Right on Kew: A Look at the Royal Botanical Gardens’ Digital Strategy

The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in south west London is one of the UK’s best-loved attractions, receiving nearly two million visitors last year and will shortly be celebrating its 250th anniversary.

Despite its age Kew is keeping in step with modernity. Using a mix of in-house and outsourced IT skills Kew has made massive strides in recent years to use technology as a means to make the visitor experience more interactive and educational, including the use of global positioning systems (GPS) to guide visitors around the grounds and dedicated websites for key attractions. Kew’s website received 29 million page views last year.

Kew’s Director of Digital Media is Mike Saunders. NMK caught up with Saunders to talk about the gardens currently offer visitors and what we can expect to see in the future.

kew

What new media and interactive offerings have you got for visitors to Kew?

We’ve got a range of things on offer for visitors, including a number of websites and online services such as:

· A microsite for Kew’s 250th anniversary celebrations. This is to be launched this week.

· A microsite for the Treetop Walkway that allows people to plan a visit to, and explore the walkway

· The Great Plant Hunt, a primary school citizen science project funded by Wellcome Trust. So far, it has attracted interest from over 7,000 schools in the UK, who will be using during the summer term. It’s one of the largest school science experiments ever undertaken

· Online photography showcases. For example, during the Henry Moore exhibition, we ran a showcase with Flickr and had over 2,500 photos uploaded

Kew’s on-site guides include the Kew Ranger GPS guide and the Henry Moore mobile phone audio guides. During the Henry Moore exhibition at Kew, we ran a series of audio guides delivered on mobile phone.

We have also been experimenting with other mobile technologies to deliver services to schoolchildren, including Bluetooth and GPRS/3G delivered services.

When did Kew start building these digital offerings?

We started developing these services a couple of years ago, which then fed into the development of a digital strategy and roadmap. This aims to revolutionise the accessibility of Kew’s knowledge and to join up visitor’s online and onsite experiences of Kew.

Did you look at other attractions around the world for inspiration or was this all Kew’s own idea?

We’re inspired by all sorts of people including other botanic gardens from Edinburgh to Eden to Missouri in the US; museums like Smithsonian, Tate, Natural History Museum; and other organisations innovating with digital services, from the British Library to the Encyclopedia of Life.

What’s the feedback been from the public?

The public are very receptive to services which enable them to find out more about Kew and add something new to their visit. In one trial, we found that multi-generational groups had particularly valuable experiences. The younger generation mastered the technology and the older generation were drawn more to the content. They worked together as a team and had a unique experience.

Of course, digital services are not attractive to all our visitors and we’re very careful to ensure that they are unobtrusive and opt-in.

Have visitor numbers increased as a response to your interactive schemes?

It’s very difficult to track the effect on visitors from digital services because there are so many other variables for visitor numbers.

What have you got planned going forward?

The first major stage of the digital strategy roadmap is the re-launch of Kew’s main website later this year, with a range of new features like interactive maps for visitors to plan, an alert service, media player and lots of online commerce opportunities. And there will be opportunities throughout to contribute content and to introduce it into social networks.

We are also planning new web services to give users direct access into some of Kew’s information and datasets. And we are planning a range of new mobile services for the future, providing visitors with comprehensive access to our knowledge from around the gardens.

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