Monday, 13 February 2012

Report from 'What's the point of a museum website' at MCN2011

A really belated report from the 'What's the point of a museum website?' panel I was part of with Koven Smith (@5easypieces), Eric Johnson (@ericdmj), Nate Solas (@homebrewer) and Suse Cairns (@shineslike) at last November's Museum Computer Network (MCN2011) conference.  I've written up some of my own thoughts at Brochureware, aggregators and the messy middle: what's the point of a museum website? - this post is about the discussion during the panel itself.  There was a lot of audience participation (in the room and on twitter), which made tackling a summary of the discussion really daunting, so I've given up on trying to capture every thread of conversation and am just reporting from the notes I took at the time.

It's all bit of a blur now so it's hard to remember exactly how the conversations went, but from my notes at the time, it included: Clay Shirky on social objects as a platform for conversation; games and other online experiences as big draws for museum sites (trusted content is a boon for parents); the impact of social media making the conversations people have always had about exhibitions and objects visible to curators and others; and the charisma of the physical object. From the audience Robin White Owen mentioned the potential for mobile apps to create space, opportunity for absorption and intimate experiences with museum content, leading me to wonder if you can have a Stendhal moment online?

Is discoverability is the new authority for museum websites?  As Nate said, authority online lies in being active online, though we also need to differentiate between authority about objects and narratives, and cite our sources for statements about online collections.  (See also Rob Stein on the difference between being authoritarian and authoritative). But maybe that's challenging too - perhaps museums aren't good at saying there is no right answer because we like to be the one with the right answer. Someone mentioned 'communities of passion' gathered around specific objects, which is a lovely phrase and I'm sorry I can't remember who said it.  Someone else from the audience wisely said, it's 'not how do I drive people to my collection, but how do I drive my collection to them'.  Andrew Lewis talked about 'that inspiration moment' triggered in a museum that sends you hurrying back home to make art or craft something.

I talked about my dream of building a site that people would lose themselves in for hours, just as you can do on Wikipedia now after starting with one small query.  How can we build a collections online site where people can follow one interesting-looking object or story after another?  We can't do that without a critical mass of content, and I suspect this can only be created by bringing different museum collections together digitally (or as Koven called it, digital repatriation), which also gets around the random accidents of collecting history that mean related objects are isolated in museums and galleries around the world.  Also, we're only ever part of the audience's session online - we might be the start, or the end, but we're more likely to be somewhere in the middle. We should be good team players and use our expert knowledge to help people find the best information they can.

Looking back, a lot of the conversation appears to be about how to create the type of rich experience of being in the presence of an object - a moment in time as well as in space - from the currently flat experience of looking at an object in an online catalogue (particularly when the online environment has all the distractions of kitten videos and social media notifications).  Can storytelling or bite-sized bits of content about objects act as 'hooks' to enable reflection and learning online?  Hugh Wallace has used the phrase 'snackable content' for readily available content that fits into how people use technology, and I think (with my conversational, social history bias) that stories-as-anecdotes can be a great way of sharing information about collections while creating that self-contained moment in time.  (And yes, I am side-stepping Walter Benjamin's statement that 'that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art'. Not that he was in the room, but he does tend to haunt these conversations.)

As with many conversations about online visitors, the gap between what we know and what we should know is frustratingly large, and we still don't know how large the gap between what (particularly) collections online are and what they could be.  Someone said that we're (measuring, or talking about) what users currently do with what we give them, not what they really want to do.  Bruce Wyman tweeted, 'current visitors most frequently give *incremental* ideas. You need different folk to take those great leaps forward. That's us'. Rob Stein said he didn't care about measuring time online, but wanted to be able to measure epiphanies - an excellently provocative statement that generated lots of discussion, including comments that epiphany needs agency, discourse, and serendipity. Eric said we murder epiphany by providing too much information, but others pointed out that epiphanies are closely tied to learning, so maybe it's a matter of the right information at the right time for the right person and a good dose of luck.

So (IMO) it was a great panel session, but did we come up with an answer for 'what's the point of a museum website'?  Probably not, but it's clearly a discussion worth having, and I dare say there were a few personal epiphanies during the session.

I'm collecting other posts about the session and will update this as I find them (or let me know of them in the comments): Suse's Initial takeaways from MCN2011.  I also collated some of the tweets that used the session hashtag 'wpmw' in a document available (for now) via my dropbox.

Finally, thank you to everyone who attended or followed via twitter, and particular thanks to my fellow panelists for a great discussion.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Brochureware, aggregators and the messy middle: what's the point of a museum website?

MCN 2011, Hyatt Regency Atlanta, What's The Point of a Museum Website, November 17th
Photo: nealstimler
Back in November I attended the Museum Computer Network (MCN2011) conference for the first time.  I was lucky enough to get a scholarship (for which many, many thanks).  During the conference I was part of a panel discussing 'What's the point of a museum website?' with (from l-r in the photo) Koven Smith (@5easypieces), Eric Johnson (@ericdmj), Nate Solas (@homebrewer) and Suse Cairns (@shineslike).  I've posted about some of the ideas covered in the WPMW session, but this post is my attempt to think through 'what is the point of a museum website?' in the context of our MCN session.  I'm not lying when I say 'attempt' - this post is a draft, but since it's been a draft for months now, I'm going to take a deep breath and post it.  I'd love to hear your thoughts, challenges, props, whatever, and I'll update the post in response.

I've started thinking of museum websites as broadly fitting into three categories:

1. The practicalities. Unashamed brochureware may be enough for some museums (and may be all other museums, such as local authority museums tied to larger infrastructure, can manage): the practical, get-people-through-the-door stuff: why visit, how to get there, when to visit, what's on. Facebook and Google are competing to host content like this, so presumably visits to these sites are generally going to decrease over time.  This category reflects economic and organisational restrictions more than user requirements.

2. Collections online.  An important, opinionated caveat: unless your 'collections online' interface is a destination in its own right, or adds unique value, I think the point lies in aggregated collections.  Repositories like Europeana (and national aggregators like CultureGrid and Gallica), Collections Australia Network, Digital NZ, and the future Digital Public Library of America bring heavy-weight resources, SEO and discoverability and sheer scale to the 'collections online' work of a museum website.  But this scale brings new problems - these big, chaotic pots of content can be difficult to use.  Their sheer size makes it hard to highlight interesting objects or content.  Meaningful search results are difficult*, even for the patient, expert researcher, because they tend to contain so many different kinds of content about a range of subjects, taken from a variety of source museums, libraries, archives with hugely variable metadata quality and schema.  Better search engines, faceted browsing, etc, may help, but aggregators aren't really designed for humans**.  See also: 3a, 'The carefully curated and designed experience based on a particular concept' for a different view on collections online.

3. The messy middle.  This includes all kinds of things that general audiences don't seem to expect on a museum website - exhibition and marketing microsites, educational and family activities, public engagement experiences, games, lists of objects on display, research activities, etc.  It's a pretty safe guess that some of this content is online because it reflects the internal structure or requirements of the museum, is re-purposed from exhibitions, or is designed for specialist users (who may, however, also under-use it unless the collection is notably comprehensive or is one of the top hits for a Google search).  For museums, the point of a museum website may be editorial voice, control, metrics, or an attempt to monetise their images.

We know that lots of the messy middle really works for our audiences - for example, good games and other activities have metrics through the roof.  But without more research it's hard to know whether the content that audiences should love is less used than it might be because it's not easily discoverable by non-visitors to the website, isn't well advertised or consistently available on museum sites, or is competing with other groups that meet the same needs.  Does the trust people place in museums translate into trusted online content - how much do audiences really know or care whether an online experience, mobile app or the answer to their kid's homework question was provided by a museum?  Do they value 'authority' as much as we do?  When does museum content go from being 'on your website' to 'being on the web', and does it still matter?

For one potential point for museum websites, I need to refer back to the collection aggregators.  In an ideal world, the availability of images, reusable data licenses, organisational processes, and machine-readable data that populate these mega-collections would make it easy to create more tightly-defined cross-collection experiences based on carefully chosen sub-sets of aggregated collections.  In other words...

3a. The carefully curated and designed experience based on a particular concept.  From the Google Art Project to Europeana's Weddings In Eastern Europe, sites that draw on digital objects and expert knowledge to create audience-focused experiences could be the missing link between the in-gallery exhibitions museums love and the audience-focused born-digital experiences that are appropriately rich and/or snackable, and could be the source of the next great leap forward in museums on the web.  Museums can take the lessons learnt from years of topic-specific cross-institutional projects and research on existing audiences, and explore new models for audience engagement with museums online.  And perhaps more importantly, work out how to fit that into places our audiences already hang out online and let them share it promiscuously.

So, what's the point of a museum website?  At the simplest level, the point of a museum website is to get visitors into venues, and maybe to sell them tickets or products.  Ideally, the point of aggregators is to surface content hidden in the deep web so it's discoverable on your Google search results page and can be put into context with other resources.  The very messiness of messy middle category makes it harder to answer the question - it's the fun stuff, but most of it is also hardest to measure or to justify in terms of return on investment.

This is where asking more specific questions becomes more useful: not just, 'what's the point?' but 'the point for whom?'.  In the cold light of the budget cuts, perhaps it's better to ask 'how do you prioritise your museums' web work?'.  Both the 'practicalities' and the aggregators are broadly about access - getting people into the galleries or to catalogue records so they can discover and make the most of your collections.  The messy middle bit is broadly about engagement, which I suspect is key to broadening access by providing better ways for more people to access our collections.

As a museum technologist it hurts to say this, but if your museum isn't genuinely interested in online engagement or just can't resource it, then maybe the point of your website is to meet the practicalities as well as you can and push your content up into an aggregator.  I think we're still working to understand the role of online content in the relationship between museums and their audiences, but despite my final note of doom and gloom, I hope museums keep working at it.  As Bruce Wyman tweeted at the MCN session, "current visitors most frequently give *incremental* ideas. You need different folk to take those great leaps forward. That's us". 

Do we lose more than we gain by separating 'museum as venue' from 'museum as holder of collections' and 'museum as space for engaging with culture, science and history'?  And is it acceptable for some museums to stick to brochureware if they can't manage more?  What do you think?  


---
* The aggregation model also potentially applies to museum shops and picture libraries (ArtFinder, Culture Label, etc) but, perhaps because commercial profits are riding on the quality of the user experience, they tend to have more carefully tended information architecture and they're closer to the 'curated experience'.

** I've also written about audience issues with aggregation (boo) and the potential for 'Museum data and the network effect' (yay!) in 'Museums meet the 21st century'The rise of the non-museum (and death by aggregation)Rockets, Lockets and Sprockets - towards audience models about collections? and (back in 2009) Happy developers + happy museums = happy punters.  One reason aggregated collections aren't a great user experience is that paucity of museum collection data, though that can be improved with crowdsourcing, which as a bonus appears to be a great way to engage audiences.

[Update: there's a post on the Huffington Post (I know, but what can you do?) on 'What Makes for Compelling Museum Websites? When to Break the Rules' that posits 'Viewer Focused', 'Mirror' and 'Augmented' design principles for exhibition microsites.  This model seems to be about how strictly the microsite matches the objects in the exhibition, and whether the visitor can comment or use a variety of methods for navigating through the content.]

Monday, 6 February 2012

Can you capture visitors with a steampunk arm?

Credits: Science Museum
This may be familiar to you if you've worked on a museum website: an object will capture the imagination of someone who starts to spread the link around, there's a flurry of tweets and tumblrs and links (that hopefully you'll notice in time because you've previously set up alerts for keywords or URLs on various media), others like it too and it starts to go viral and 50,000 people look at that one page in a day, 20,000 the next, furious discussions break out on social media and other sites... then they're gone, onto the next random link on someone else's site.  It's hugely exciting, but it can also feel like a missed opportunity to show these visitors other cool things you have in your collection, to address some of the issues raised and to give them more information about the object.

There are three key aspects to riding these waves of interest: the ability to spot content that's suddenly getting a lot of hits; the ability to respond with interesting, relevant content while the link is still hot (i.e. within anything from a couple of hours to a couple of days); and the ability to put that relevant content on the page where fly-by-night visitors will see it.

For many museums, caught between a templated CMS and layers of sign-off for new content , it's not as easy as it sounds.  When the Science Museum's 'steampunk artificial arm' started circulating on twitter and then made boingboing, I was able to work with curators to get a post on the collections blog about it the next day, but then there was no way of adding that link to the Brought to Life page that was all most people saw.

In his post on “The Guardian’s Facebook app”, Martin Belam discusses how their Facebook app has helped archived content live again:
Someone shares an old article with their friends, some of their friends either already use or install the app, and the viral effect begins to take hold. ... We’ve got over 1.3 million articles live on the website, so that is a lot of content to be discovered, and the app means that suddenly any page, languishing unloved in our database, can become a new landing page. When an article becomes popular in the app, we sometimes package it with content. Because we know the attention has come at a specific time from a specific place, we can add related links that are appropriate to the audience rather than to the original content. ...when you’ve got the audience there, you need to optimise for them
As a content company with great technical and user experience teams, the Guardian is better placed to put together existing content around a viral article, but still, I'm curious: are any museums currently managing to respond to sudden waves of interest in random objects?  And if so, how?