07 December 2010

Collections on websites: Are museums getting less committed?

Recently, there was some discussion on the museum-ed discussion list, that began with this message:
Our museum has a mix of information/history and artifacts and we are designing a new website from the ground up. As we explore other’s websites, we get the impression that many museums of all kinds are downplaying their collections on their websites. This represents a change over the past several years when many museums’ websites placed their collections in the spotlight.

If this is indeed the trend, we are curious about the thinking behind it. Is it a question of overhead and web maintenance cost? Does this reflect a change in philosophy about the role of a website for a museum / a museum for its culture?

We are, as I said, curious. Thanks.

Gordon McDonough
Science Evangelist
Bradbury Science Museum
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Then came the following two responses:
We will hopefully be going through this process next year as well. Interesting observation; it does seem like many museum websites focus primarily on upcoming programs and/or temporary feature exhibitions. You often have to dig deep to find the permanent collection data. Are we afraid of “giving it away” or that information on the permanent collection will grow stale because it is, in truth, permanent?

Clayton Drescher
Education Manager
Petersen Automotive Museum
Los Angeles
While I would agree that museums are putting a greater emphasis on providing information on their sites about programs, events and exhibitions, I would not say that there is a move toward minimizing the collections. Museums in the Web 1.0 era were very focused on recreating their experience online – a virtual museum. A key factor in this was the prominent display of collections, and at that time there was a strong push toward digitizing and presenting collections and associated metadata. I would argue that this effort is still very much alive, and in many cases we have still only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to collections being wholly and accurately displayed online. In the Web 2.0 era, the focus is now on directly engaging the public – through providing timely and accurate information about onsite attractions as well as through social media channels. The rise of online dialog and participation in recent years has definitely led to a shift away from the one-way presentation format typically associated with collections. It has also brought to light the limitations of typical top-down hierarchies in organizing and displaying collections.

But the social web provides some great opportunities for museums beyond the obvious marketing channels. For example, right now we are working with a number of museums and organizations on redesigning their websites, including the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Gilder Lehrman Institute and the Monticello. All of these organizations have a strong focus on supporting robust and participatory engagement with their collections and online content. This includes faceted searching and browsing features, tagging, favoriting and commenting features, and greater cross-pollination and integration of collections and content throughout their sites. For many museums, their collections are absolutely central to their mission. Of late, there has been a shift toward engaging the public and driving the gate that has, in some cases, pushed the collections out of the limelight. I believe this is a timely but temporary response to both economic factors and social media trends. Ultimately I think that museums will find that their site visitors can and will engage with collections online through interactive and participatory frameworks that help to build meaningful and lasting connections between visitors and institutions, while enriching the online experience for everyone in the process.

Matthew Fisher
night kitchen interactive
For what it's worth, this was my response:

I think it’s unfair to associate collections necessarily with one-way, static presentation of content. And there’s nothing particularly “Web 2.0” about “providing timely and accurate information about on-site attractions”. Let’s face it, most museum website put their exhibition programs “front-and-centre” because:
  1. exhibitions change, so promoting them makes their websites look more dynamic, and
  2. exhibitions (or the major ones, at least) come with their own promotional budgets (while, sadly, collections don’t).
While exhibitions can be made to look exciting and dynamic, most museums still present them in a traditional, “Web 1.0” manner: text, images, videos and links.

And while there is the potential for collections to be more engaging and participatory, generally speaking they are still presented as a choice between browsing (using the museum’s curatorial hierarchy) and search (simple or complex). As Matthew said, museums can (and some do) add to this with “faceted searching and browsing features, tagging, favouriting and commenting features, and greater cross-pollination and integration of collections and content throughout their sites”. But just having features like these doesn’t guarantee that a museum’s collection online will be engaging. They can easily be hidden behind faulty interfaces. For example, the collection sections of many museum websites still confront visitors with one or more search fields. My immediate reaction in these cases is usually, “What should I search for? What kind of stuff does your collection contain?” Sure, if I persist, I might get the opportunity to refine my search results (aka “faceted searching”), but if that consists of more text fields without any help or prompting, the engagement level drops again.

So, the challenge for museums is:
  • to show how exciting their collections are
  • to provide multiple paths for browsing them (ideally with some of these paths provided by the visitors themselves) and
  • to actively encourage their visitors to engage with them.