Why most museum websites are terrible (at achieving mission)

What is the main aim of a museum website? Browsing the internet, you quickly conclude that this is to promote the institution to potential visitors. This is of course a worthwhile aim, museums would not exist without an audience, but I believe that museum websites can be much more.

The starting point for all digital activities within a museum should be it’s mission, this is likely to be to educate, to inspire, to preserve and to share (or similar). Visitor figures have a role in a museum, but these should be a way to measure how many people we are reaching, not the reason that the institution exists.

The solution I believe is for museum websites to become hubs for ideas, publishing platforms which allow institutions to pursue their missions by sharing knowledge and inspiration with the public.

Walker Art Center recently did this, becoming a digital hub for not just contemporary art which is hanging in their institution, but for contemporary art as a whole. The result was a 40% increase in traffic to their website and a digital experience which seems to ties in more closely with their mission.

Old attitudes

For the Walker Art Center website to grow beyond being primarily a marketing tool they had to invest in the team who produce their website, adding members of staff to manage and produce the huge quantity content needed to keep this ideas hub constantly changing.

Many have said that this added expense means that other institutions are unlikely to move their websites towards being publishing platforms. ‘Museums don’t have the budget to do this’ they say.

The Walker art Center has an annual turnover of around $17 million, and the idea that a few extra staff would put a huge strain on this budget is preposterous, they have simply decided to fund their website over something else.

I believe that even much smaller institutions could do the same, but there seems an unwillingness to divert funds from the physical museum to pay for digital activities, perhaps because many institutions see websites as primarily a marketing tool and things which happen in the physical museum as delivering on mission.

An open letter to Museum Directors

Museum leaders need to rethink digital, and look at it from a more strategic perspective, one which can really deliver on the mission of the institution and the needs of the public. Museum leaders need to recognise that a powerful website can deliver just as much as a powerful exhibition and fund the roles within the institution to produce something credible online.

If museums see updating their websites as something which their marketing people can do in a couple of hours per week, then they are missing a huge opportunity to step beyond the walls of their institutions and settling for little more than digital leaflets.

I believe that our website have a real role to play in delivering on the mission of museums, but to do that, we need to be prepared to invest in them.

20 Responses to “Why most museum websites are terrible (at achieving mission)”

  1. Mar Dixon says:

    A huge hurdle is for museum directors to recognise government websites do not work. They need to break away from them and create their own site with their own personality – not try to force a square into a circle. This will allow them to tailor their site to THEIR audience (not the governments thought on whom the audience should be).

    • Jim Richardson says:

      Thanks for the comment Mar. Funders are always going to be a huge influence on museums, and I think for example in the UK that the Arts Council England would pretty much agree with a mission centred approach to the web. We need to work with these organisations to encourage proper funding for digital activities within museums as those leading these organisations are far more likely to listen to them.

  2. Yacine says:

    Claiming that Walkerart.org is a success is naive. Not only the site needs to invest a lot to keep the content regularly updated (and it has failed to do it so far; a new article is added every ten days!), but the new site structure is truly harming the core business of the museum, which is organizing exhibitions.

    Worst of all, saying that the site earned 40% more traffic is totally misleading. The site is also losing too much traffic for the third-party sites it feeds content from. The bounce rate should be high, and time on site low. This is not to mention that the 40% increase claim is completely contradicted by data from Alexa and Compete, which both show a slight decline in traffic.

    • Paul Rowe says:

      Do you have any hard evidence to back this up? From the site’s magazine page (
      http://www.walkerart.org/magazine ) it appears that there’s a steady stream of interesting content being shared, both from internal and external sources including the Walker Art Centre blogs. Where does the claim of one new article every 10 days come from?
      Statistics from Alexa and Compete should be taken with a grain of salt – at best they are estimates of the traffic that Alexa/Compete track going to the site. The real figures would need to come from analytics software directly on the site.
      I’m based in New Zealand and am unlikely to be able to go to the Walker in person. The revamp has made the website interesting for me to visit as a destination in its own right.

    • Nate Solas says:

      @yacine – Always good to hear a dissenting opinion! I think we disagree a bit on the “core business of the museum” — our mission is on every page of our site and has to do with artists’ expression and audience engagement, something we can very literally achieve online. So in that sense, we’re not harming our core business at all (nor in the physical sense: our gallery visits are up since the launch).

      I’m not sure how to refute your data from Compete and Alexa except to say that those are not at all the numbers we’ve see on Google Analytics. In general I think those two services can provide useful broad strokes, but they’re clearly missing our data. This article is a bit abrasive but it reflects my opinion of those two sites: http://techcrunch.com/2011/08/29/anti-web-analytics/

      The 40% Jim quotes is accurate, and it’s from a talk we recently gave — I believe he’ll be posted the video soon and you can watch the last 15 minutes for a detailed rundown of the statistics and our own metrics for “success” with the new site (including the idea that “losing” visitors to well written articles about contemporary art and ideas isn’t really losing them. They come back for more, as long as we send them to good content.)

      I do appreciate the dialog and hope the talk is online soon so we can have a common point of reference. Best,
      Nate

    • Jim Richardson says:

      Hi Yacine

      Thanks for the comment. As Nate says, the stats came from his presentation at MuseumNext and I would trust Google Analytics as a better primary source of information then Alexa.

      I will post this presentation for you to watch asap, as I think it better explains their approach then anything I can write.

  3. charlotteshj says:

    Great points – I could have written this myself :-)

    And I think we have to push the issue even further.
    Heritage institutions are venues, but should naturally evaluate and use all types of platforms. And in many ways I have never understood why “digital” became almost synonomous with “marketing” for museums. Other MLA´s – the archives and libraries – were much quicker in realizing the potential of www. They build services and made their collections available online.

    A couple of years ago the Danish Heritage Agency published a set of guidelines for museums, stating that a “museum is the sum of all it´s platforms” and encouraged the creation of “real” content for museum sites. I.e. sites should not just contain marketing messages and visitor information, but content on the topics, etc. that the museum is working with.

    But here is the issue, that I feel we have to deal with: Some museums allready have content. But sometimes wrapped in flash and other “invisible” technologies trying to recreate the “museumexperience” online. I think it is important to realize, that www is not the physical experience, and that people use the web in a much more focused way. To find specific pictures, information etc.

    So, when creating and publishing online, we need to create content in accordance with the way the web works – for instance, with much more focus on SEO etc.

    But in reality, I sometimes feel, that we are trying to catch a train that has already left the platform. So maybe we should also think of the next step: how do our websites and online services relate to the semantic web? Are we ready for an Internet of Things? Is our stuff findable and shareable? Do we have webservices and open API´s? Is our online collections (if we have them) “nerd-friendly”? Are we and our colleagues “digitzed” eough to contribute in a digital environment, where machine generated content -also on other sites than our own – becomes more and more important?

    • Jim Richardson says:

      Thanks for your comment Charlotte. API’s and open data were certainly big topics at MuseumNext this year with some great examples of the good things which can happen when museums give geeks access to their collections.

      I’ll be sharing films of these in the coming weeks and I hope it will provide some excellent reference points for those who weren’t able to make it to the event.

      Thanks again

  4. I couldn’t agree more, Jim. I preach ‘strategy’ all of the time yet I see exactly what you have described. Posting an events calendar and a few pretty pictures doesn’t really cut it and I’m sure it doesn’t drive visitorship to the museum or the website, except the person who is looking for directions to the museum and open hours.

    • Jim Richardson says:

      Hi Cherie

      Thanks for your comment. Many people would probably argue that most website visitors are just looking for directions, after all that is often the most popular page on a museums website (isn’t that depressing).

      I am pleased that the blog post hit a chord with you. Lets keep preaching ‘strategy’ and in time I am sure we can persuade others to be more mission focused.

  5. Laura Fox says:

    I’m in complete agreement, and thank you for this article. I’m so interested in getting museums out of their safe zones behind walls and surrounded by objects into being true learning zones and knowledge networks (a model where their physical location can just be the nucleus for wide-reaching impact).

    I think museums could be incredible publishers, but it means rethinking their knowledge role to become much more active. Museums have a great combination: truly fascinating academic content with real value, plus a mission grounded in serving audiences.

    To that point, some museums and institutions may have a more authoritative voice than others, but there’s potential for all to advocate for their unique content and perspective. If we do think of it in the publishing model, the big players (TATE, London’s Science Museum, etc) are authoring the narrative non-fictions of wide-reaching worth and note, while the smaller guys can be more quirky, anecdotal, and experimental. It’s not just the content, but what you do with it and how you narrate it. This could also include a hyper-local mentality and documentation and exploration.

    To get to this point though, the actual writing must be rethought to become more accessible. We museum workers can often act like academics, having a different audience in mind than a wider public. It’d be great to think of a way to prove (across institutions) the kinds of works people actually read, so we avoid making more noise without real impact.

  6. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this awesome post. Museums need to see websites as being part of their museum and not as a poster that markets its address and opening times.

    As part of the small Carnamah Historical Society & Museum in regional Western Australia (www.carnamah.com.au) we highlighted some of these points at Australia’s At the Frontier conference last year. Our abstract is online at:

    http://andrew-s-bowman.blogspot.com/2011/11/virtual-existence-social-media.html

    Look forward to reading more :)

    • MuseumNext says:

      Thanks for sharing Andrew. I love your point that ‘No one would visit your museum if it contained nothing but information on your organisation.’

  7. [...] Richardson at MuseumNext just argued that: Museum leaders need to rethink digital, and look at it from a more strategic perspective, one [...]

  8. Andy Lloyd says:

    As a non-collecting organisation we’re experimenting with a slightly different view of our interaction with the web. The argument goes something like this: there is no shortage of information in the world, but the skills associated with filtering, analysis and understanding are not so widespread. Science centres like us do not need to try and be authoritative information sources, but we can be places where people develop the confidence and practical skills to help them navigate the world’s information. Our newest exhibits have taken this approach, and the associated web pages are similarly trying to promote exploration (of the whole web, not just our walled garden). We are never going to be a comprehensive information source, and our supply of unique content is limited, so we are more interested in promoting a mindset and a set of behaviours (associated with how scientists think and act). Online this means our website will remain relatively small, but over time our social interactions should become more extensive – therein lies our future staffing challenge!

    • Jim Richardson says:

      Hi Andy

      Thanks for your response. Your activities in creating your new exhibition made great content and it is fantastic that your recording and sharing these.

      Which platform do you think is working most successfully for you, Facebook, YouTube, your own website or another?

  9. Rob Landry says:

    This is a very interesting and thought-provoking article, and folks in executive leadership at museums would do well to consider it.

    I run an interactive agency that works exclusively with museums to develop their websites and digital strategy. There’s lots of work to be done.

    We find that most museums woefully underutilize their websites. Many in museum management still see their institution’s website as an electronic brochure containing the basic information about what’s going on at the physical space, when instead they should be considering how their website can be a unique venue in its own right.

    This involves a new way of thinking on the part of the people in museum management, but it’s time has come.

    Museum websites can (and should!) be used in unique, inventive ways to supplement what’s happening at their physical galleries, and to reach new audiences.

    Charlotte is hinting at how this can be done in her comments, and Nate and the folks at Walker exemplify this with their new content strategy.

    My company, Plein Air Interactive, works with the Maine Maritime Museum (www.mainemaritimemuseum.org), which has largest collection of shipbuilding tools in the world, and is the only place where people can tour an active naval facility.

    Researchers from around the world contact MMM via their website for information on the craft of maritime construction. We’re gradually trying to bring more information to them on the site.

    Many of these people will never visit the physical museum, but they can be provided with a useful and rewarding user experience on the museum’s website. This is a new audience the museum was unable to reach before the Internet.

    Done right, a great and rewarding user experience on the MMM’s website just might be enough to turn this new audience into supporters, members and donors – advocates of the museum’s mission.

    Those in museum management need to embrace the web, educate their boards and invest in new technology and digital creative services to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the web and engage this new audience.

    • Thanks for sharing this case study with us Rob. What do you think those working on websites could do, to educate museum leadership about the level of investment needed to get more out of the web?

  10. Rob Landry says:

    Jim,

    Museum technologists need to change the perception of those in leadership. Their approach should include three things: Awareness, Relevance and Trust.

    I elaborate in a blog post:
    http://www.pleinairinteractive.com/blog/2012/06/26/breaking-filter-bubble-museum-websites/

  11. Dennis says:

    The notion that many museums have of a website is obsolete. In my opinion the public has far surpassed the meagre display that museums provide (i.e. the digital flyer). The public has taken all social media means to provide a much richer nucleus on museums and the collections they display. Just have a look at what museum, art, history (and so on) fanatics have shared and created on Flickr, Twitter, Google Maps, Blogger, Pinterest, Tumblr and so on and so on.

    My appeal towards museums would be to tap into this huge nucleus and create websites that function as gateways / dedicated or personalised search engines (scoop.it)

    Alternatives would be: create a website as art, provide visitors with a ‘helpline’ on which they can engage with experts (the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam has a poorly executed version of this).