Report from 'What's the point of a museum website' at MCN2011

A really belated report from the 'What's the point of a museum website?' panel I was part of with Koven Smith (@5easypieces), Eric Johnson (@ericdmj), Nate Solas (@homebrewer) and Suse Cairns (@shineslike) at last November's Museum Computer Network (MCN2011) conference.  I've written up some of my own thoughts at Brochureware, aggregators and the messy middle: what's the point of a museum website? – this post is about the discussion during the panel itself.  There was a lot of audience participation (in the room and on twitter), which made tackling a summary of the discussion really daunting, so I've given up on trying to capture every thread of conversation and am just reporting from the notes I took at the time.

It's all bit of a blur now so it's hard to remember exactly how the conversations went, but from my notes at the time, it included: Clay Shirky on social objects as a platform for conversation; games and other online experiences as big draws for museum sites (trusted content is a boon for parents); the impact of social media making the conversations people have always had about exhibitions and objects visible to curators and others; and the charisma of the physical object. From the audience Robin White Owen mentioned the potential for mobile apps to create space, opportunity for absorption and intimate experiences with museum content, leading me to wonder if you can have a Stendhal moment online?

Is discoverability is the new authority for museum websites?  As Nate said, authority online lies in being active online, though we also need to differentiate between authority about objects and narratives, and cite our sources for statements about online collections.  (See also Rob Stein on the difference between being authoritarian and authoritative). But maybe that's challenging too – perhaps museums aren't good at saying there is no right answer because we like to be the one with the right answer. Someone mentioned 'communities of passion' gathered around specific objects, which is a lovely phrase and I'm sorry I can't remember who said it.  Someone else from the audience wisely said, it's 'not how do I drive people to my collection, but how do I drive my collection to them'.  Andrew Lewis talked about 'that inspiration moment' triggered in a museum that sends you hurrying back home to make art or craft something.

I talked about my dream of building a site that people would lose themselves in for hours, just as you can do on Wikipedia now after starting with one small query.  How can we build a collections online site where people can follow one interesting-looking object or story after another?  We can't do that without a critical mass of content, and I suspect this can only be created by bringing different museum collections together digitally (or as Koven called it, digital repatriation), which also gets around the random accidents of collecting history that mean related objects are isolated in museums and galleries around the world.  Also, we're only ever part of the audience's session online – we might be the start, or the end, but we're more likely to be somewhere in the middle. We should be good team players and use our expert knowledge to help people find the best information they can.

Looking back, a lot of the conversation appears to be about how to create the type of rich experience of being in the presence of an object – a moment in time as well as in space – from the currently flat experience of looking at an object in an online catalogue (particularly when the online environment has all the distractions of kitten videos and social media notifications).  Can storytelling or bite-sized bits of content about objects act as 'hooks' to enable reflection and learning online?  Hugh Wallace has used the phrase 'snackable content' for readily available content that fits into how people use technology, and I think (with my conversational, social history bias) that stories-as-anecdotes can be a great way of sharing information about collections while creating that self-contained moment in time.  (And yes, I am side-stepping Walter Benjamin's statement that 'that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art'. Not that he was in the room, but he does tend to haunt these conversations.)

As with many conversations about online visitors, the gap between what we know and what we should know is frustratingly large, and we still don't know how large the gap between what (particularly) collections online are and what they could be.  Someone said that we're (measuring, or talking about) what users currently do with what we give them, not what they really want to do.  Bruce Wyman tweeted, 'current visitors most frequently give *incremental* ideas. You need different folk to take those great leaps forward. That's us'. Rob Stein said he didn't care about measuring time online, but wanted to be able to measure epiphanies – an excellently provocative statement that generated lots of discussion, including comments that epiphany needs agency, discourse, and serendipity. Eric said we murder epiphany by providing too much information, but others pointed out that epiphanies are closely tied to learning, so maybe it's a matter of the right information at the right time for the right person and a good dose of luck.

So (IMO) it was a great panel session, but did we come up with an answer for 'what's the point of a museum website'?  Probably not, but it's clearly a discussion worth having, and I dare say there were a few personal epiphanies during the session.

I'm collecting other posts about the session and will update this as I find them (or let me know of them in the comments): Suse's Initial takeaways from MCN2011.  I also collated some of the tweets that used the session hashtag 'wpmw' in a document available (for now) via my dropbox.

Finally, thank you to everyone who attended or followed via twitter, and particular thanks to my fellow panelists for a great discussion.

8 thoughts on “Report from 'What's the point of a museum website' at MCN2011”

  1. Our definitions of digital media have grown up in a characteristically narrow way and over the long run, this fragmented view makes it hard to focus.

    The shift that needs to happen isn't just a question of what should we be doing with our websites … or our apps, or our interactive kiosks, or our audio tours, or our Second Life presence (well, no, that I have a clear opinion on). It's more fundamentally to the point of accepting that these are augmentations of the things we choose to do as an organization. They are the expressive tools of the whole experience and rather than aiming to repurpose content across each, we should aim to create specialized content for each that are different facets of the experience.

    We are very generally good at creating content in some very specialized forms – publications, exhibits, etc. These new digital platforms are new kinds of distribution channels and while they share some commonalities (MoMA and OMSI can both publish a book or make an exhibit), each organization will express them differently. This is true across digital media — we need to experiment and understand the strengths of each and then apply them to our organization's overall direction.

    A separate digital initiative or strategy is tricky because it treats these formats as something special rather than a normal part of the organizational operation. Rather than a digital strategy, I'd rather see an organizational strategy that includes digital presence and outreach as an expected part of the norm. I don't want an advocate for a website, I want someone who's focused on the overall experience and sees where the website is part of that overall vision.

  2. "Rather than a digital strategy, I'd rather see an organizational strategy that includes digital presence and outreach as an expected part of the norm" – perfectly put! As part of the Museum Computer Group's plans to support senior staff, we've put in a proposal to the Museums Association conference along similar lines, and I think the Digital Strategy session ( ) at MW2012 is going to set the tone for many of the discussions there. Perhaps 2012 will be the year museum strategies embrace and normalise digital? It's a nice dream…

  3. I tend to look at it like this: spinning off web teams and digital media teams was the first step towards normalization. It's still going through a lot of a formalization process, and it will likely be some time before the results of that process manifest in the larger organization. As we've seen time and time again, the front-runners will likely be smaller, more agile institutions, whilst the old standbys will go at their own pace.To me, the manifestation of the implementation of the digital facing strategy won't be truly complete until these web and media teams are re-integrated into the larger museum IT environment, bringing with it its unique user-centric approach (as opposed to Big ITs cost-saving approach).Will we see first steps? Yes. Will some institutions leap out ahead of others? Sure. I do think, however, that we're a ways from having a unified strategy incorporating digital as the 'norm' in-sector. I do wish, however, that my time estimates are far too conservative, and 2012 -is- the year :)

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