Article: Learning lessons from a decade of museum websites

The article 'Learning lessons from a decade of museum websites' was published in Issue 3 of Museum Identity magazine. The web version as originally posted is archived at Learning lessons from a decade of museum websites; I've posted the full text below for reference.

Abstract: "Mia Ridge, Lead Web Developer at the Science Museum, on learning the lessons from a decade of museum websites and the opportunity to look at the organisational changes museums might face as both the expectations of their audiences and their own working practices have been influenced by their interactions online".

Cite as: Ridge, Mia. “Learning Lessons from a Decade of Museum Websites.” Museum Identity, September 2009.

Learning lessons from a decade of museum websites

Mia Ridge, Lead Web Developer at the Science Museum, on learning the lessons from a decade of museum websites and the opportunity to look at the organisational changes museums might face as both the expectations of their audiences and their own working practices have been influenced by their interactions online

Museum-iD Social Media Seminar











The following article is based on a paper Mia gave at the Museum-iD seminar 'Museum as Media Company: Social Media, Broadcasting & The Web'.

Image: Speakers at the seminar – from left: Matthew Cock, Head of Web, British Museum; Adrian Arthur, Head of Web Services, British Library; Mia Ridge, Senior Web Developer, Science Museum; Patricia Wheatley, Head of Broadcasting, British Museum; Clize Izard, Head of Creative Services, British Library; John Stack, Head of Tate Online (also speaking at the event but not pictured Peer Lawther, Senior Online Marketing Executive, NMSI)

2009 may be remembered as the year when various financial crises gave us time and cause to stop and reflect on the successes and failures of the past decade or so of museums on the web.  This reflection is aided by the maturity of the web as a technical platform – models are now available for most common applications of cultural heritage online, and a substantial body of experience with digitisation and web projects exists within the cultural heritage sector.  It also offers an opportunity to pose some questions about the organisational changes museums might face as both the expectations of our audiences and our own working practices have been influenced by our interactions online.

This article provides a brief overview of questions I think can be useful when selecting online tools.  Some of them may also confront assumptions about the extent to which online projects challenge existing museum practice, and about the demands successful projects can make on existing infrastructure and staff.  I also suggest simple, cost-effective methods for taking advantage of in-house expertise, perhaps born from previous online projects or grounded in audience contact, to give your projects the best chance for success.

Choosing the right tool for the task has never been more important.   Not only is your online presence no longer neatly contained within your own website, but the web has changed our audiences and their expectations about interactivity and how content is experienced and consumed – the ability to mash-up, reference and re-mix content is almost taken for granted as part of the online experience.

Your online brand is not just about what happens under your own URL.  According to Nielsen Online, “The ten most heavily used web brands account for 45% of total UK internet time”. Facebook alone accounts for “one in every eight minutes” of all UK Internet time.  This means every other site is “fighting for the remaining 55 percent of time Britons spend online”.  In this context, doesn’t it make sense to take your content to your audience instead of expecting them to come to you?

Based on my experience and on that of other museum technologists, I’ve listed some sample questions about your audiences, content and organisational goals related to the project.  The answers to these questions will begin to reveal the types of interactions your audiences could have with your content, with each other and with the museum itself.  In turn, focussing on those social and functional interactions you wish to support will determine the website and interaction metaphors suitable for your project.

Further questions tailored to your specific idea might come from a review of past digitisation projects and exhibitions, from talking to front of house, education and marketing staff who are already in close contact with your possible audiences, from an analysis of similar websites, or from your own experience of social media and websites.

Audience: where do they already congregate online?  How will they discover your content?   What physical or digital metaphors are they already familiar with?  Should the project integrate with their possible physical experience of the museum or exhibition?  Are they experts or novices?  How will they negotiate issues of authority and trust?  How will they engage with your content?  Can they contribute to your own knowledge of the subject or collection?   If audiences are to create or share content, is it specialist material, reminiscence, a simple “I like it/I’ve got one of those”, a creative response or a challenge?   Will their questions require a researched response or a simple acknowledgement?

Project: is this definitely a web project?  What does your organisation want to get out of this?  How does this particular mode of access relate to your overall mission?  What resources are available during the content development and technical implementation phases?  Can you provide resources on an on-going basis to allow for iterative development or post-launch fixes?  Is funding time-limited, or does the project require core resources for long-term success?  What’s your appetite or capacity for risk?  How will you recognise success?  How would you alleviate failure?  How well do your metrics match those set by the project funders or sponsors?  Can you measure a positive engagement or merely register a site visit?  How will content and functionality be archived?  How sustainable is the infrastructure?  What’s your ‘exit strategy’ to allow for the failure of commercial or public partners?  Which existing standards and technologies can you use?  How can you enable re-use of the museum- or user-generated content, both in terms of clear usage rights and programmatically re-usable data?  Can you re-use existing data produced by other organisations, or partner with others in the same field or aiming at the same audiences?  Can you publicly reflect on the lessons you’ll learn during this project, and usefully share both successes and failures?  How open are you to learning from your audience?

Content: what will draw audiences to your website, out of all the other sites on the internet? What types of content – how much interpretation, what media, which sources?  What is your content modelled on – wall captions, learning objectives, live tours, traditional museum models or something drawn from more general models – books, television, film, social media, debates?  Who creates the content – the organisation, the audience?  Should the site provide for collaboration or comment?  How much room is there for audiences to make their own meaning?  Can audiences augment or edit museum content?  How much authority can the museum share with audiences while remaining a trustworthy resource?  Can content be re-used and integrated with the rest of your online content?  How much context and knowledge is assumed about the topic, theory or object?

The decisions about technical tools and infrastructure are only as good as your ability to understand the technological and social contexts your audiences already inhabit.  I don’t want to suggest that museums should never push the boundaries or ask audiences to learn new forms of interaction, but I believe that resource-intensive projects should never be lead by the desire to experiment with a new technology if there isn’t also a demonstrable existing or potential audience need.

One particular challenge for museum projects is that it is futile to focus on specific technological implementations too early in the specification design process, because the social and technological platform is still subject to evolutionary change before project delivery.  Robust infrastructures, interoperable standards and a separation of presentation and application logic can help build ‘future resistant’ (if not ‘future proof’) projects.  Ideally, project leaders should be encouraged to pitch the overall goal to funders or sponsors rather than having to specify the implementation method years in advance of launch.  While online interaction metaphors, interface designs and audience expectations may change over the 3 to 5 year life cycle of a typical museum project, designing metrics that offer both flexibility and accountability provides the best chance of acceptance and uptake by the target audience and overall project success.

Each web platform or metaphor will have particular associations and expectations about the types of content and interactions it supports and the levels of on-going moderation or responsiveness required, though these may vary according to sections of the audience.  However, as new websites and social media interactions and metaphors rise and fall through the Hype Cycle , the characteristics of each become clear and they can be assessed in the light of your requirements.

Some of the questions above may seem rather daunting, but by involving staff from a range of disciplines in the project’s earliest scoping stages, you gain a greater variety of perspectives and make available a wider range of possible solutions.  Inviting others to participate in the initial stages of project design and taking advantage of the innovation and expertise in your organisation is a good way to discover reusable resources, bring to light any internal duplications or conflicts, and to ‘reality check’ your idea against organisational mission and operational reality.  For example, most museums contain people who spend their days talking to audiences and watching them interact with exhibits and interpretative content – observations that can help bridge the gap between the physical and online audience experience.  Similarly, museum technologists are not merely passive conduits in the online publication process but often have skills, expertise and experience that can profoundly shape the delivery of services.

If you need to understand emerging technologies, ‘mash-up days’  are among the lightweight, inexpensive but potentially high-impact ways to enable staff to research and experiment with new platforms while engaging in cross-departmental collaboration.  Cross-specialism workshops, ‘unconferences’ , social media communication tools and even traditional meetings are a great way to create space for innovation while benefiting from years of institutional knowledge and bridging the disconnect that sometimes exists between departments.  Integrating social and participatory (or ‘Web 2.0’) applications for collaboration and consultation into organisational practice can  improve the chances of success for web projects by allowing staff to become as familiar as their audiences with the potential of these tools.

Our audiences have fundamentally changed as a result of their interactions online – shouldn’t the same be true of our organisations?

Mia Ridge, Lead Web Developer, Science Museum.

This article was originally based on a paper Mia gave at the Museum-iD seminar on "Museum as Media Company: Social Media, Broadcasting & The Web” about ‘the role of the web at the Science Museum’.

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