Rebecca Atkinson

What's the point of museum websites?

Rebecca Atkinson, 16.04.2013
Getting creative on the new Rijksmuseum website
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why museums have websites. It’s often said that if you’re not on the web then you’re invisible, but that doesn’t seem to answer the question of what a museum’s website is actually for.

The Guardian’s G2 supplement recently published an article on the best museum and gallery online experiences. Thirteen museums – including the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum in England, as well as the Prado in Madrid and the National Palace Museum in Taipei – were praised for their innovative websites, but the reader comments underneath told a different story.

One said that the main focus of a museum's website should be “accessible but in-depth info about the artworks themselves” rather than apps, blogs or virtual tours. Another pointed out how hard it is to find basic information such as opening times and ticket prices on many museum sites.

This is a problem I’ve encountered many times myself. It’s particularly frustrating trying to find out, for example, the exact location of a museum when you’re standing in the middle of the street trying to use your phone with limited 3G.

But that’s not to say museum websites should just be modern-day noticeboards – the sector is already using some innovative techniques and creating websites that offer visitors and non-visitors a wealth of information, activities and beautiful images.

Later this year Museums Journal will start to carry reviews of websites and smartphone apps, and I’d be interested to know what you think makes a good website or app – beyond the obvious need for functionality, accessibility and (hopefully) some aesthetic considerations.

You can email me on rebecca.atkinson@museumsassociation.org or share your thoughts in the comment box below.   

In the meantime, I wanted to mention a museum website that ticks a lot of boxes for me – the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It’s wonderfully simple, with visitors to its homepage given three choices: to plan a visit, to explore the collection or to find out more about the museum itself.

Lizzy Jongma, data manager at the Rijksmuseum, gave a presentation at last week’s GLAM-Wiki conference at the British Library. She focused on how much of the new website is driven by the museum’s belief that art can inspire others to create art.

For example, all the images from the collection are high-res, so people can zoom in and see details of works that they might not be able to do “in real life”. Rather than asking people to enter their search term before being able to enter the online galleries, they can now browse by artist, subject, style – even colour.

And once they’ve found what they are looking for, they can decide whether to save it into a Pinterest-inspired Rijkstudio board; order it as a postcard or poster; download the image and “get creative”; or share it via various social networking sites. You can see my own Rijkstudio board here

As well as being high-res, the images are all available on the Creative Commons license, meaning people can automatically upload them to other portrals.

During her talk, Jongma said that such a move can strike fear into the hearts of many museum professionals – “but people will steal my images” – but, as she pointed out, they already have.

If you Google a highlight from your collection, the chances are it will already exist as an image on the internet.

Surely it’s better for people to see a good quality version that links back to your website (and all that other important information such as what times your open for people to see it in the flesh)?

Comments

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Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
16.04.2013, 15:17
I've just been sent the following links via Twitter -

A blog discussing the point of museum websites - http://openobjects.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/brochureware-aggregators-and-messy.html

And a video of a presentation asking the same question - http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/13933930/highlight/166041
16.04.2013, 14:56
Dear Rebecca

It is good to hear that Museums Journal will feature reviews of museum websites and apps. It would be useful and interesting to hear visitor and non-visitor perspectives on these websites as well.

I am not sure there is a definitive answer to your question, especially given the fast paced change of user-expectations. Broadly, I think a museum website should be complementary, but not subservient to, the physical institution. Like most things in the digital realm, the most successful museum websites tend to be those that provide content related to the museum's mission. A great and often-quoted example of this is the Walker Art Center's site which resembles an online newspaper. It still includes a tight menu at the top with directions, accessibility and all that essential information but it also acts as an ideas hub, encouraging visitors to click and explore to their heart's content.

I agree completely with Lizzy Jongma's point about linking back to the museum's website. Museums should adjust their websites to reflect the different ways people engage online and Rijksmuseum is an excellent example of this.

In the future I would like to see more websites that encourage a two-way conversation, perhaps applying some of the lessons of social media to the website experience.

Look forward to the reviews!
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
16.04.2013, 15:08
Hi Bethany, thanks for your comments. I agree with the point about complementing physical buildings but also offering something extra or different.

Two-way dialogue could be part of this, although I seem to remember someone from Tate saying at a conference not that long ago that they struggle to get comments on blogs etc whereas they get a lot of responses to posts on Twitter and Facebook. But then that's the eternal debate isn't it!
16.04.2013, 16:01
Yes you are right - a lot easier said than done. Perhaps an element of this is that museum websites can be quite 'faceless' whereas with Facebook/Twitter you are more likely to visualise someone behind the screen.

I think museums could learn a lot from other sectors here - online fashion retailers (ASOS particularly) are quick to experiment with new channels and have built dedicated communities of 'fans'/'followers'/'advocates' in the process.