Digital outreach for the Treasures of the Bodleian exhibition

Optional Abstract: 

The Bodleian Libraries have world-renowned special collections, which are shared with the public through an annual exhibition programme. The creation of websites to support major exhibitions began in late 2010 but it was the Treasures of the Bodleian exhibition (30 October – 23 December 2011) that triggered one of the most ambitious projects to date in terms of digital exhibition support and outreach. The project resulted in a responsively designed website, interpretative QR codes in the exhibition room and a multi-platform mobile app – all to support and extend a public debate around one question: What is a ‘treasure’ in the 21st century? The results of the debate will feed into the Bodleian's plans for a new, permanent 'treasures' gallery due to open in 2015.

The ambitious digital outreach project supporting the Treasures of the Bodleian exhibition (2011) resulted in a responsively designed website, interpretative QR codes and a mobile app focusing on one question: What is a ‘treasure’?

Defining a ‘treasure’ was a central theme for the physical exhibition in preparation for a permanent treasures gallery opening in 2015.

The digital project turned this central theme into the following objectives:


  • Promote the physical exhibition
  • Extend the exhibition’s impact and longevity
  • Host the ‘what is a treasure?’ debate
  • Use digital technology to create additional content
  • Increase digital communications activity


  • Outreach to the mobile channel
  • Increase participation in the exhibition’s central debate
  • Drive website traffic
  • QR codes

    • Create a link between the physical objects and online content
    • Drive website traffic

    The target audience was culturally active adults. However, the Libraries’ academic reputation, and the scholarly attention this would bring, made it important to provide information useful to experts too.

    The solutions
    The exhibition website replicated the physical exhibition and used digital to provide additional content, e.g. audio, timeline and an online game. Site development was user-centric and user testing took place before launch.

    The site was built using CSS3 and HTML5, with responsive designs to support mobile devices and reduce barriers to outreach effectiveness.

    Part of the website promoted the physical exhibition, including visitor information and a downloadable guide.

    For the expert audience, elements such as shelfmarks and transcripts were included throughout the site.

    The main focus of the website was user participation. The curator’s role in structuring the content was minimised to allow users to take control. This was implemented through techniques such as ‘flat’ navigation for the treasures grid (rather than an imposed hierarchy), ‘related’ exhibits linked by theme and the randomisation of promoted exhibits. Multiple browsing options, e.g. map, were also provided, as well as search.

    The second user participation element was the ‘what is a treasure?’ debate. Every exhibit page offered the chance to vote on whether it was a treasure and leave a comment giving reasons. A web form also asked users to submit a general definition of ‘treasure’. In addition, users could vote for or suggest an object for display in the new exhibition gallery in 2015. All comments were fed onto one page for viewing, along with a ranked list of exhibits reflecting user votes. This data also appeared on the homepage for ‘freshness’ and to encourage further participation.

    The debate was seeded to encourage post-launch participation, and an introductory video was created showing Oxford experts promoting an exhibit of their choice as a ‘treasure’.

    Opportunities for user dissemination were maximised through social media sharing on every page. Relevant Tweets were also fed onto the homepage alongside a button to follow the Libraries on Twitter.

    The website can be viewed at

    QR codes
    QR codes were created for 16 physical exhibits. A balance between explaining and promoting the QR codes and the requirement for sympathetic and subtle placement was necessary. The QR codes featured an image of the related object to make them more visually pleasing and provide built-in interpretation through visual association. The codes took users to the mobile optimised exhibit page on the website, allowing access to additional information and the comment / voting mechanism.

    Mobile app
    The app was developed with a third-party supplier, Toura. The content produced for the website was re-contextualised into the multi-platform app in Toura’s MAP. Smartphone and tablet versions were produced and, to maximise impact, the app was distributed for free. It can be downloaded from

    The multiple strands of digital activity supporting the exhibition were monitored using a range of techniques, including:

    • Google Analytics. (The site attracted 16,601 visits during the physical exhibition).
    • Referrals to the Treasures website indicating penetration.
    • The level of comment, voting and ‘People’s Choice’ activity on the website showing engagement. (In January 2012, the number of ‘is this a treasure?’ votes was approaching 1000 and comments stood at around 145).
    • The subjective content of on-site comments.
    • Viewing figures for the exhibition videos.
    • Mobile app downloads and ratings. (Downloads reached 2625 in the month following launch).
    • Website visits from mobile devices indicating the combined influence of mobile outreach activity (12% compared to 2.8% on the Libraries website over the same period).
    • QR code scans (550 during the run of the exhibition).
    • Social media activity was monitored via the tools themselves (primarily Twitter), the referral rates to the website from these tools and also through Google Alerts. A social media highlight was Stephen Fry Tweeting that the mobile app was “cowing lush”.
    • Levels of subscription to Libraries communications.
    • Social media shares from the website indicating penetration.
    • Sample counts of PC use in the exhibition room to estimate access to the site by physical visitors (c. 14.5% of visitors).
    • Online PR, e.g. the Channel 4 news team created videos about their favourite treasures (

    Throughout the project, attention was paid to maintaining a sustainable approach:

    • A permanent website displaying exhibitions online sustains their impact.
    • The website was developed with sustained use in mind and will become the permanent outreach website for the Bodleian’s treasures by 2015.
    • The same core content was repurposed for multiple uses.
    • The website is hosted and managed in-house, allowing local control.
    • The exhibition website CMS allows data to be exported for sharing and re-use.
    • The website was developed using modern, mobile responsive coding standards in order to be as future-proof as possible.
    • Audio and video content will be submitted to the University of Oxford’s iTunesU repository for sharing and additional back-up.
    • Images commissioned for the project are stored and accessible through central databases.
    • Documentation and processes have been created that can apply to future projects.
    • This project is part of a sustainable approach to allowing increased access to rare and fragile material.



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