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.
Some of it's really practical, and comes from my desire to share the lessons I've learnt over ten years in the cultural heritage sector:
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.
And some of it comes from a desire to see museums communicate better internally, and to make the most of existing knowledge and resources, no matter where it sits in the organisation:
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.
A lot of my thinking harks back to the ideas that coalesced around the Museums and the Web conference earlier this year, summarised here and here.
Finally, I snuck in a challenge at the end: "Our audiences have fundamentally changed as a result of their interactions online – shouldn’t the same be true of our organisations?".