What’s the point of a museum website?

One of the best things that came out of this year’s Museums and the Web conference in Philly was an “unconference” session I organized around re-thinking and re-imagining what museum websites could/should be. It was a great conversation, with lots of interesting viewpoints. I hope to do a longer post about this in the next few days, but for now, here’s the video of a talk I gave at Ignite Smithsonian a few days ago that tries to get at the root of the problem I’m trying to identify. I only had five minutes, and was still pretty hoarse from MW, but I think the talk still does a decent job of laying out the problem. Would absolutely love input from others on this–it seems to be a topic that’s resonating with a lot of us!

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13 thoughts on “What’s the point of a museum website?

  1. I think you’ve done a great job of whacking the hornet’s nest, as it were. We do seem to be moving into a world where the smorgasbord website that tries to recapitulate the physical museum is becoming irrelevant. People can get at what they want without the organizing structure of the site, and apps completely circumvent that structure. What will the future look like? I dunno either. But it’s time we start experimenting. I blogged more on it at http://exhibitdev.wordpress.com/2011/04/18/disambiguating-the-physical-from-the-digital/

  2. Ed,

    Great post! As usual, you articulate the message more succinctly in one sentence than I was able to in five minutes of hoarse yelling: “…we continue to make more sophisticated versions of a kind of construct that is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the people who we want to use them.” Love it, love it, love it.

    The reference to Kristin Purcell’s keynote is interesting–I’m particularly interested in that first bit: “People still need trusted experts to help them discern when information is accurate and trustworthy.” In further discussions with museum/library people after MW and Ignite, one thing that is starting to become clearer is this issue of trust and authority. I tend to think that we in museums entered the digital domain assuming that the authority we acquired in the physical domain would transfer there easily, and I’m not sure that has proved to be the case. It’s something I mentioned briefly in the Ignite talk, but haven’t really had a chance to parse out too much yet–asking whether we’ve actually earned the authority that we assert on the Web or not. I think that we actually might have to start that process over again, and earn trust and authority by becoming an online destination that people come to again and again.

    Still trying to figure this out. Again, fantastic post, Ed!

  3. This talk represents very much my own sentiments! Thank you! Museums’ websites are (sometimes) overrated!

  4. Koven – I agree that we have not yet earned trust in the digital domain. I think that museums just assumed the associated gravitas of the physical realm would carry over, and I’m not sure that it is the case. After all, it’s a lot easy to make people gape in awe when you have giant buildings to humble them…

    As you know, I spent lots of last week exploring museums and galleries over NYC. Whilst there, I was thinking about what I could want from an art/museum website that could make art new again – that could make me want to bring it into my home and explore and actually use a collection site. And while looking at the Picasso guitar exhibition at MoMA, I started thinking about how cool it would be to be able to self-curate a collection of works of art, and have them ‘on display’ in my own home… so, if I was having a 50s/60s party, I could curate myself a collection of pop art from the era, and have that ‘play’ in my own home for the duration (on something like a large ipad, or a wall display etc).

    To do this, we would need to be able to link art collections together across institutions; to make the information and images customisable to people’s needs, and to do something similar to the new Tate website and have different levels of information available for different types of users. But by somehow linking these artists and art stories together, I think we could create new journeys of discovery, and could make old art new again.

    What’s more, I think doing something like this could potentially drive people back into the Gallery. If you’ve been able to look at a series of Van Gogh’s in your own home for a couple of months, then naturally if you have the choice to see them in the flesh at any time you’d do so, because you have an actual connection to them in some way. I don’t know – maybe I’m assuming too much – but I think we need to give people the chance to have a new relationship with art.

  5. BTW – I should make it clear that I don’t only want my art to be self-curated… there’s no way I would pick the best selection of things. I would love to also be able to choose to access beautiful exhibitions as well – brought together by curators to tell a story. But maybe it would be cool to be able to choose from the best exhibitions from a single portal, rather than having to troll dozens of websites to try to find something I want to look at. Serendipity is useful here… it means there is more opportunity for chance and discovery, and for me to find things I didn’t even know I was looking for.

  6. Glad you liked the talk! I do want to be cautious here, though–I’m not necessarily saying that “museum websites suck” or that they’re overrated, but rather that they’re (often) based on a template that hasn’t really ever been proven to work, or at least hasn’t been proven to serve an obvious function for potential web audiences in the same way that born-digital properties like Wikipedia do. I also don’t necessarily want to throw out that template entirely, either (though I suspect it may be necessary to throw most of it out), but I want to have a clear need be served by anything and everything that we put out.

  7. By virtue of our presence in the real world, I think we have a leg up on authority in the virtual world. However, you need to actively participate in the virtual world to actually *maintain* that authority. If you just set the stage and expect everyone else to dance on it, nobody remembers you when everyone has gone home for the evening.

    The online world is simple and follows the real world. Participate and you have authority. Don’t participate and you’re quietly forgotten.

    Now, of course, the next step is to actually have something to say, but we’ll leave signal vs noise for another discussion. 😉

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