“A great place to plan your visit!”

Disclaimer: This is something that I’m still trying to figure out, so a lot of what follows is still kinda half-baked and rant-y (just your typical kovenjsmith.com post, I suppose). I welcome better-informed opinions than my own…

I often hear museum staff talk about museum websites being places for visitors to the buildings to “plan their visits” and/or to “follow up after their visits.” For some institutions, it seems that this is the primary purpose of their websites. I’m willing to be convinced if someone can show me hard data that proves otherwise, but my gut tells me that this kind of activity rarely, if ever, actually occurs in the way we so often discuss it.

Let me be clear here–I’m not talking about visiting a museum site to figure out what times it’s open, or how to get there. That’s pretty basic stuff, and statistics generally show that these are typically the most-visited areas of many museum websites. I’m also not talking about using a museum’s website to determine whether you’re going to visit in the first place (“They’ve got the Naboo fighter on display? I am so there.”).

No, here I’m talking about what museum staff seem to refer to when they say “plan your visit,” which seems to be something along the lines of this scenario: the visitor figures out ahead of time what he or she wants to see, and maps out the visit, either literally on a map or conceptually (“first we see the Jackson Pollack, then the Naboo fighter”). After this thoroughly-planned-out visit occurs, the visitor goes home, pulls up the museum’s website, and reviews what he/she saw there.

Maybe this scenario really does occur at museums with really large campuses (sculpture parks, for instance), where a visitor really does need to optimize travel time between stops, and advance planning is actually critical. And maybe I’m completely misunderstanding what museum people mean when they say “plan/follow up”–no one has ever been able to successfully explain this concept to me. I hear it intoned all the time, but it’s an activity that seems ill-defined at best.

I feel that often museums still see their websites as inextricably tethered to the physical buildings, as opposed to distinct entities with really only the tenuous connection of the museum brand tying them together. The two are certainly related, in that the same scholarly activities and staff make them happen, but the output and use of those activities as they are manifested inside the building and on the Web are entirely different.

My main worry here is that this continued orientation towards the physical visit in museum websites results in an only slightly more evolved version of the 90s-era “brochure-ware” websites that we so often decry. There are experiences on museum websites that are impossible to have inside the building; let’s stop limiting them arbitrarily by forcing them to be something they really aren’t good at being.

I’m Koven, and that’s one to grow on.

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14 thoughts on ““A great place to plan your visit!”

  1. I also wonder about where the benefit for me is by spending lots of time “pre-planning” a visit in this way. In particular, museums also have this tendency to believe that I am only visiting their museum and therefore I should use their custom approach to doing this. I can't share what I do outside of your system, and it's only your collection that matters. Being in your website is just like being in your building.

    I think we might want to learn from tools like Last.FM, LibraryThing, Amazon, etc. and offer visitors the opportunity to learn about your collections based on previous experiences. I think this might be worth investigating because:

    a) I'm not just planning to plan, I'm doing work that will be beneficial to me in the future.
    b) It's not a hard, time-consuming task. It's a set of small incremental tasks.
    c) It keeps me invested. I don't get much payoff if I only enter a few things. It's only when I have lots of “listens” that the critical mass of those little things starts to matter.
    d) It could build on a pattern of relationships – not only about my behavior, but of my friends, “neighbors”, followees/followers, etc.
    e) Saves me time by letting me do what I do best (be human) and lets the computer do what it does best (see patterns).

    Just like Last.FM, the app could create a personalized radio station based on the listening habits of me and my friends, wouldn't it be great to walk up to a museum with a “playlist” of things I might want to see? LibraryThing also as an “anti-recommendation” feature, e.g. if I like X, here are all the things that you probably won't like.

    This requires thinking outside the walls of one museum, across many different museums (and different _kinds_ of museums). I don't think a museum will build this, it will happen outside the museum, possibly based on someone who scrapes your website/takes advantage of data via APIs, etc. (venture capitalists, now you know where to find me…)

  2. Personally, I suspect that museums would do better putting in the effort into building post-visit and non-visit communities than in investing in pre-visit efforts (above and beyond the basic “why should I visit” and “how do I visit” needs that remain highly necessary and popular).

    My gut says it's only once they have a reason to care about your museum and its collections–and that level of passion will spring primarily (but not only) from the in-person experience for most places–that they're likely to want to invest heavily in an ongoing experience with a museum website or mobile site/app. Yes, they might get sufficiently intrigued by some one clever interactive on our website, but that's unlikely in my estimation to translate into a desire for an ongoing relationship except in rare instances.

    That being said, my own institution provides an example of how the relationship can begin prior to a visit, because our “hook” is this guy whose house we make open to the public–Thomas Jefferson. Folks know about him from school in a way that they might not know precisely what's in their city art or natural history museum. And because we're a historic house far from major cities, some active planning has to happen that's probably a step above that for museums that may be situated right around the corner.

    So we'll have people hitting our Facebook community before they've even come here. But maybe they'll never actually come here in person. Lots of our site users don't–they're looking for info on Thomas Jefferson and his world for a school report. Our site (and online communities) become places to go for non-visit(or)s as well as pre- and post-visitors. We're serving a lot of constituencies.

    User needs should drive most museum website development–rarely will they come only because we build it. Building a rich pre-visit planning tool and expecting it to get heavy use because we have invested a lot of effort in it probably won't lead to a lot of use. But visitors both virtual and in-person have voted with their feet, and for us that means: good basic visit information, lots of rich educational material, and a growing online community. Might be a different blend elsewhere.

    But what needs to be seamless is the relationship among these features tying back to the institution (not, as Kevon points out, the building).

  3. Koven,
    I completely agree, and that's why when I was at the Met I advocated for more information-heavy features for the web site, such as more information on the collection, as well as past exhibitions (the Met did have some exhibitions before 1999, but you wouldn't know it from the web site!) I also don't think that visit planning in the sense of “mapping the visit out” really happens.

  4. Well said, Eric. What I wonder here is if there is really any meaningful difference between a “post-visitor” and a “non-visitor” in terms of the kinds of activities we might provide for him or her. In your case, your constituents are (hopefully) heavily invested in the idea of Thomas Jefferson, whether or not they've visited Monticello itself, as you say. That being the case, is there anything in your online presentation that you would do differently if someone had actually visited?

  5. That is a freaking fantastic idea, Richard. That sort of “planning” makes plenty of sense, because it's implicit in other activities, rather than explicit. I'm not making particular plans to see certain stuff, I'm just looking at stuff that I like, which my “art scrobbler” records for use later use (perhaps as a playlist, as you mentioned, or maybe even as a Netflix-style recommendation engine: “There is a 76% chance you will like this museum”).

    I want this. We should totally make one.

  6. Is there a correlation between intention to visit a museum and time spent on that museum's website? Does anyone have statistics on this? It seems like this would tell us a lot.

    If website users with a stated intention to visit the museum spend an equal amount (or more) time in the content (i.e., not the “directions/hours/parking”) areas of the site as users with no intent to visit, then we could probably consider optimizing our sites for these kinds of visitors. If, however, non-visitors consistently spend more time in the content areas of the site than visitors (which is what I would expect), we should focus on those users in our design(s).

    I would love to see statistics, if anyone's got them. @mpedson?

  7. I've been following your tweets on this notion, and my biggest rebuttal is that I don't really know of a website that actually allows people to do the sort of planning you mean. Nobody has their galleries mapped out well (or, someone in Chicago might?) with actual up-to-date info on what's on the wall where, so it's basically impossible to say “first this piece, then that one”. You know? Seems like you're saying “no one does this thing that's impossible!” Maybe if we had some sites where this functionality existed we'd see some uptake? I, for one, might actually use it — skip all the boring stuff, right? 🙂

    But I agree about the trap of trying to make the website only about the physical visit. Danger, danger.

  8. Geez . . . that wasn't supposed to submit when I clicked that . . . damn Disqus UI!

    OK so yes I have that data.

    And people who are planning a visit spend more time on site but visit less regularly (average museum visitor to a paying museum visits maybe once a year?). Collection visitors along with blog readers etc are more likely to come back multiple times to the website and spend shorter time on site looking at less pages (I expect because they are focussed on using the website to perform a 'task').

    I'd suggest that you are right – there is very little evidence of 'pre-planning' in great detail. Perhaps that was the *hope* when we started to make complex websites etc . . . but the reality of the museum in the digital age is that the physical visit is now more than ever focussed on an 'overall experience' rather than about individual objects per se. Not surprisingly the desire for individual objects ends up being where the websites have excelled – where museums have realised this change.

    (Caveat – this will apply unevenly to natural history, science, social history and art museums)

  9. For some reason, when reading Richard's suggestion my brain hadn't clicked over to Koven's idea of not only recommending items within any one institution that I might like, but suggesting entire institutions. Heck, the best way would do it in layers: based on previous habits, you might like these specific items, or you might like these particular exhibitions (collections of items), or you might like this entire museum (collections of exhibitions). Could such a system be able to read all kinds of preferences: articles posted on Facebook, music preferences on Last.FM, items posted on Smarthistory, etc., and make predictions based off of that?

    Either way, that would be brilliant.

  10. @edmj Other kinds of preferences cluster in all sorts of interesting ways. Music is often organized by Artists, groups of artists, similar genres, musical venues, etc.. If you like Monticello you might also like Montpelier. If you like small intimate exhibits more than giant blockbusters, try this. If you like Neo-Impressionism, you might also like Fauvism. The behavior of expert connoisseurs may be the a model here.

    @5easypieces I don't know if we've invested enough thought in what our recommendation engine would be. I think it runs against the grain of how we view the museum experience. Is Steve.museum looking at any of this? (by looking at tagging behavior? hmmm)

  11. We have not looked at this specifically on the Steve project yet. But I think this would be something that would be interesting and with the diverse set of museum/works in the Steve database the data is there to make this happen.

    The wheels in my head are turning.

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