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Feature Archive
January, 2002
The British Museum COMPASS Project
An interview with Matthew Cock
Interview by Joseph Phelan
The British Museum, established in 1753, is the world's greatest collection of antiquities, particularly from Egypt, the Near East, Greece and Rome, and Asia. Among its most famous holdings are the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone and the Portland Vase. But these barely scratch the surface. The enormous collection spans the history and aspirations of the civilizations and cultures of every continent, including Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific.

Such an astonishing hoard resonates but can be daunting to the visitor. No one can say they have "done" the Museum, just as nobody can say they fully understand Civilization or what Man has made of Man. That is why the establishment of COMPASS (Collections Multimedia Public Access System) is such a noteworthy event. COMPASS is a database which acts as the backbone of the British Museum's website. It illustrates and explains some 3,000 objects from the museum's collection.

Matthew Cock is the Creative Editor of COMPASS. He has generously agreed to take time from his busy schedule for an interview. This is the first of what we hope will be a series of conversations with the people who work behind the scenes at Art Museums: the unsung heroes making the dreams of André Malraux of a "Museum without Walls" a reality.
The Kirkburn Sword, from an Iron Age burial site in England
How was COMPASS created?

Initially we asked each of the ten curatorial departments to select 500 representative objects from their collections. Each curator then either wrote or edited the articles on the objects in their care, as well as background information articles. This formed the basis of COMPASS, around 1 million words, supported by around 7,000 images. Each department has a special COMPASS contact whom we talk to regularly.

Do you keep adding to it?

Since establishing this base, our focus has been on tours, such as those which accompany the exhibitions Agatha Christie and Archaeology: Mystery in Mesopotamia (open until 24 March 2002) and Unknown Amazon (until 1 April 2002).

COMPASS is physically located in the rooms formerly occupied by the British Library's Reading Room (one of the great centers of European scholarship, where Karl Marx famously wrote Das Kapital). What's the significance?

When the British Library was moved to its own building, it was decided that the historic Reading Room at the heart of the Museum should remain unchanged as a place for study, but it would now be opened up to any visitor to the Museum... what has become COMPASS was seen as a way of providing access to information about the collections, and, as its name suggests, an orientation tool for the surrounding galleries, supporting the improvement in visitor flow afforded by the opening up of the Museum's central space.

What's the difference between COMPASS on the Web and COMPASS in the Reading Room?

The web version of COMPASS, is updated every month with new articles (current total ~4000) and tours (22) based on the permanent collections such as The African Galleries, Highlights of the British Museum, and Iron Age Britain. You can use specific searches (Who? What? Where? and When?) to ensure that only relevant objects are retrieved, using indexes and hidden thesauri, or the Quick Search which looks across the whole database.

The version in the Reading Room will reside on 50 touch screen consoles designed by Foster and Partners, the architects of the Great Court. The content of the Reading Room version will be essentially the same, though with higher quality images and extra multimedia elements (such as 3-D reconstructions of an ancient Egyptian tomb chapel and a villa from Roman Britain). There will also be print facilities, gallery plans and personal folders. We plan to make these facilities available on the web version as well.

Colossal horse from the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) The BM is perhaps the greatest multicultural institution on earth. How are you making its holdings accessible to children and parents, students and teachers, and the general public?

Up to now we have been putting tours for children and families on the main COMPASS site, and creating activity trails for them to use on-line and in the galleries. But Carolyn Howitt, our Education editor has been concentrating on bigger things: Children's COMPASS (due to launch in early 2002), written by curators, teachers and education officers at the British Museum for children aged 8-11. On reaching the Children's COMPASS homepage, you are welcomed to the site by Alfred, the British Museum Lion. Children will be able to access information on around 800 objects from the Museum's collections through a themed search on a variety of topics such as Birds and Beasts, Death and Dress and Ornament. These will be connected by background information which provides easy navigation.

Attached to many of the pages are puzzles, games and activities for children to print out and play. Some will also have animated games, for example: creating mythical beasts, putting together the fragments of the Sutton Hoo helmet, and solving the secret of the hieroglyphs. There will also be a wide range of tours written for and by different groups. For example, there is a Horses and Riders tour written by children from Thurlow Park Special School, a tour for families on Toys and Games, a Mummies tour, a tour for younger children about Animals in the Museum.

I must also mention the Ancient Civilisation sites being developed by the Education Multimedia team, part of the New Media Unit. So far they have produced Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, which are well worth a visit. They're currently working on more in the same vein.

What about public input? Even from children?

Children will be encouraged to contribute to the site as much as possible: local schools and groups will be asked to write their own tours; there will be a monthly competition, with prize-winners' work displayed on the Homepage; Noticeboards will display children's work and comments; an 'Ask the Expert' facility where children will be able to e-mail curators with questions, a selection of the questions and answers will be displayed each month with links to relevant objects; there will also be an 'Object of the month' on the Homepage, chosen and commented on by children; and finally, we will create links to schools' websites from our main Noticeboard and feedback forms for teachers and children.

What features are there for teachers?

Some Tours will be specially written to cover areas of the UK's National Curriculum, particularly History, but also Literacy, Numeracy, Art and other subjects. Teachers will be able to download worksheets which they can alter to suit their particular class. Teachers will be able to search directly by Curriculum topic for these tours and other resources. Existing teaching materials will be increasingly available on the website, as well as the addition of many more specially designed for use in the on-line/classroom environment.

How about programs for people with disabilities?

Access issues have been very important to the COMPASS team right from the start, and strongly informed our brief to the software developers. The site has been designed to be as accessible as possible. In particular, there is a full text-only version designed to ensure that it is fully accessible with screen readers and speech synthesisers used by people with visual impairments. There is a link to the text-only version on nearly every page of the site. We asked the Sensory Disabilities Research Unit of the University of Hertfordshire to evaluate the text-only version to identify any major usability problems for people using either speech output or screen magnification software to access the site. The participants gave a wealth of constructive comments that was used to further improve the site's accessibility.
Inuit snow goggles
What's your own background?

I'm a graduate in Art History (University of Edinburgh) and Fine Art (Glasgow School of Art). Before joining the British Museum, I worked at the V&A (the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the UK's National Museum of Art and Design), where I was a curatorial assistant. Much of my time there was spent working towards the opening of the Silver Gallery (1997), where I was part of a team managing the movement of thousands of objects between the photographers, conservation studios, stores and finally, the gallery. I also coordinated the production of an interactive, the Story of Silver, on a touchscreen kiosk in the Gallery. That was huge fun: the department's curators dressed up in period costume so that we could show how the objects in the gallery were used in the 17th and 18th century. The Story of Silver is still there in the gallery, which is well worth a visit if you're in London, as are the V&A's new British Galleries.

Do you have a particular area of interest in the collections?

More and more I realise that as an editor I can only hope to know a tiny bit about a wide range of things, and since coming here I've realised that even that will take a lifetime. The collections are so wide-ranging and fascinating and I've never stopped learning from the curators. One of the first things to capture my imagination was a pair of snow goggles made of caribou antler collected in Nunavut in 1822. Since then I've worked with the North American curators on a number of tours, including most recently Kayak clothing from Greenland. This was an area I knew nothing about previously and has really captured my imagination.

What else do you have planned for the new year?

Naturally our priorities have to fit in with those of the Museum, hence the exhibition tours, and the tours planned for the King's Library, an exhibition devoted to discovery and learning in the late 18th and early 19th centuries - the intellectual climate in which the Museum was established. This is due to open in 2003, the Museum's 250th anniversary.

We also like to react to things as they happen and present the Museum's different activities as they occur. For example, J.D. Hill, curator of the Iron Age collections in the Department of Prehistory and Early Europe, recently contacted us to discuss a tour about an exciting discovery that had been made of an Iron Age chariot burial in Wetwang, Yorkshire. He asked the team down to the conservation studio where material from the excavation was being treated. There we discussed the best way of presenting it on COMPASS.

To our great excitement they told us that, knowing that they were going to be creating a tour for the web, the archaeologists had been taking hundreds of shots with a digital camera of the dig in progress. Over the next few days, we worked on a story board to work out how the tour would work, and discussed the creation of a children's version. We have started on work for this, gathering images and drafting copy. The department's illustrator has already started working on a 3-D model of the burial and reconstruction of the chariot. We hope to have the tour live by spring next year to coincide with a programme on the BBC about the excavation.

This article is copyrighted 2002. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.

Joseph Phelan can be contacted at joe.phelan@verizon.net

Past Articles

December, 2001
      Advent Calendar 2001, narrated by Joseph Phelan
      Software review: Le Louvre: The Virtual Visit on DVD-ROM, by Joseph Phelan

November, 2001
      Tragedy and Triumph at Arles: Van Gogh and Gauguin, by Joseph Phelan

October, 2001
      Her Last Bow: Sister Wendy in America, by Joseph Phelan

September, 2001
      Love, Death and Resurrection: The Paintings of Stanley Spencer, by Joseph Phelan

August, 2001
      Who is Rodin's Thinker?, by Joseph Phelan

July, 2001
      Celebrations North and South, by Joseph Phelan

June, 2001
      Rubens and his Age, by Joseph Phelan

May, 2001
      Great Reproductions of Great Paintings

April, 2001
      The Passion of Christ, by Joseph Phelan

March, 2001
      Edouard Manet: Public Spaces, Private Dreams, by Joseph Phelan

February, 2001
      Henry Moore and the British Museum: The Great Conversation, by Joseph Phelan

December, 2000
      Advent Calendar 2000, narrated by Joseph Phelan

November, 2000
      Article: Notorious Portraits, Part II, by John Malyon

October, 2000
      Article: Notorious Portraits, Part I, by John Malyon
      Article: The Other Michelangelo, by Joseph Phelan

September, 2000
      Article: The Art of Drawing, by Joseph Phelan

August, 2000
      Article: Poussin and the Heroic Landscape, by Joseph Phelan

July, 2000
      Article: Great Art Museums Online, by Joseph Phelan

June, 2000
      Article: Venetian Painting and the Rise of Landscape, by Joseph Phelan

May, 2000
      Article: Forbidden Visions: Mythology in Art, by Joseph Phelan

April, 2000
      Article: Themes in Art: The Passion of Christ, by Joseph Phelan
      Web site review: Christus Rex

March, 2000
      Web site review: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., by Joseph Phelan
      Online exhibit review: Inuit Art: The World Around Me, by John Malyon

February, 2000/Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Results)

January, 2000/Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part II)

December, 1999/Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part I)

November, 1999/The Louvre Museum
      Web site review: The Louvre

October, 1999/Impressionism
      Web site review: North Carolina Museum of Art

September, 1999/Optical Art
      Web site review: The Butler Institute of American Art

August, 1999/Animals in Art
      Web site review: National Museum of Wildlife Art
      Online exhibit review: PBS: American Visions

July, 1999/Surrealism

June, 1999/Sculpture
      Web site review: Carol Gerten's Fine Art
      Online exhibit review: Michael Lucero: Sculpture 1976-1995

May, 1999/Women in the Arts
      Web site review: National Museum of Women in the Arts
      Online exhibit review: Jenny Holzer: Please Change Beliefs

April, 1999/The Golden Age of Illustration
      Web site review: Fine Arts Museums Of San Francisco
      Online exhibit review: Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe online

March, 1999/Vincent van Gogh
      Web site review: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
      Web site review: The Vincent van Gogh Information Gallery

February, 1999/Great Art
      Web site review: The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
      Online exhibit review: John Singleton Copley: Watson and the Shark