What are the right questions about museum websites?

It should be fairly simple to answer the question, 'what's the point of a museum website?' because the answer should surely be some variant on 'to further the mission and goals of the museum'.

But what is it about being online, about being on or of the web that problematises that answer?

Is it that there are so many other sites providing similar content, activities and access to knowledge? Is it that the niche role many museums play in their local communities doesn't translate into online space? Is it that other sites got in earlier and now host better conversations about museum collections?

Or is the answer not really problematic – there have always been other conversations about collections and ways of accessing knowledge, and the question is really about where museums and their various activities fit in the digital landscape?

I don't know, but it's Friday night and I should be on my way out, so I'm going to turn the question over to smarter minds… What are the right questions and why is it difficult for a museum to translate its mission directly to its website?

Update, the next day… This quote from an article, Lost professors: we won’t need academics in 60 years, addresses one of my theories about why translating a museum's mission into the online context is problematic:

…there are probably several hundred academics in Australia who lecture on, say, regression analysis, and very few of us could claim to be in the top 1% – actually only 1% of us.

The web allows 100% of the students to access the best 1%. Where is the market for duplication of mediocre course material by research academics?

I'm not saying any museum content is mediocre, of course, but the point about the challenges of the sudden visibility of duplicated content remains. If the museum up the road or in the next town has produced learning activities or expert commentary about the same regional/national history events or objects, does it further your mission to post similar content? What content or activities can you host that is unique to your museum, either because of your particular niche collections or context or because no-one else has done it yet?

Also, for further context, Report from 'What's the point of a museum website' at MCN2011 and Brochureware, aggregators and the messy middle: what's the point of a museum website? (which is really about 'what forms do museum websites take'), and earlier posts on What would a digital museum be like if there was never a physical museum? and the related Thoughts towards the future of museums for #kulturwebb, What's the point of museum collections online? (Angelina's succinct response: digital content recognises audience experiences, providing opportunities for personal stories to form significant part of the process of interpretation) and finally, thoughts about The rise of the non-museum – museums are possibly the least agile body in the cultural content market right now.

7 thoughts on “What are the right questions about museum websites?”

  1. I don't think there's one answer to this question and I battle with it myself often, but I did think it was worth linking to a "thinker" in case you haven't seen this presentation before by Koven Smith, given at the Ignite! Smithsonian conference:

    Koven Smith: What's the Point of a Museum Website?, Smithsonian Captured on Ustream:Ignite Smithsonian Museum Tech Presentations (Pt. 1) Educational http://bit.ly/JLkya1

  2. This is a really excellent post, Mia. I think one of the reasons that this is such a rich area for thought is that there are so many questions still to be asked.

    I've been reading Stephen E. Weil's "Rethinking the Museum", and it's fascinating to see how many of the questions and issues he was struggling with in 1990 are the same that we are today. He makes an interesting point, however, about his own line of questioning which moved from what museums did to why they did it, writing (xvi):
    "Throughout the museum field, there lately seems to have been a perceptible shift in focus away from the more technical aspects of day-to-day museum operations and towards the more fundamental questions of what a museum's purpose might be and what actual outcomes a museum might hope to achieve among its visitors and in its community… [This] might relate to the fact that the museums in the United States are far more technically adept today than in prior years and that previous questions as to their proficiency are no longer so pressing."

    It seems to me that this is similar to the movement that the sector is going through, in dealing with technology. Much of the what seems to be starting to work itself out (to some extent at least), so now we get to start thinking about and questioning the why. We can look for the ends, not just the means.

    This doesn't mean I necessarily know what the right questions about museum websites are, but I imagine that the answer is something that provokes people to consider the why, not the how or the what.

  3. Hmm, what are the right questions about museum websites? But to which websites, or which bit of a big website, do you refer? As you write so well about in a previous post "Brochureware, aggregators and the messy middle: what's the point of a museum website?" museum websites span a wide range of online content bits of which will be interesting to different visitors.
    So I guess one 'right' question is: "What do audiences/online visitors respond to?" (I'll avoid the temptation to write 'what do they want?' as that brings up a whole other debate.) And if the question is, "What do they respond to?" then the answer is probably "all sorts of things." A large proportion of visitors may indeed visit a website to find out when the museum is open, or to apply for a job, or to find out if they can book the dinosaur hall for their wedding. And that's okay. A different group entirely might visit the website to research collections information. And that's okay too.
    So then the next 'right' question might be: "How do we deal with content that isn't being accessed?" Or, are we brave enough to take content down? That's a tricky one.
    A final 'right' question for me is, "Should our museum's online content only be available via our own URL?" That's the easiest of all – because I can give an answer to that.
    No! Get it out to where the eyeballs are.
    As for your own question about the visibility of duplicated content. I suspect that if the museum down the road is putting up similar information to you, then you should just ring them up and start a collaboration. But the fact is that duplicated content will probably not come from another cultural organisation, but could be from all sorts of places. So the question is "What can museums do to be trusted sources of information?" so that someone searching for information actually clicks through to your site? Noting here that these comments don't apply to all disciplines – in some, aggregating large datasets full of similar content is an absolute advantage.

  4. 'Concentrate on the irreducible core' (from Frankie's first link) might be a good phrasing – what is the irreducible core of a museum online?

    Or to paraphrase Suse's quote from Stephen E. Weil, why is your museum online? If we take 'to get people to the venue' as a given, what other role does a museum website play? I think I'm leaning towards asking 'what unique content does one's museum have, and where can one link to existing content elsewhere?' as a starting point.

    But maybe a question is also 'how does your museum brand translate into an online experience', as expressed in 'What could Museums learn from the Scrabble app?' (http://www.franklygreenwebb.com/2011/05/05/scrabble-choices/): "This [trusted and valued global museum] brand is a powerful tool that can help museums connect with their audiences in a crowded mobile world. But … we can’t rely on brand alone or even previously successful formats. We need to think ‘native’ and break free from our old paradigms."

    The web flattens any local geographic or socio-political context that means a museum is unique within its city, region or country, but given current resourcing levels across various countries this just makes it more important to link to existing content wherever possible, leaving more time and money to create better experiences around objects and knowledge that form the core of a particular museum.

    As always, the answers seem easier for art museums, with their unique objects that tend to fall neatly into a wider art historical context. For a local city museum, the question might become 'how does your website represent the particular history and culture of your city?' and 'how is that expressed in collections online', given that the objects themselves might only be significant because of the stories they bear rather than their uniqueness. (See also my ramblings on 'Not all objects are created equal' http://openobjects.blogspot.com/2011/03/rockets-lockets-and-sprockets-towards.html though that was written during MSc dissertation madness.)

    "What do audiences/online visitors respond to?" is such a juicy question… History and culture is popular in TV and fiction, though often in different forms and rarely based around the collections of one institution. Perhaps that points the way to more collaborations across specific locations or topics.

    And thanks for the link, Catherine!

  5. For most museums there's going to multiple visitor types requiring quite different information. These include people planning an informal visit, those wishing to go to a specific event, serendipitous viewers of specific collection items and researchers looking at wider groups of collection content.
    One purpose of the online collection on a museum website that is often overlooked is its ability to provide better information on the significance of particular collection items. By publishing the collection information you have you can then gather information on external searches leading to your content and page view statistics on specific items. Which records do visitors comment on? Which records get linked to from other sites?
    This can then help with content overlap question. Which content do you have that is unique? Which areas of the collection deserve prioritisation when writing higher level stories that make them more visible on the site?
    This information can then be used as one metric for guiding museums policies around accessioning, deaccessioning and interpretation.

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