overhauling its digital strategy, launching a new website that will provide a platform for future digital innovation.
Brunel’s ss Great Britain was launched in 1843 and was the world’s first great ocean liner. She changed history, she was admired by a young and fashionable Queen Victoria and carried the first all-England cricket team to tour Australia. It certainly has a relevant and colourful past, but instead of looking backwards, we’re now looking to the future.
SiftGroups, a digital agency specialising in engagement, has developed the new website for the ss Great Britain and its Brunel Institute, a library and research centre which houses the National Brunel and ss Great Britain Collection.
It’s the beginning of an ambitious digital strategy that seeks to do two things: reflect the offline visitor experience of the ship and its history online, and communicate the story of the ship and its associated historical characters through digital media.
We think the project is really pushing the boundaries of how heritage organisations use digital to create narrative rather than just as extended brochures to collections, exhibitions, spaces and so on. Our whole focus has been on creating visual impact and storytelling that is the online equivalent to the physical visitor experience.
As an organisation, we at the ss Great Britain Trust are dedicated to constantly improving the experience of our visitors. We see our digital communications as a vital part of this, which is why we set out to review what we were doing to ensure the digital and offline experiences are fully integrated and become more inter-dependent.
The digital overhaul began with extensive stakeholder research, gaining detailed feedback from the ship’s online and offline supporters to feed into the new site’s development. From the survey we found two key things that people wanted from the new site:
• A balance between heritage content and operational visit information
• Clearly signposted education programmes linked to ss Great Britain and the Brunel Institute
After the stakeholder survey findings were collated and analysed, the team started building the website using Drupal prototyping and by focussing on innovative user interface design and creative impact.
One of the unique selling points of the ss Great Britain is the glass ‘sea’ and dry dock so we made this striking image the visual centrepiece of the new site.
The physical experience of walking around the ship and the museum is deeply immersive and engaging and we wanted the digital experience to reflect that and inspire even more visitors to come and connect with us.
Other new features built into the website include a timeline of the ship’s history, a “what’s on” event listing, easy-to-update blogs, social integration with Tripadvisor, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, and a homepage slideshow of images.
The site not only promotes the ss Great Britain and Brunel Institute but also our educational and fundraising programmes, and our venue hire and weddings business.
There is lot of focus in the arts and heritage sector around back-end systems, archiving, indexing and so on – these are all important but often too focused on at the expense of creating a delightful and intuitive experience for online visitors.
There needs to be more of a balance – in a way the ss Great Britain project strikes at the heart of the natural tension between curatorial and marketing thinking when an organisation reviews its digital communications.