Flickr: A Social Media Building Block

Robert Trio Jr., Hong Kong


The Hong Kong Maritime Museum would have approximately two years to plan its expansion from an older site that contained two galleries to a new one that had fifteen. New galleries would have to be created. The collection would have to be moved. The museum would close its doors to the public for twelve months, and the only public presence would be the museum’s website. The website would have to be reengineered and restructured for more dynamic content. This meant in part increasing photos of collection items and adding historic films.

The strategy at hand was to create an online gallery for each of the fifteen sponsored spaces. Each online gallery would introduce the public to the theme of the gallery and profile the individual or company that was sponsoring it. Ideally, each online gallery would include photos of the highlighted collection items that would be on display. The public would be encouraged to follow the progress of the museum’s construction and learn more about the new gallery themes.
Since the CMS could not serve as the dataset for the collection, other options had to be explored. In the end, the museum turned to flickr as a way to host its online collection photos.

By utilizing flickr’s application program interface, multi-level category sets, tags, and hypertext fields, the museum created its first online collection. And later, when the museum launched its new website, the flickr dataset was used to populate the new content. This paper will explore the strategies the museum faced in creating a dynamic online collection.

Keywords: flickr, api, social media

1. Introduction

The Hong Kong Maritime Museum (HKMM) would have approximately two years to plan its expansion from an older site that contained two galleries to a new one that had fifteen. This planning would include reshaping the institution with new collections, new storylines, and new approaches to serve the public. Like many new institutions, the museum had outgrown its two-gallery space in its first six years of operation. But through a series of serendipitous events, the museum had been given permission by the Hong Kong Government to relocate to a prime location at Central Ferry Pier No. 8 Hong Kong large enough to host fifteen galleries.

New gallery spaces would have to be created. The collection would have to be moved. The museum would have to close its doors to the public for twelve months during the moving period, and the only public presence would be the museum’s website. There was recognition that the website had to be reengineered, restructured, and rethought to include more dynamic content. This meant in part increasing photos of collection items and adding film.

The IT infrastructure at the Stanley location, the museum’s first home, was limited. Staff shared computers. A rudimentary desktop folder system housed collection photos, and no organization procedures were in place. The museum used a basic collections management system (CMS) that had no online publishing capabilities and did not support Unicode. This severely limited the museum’s ability to enter traditional Chinese characters. The website was little more than an electronic bulletin board, and staff could not directly make changes.

The move represented not only a physical change in location but also a change in how the museum shared its collection and resources. There was recognition that the museum needed to be more open and transparent. A strategy was developed concerning the collection and the galleries. This strategy included: creating an online gallery for each of the fifteen sponsored spaces of the new museum, introducing the public to the theme of each gallery, and profiling the individual or the company that was the sponsor. Each gallery would highlight collection items that would also be on display. The public would be encouraged to follow the progress of the museum’s construction and learn more about the new gallery themes within a Web 2.0 environment.

Since the CMS could not support an online collection, other options had to be explored. Because the focus of the museum at the time was building the new museum, it seemed an unwise time to upgrade to a better CMS. In the end, the museum turned to flickr as a way to host its online collection.

By utilizing flickr’s application program interface (API), multilevel category sets, tags, and hypertext fields, the museum created its first online collection. And later, when the museum launched its new website, the flickr dataset was used to populate the new site.

2. Museum history

HKMM was founded in 2004 and opened the following year in a renovated historic building in the Hong Kong community of Stanley. The museum was divided into two galleries: Ancient Maritime History and Modern Shipping. The mission of the museum was and is to place Hong Kong’s maritime past into a local, regional, national, and international context.

The museum at Stanley was often characterized as being a pocket museum where the small spaces and low light created an intimate visiting experience. The core visitors were maritime enthusiasts and visitors to Hong Kong.

Key supporters

The institution was set up as a private museum with charity status. A majority of the funding of the museum came from a core group of individuals and corporations with a shipping background. The Hong Kong Shipowners Association (HKSOA) first recognized the need for a museum in Hong Kong that highlighted shipping as the most important industry in the region and the reason why Hong Kong has flourished economically through the years. The core of the museum’s collection came primarily through donations, long-term loans, or gifts from key members of the HKSOA.

The museum is divided into three primary legislative entities. The HKMM Limited employs the staff and is responsible for the operations of the museum. The HKMM Trust owns the collection and is responsible for the governance of the museum. Finally, the HKMM Endowment is responsible for the financial strategy of the operation and investment opportunities. Key members of Hong Kong’s shipping community serve as the primary trustees in all three of these bodies.

The first six years

The first six years of operation of the museum were a crucial time and served as the foundation for the museum’s future endeavors. The museum was involved in three major activities: building a world-class collection, creating temporary exhibitions, and publishing in-house booklets.

Building a collection

The museum began building a world-class collection primarily through long-term loans from key stakeholders. The institution quickly gained a reputation as a place in Hong Kong where rare and beautiful items could be seen. The museum amassed the finest group of China Trade paintings in Asia and a ceramics collection that represents the finest in export china during the time of the Canton Trade system. The museum also forged relationships with Hong Kong model makers that began creating scale replicas of the most important ships that ever sailed into Hong Kong waters.

The museum’s efforts caught the attention of a former Hong Kong dockyard worker, and in 2008 he donated an important collection of archival glass plate negatives from the Hongkong & Whampoa Dockyard Company Limited (HWD). Numbering more than two hundred individual plates and covering a period of eighty years, the plates are one of the most important collections that document a Hong Kong shipbuilding business in the twentieth century.

Each donation to the museum was built on a personal relationship enhanced through a past history or common interest. By the time of the move to Pier 8, the collection held three thousand items.

Temporary exhibitions

The museum’s temporary exhibition strategy was born out of sense of necessity and practicality. With the limited space of the two galleries, temporary exhibitions afforded the museum with opportunity to showcase new items and new themes that were not included in the permanent exhibitions. A young staff at the museum learned how to put up and take down an exhibit—transforming the limited space for those core visitors who visited on a regular basis. Temporary exhibitions would drive the day-to-day work of the museum.

In-house booklets

Over six years, the museum published a short pamphlet or booklet for each major gift that came to the museum and for each annual exhibition. This strategy reinforced the strengths of the talents of the museum staff at the time. The museum’s first director was a prolific writer, and his esoteric style was well suited to the print medium. He came to the museum with an academic and print background, and presenting information in a printed form was the museum’s main means of communication to the public.

3. Changing the museum’s delivery system

The Hong Kong Government planned to discontinue the ferry service from Central to Hung Hom. Central Ferry Pier No. 8 in Victoria Habour was put out to bid for multipurpose private use. The museum submitted an application to the Government asking that the space be converted to a maritime museum for the people of Hong Kong.

Not only did the Government respond favorably by providing a long-term lease of the space, but it also generously donated operating funds for the renovation of the pier and staff salaries for the first years of operation. This contribution made the reality of Pier 8 as a maritime museum a possibility. The members of the HKSOA stepped forward and provided additional funding to help support the new expansion.

Although its mission had not changed, the reality of Pier 8 meant that the museum would have to change how it operated. The new museum contained spaces for fifteen permanent galleries, two temporary exhibitions galleries, a café, and a museum shop. The size and scope of the upgrade was enormous.

Perhaps the most dramatic of the changes that the museum would have to face was that it could no longer only serve as a boutique museum that served a core audience. Maritime museums are often challenged by this approach, because their unique collections lend themselves to be a place for the enthusiast. But the new museum at Pier 8 had to be for all the people of Hong Kong. Located in the heart of Victoria Harbour and funded by Government, the museum had to reach new audiences. Communication would be the key on how the museum would convey this new sense of change.

Creating a dynamic and timely message

In 2011 the museum operated a website that was little more than an electronic piece of paper. Five major tabs provided basic information about the museum, including the museum’s location, directions, and ticket prices. There was a section on current exhibitions and a links page for maritime resources. Everything on the website was geared to having a person visit the physical museum. The site was not a deep repository for information or maritime knowledge, and it contained no user-generated content or Web 2.0 capabilities.

Staff could only change the content of a few sections. An outside firm charged the museum every time the site needed to be changed. Because of these limitations, content was rarely fresh. There was no information on the collection. Photos of collection items served as wallpaper to the site, and no interpretative information was provided.

4. The flickr strategy

Ultimately the museum chose flickr as a platform to host its collection and museum events photos. This decision was based on several reasons: demonstrated effectiveness, functionality, cost, and the open platform, and it provided essential building blocks that future endeavors could be connected to.

It is important to note that the ultimate goal for the museum is to move to a collections CMS that supports Web publishing. In this way, an integrated system could populate and publish to the museum’s website. Ultimately, the museum will need complex searching capabilities and to allow for collections materials to be linked together, creating an intuitive user experience.

Due to the impending move of the museum and the limited staff resources to undertake the migration of the current CMS to another, the decision was made to focus on developing a new website and the planning of the new gallery spaces. The new website would prove to be an effective training ground to try out new concepts that could be tested in the digital world before they would be installed in the museum.

Library of Congress and flickr

The U.S. Library of Congress (LOC) paved the way for other institutions, large and small, that wanted to put their collections online. LOC’s final report about its flickr project illustrates many important points about the feasibility of placing historic collections online (Library of Congress, 2008). These ideas included accessibility, how to address copyright issues, using flickr’s API, and demonstrating the power of a central repository of photos, from not only the LOC but also other learning institutions that had joined the Creative Commons.

HKMM did not envision creating a site as complex as the LOC, but it is important to note that when the museum was discussing the strategy of using flickr as an option, it was important to point to LOC, an agency of the U.S. Government, and show not only that it was possible to use flickr in this manner but also that HKMM was following best practice in the field. LOC’s effort and extensive final report on its use of flickr was a major factor in giving HKMM the go-ahead to set up a flickr site and populate it with collection photos.

The LOC report highlighted several key advantages of using a social media platform for its public collection photos:

First, flickr does not require anyone to sign up for a special service. It is open to anyone who has an Internet connection. Individuals who choose to create an account can then become engaged in adding their own photos to their site, commenting on photos, creating favorites, joining groups of other flickr users around a particular interest topic, and creating galleries from other people’s photos. In other words, flickr provided a ready-made platform that allowed the potential for HKMM users to jump into using the museum’s photos and be engaged in the content.

Second, numbers: flickr boasts 87 million individual users. The museum recognized that in order to attract a larger audience, it needed to be in a larger pool of users. Flickr provides the potential for growing the museum’s audience.

Step-by-step practice

The HKMM flickr project can be divided into two distinct parts. The first part involved importing the first batch of photos to the site and organizing the data. Second, the flickr site was incorporated into the museum’s new website.

Each portion of the project is a building block to constructing a repository of images on the museum’s collection and events. It is important to note that many issues that will be discussed in each of these sections revolve around functionality. What can staff do? What can the public do? Why do these actions make a difference?

As noted earlier, it would be ideal to have these functions directly tied to the institutional CMS and digital asset management (DAM) system. But flickr provides all this functionality and possibilities at very little cost (Richardson, 2009), and it also provides a large pool of users. Ultimately, HKMM chose to use a social media platform to deliver its content. The Web 2.0 platform of flickr created for the first time at the museum a way for the general public to have a voice.

Step one: Populating and organizing

Setting up a flickr Pro account and populating it with collections took a matter of minutes. Flickr was designed with a user interface for people who are not collections managers but take pictures when they are on vacation. Drag-and-drop features and multiple item updates allow the user to quickly and accurately categorize data.

Until this point, the museum had all collection photos in a desktop folder system ordered chronologically by the accession date. We assumed that the museum needed to first organize collection items into order to support the work of creating the physical galleries and providing donors with a better understanding of what items would be on display in their spaces. With this idea, HKMM began organizing the photo files once they were uploaded.

The original data set contained two hundred photos. This was small enough to easily recognize the item and drag and drop it into the appropriate category. In some cases, the photo file had to be opened up in order to determine its grouping.

Three-tier system of organization

Flickr provides a three-tiered system of organizing its photos:

  1. Collections are the top tier, the most comprehensive category for the photos. HKMM identified major categories such as “ships by type,” “collections by material type,” and “collections by gallery.”
  2. Sets are the second tier. They are narrower in scope and intended to represent only a portion of the larger collection. The museum created sets such as “models,” “ceramics”, “China Trade Gallery,” and “passenger ships.” These sets fit under the larger collections tent.
  3. Lastly, photos are organized at the individual level with tags. Tags can describe a number of individual characteristics. An item can have an unlimited number of tags.

What makes this system dynamic (Weinberger, 2007) for the museum is that a digital object can exist in multiple sets and collections at the same time. The digital world defies the physical world principle of one object in one place at one time. And the digital object does not have to be copied multiple times in order for this to happen.

In a matter of days, the museum had more than two hundred of its photos online. Each had a bilingual (English and Traditional Chinese) label, and each item had been categorized on three levels. This was a small but important step for HKMM, which in its first six years of operation had never placed any of its collection online. Within a month, the collection had grown to over four hundred items. Because the description field for photos can be written in hypertext markup language, all collection descriptions were written with a link back the museum’s main website. In some cases, photos were linked to other related items in the collection.

Step two: Linking flickr to the website

It was clear that the museum needed to create a new website that represented the changing face of the museum. This was especially important considering that the museum would be closing its Stanley location, and the website would be its only public face for a period of time. The museum needed to keep stakeholders aware of the progress it was making.

One of the key portions of the request for proposal that outlined the scope of the project was its utilization of flickr. The flickr site already identified the key galleries of the museum with the highlighted objects. It also divided items into different categories by material type. The plan was to use flickr’s API capability to populate the new website with its content. In this way, HKMM staff could change or add new material at one location, and it would automatically populate to the website.

The launch of the website in February 2012 (HKMM, 2013a) marked another significant step for the museum. Visitors now had access to explore key items in the collection. They could choose to explore in a number of ways. Items could be found in the galleries or by material type, but the beauty was staff only had to add the item once, because a digital file can be in more than one place at a time.

Specifically, the API was used to identify the flickr sets that the museum had created. These sets included the galleries by name and the material type of the collection item. The API would pull the set into the website and also bring the individual description label for each photo.

When the museum launched its new website, the areas for the collection were all ready to explore. All the work of organizing the flickr data was paying off. As the planning for the galleries was taking place and new items were being chosen for the on-site location, the digital version began popping into place.

5. Analytics

Figure 1 - 15 day sampling comparing page visits of the museum’s flickr account and its main website

Figure 1: 15-day sample comparing page visits of the museum’s flickr account and its main website

In terms of general analytics, a random sampling of the museum’s Web analytics shows that the museum’s flickr photostream receives twice as many visits on a single day as the museum’s domain website (HKMM, 2013b). While the museum’s website receives a consistent number of visits each day, the flickr page fluctuates widely. Unfortunately, the analytics do not support the notion that the flickr page is driving visitors to the main site. Google, Hong Kong Government museums, and travel websites make up 95 percent of its traffic source.

These numbers suggest that flickr users and HKMM website users have two different behaviors when exploring the museum’s resources. Flickr users explore for content. They look for specific information, and once they find the HKMM flickr site, they look at several different pages. One can also speculate that the flickr users are a worldwide audience, since many of the page visits occur when the museum is not open. Even though each photo on the flickr page has a direct link to the museum’s main website, the conversion rate to the museum’s website makes up less than 1 percent of site’s traffic source.

HKMM website users come mainly to the pages of the site that are about making a physical visit. These include the hours of operation and directions. Though each gallery of the museum has an explanation—and there are other resources about maritime history—these pages receive very few visits throughout the week.

6. Building blocks

The most important outcome, from an internal point of view, is that the flickr project helped the museum staff to begin thinking about information and sharing platforms in different ways. These building blocks helped the museum create specifications for a CMS that runs the museum’s interactive system. They also helped the museum to form the foundations for a proper DAM system and to begin organizing information into an architecture based on categories, themes, storylines, and metadata.


The museum was also able to see which items on flickr received the most hits. Visitors to the flickr site chose favorites, added photos to create their own galleries, and even created groups in which HKMM collection items were added.

In one small example, two families’ members reconnected when one saw that the other had made a comment about an object online that was originally owned by their grandparents.


One feature of flickr is the ability to choose a portion of a photo, highlight it, and make a comment. When planning the interactive stations of the museum, the China Trade paintings collection provided a rich opportunity to expand the museum’s interpretation offerings. These works are filled with symbolism and markers that help better explain the piece. The museum tested these ‘hotspots’ on flickr first, before creating the interactive stations. The physical exercise helped the museum to better determine how many hotspots were needed for each painting.

In the first year of operation in Central Hong Kong, flickr has continued to serve as a means to push social media content to the public and also assist the museum in creating small online photo collections. It has also assisted in providing structure to several community projects.

First online exhibit

The HWD glass plate negatives are one of the museum’s most important archival collections. Because of the sensitive natural of the material, the digital medium provides an excellent means to present them to the public without risking the safety of the original objects. In the summer of 2013, the museum launched its first community project, “Do you remember?”, an online exhibition of HWD memories of the people and families who worked at HWD. For the first time, the museum was able to share this collection with the people of Hong Kong. The online resource was an invaluable way to connect people to their memories.

7. Next steps

Although flickr has been a valuable tool, it does have limitations. Flickr was designed for the individual user. Thus one of the limitations about applying this platform in an institutional setting is lack of user control and documentation. The site does not adequately:

  • Document changes made by staff
  • Record versions of change that have occurred
  • Allow for different user levels of access and editing

One advantage of smaller institutions is that it is easier to control the access point because there are so few internal users. But as HKMM grows, flickr’s limitations make it impossible to use it as an institutional digital repository.

As the museum begins to plan for new collections projects, it will be important to think about what role flickr can play in those endeavors. But more and more, flickr will evolve back to becoming a public face rather than an internal resource.

This has not been a technology or collections project, but a communications project. As the museum moves into its adolescent years, it will be important to keep communication open. Social media tools like flickr will always have a place.


Special thanks to the leadership of the museum for supporting the ideas discussed in this paper; without that support, this work would not have been possible. Every practitioner needs a champion; the author had two: Richard Wesley and Anthony J. Hardy, the museum’s director and chairman.


Hong Kong Maritime Museum (HKMM). (2013a). Explore Galleries. Consulted August 30, 2013.

Hong Kong Maritime Museum (HKMM). (2013b). flickr photostream. Consulted August 30, 2013.

Library of Congress. (2008) For the common good: The Library of Congress Flickr pilot project. Washington, DC. 

Richardson, J. (2009) “Five ways in which museums are using Flickr.” Consulted August 30, 2013.

Weinberger, D. (2007). Everything is miscellaneous – The power of the new digital disorder. Henry Holt, and Company, LLC: New York, NY.

Cite as:
R. Trio Jr., Flickr: A Social Media Building Block. In , N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published September 30, 2013. Consulted .

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