The Great Map

Lawrence Chiles, Independent, UK, Lucinda Blaser, National Maritime Museum, UK


In 2012, Royal Museums Greenwich embarked on an ambitious plan to transform a large open space at the heart of the National Maritime Museum. It aimed to bring a focus, redefine its purpose, and make a significant intervention to the design, creating a piazza-style space where all visitors could engage in a variety of ways. The ambition was to create a new analogue and digital platform to tell the museum’s stories.

This paper will assess the findings of installing such a large intervention, as well as its impact on visitor behaviour. It will also examine how a process is being put in place to create an ‘API’ for a space, and what issues arise with creating an open platform that could possibly challenge the ‘voice’ of the museum.

Keywords: API, maps, curation, hacks, mobile, exhibitions

1. Introduction

For many years, there was a large, empty (bar a few showcases) grey space at the heart of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. Its primary function was as a transition space between connected galleries, or as an extension of the café on the same floor for children to run around whilst their carers took a break.

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Figure 1: Neptune Court before the Great Map

The development process has led to the installation of a colourful and detailed 26-by-15-metre floor map of the world that can be used to tell British maritime stories in a variety of digital and analogue ways.

Called ‘The Great Map,’ the project has launched with a first-phase Android app where up to 60 visitors at a time can use Asus tablets to experience maritime stories and journeys located geographically. The visitor can follow the journeys of famous expeditions and adventurers across the space from point to point, gaining an understanding of how and why ships have sailed around the world.

Complementing the experience are a fleet of seven colourful fibreglass ship models to push across the map, a set of physical game instructions for visitors to play and act out, and a rolling learning programme of activity. The space is also open to corporate events.

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Figure 2: Fibreglass ships

The space has been transformed, and every day we learn about user behaviour within it. As we learn about the experiences we have implemented and monitor the space’s use, we also look to how the space will develop.

The next phase will extend the Museum’s existing digital strategy to open approaches by creating an API for the space. By making the Great Map accessible as a platform, we aim to create a physical and digital space that can be open to developers to create innovative experiences using our content, but also drawing on content and contexts from other open data and collections.

At the beginning of 2014, we will open the map up with a series of creative labs working with a programming partner to ‘hack the map.’ During the process, we will explore the notion of what it means to create an ‘API for a space’ that allows for developers to explore more than simply creating applications that work with a screen, but invites the chance to explore the possibilities of interactions with the physical environment as well.

2. Building on previous projects

The project has been built on the Museum’s growing networked infrastructure and linked data. Since 2011, it has used a collections management middleware—the CIIM—to build augmented content layers for specific gallery experiences. The Compass Card (, Discover Sessions Mobile Learning platform (, and now the Great Map use the CIIM and a Solr index as a way of connecting contextual layers of information tailored for specific audiences, but retaining data links back to the core collection information (see

With the creation of contexts for key stories over time, the Museum should be able to build multiple responses and levels of interpretation that will always have a linked root to core object records.

The Discover Sessions, launched in 2012, was the Museum’s first project using tablets. The application is used by schools in the permanent galleries “Traders: the East India Company and Asia” and “The Atlantic: Slavery, Trade, Empire” and formed the basis of the learning that was taken forward to into the Great Map project.

Galleries are developed for a specific audience, and often this does not tie into the learning programs that the Learning Team at the Museum may wish to run in the space; for example, the language may not be appropriate, or ideas that are touched on in gallery may not be as developed to tie in with the curriculum.

As a result, Kin Design ( developed the Discover Sessions with a custom-built app that gives students the ability to go beyond what is displayed and told in-gallery. Through taking advantage of what students want to do naturally in-gallery—take pictures of the objects—a session was created that encouraged them to explore the gallery and use optical recognition (Cortexica, to find more information about the object.

Students are able to see basic information, such as what the object is and when it was made, and also discover further interpretation around it, films, audio and other objects that were not able to be displayed in gallery.

This app encourages students to formulate a question and ask whether the objects and information they discover argue for or against this question. A location tracking software, Awiloc by Fraunhofer IIS (, has been used within these gallery spaces to create zones and limit the amount of objects that could match the optical recognition based on the user’s location.

This is particularly useful with cannons positioned at either end of the gallery, which have the ability to tell stories from different angles but, to an optical recognition system, appear similar. This project revealed how comfortable audiences are in using tablets within a museum space and their desire for more information that is targeted to them attracting and keeping their attention for greater periods.

3. The Great Map development

The whole Neptune Court area at the National Maritime Museum underwent a refresh in 2012/13. All displays and objects within the space were reevaluated internally by the Museum to assess whether they were meeting audience needs and how the Museum’s stories could be better conveyed to visitors. As a result, objects within the space have been reinterpreted with the aim of delivering a more people-focused story, and the Great Map has been introduced to bring activity to a previously transient space.

As the Great Map is situated on the first floor of the Neptune Court space, elements needed to be introduced that would attract the visitor and draw them to the space. Banners advertising the map and the Museum’s collections have been hung from the glass roof; when viewed from the Museum entrance, they entice the visitor, and when viewed from standing on the map, they aid the understanding of the experience and reenforce the idea of the Museum’s key themes. The banners pick up on the design of the seven large fibreglass ships that can be collected from a harbour positioned to one side of the map, and the tablets are taken from a kiosk called ‘the Dock.’

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Figure 3: Banners advertising the space

4. Why the Great Map was needed

The Great Map is an installation that is designed to welcome visitors to the Museum, help them understand its subject matter, and link to gallery content throughout the Museum. Due to the limited gallery space and a rolling programme of exhibitions, stories that visitors may hope to see displayed may not have any presence within the Museum at the time of their visit.

The Museum often tells stories of events that take place across the world, but display space is limited, and showing a map that would put these events in the context of the rest of the world may not always be achievable. The Great Map aimed to aid visitors in these needs.

Importantly, visitors are also able to bring to the map their own knowledge, as well as that gained from the galleries. They learn from each other about their own histories, finding their hometowns, finding places they visited on holidays, telling friends and family about where ancestors came from, and pointing out places that were mentioned in the museum’s exhibits.

This behaviour takes place unprompted by the Museum and can be seen as the audience creates its own relationship with the map. An experience like this can allow visitors to tell their own stories and enables an inter-generational learning experience to easily take place in a relaxed and enjoyable way, without the concern that some level of knowledge about a subject needs to be gained before that conversation can confidently take place.

To help facilitate this, the Great Map is a combination of interaction experiences, both analogue and digital.

Visitors are able to simply walk across the map in its physical form, viewing it from various vantage points; or they can become a captain, picking up their captain’s hat and ship’s log, and take a large analogue ship out across the ocean, making sure that they avoid the coast on their voyage. This experience provides a level of engagement in the space for younger children and families that may not be interested in the digital experience. Prior to the development of the Great Map, the space was regularly used by families with very small children who would use the space as a safe space where children could crawl and take their first steps. It was important to the Museum that these visitors were retained and could engage in the space in a playful way. The analogue boats have successfully retained and met the needs of this audience who return regularly to use the boats.

Games company Hide & Seek ( was engaged to produce and test games for the Great Map space in 2013. It was observed during testing periods on the map that families and in particular school groups were creating their own games for the map. This included shouting out the name of a country and the children running to where they believed this country to be in the world. Building on this, Hide & Seek produced a series of games, available as leaflets in the space, that encourages groups to engage with the map and the ideas of navigation and geography.

The tablet experience and floor map were created by experience design agency Tellart ( Visitors are able to access a number of stories from British maritime history, allowing them to ‘dip their toe’ into the subject and get an overall impression of how important and rich this history is by collecting a Museum-issued tablet device from the dock. This allows the Museum to showcase some of its objects relating to, for example, Captain Cook’s voyages, when a Cook exhibition may not be available on gallery.

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Figure 4: The tablet and the dock

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Figure 5: A thermal image print out

Additional functionality of the app includes live shipping data, roaming augmented reality ship models, and wonders of the sea that can be ‘collected’ by the user.

When the visitor returns the tablet, they receive a thermal-image print out of the stories they have collected, suggesting galleries to visit next. At home they can access their stories at a personalized webpage, linking stories the Museum’s Collection website.

The space is supported by further by a grid of 11,700 RFID tags under the map.

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Figure 6: RFID tags grid layout

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Figure 7: RFID tags being laid under the map

5. Design of the map

How do you design a map for such a large space and for multiple use?

In the initial discussion sessions for the project, it was suggested that content be printed directly onto the map itself, with minimal digital involvement. Evaluation of this idea resulted in the Museum producing a 26-by-15-metre test map in greyscale to test with the public.

Further testing included a map with all the content and routes marked, a satellite map, a historical map from the Museum’s collection, a map with continents marked, and a map displaying the countries of the world. Evaluation showed that the public preferred a simplistic map, with minimal content on it.

Although a historical map would have connected directly and promoted the Museum’s collections, and a map showing all the content would have tied in with the original concept of the project, the evaluation report and observation of those interacting with the greyscale map clearly showed that this would not fit with visitor expectations.

A map with content printed on it, although attractive to children as it evoked the idea of a treasure map, often appeared confusing and a barrier to adults, as they felt unable to explain content to others in their group. Even though simple and featuring no references to place or history, dwell time on the greyscale map regularly met 30 minutes as groups and families created their own games and led their own discussions relating to the map.

The Museum wanted to give visitors the ability to orientate themselves on the map. Whilst including topography and the major rivers and waterways of the world helped with this, showing country boundaries would have presented an accuracy issue due to the changing nature of national borders. However, it was felt that placing of some cities would allow another degree of orientation for the visitor; therefore, the top three populated cities per continent were included. More cities were included for the UK to highlight British maritime stories, primarily starting their journeys from the UK.

The projection used for the map was another design element that required testing with the visitors. The project team believed that an ocean projection would focus visitors on the main subject area of the Museum, the seas and oceans, and allow routes around the world to be walked by the public in an easier way. An ocean projection and a Winkel Tripel projection were tested, and it became clear that the ocean projection confused the public, as it was unlike any map that they were familiar with, making it difficult for them to position themselves on it. The Winkel Tripel projection was used, as it presented a familiar layout map of the world for the public but kept distortion to a minimum.

The Museum wanted to use an optical-recognition-based system for positioning on the map, and as a result many of the design decisions for the look of the map were heavily influenced by this requirement. The Museum wanted a map that looked like a map of the world, as straying too far towards a graphical representation went against the evaluation results. Therefore, a large number of tests were conducted with the optical recognition software to ensure that a optically readable map that still looked realistic could be produced.

The final design of the map is a graphical representation of a satellite map. As maritime stories often take place around coastal areas, it was important for the Museum to represent coast lines as accurately as possible; this also aids the navigation of the visitor. The coast lines are as near to accurate as we could possibly make them.

Topographical elements and sea depths have been included and designed in order to break up the open spaces on the map, in particular the Pacific Ocean. Major rivers and lakes are also shown, as they aid personal navigation around the map and aid the individualistic nature of each section. The final design also includes the names of the major oceans, seas, and bays around the world, which not only aids the visitors learning but also the optical recognition, as it helps differentiate between the different areas of the map.

How do you condense over 500 years of British maritime history? On to a tablet? That you walk with across a space?

The National Maritime Museum has worked to define its master narrative in order to present a considered approach to the stories that are told in the Museum and in everything that it does. Themes on the Great Map reflect this and are grouped into: navy, technology, trade, leisure, exploration, migration, and environment.

When creating a list of stories that could be told on the Great Map, over 300 were identified as being important for us to tell. This may be because they are stories that resonate in the public consciousness, such as the story of Blackbeard, or they are key historical events from academic or cultural viewpoints. Creating a list of stories was something that the whole museum was involved in, including research curators and visitor assistants who often field the questions from the public asking why we do not have a particular story on display. A large paper-based map of the world was displayed in a public area, and all were asked to mark stories they believe the Great Map should tell. From this method of gathering stories, the desire to show Vikings came high on the list.

However, for the initial release of the Great Map application, 100 stories were chosen based on a set of criteria:

  • Is it a British story?
  • Does it tie in to the Museum’s master narrative?
  • How strong are the Museum’s collections in relation to this topic?

Based on these set criteria, the story of the Vikings has not been told, as it does not tie in with the Museum’s master narrative or collections. As this story is driven by the public and it is something that they would like to see, should the Museum consider telling it?

To engage visitors with the stories and encourage the idea that ships travel by sea around the land following certain routes at different points in history, visitors are made to physically move around the map in order to discover the stories which are all geographically positioned.

Visitors who encounter the stories are drawn in through ‘hooks’ that highlight the relevance of the story to them or intrigue them to read more. It was important to the Museum that short informative statements that intrigued visitors were the first thing that they encountered.

When discussing the stories with the curatorial team they would often promote a story based on its importance politically or historically. While they recounted these tales, nuggets of intriguing and thought-provoking information would come out, such as the arctic explorers ate polar bear for their dinner or a pirate who was proclaimed the pirate king would emerge. Through evaluation, it was seen that these points had the power to capture the visitors’ imaginations and draw them in to reading a story (Frankly, Green + Webb, 2014).

The stories are either events (one fixed point) or journeys (a series of points that link together). Each point will have captioned images of objects from the Museum’s collection that help tell the story and aid the visitor in their understanding of our assets.

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Figure 8: Screengrab of the app

The challenge of getting a subject expert to summarize a key historical event for a tablet-based experience was significant. Identifying the key elements of a story while maintaining its integrity historically was a new experience for many. First attempts at story writing produced essays that were deemed to be minimal by curatorial. Through experimentation and asking the writers to walk around a space reading these essays, they took on the viewpoint of the user and understood the importance of short, to-the-point text.

Users are also able to access information on the map in more magical ways. Animated ships (e.g., Challenger, Cutty Sark, Golden Hind, Ellen MacArthur’s B&Q catamaran) sail the ‘virtual’ oceans, following the actual routes that these vessels took. Visitors see them pass by on their voyages and capture them to discover through simple drawings aspects of life on board those ships. Through evaluation, it has been seen that this type of content, although lighter in nature, makes a stronger, more memorable connection with younger visitors (Frankly, Green + Webb, 2014).

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Figure 9: Screengrab of the app

6. Tracking the visitor’s position

The idea of visitors being able to physically interact with the map while discovering the stories was a key objective for the Museum, and through formative and summative evaluation it is clear that visitors also desire that link to be made (Frankly, Green + Webb, 2014).

The map’s initial concept design was to use optical recognition, resulting in visitors with the tablet device using the camera to position themselves on the map to bring up augmented content based on their location.

Multiple tests were conducted on the design of the map to ensure that it could be understood by the optical recognition software. During the floor production phase, tests were conducted again to ensure that the software could identify the locations.

Repeatedly, the map design completed these tests successfully; however, upon installation of the map within the Neptune Court space, the environment presented a greater challenge to the optical recognition than was anticipated.

With a glass roof, Neptune Court is affected by the day’s light levels. The winter environment provides a steady white light; however, during days of intense sunshine, the space is constantly changing. Shadows generated by the structure of the roof and people moving around the space change as the day progresses. After the installation of the map and some particularly sunny days that were not experienced during testing periods, it was discovered that the optical recognition system selected for the tablet application struggled to cope with this changeable environment, and the occlusion caused by the number of people interacting on the map at once further compromised the experience.

The option to include ‘readable icons’ on the map was discussed but rejected, as it would impact the nature of the designed map, making a transition back to the concept of having content physically marked. This would also limit the number of stories that could realistically be told.

Less-invasive methods were investigated, such as using ultraviolet paint that could be seen by the tablet camera but not the visitors, but were dismissed due to issues of not being robust enough.

The project then considered extending the Awiloc location system as used by the Discovery Sessions, as mentioned previously. This system had also been installed in Neptune Court for security purposes for the tablets issued by the Museum.

Awiloc is a system that identifies a position through wireless networks. This allows the Great Map tablet devices to independently determine their position in Museum environment based on signal strength measurements taken around the space. In order to achieve the level of accuracy that the Museum wished for, a set of 17 antennae were installed in Neptune Court.

Until this project, Awiloc was primarily used in more structured spaces (room spaces with walls) or real-world environments (cities and streets). Working with Fraunhoffer IIS, an accuracy of 1 metre was produced within the Neptune Court space. Using the Awiloc system meant that the map application needed to move away from using the camera and optical recognition for location awareness, and the view of the real map on the floor was changed to a graphic representation within the app. The reason for this is the nature of positioning, as the camera would show what is immediately beneath you, less than 1 meter in size, but the Awiloc positioning a data would have you located within a greater area. Through testing, it became clear that many users thought that they were using the camera of the tablet; the experience was therefore not too different from what was initially hoped for (Frankly, Green + Webb, 2013).

The Awiloc system does not include orientation, which for a map-based application is important, especially when following routes, as a map showing Northern Europe when you are standing on France instead of Southern Europe towards Africa is particularly distracting for a user’s experience. As a result, the gyroscope and compass built into the tablet were implemented.

During testing of this altered experience, it was observed that the orientation of the map would ‘slip’ and rotate by 90 degrees, which interrupted the user’s experience. Through testing and experimentation, it was discovered that within Neptune Court there are areas of high magnetism that affect the devices within the tablet. This magnetism is generated by the large metal machinery, such as the Reliant engine ( and the Type-23 frigate propeller (

Testing failed to produce a solution for this ‘slip,’ so a user interface element was introduced that gave the visitor the ability to alter the orientation of the map. Through evaluation, it was clear that users understood the nature of technology and the need for their interaction with it to make it as efficient as possible.

Issues were encountered at this stage, with interference in the location tracking on the tablet with users’ being stationary, but their tablet interpreting their position as moving across the map. This was very jarring for the users and prevented them from engaging with the stories or any of the content (Frankly, Green + Webb, 2013).

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Figure 10: The Great Map

In order to provide a workable experience for the visitor, the Museum decided to produce a non-location tracking version of the application that would allow the user to manually move and position the map using a swipe motion as an attempt to move the development to an operational phase.

7. Where next?

Since the application built for the Great Map’s first phase has moved to being operational, the Museum is embarking on a second phase that will seek to widen its approach and explore how the infrastructure can be used as a platform.

In December 2013, the Museum tasked a set of students from the BA Computing course at Imperial College London to explore the notion of an ‘API of APIs’ to draw the technology and data in use into something that could present developers with a way of approaching the Museum with ideas and prototypes for the space.

Whilst only a short investigation, it has been a valuable exercise in helping us understand how we might go about setting the right digital framework to allow this to happen. The work has led to a collection of Android libraries which will allow developers to interact with the various technologies available. This set of libraries is composed of the following:

  • A unified location library, which takes all of the device’s location hardware of varying precision (from mobile data all the way through to RFID) and returns location data under a common interface
  • A data query library that provides a layer of abstraction to the museum’s collections API, which allows developers to collect information about a particular place or maritime event
  • A library that streamlines and optimises data collection from the AISHub shipping data service
  • A flexible output library, which gives developers the ability to create document- or image-based summaries of “stories” that are taken from the collections API, and acts as a bridge between the Great Map’s content and the application sharing and data transfer abilities of the Android operating system (Davies, Hertz, Hoang, Hothersall-Thomas, Jones, 2014)

8. A creative developer programme

The Great Map project has been a huge leap for the Museum in the scale of digital project that it runs and also the level of digital content produced. This ambitious project involved teams from across the Museum that, although aware of digital, are not actively engaged with it extensively in their home or work lives. As a result, the awareness of the capabilities and the way of working to produce a successful digital result has now started to evolve Museum-wide.

The Great Map exceeds the visibility of previous digital projects. On gallery interactives and the Discovery Sessions are all located within galleries and are for a clearly defined and targeted audience. The Great Map project was located at the heart of the Museum in a transient space. As such, the Museum’s level of engagement with the project exceeded levels previously experienced on other projects.

The challenges that have been encountered in this project have aided the Museum in developing a greater understanding of what the audience wants and how to meet its needs, but also of the work needed to match the scale of ambition. As a result, the Museum is in the process of changing the way it approaches the development and release of such involved technology projects.

The valuable learning over the 18 months of development for the Great Map has played a huge part in deciding how to continue with the project. The Museum will take a different approach to development that is more exploratory, using the infrastructure and technology put in place to create a more open development process.

A series of creative labs during the first few months of 2014 will give the Museum five prototypes to assess, before offering seed funding to take them further. Rather than place a heavy burden on a delivery method, the labs should demonstrate how the Great Map can be used as a platform of discovery from a content and technology point of view, but work with audiences to iterate, refine, and release functionality at a more controlled pace.

The Great Map has ultimately done its job in transforming the Museum and inviting a more playful and participatory space that begs a reaction from its audience. As such, the Museum will continue to use it to create both digital and analogue experiences that continue to respond to the user behaviour it encourages.


Thank you to our colleagues across the Museum.

Our evaluation studies were carried out by Nicky Boyd ( and Frankly, Green + Webb (


Boyd, N. (2011). Mobile Learning Formative Evaluation Report. KS3.

Boyd, N. (2012). Neptune Court Map Formative Evaluation Report. Nicky Boyd, Audience Research and Evaluation Consultant. March.

Davies, Hertz, Hoang, Hothersall-Thomas, Jones. (2014). Re-engineering The Great Map.

Frankly, Green + Webb. (2013). User testing findings.

Frankly, Green + Webb. (2014). Great Map Summative Report.

Cite as:
. "The Great Map." MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014. Published January 31, 2014. Consulted .

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