Making multi-institution collaborations work – is there a secret sauce?

Elycia Wallis, Museums Victoria, Australia

Almost any project, large or small, requires the collaboration of participants. And these participants will bring with them different skills, knowledge, professional background and their own outlook and perspective. Negotiating the expectations and opinions of diverse teams within an organisation can be challenging enough but what happens in projects that require the collaboration of participants in different organisations? In this paper, multi-institutional and, indeed, multinational collaboration will be investigated. Two case studies will be used as illustrative examples to explore the nature of collaboration – and how to undertake collaboration successfully. The first example is the development of a series of Field Guide apps that have been produced by a partnership of eight museums around Australia. These apps were successfully released on 1 May 2014; the result of two years of work by scientists, photographers, project coordinating staff, designers and programmers. The second example is the Biodiversity Heritage Library global group. The Biodiversity Heritage Library is a project that aims to make freely available full text digitised literature via a dedicated website. This project now has nodes around the world, and a global committee has been established to act as a communication tool and reporting forum. In the case of the global Biodiversity Heritage Library, challenges for collaboration include such practical things as dealing with time zones to find teleconference opportunities, dealing with different first languages within the group, and finding funding to attend global meetings.This paper will explore barriers and benefits to collaboration and will provide some insights into what can make collaborative projects succeed.

Keywords: collaboration, teamwork, apps, literature


The nature of collaboration has inspired the interest of researchers across a broad spectrum – from investigating teamwork, through crossing organisational silos, to multi-institution projects, cross sectoral collaboration and industry partnerships. In the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) sector, studies of collaboration have reported on specific partnerships to create programs or digital resources (Yarrow et al, 2008). Other studies have investigated how different professional approaches between practitioners (e.g. librarians or curators) can be overcome in a collaboration (Duff et al, 2013), have referenced breaking down silos between institution types (Zorich et al, 2008, Waibel, 2010) or discuss how boundaries between libraries and museums become blurred in a digital world where the interest of users is in the content, not the institution (Gibson et al, 2007). Another study concluded that not only is collaboration between libraries, archives and museums cost effective but the sharing enabled by technology is beneficial to both the collaboration partners and patrons (Novia, 2012).

Collaboration can be broadly defined as “a process in which two or more groups work together toward a common goal by sharing expertise, information and resources” (Zorich et al, 2008). Dominguez (2011) notes that collaborating is something that everyone agrees is “a good thing to do” but is difficult to quantify in terms of the value it delivers to a company. Others stress the potentially transformative effects collaborating can have on both organisations and individuals. For example, Waibel (2010) states that collaboration “changes behaviors, processes and organisational structures, and leads to a fundamental interconnectedness among the partners.” This is echoed by Iyer (cited in Tien, 2006), who states that one of the most important motivators for participants is the belief that they can get a better outcome through collaborating than they could in isolation. Howard Rheingold, in his 2005 TED talk, discussed how new forms of cooperation can create new forms of wealth and that firms are increasingly discovering, particularly in relation to open source software development, that a certain kind of sharing can be in a company’s best interests. In museums, collaboration can benefit the organisation by delivering cost saving and economies of scale and scope (Tien, 2006). In another study about collaborations between universities, it was concluded that intellectually diverse teams who bring a mix of disciplinary skills are better able to address complex research questions in creative ways (Corley et al, 2006).

There are some potential downsides to collaboration. One of these is coordination costs, defined as institutional difficulties in arranging group output (Shirky, 2005). Coordination costs between institutions may involve such practicalities as negotiating around differences in employment conditions, telecommunications access or pay scales (Cummings & Kiesler, 2005). Institutional biases may also come into play, for example, if an institution only wants to collaborate with other organisations of similar perceived prestige (Evans & Foster, 2011). Where global collaborations are involved, practicalities such as finding a time when all project participants are awake can impose real difficulties. Negotiating around geographic realities can slow group communication and, thus, decision making. Other issues include that design of technological systems to support the collaboration is not necessarily straightforward. Working on assumptions about how you expect others to use your system can create socio-technical gaps that can be difficult to remedy (Forte & Lampe, 2013). An example of this is in Wikipedia, often cited as a model for collaboration. Arcane and difficult to grasp editorial rules around creating Wikipedia entries can be a barrier to entry. The solution has been to put social rather than technological systems in place to try to encourage more people to contribute (Taraborelli et al, 2011).

Recently, literature has started to emerge about a particular type of collaborative process, called open collaboration, that involves the enabling of collaboration through the use of technology. Open collaboration was originally described with reference to massive, distributed collective efforts, with examples drawn from the open source software community, and online projects such as Wikipedia, Open Street Maps and the Zooniverse projects, which seek community participation in science (Levine & Prietula, 2013). Open collaboration can be defined as:

a system of innovation or production that relies on goal-oriented yet loosely coordinated participants, who interact to create a product (or service) of economic value which is made available to contributors and non-contributors alike. (Levine & Prietula, 2013).

Although the term open collaboration has a particular meaning as described above, the underlying intent will be generalised in this paper as the principles outlined can broadly apply to types of collaboration in this technological age. Continuing on, Levine and Prietula (2013) describe four defining principles to open collaboration: firstly that the participants create goods and services that have some economic value; that participants work towards an end goal despite loose coordination of their efforts; that they exchange and reuse each other’s work; and that anyone can contribute. Forte and Lampe (2013) set out a similar set of principles when they describe open collaboration as an online environment that supports the collective production of an artifact; where participation is through a technological platform; where there is a low barrier to entry and exit for participants; and that supports the emergence of persistent but malleable social structures. Their argument is that open collaboration provides opportunities for participants to create social ties, even if they have never met. Finally, and although he was speaking in 2005 well before the term “open collaboration” was coined, Rhinegold outlined features of technologies that enable cooperation: that they are easy to use; open (in the sense of allowing reuse and remixing); self-instructing; that they enable connections to be made between people and that they leverage self-interest.

In the next part of this paper, two case studies of collaboration will be presented. These will be used as illustrative examples to explore the nature of collaboration at a multi-institution and multi national level. Although neither case study meets the strict definition of open collaboration as defined above, the case will be made that this model and the principles embodied in it is the best one to describe why these collaborations have achieved, or are achieving, positive results. Finally, conclusions will be drawn about whether there are, indeed, some general attributes of a successful collaboration – that is, is there a secret sauce for success?

Field Guides to Australian Fauna

The ‘Field Guides apps: by Museums for the community’ project began in 2012, with the final products launched on 1 May 2014, and support ongoing. Funded by the Australian Federal Government through the Inspiring Australia, Unlocking Australia’s Potential grant scheme, the project was run as a collaboration between seven museums around Australia with Museum Victoria in Melbourne as the lead agency. In common among all the partner museums is that they hold natural sciences collections, and all have active and ongoing science research programs. In addition to Museum Victoria, partners were the Australian Museum, the Queensland Museum Network; the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Western Australian Museum, South Australian Museum and Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

The project aimed to build on the previous success of Museum Victoria’s ‘Field Guide to Victorian fauna’ app, which was released in March 2011 (see blog post and media release The Field Guide app was designed to make the most of the capabilities of (at the time relatively new) smartphones and tablets. It offered a reference book in your pocket to assist with identifying animals in your backyard, nearby park, or on a field trip. And the app didn’t get any heavier in your pocket when more species were added. When it was originally released, the Field Guide to Victorian Fauna app showcased approximately 730 animals, birds, invertebrates and fish.

Several important decisions were made by Museum Victoria when the app was originally released: that downloading the app would be free; and that we would also release the source code. The source code for the apps, along with a number of other open source projects since released by Museum Victoria programmers, can be found on GitHub (at and a paper describing the open source approach for the Field Guides was published by Sherrin and Wallis (2011). These decisions around free and open access were, in hindsight, critical to the subsequent success of the collaboration effort.

When the opportunity arose to apply for funding to produce projects that would inspire and engage people in science in accordance with the Inspiring Australia strategy (, the idea to collaborate with other museums around the country and make new Field Guide apps to cover all of Australia was an obvious one. We even had evidence to cite, in the form of feedback and requests from users of the Victorian app such as,

“Great app any chance for a NSW version?”

“…can we now have a NSW and Queensland version?”

We also knew that, although some of our partner organisations around Australia had already been able to invest in programming skills development for apps (notably the Western Australian Museum and the Australian Museum), others simply would not be able to.

The final piece that set the scene for the collaboration was the existence of two committees in Australia: the Council of Heads of Australian Faunal Collections (CHAFC) (see website at and its technical subcommittee, the Faunal Collections Informatics Group (FCIG). These two groups had already established the basis for collaboration through regular face-to-face meetings, successful development of the OZCAM website ( to aggregate museum specimen data, and active participation in the creation of Australia’s natural sciences data aggregator, the Atlas of Living Australia (

The Atlas of Living Australia also formed an important infrastructure support for the project, and the project was able to use the freely available data and services provided by the Atlas. Species names, specimen occurrence records and threatened status data were all drawn from the Atlas of Living Australia. The text for species profiles was also, at the end of the project, loaded into the Atlas so that there is a web resource that also holds the information for those who might not have access to the apps.

Over two years, 2012-2014, work progressed and on 1 May 2014, eight apps were launched around the country (Figure 1). The final suite of apps contains over 2100 species, with each state or territory app containing between 600-960 species. Fauna covered includes birds, mammals, fishes, reptiles, insects, and marine and freshwater invertebrates. Some widely distributed species can be found in a number of the apps; others are found in only one of the suite. Users are presented with a profile page for each species, including one or more images, descriptive text, a map of recorded occurrences, threatened status and recorded sounds for birds and frogs.

Screenshots from eight apps

Promotional images for eight Field Guide apps, one for each State and Territory in Australia.

Over 180 people were directly involved in the production of the final apps including scientists, photographers, project coordinating staff, designers and programmers, and many more who provided indirect assistance. The apps are available for both Apple and Android devices. Porting the code to Android was one of the early deliverables of the apps and was achieved in mid-2013. All apps are available for download for free (see The launch of the apps was covered in blog posts, media and events around the country (see, for example

Alongside the obvious success in that we achieved the publication of eight apps, in two programming languages, containing a huge amount of content, into two app stores for a simultaneous nationwide launch on a single day, the collaboration itself was deemed truly successful by the partners. We received comments such as the project was “a best practise model for how museums need to work together” (Dr Michael Hammer, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory) and “an exemplar for collaboration between the state run Museums of Australia” (Dr Rob Adlard, Queensland Museum Network).

To analyse why the collaboration itself worked so well, it is useful to return to the open collaboration model referenced earlier, and the principles embodied within it. The first of these is that the collaboration must produce something – variously described as an “artifact” (Forte & Lampe, 2013) or goods and services that have an economic value (Levine & Prietula, 2013). In this case the artifact was, clearly, the apps themselves, which do have an economic value even though they’re given away for free. The fact that they are freely available reinterprets their economic value to be a service provided by a group of public institutions. Comments received through the app stores and social media attest to the reputational value to the partner institutions of offering the download free. For example:

“WOW! What an amazing gift… I’ve paid a lot for field guide apps and would gladly pay a lot for this!”

Other principles of open collaboration relate to the behaviours of the participants. They include the notion that participants work towards a common purpose despite loose coordination, and that their effort is distributed. In this case, the project structure was such that there was a central team based at Museum Victoria, including one staff member who had, as a principal task, the role of liaising with the partner organisations. Partners all nominated a local contact and that person also acted as the liaison further into their own organisation. Project effort was distributed so that the programming and design work on the apps themselves was done at Museum Victoria. The partner organisations had the task of writing the species profile content, gathering images (including copyright clearances and licensing information) and other media. They were required to do that for at least 200 species that were assigned and negotiated out of a master list of species, kept to avoid duplication of effort. Partner museums enlisted a distributed group of over 180 people to contribute content, a fact that didn’t become evident until close to the end of the project. Research scientists, collection managers, curators, photographers, volunteers, graduate students and web editors all provided contributions. Some contributors, such as photographers external to the partner organisations, were paid, for example in the form of a license to use in copyright photographs. The vast majority of contributors, however, received no more remuneration than their normal salary or, in the case of honorary associates and volunteers, no more than grateful thanks and acknowledgement of their work.

Another principle relates to the fact that work can be exchanged and reused. In the case of the Field Guide apps, the intention was always that the effort to write species profiles would be distributed among the partners and that a widely distributed species might appear in several apps. It was a back-end technological solution that allowed this to happen. A database was built to manage the species content and this was accessible to partners via a password protected website. This database, referred to by partners as the Data Repository, contains a page for every species, information about which organisation was assigned that species, the facility to bulk upload text and images, and editing tools. Species profiles could be selected for use by a number of organisations, since species can be geographically distributed across state boundaries, so reuse of information was designed as a core feature of the system. Management of images and other media also had reuse as a principle. However, the realities of licensing in copyright images and sounds meant that it was not always possible for partners to use each other’s images. A complex set of controls and rules had to be built in to ensure that only media cleared for use in a particular app would actually appear in that app. Interestingly, social conventions around sharing also emerged, such that partners began to actively seek out images that could be openly licensed in order that they could be shared widely across the different apps. Thus, the use of a technologically mediated collaboration platform (Forte & Lampe, 2013) as another principle was also evident.

Forte and Lampe (2013) state that designing the technological systems for collaboration is not straightforward. This was certainly our experience. Although the base architecture of the Data Repository was sound, many hours were spent making modifications to provide additional functionality, improve usability and iron out bugs. The institutional partners were both patient whilst the system was tweaked and generous in providing feedback about how the system could better suit their needs. As Clay Shirky says in his 2005 TED talk, when cooperation is built into the infrastructure then the solution will emerge from the people who have the most interest in solving it.

Development of the Field Guide apps certainly achieved a successful outcome. We learned that the collaboration was as much a social process as a technological one. In the second example, the social side of collaboration is also illustrated clearly.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library Global Committee

The second example used to illustrate collaboration in action is the Biodiversity Heritage Library global group. The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is a project that aims to make freely available full text digitised literature. Several websites exist to provide access to the literature, the main one being at Alternative BHL websites are run by several of the BHL global nodes, and these often cater to linguistic differences. For example, BHL China runs its own website, which is in Mandarin and provides access to many books also in that language (

Originally started as a consortium of libraries based in museums and herbaria in the USA and the UK, the project has since been deliberately expanded to have a global reach. Global nodes have been established in China, Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Europe, South Africa, Kenya and Singapore. A global committee has been created and by-laws have been agreed on that set the rules around the collaboration. The global nodes all have a common task, which is to digitise/scan full texts of books, journals and, more recently, items that have not been formally published such as archives and field notes. The results of the digitisation effort are uploaded and made freely available for viewing, download and reuse to one of the BHL websites. However, although the goal and task is shared, the by-laws also set out that nodes must run their own project, including setting their own governance structure, finding their own funding and engaging partners according to their own local requirements.

Again, the first principle of the open collaboration model is met by this project: that an artifact or something of economic value is being produced. In a similar way to the Field Guides, the sale of goods or services is not the aim of the BHL project and the content produced is made freely available to anyone who wants to use it.

The Global Committee is just one part of the overall BHL collaborations and operations. It sits somewhat to the side of a much bigger governance structure, where leadership, strategy development for the whole project, and reporting take place. This is the BHL Central Council, comprising a number of (dues paying) Members and (non-dues paying) Affiliates. This is partly because the Central Council arose from the group of founding members of the consortium, who have years-long interest and investment in the project. It is also because the strategic governance, secretariat and technical management of the project are run out of institutions that are also members of the Central Council. There can be a threat to successful collaboration when there is a dominance by a large partner (Gibson et al, 2007). In this case, this has manifested in some confusion over the role of the Global Committee. Attempts are being made to address this, and the results will be borne out over time. For now, the Global Committee continues to host meetings independent of the Central Council, and the global collaboration thrives somewhat independently of the other, more dominant group.

For the purposes of this paper, another interest is the social nature of the global group. The group has met, with more or less all members attending, in four continents over 5 years. Meetings have been held in North America (Woods Hole and Chicago, USA), Europe (Berlin, Germany), Africa (in Fez, Morocco), and Australia (Melbourne). Other opportunities for interaction have also been seized upon, such as library or technical conferences around the world. Face-to-face meetings have been an invaluable part of creating respect, mutual trust and friendship between the participants. This has been particularly important because not all global nodes have English as their first language. One cannot overstate the value that sharing meals brings in breaking down barriers to communication.

There are real, and very practical, challenges to this collaboration other than the language issue. One such issue is dealing with time zones to find teleconference opportunities. Inevitably, someone around the globe is up very early, someone else is up very late, and there are a few lucky ones who can attend during their working hours. Cummings and Kiesler (2005) also nominate geography as a potential barrier to successful collaboration because it slows group communication and consensus-making. Another is the need to find funding, not just to keep each local node’s project going, but also to attend global meetings – the one time when timezone differences can be alleviated.

The final principle relates to technological platforms. In this case, the collaboration is not so much enabled or restricted by a particular technological platform that members all use to work together. Rather, discussions in the global group often relate to sharing difficulties, solving issues and identifying common problems with the set of technological systems that each node must use to participate in the project. A number of systems must all work in order to get from a digitised book consisting of a set of images on a local server, to that same volume appearing on the BHL website. Systems that all need to be aligned and working correctly include library management software, custom-built upload software, the repository that receives the packaged information and images, custom data synchronisation and ingestion. There are many points for potential failure. One of the valuable roles of the Global Committee is to act as user advocates to describe or articulate the technological problems that need to be solved.

Overall, the Biodiversity Heritage Library Global Committee does, certainly meet the generalised principles of the open collaboration model and the description given by Forte and Lampe (2013) is apt. They define open collaboration as combining the production of something of value, through a technologically mediated platform, that supports the emergence of a persistent but malleable social structure. They sum this up as the collaboration yielding “complex socio-technical systems that offer new opportunities for people to form ties with others and create things together” (Forte & Lampe, 2013).

Discussion – is there a secret sauce to collaboration?

In this paper two case studies have been presented, and the characteristics of collaboration inherent in each have been described against a generalised model of open collaboration. This generalised model stresses three things: that something of value needs to be created as an outcome; that there should be a technological component to the work; and that a social interaction should emerge where cooperation and reuse is encouraged.

The question remains: is there a secret sauce that really makes the collaboration work? If there is, it comes down to the social or personal aspects of the system. Three components of the social aspects to collaboration stand out.


Any team, tightly or loosely knit, requires communication. Whilst this is a somewhat trite statement, it is actually an extremely time consuming task, as mentioned by Garcia and Dobkin (2013), particularly where there are geographical, time or experience barriers to overcome. Recruiting local contacts throughout the collaboration network, so that participants always have someone nearby to contact, is important. What’s important is that there is someone who can make time for your collaborators.

Another factor that seems to correlate with good collaboration is the diversity of the group involved, as greater diversity appears to lead to creative problem solving (Dominguez, 2011). Some level of disagreement within a group or, at least, questioning and interrogation of methods and techniques is important. As Heffernan (2012) says, collaborators ideally are “thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers.” Permitting disagreement can require some boldness, and takes a lot of respect for, and acknowledgement of, professional differences (Duff et al, 2013).

Trust and cooperation

Collaborations are built on mutual trust and a shared understanding of the project’s goals (Simon, 2010). This is equally true whether the collaborators are outside an organisation or within an organisation. Trust builds through cooperation, reciprocity and a willingness to commit to openness and sharing of resources. As Levine and Prietula (2013) put it, “I contribute because I have benefited from the contributions of others.”

Progress and acknowledgement

Motivation during a collaborative project is likely to wax and wane amongst project participants, particularly during stressful periods where difficult decisions need to be made, or when the project seems to be stuck. Teresa Amabile (2011) in her TED talk describes how small wins are important, and that simply making progress on meaningful work is one of the most important things to drive motivation and engagement with the task. Amabile (2011) encourages her audience to “nourish the human spirit.” Acknowledging the value of the people involved in the collaboration is vital. This can be done in the course of thanking them or can also take the form of simply giving them a lot of press, as Garcia and Dobkin (2013) put it.


If there is a secret sauce to collaborations it’s this: ensure that what you’re trying to produce is a thing of value; pay attention to the technological platforms you’re using and optimise them for your users; and that the social aspects of people working with people are vital. A strong collaboration will involve good communication, mutual trust will help to foster cooperation, and acknowledgement of participants, including their small wins along the journey, will help the participants to stay motivated and to feel valued.


In the spirit of acknowledgement of your team, I would like to thank the Field Guide apps team at Museum Victoria – Simon Sherrin, Nicole Kearney, Ajay Ranipeta, Michael Mason and Ursula Smith – for their dedication to the project. I would also like to acknowledge the members of the BHL Global Committee for their ongoing enthusiasm, and to thank the members of the executive in particular – Nancy Gwinn, Martin Kalfatovic, Constance Rinaldo, and Jiří Frank. Thanks also to Tim Hart and Wendy Pryor at Museum Victoria for their ongoing support and encouragement.


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Cite as:
E. Wallis, Making multi-institution collaborations work – is there a secret sauce?. In Museums and the Web Asia 2014, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published September 19, 2014. Consulted .