What Can Museum Educators Do for Museum Websites?

Written by Erin Branham. 

It was a comment by Marianna Adams in response to Mike Murawski’s latest post that set me to thinking:

Museum websites, on the other hand, that are used by people before or after a museum visit, or because they are not able to visit and want some sort of experience with that museum are a different issue from the use of digital technologies as part of the in-museum interpretive experience. While there are some great museum websites out there, so many are not very visitor centered. The work needed on those sites is not particularly sophisticated technologically. Rather it’s about designing the experience from the user perspective to provide clear, concise, and useful information for users. For example, if a family wants to visit an art museum, that family needs to know that family programs and events are most likely housed under a the “Education” tab. How is that intuitive for people? It is rarely in the “Planning Your Visit” tab. Why is that? Are museums too reliant on the internet? I can’t answer that question. The better question for me is, how are museums relying on the internet and to what end?

Marianna’s last question puts the finger on it – what are we doing on the web and why? Are museum educators thinking seriously about these questions? If we are, how are we actualizing our thoughts? That is, are we working to make sure we have a seat at the table where decisions about website design and content are being made? I ask these questions because I’ve heard a hundred conversations amongst my colleagues about things they’d like to see on their museum’s website, but they tend to be conversations like “I was doing this cool thing at suchandsuch.com – it’d be great if we could do something similar!” I know from my friends in museum web groups that they field a dozen of such thoughts from across the museum every week. No offense, my friends, but the upshot of that is – museum educators may not be helping their institutions because we’re not making the same kinds of critical choices about what we’re doing on the web and why as we do about other kinds of educational programming.

Choices for the Web

The latest big stirs in the world of museum websites have been the Walker Art Center’s redesign, focused on a magazine style of rapidly updating news from the world of art.

Walker website (Photo courtesy of Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 post on the Walker redesign)

This radical move for an art museum to include other people’s information within their website is not particularly radical to the rest of the internet, which has long since been based around sharing information. Kudos to the Walker for doing it, and it is a model well suited to their particular orientation to their community, their collection and their place in the world of museums.  Likewise, their multiple blogs are in keeping their philosophy of robust conversations around contemporary art.  What I think is the most important lesson for the rest of us from the Walker’s website is how well it fits the unique identity of the institution.

Even more recently the Rijksmuseum has unveiled a sleek user-friendly design, open image files, and tools for personalizing the online experience of the museum’s collection.

Rijksmuseum website

(Photo courtesy of Dan Cohen, Executive Director of the Digital Public Library of America’s blog post on “Generous Interfaces for Scholarly Sites”)

The radical move here is the willingness to share the collection without reservation, but the site’s organization and language is also built to address Marianna’s questions above. Hit the Plan Your Visit Tab and you get options such as “What’s On”, which takes you to more buttons so the general visitor can find what they want, or the clearly understandable “With children, classes or groups” option. My colleague Elizabeth Escamilla recently reported to our department on a session she attended at Museums and the Web 2013 about the Rijksmuseum website.  She came away with some sharp questions for us:

1)      What do we want people to do with our collection online?

2)      Who are our audiences equivalent to the people for whom the Rijksmuseum consciously designed their website, who they called “Culture snackers”?

Elizabeth’s questions are perfect for focusing our thoughts about our websites. As educators, we constantly consider what we want to help people get from our collections.  But I’m not sure we engage with that question as seriously or thoughtfully (especially when it comes to making the hard choices required by limited resources) when thinking about the online space. It’s different from doing it in the gallery – we need to distinguish ourselves even more on the web where someone can skip from our collection to the Met’s to the National Gallery of Australia to the Rijksmuseum.  And this aspect feeds right into her second question.  Again, as educators, we spend a lot of time thinking about who our audiences are and we know pretty well who comes into the galleries – but who are we talking to online? What can we do to help them create meaning from our particular collections? We need to think about how we design our websites so that they, like the Walker’s, are fully integrated into and function as a way to extend our institution’s unique identity.

Why should we as museum educators be thinking, speaking, and writing about this? Because the internet is becoming one of the most important places in our society where informal education happens, and more people learn more online everyday thanks to the growing educational resources that are available. Museum educators should be contributing significantly to those resources.

What do you think museum educators should be doing to improve their institution’s websites?

3 thoughts on “What Can Museum Educators Do for Museum Websites?

  1. Diane Frankel says:

    I have been thinking a lot about how to prepare to go to science museums with children especially since the Exploratorium reopened in San Francisco. I am questioning whether it would be useful for parents and grandparents to be able to access the principles behind some of the exhibits before they go so that they are prepared to talk about them with their kids. Would it make sense to be able to access these principles online…like to hear people’s thoughts


    • Erin says:

      Hi Diane,

      That’s a good example of what museums should be considering for online content – it would probably be immensely helpful to adults bringing kids to be able to explore exhibits and the principles they teach before visiting the museum. It would allow you to make much better decisions about how to spend your time in the museum, especially since science museums can be very overwhelming. I spoke with the head of an education department at a major California science museum a year ago and he said that coming up with content was easy – it was just resources and staff time that interfered with getting it online. Which means it’s up to museums to make that commitment and make the organizational changes to support it.


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