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Published: March 15, 2001.


A Museum-University Partnership to Develop Web-Based Educational Resources

Bernard Robin, Ann Jenkins, William Howze, University of Houston, Kathleen O'Connor, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, USA


An NEA grant that sought "innovative uses of new technology that enhance public access to the arts" seemed tailor made to overcome the challenges faced by a collection of decorative arts exhibited in a historic house. At Bayou Bend, access is limited to groups of no more than six visitors, accompanied by a trained docent, and scheduled 15 minutes apart. A Web site offered the possibility to reach a much wider and more diverse audience, with the potential to develop features specifically for students and teachers. NEA reviewers agreed and funded the proposal, but at a fraction of the amount requested. A fortuitous meeting with faculty from the University of Houston College of Education Instructional Technology Program led to a collaboration that has not only made up for the lost funding, but has also given graduate students valuable hands-on experience. This paper addresses lessons learned from the project that will be used not only to improve the Bayou Bend site but also to guide the development of future museum-university collaborations.

Keywords: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, University of Houston, Decorative Arts, Web Site, NEA, Partnership, Course, Students, Bayou Bend


Bayou Bend is the name of the home of Miss Ima Hogg, the daughter of the first native-born governor of Texas, and a longtime Houston philanthropist. Throughout her life, Miss Hogg assembled an important collection of American decorative arts that included furniture, paintings, sculpture, ceramics, and glass. In 1957, Miss Hogg donated both her home and extensive collection to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). Over the next ten years, her residence was converted into a house museum, which opened to the public in 1966.

Miss Hogg was active in the museum until her death in 1975. Bayou Bend continues to add to Miss Hogg's collection to this day. This house museum, sitting upon 14 acres of formal and woodland gardens, represents one of the nation's finest collections of American decorative arts from the period 1620 to 1870. Today, the objects in the collection are among the finest examples of American design and craftsmanship, but they also reflect the tastes, values, and aspirations of ordinary Americans. The collection fulfills Miss Hogg's dream that Bayou Bend will serve as a bridge between Texas and the rest of the nation and, in her own words, "bring us closer to the heart of an American heritage which unites us" (Warren, Brown, Coleman, & Neff, 1998).

The Beginning of a Museum-University Partnership

H. L. Menken said, "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong." Unfortunately Menken never recorded his opinion of collaboration, which can be thought of as a complex and messy but correct solution to a simple problem. Museums often collaborate on exhibitions -- one institution publishes the catalog, another does the conservation, and a third handles the shipping; universities collaborate on everything from the Internet to athletics; but museums and universities collaborate much less often. One good reason for this is that each operates on a different schedule. Exhibitions, which shape the calendar of most museums, may require years of planning and preparation, but they come and go in six to eight weeks. Courses, which shape university calendars, typically run four months, and students change with each semester. Even university museums find it difficult to get a class of students involved in the development of exhibitions. So, it required more than a little optimism to think that several classes of university students could collaborate with the small staff at a historic house museum to create an attractive, innovative Web site. The challenge from those who were less optimistic took a slightly different form depending on which institution they represented. Doubters at the university asked, "Why are our students creating a Web site for the museum for free?" And their counterparts at the museum asked, "What can some college students do that a professional Web design firm can't do better?"
For art museums, as for other institutions, the rapid development of the Web has created opportunities to reach out to new audiences. Fortunately, the museum divisions of the National Endowments for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts have responded with a variety of grant programs to support innovative uses of the Web. These funding initiatives recognize the essential dilemma of art museums and similar institutions: they collect rare and unique objects, which they are chartered to exhibit to the largest number of people consistent with sound conservation practices. An NEA grant program that sought "innovative uses of new technology that enhance public access to the arts" seemed tailor made to overcome the challenges faced by a collection of decorative arts exhibited in a historic house. At Bayou Bend, access is limited to groups of no more than six visitors, accompanied by a trained docent, and scheduled 15 minutes apart. A Web site offered the possibility to reach a much wider and more diverse audience, with the potential to develop features specifically for K-12 classes, scholars, and others. The NEA review panel agreed and funded the proposal, but at a fraction of the amount requested. A fortuitous meeting with faculty from the University of Houston College of Education Instructional Technology Program led to a collaboration that has not only made up for the lost funding, but has also given graduate students valuable hands-on experience.

Design of a Museum Project-Based University Course

In the spring semester of 1998, graduate students and faculty members at the University of Houston began to design a Web site for the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens at the request of the MFAH. Wanting to create more than just a "virtual advertisement" for Bayou Bend, the MFAH hoped to extend the richness of the collection and gardens to visitors and non-visitors alike, and especially to appeal to a large number of teachers and students, from elementary classrooms to graduate school, who visit and study the museum. Through a series of meetings between MFAH staff and faculty from the University of Houston, it was decided that an interactive Web site would be developed to showcase the Bayou Bend Collection as well as reach out to the community through the development of educational materials that support the mission of the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens. To accomplish this goal, a graduate course in the College of Education's Instructional Technology Program was created, in which students worked in small, collaborative teams to help design and develop a Web site, which included lesson plans, a research guide, and other interactive elements. The course, Project-Based Web Design and Development, is now offered every fall and spring, with a group of 10 to 12 masters and doctoral students participating each semester.

Over successive semesters, students in the course have examined how a conceptual framework can be used in the production of the Bayou Bend Web site. In so doing, they have explored how various theoretical principles can be used in the design and development of a comprehensive site that can meet the needs of a varied population of users, including K-12 students, researchers, art educators, members of the Houston community, and Web visitors from around the world. Major themes of the course include exploration of how students, instructors, facilitators, and content experts work together in all facets of the design and development process. This provides many opportunities for participants in the course to discuss techniques and strategies for accomplishing tasks, in a traditional classroom environment and also while working online in virtual teams. The Web site for Bayou Bend is online at:

The Challenges Involved

There are numerous challenges involved in designing and developing a museum Web site of this type and in facilitating a graduate course that involves students as the instructional designers and Web designers and developers. In developing the Bayou Bend Web site, the role of student designers is fourfold. First, the overall appearance and feel of the sight need to fit with the mission of Bayou Bend and its relationship to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Second, a multitude of users and platforms must be considered, which results in a number of decisions such as screen size, table construction, and the use of Web-safe colors. Third, consideration must be given to the educational purpose of the site at each stage of development. This is necessary not only to insure that the material is accurate and useful to teachers and students, but also that navigation, page design, and technological innovation work together to support and extend the educational content without overshadowing the informational mission of the museum. Finally, dealing with the extensive amount of content requires that the file structure be flexible and well organized to facilitate both present and future development and expansion, a process that requires extensive planning and thought.

The beginning stumbling block was one between experts and neophytes. At the beginning of the project, staff members at Bayou Bend had no access to the Internet, and were completely unfamiliar with it. Therefore, there was some time before staff members were able to understand the basics of what the students would be able to do in creating the Web site, let alone the more sophisticated things. Had museum staff been Internet savvy at the beginning of the project, it most certainly would have gone more smoothly. Another challenge was that while it was intended from the beginning that existing printed texts would be used as the basic material for the project, it became clear early on that materials specifically developed for the Web would be needed. Dealing with changing client needs and wants, working with minimal funding, and bringing new students into the project have been additional obstacles that team members have faced. Since the scope of the project involves many different components, work has taken place over several semesters, with different students rotating through the project. This has been especially challenging since each new group of students must conform to work that has already been done but also want to develop their own creative identity.

Evolution of the Course

As the course evolves, so does the technology. This evolution has created the desire for increasingly sophisticated higher-end technology elements. The desire to include such elements in the Web site poses many challenges. Building a searchable database of the collection, creating and integrating QuickTime VR virtual tours, and designing and developing streaming audio and video content for the site created the need for new skills and new approaches. The technical skills necessary to develop dynamic database tools, for example, are significantly greater than those needed to create a traditional Web site, but this became a necessary skill for the student developers to learn since a searchable database of the Bayou Bend Collection was a primary goal of the site. Further, conceptualizing how the database tools will function is very different from the much less complex task of designing static Web pages, and this new set of skills demands a greater understanding of information design and management, as well as databases and Web servers. Additional time, patience, and effort are needed to design, develop, and evaluate these new technological components where a steeper learning curve is required compared with less demanding, and more simple Web site construction.

Like many art museums with a Web presence, Bayou Bend wanted to highlight its collection of American decorative arts and paintings with a search mechanism that was simple enough for any Web visitor to use, but also powerful enough to conduct relatively complex searches. Students in the course began with an electronic version (QuarkXpress ) of a recently published catalog of the Bayou Bend Collection of American decorative arts and paintings and were able to "cut and paste" selected text into a database created with Microsoft Access. This led to many lengthy discussions between museum staff and students about what information to include and how to organize and label it so that visitors to the site would be able to easily access that information. A decision to use ColdFusion to create the search interface allows users to access the information in a variety of ways unique to decorative arts, such as by category, (e.g., furniture, textiles, glass, metals), style (Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical, etc.), and place of origin (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, etc.). The students also developed ColdFusion templates to display the information about the collection in a variety of ways, including the display of a "results" page with thumbnail images, larger images, and additional descriptive text. A similar search interface allows users to access information about selected plants in the Bayou Bend gardens by common name, Latin name, origin, plant category, keywords, or a combination of fields.

In addition, the development of a virtual tour of the rooms also makes use of the database and ColdFusion templates. Panoramas of the rooms, created using QuickTime Virtual Reality software, allow users to zoom in on objects for a closer look as they pan 360-degree views of rooms included in the "real" Bayou Bend tour. The rooms also include a number of "hot spots" which when clicked on provide the user more information about selected objects in the collection.

Because the decorative arts encompass such familiar objects -- chairs, tables, tableware, etc., many people do not realize the vast scope of questions raised by scholarship in the field. Because objects of the highest quality are frequently those that have been preserved over the years, it is easy to associate the study of the decorative arts with the life styles of the rich and powerful. But the decorative arts also tell us about the lives, training, skills, and business practices of the crafts persons who created these objects. The materials used, and the forms to which they are adapted, also tell us about trade between countries around the world, the stylistic influences that often mirror political influences, and as new forms are introduced, the history of domestic life.

The scholarly questions raised by these topics make research in the decorative arts different from research in many other fields. For this reason, the developers of the Bayou Bend Web site felt it was important to include a research guide that would introduce Web visitors to the techniques and resources of scholars in the decorative arts. The desire to include such a guide, tailored for serious researchers, fit into the museum's mission to disseminate a wide range of information about Bayou Bend and its collection. Additionally, this also was a good fit from the standpoint of the university, since many of the students involved in the project are enrolled in doctoral programs, where the design and development of intensive research inquiry is an essential component of their course of study. This convergence of the museum's wish to provide a richness of "deep" data about Bayou Bend and its place in the landscape of American decorative arts and the core research base that underlies our graduate school experience speaks directly to the mutual benefit that has been gained by both the museum and the university.

Evaluation of the Web site is another concern of the developers and the museum staff. Several students who have worked on the site are in the process of conducting doctoral research in which they are designing evaluation plans for the site. One such study, which is being conducted this spring, focuses on a formative evaluation of the design, content, and educational value of the site as perceived by several populations of potential Bayou Bend Web site users. The sample will include Bayou Bend docents who may use the site as a self-training aid, K-12 teachers who may integrate the site into their art and social studies curriculum, and university students who may use the site for informational purposes to write research papers for art or American history. The results of the formative evaluation will provide feedback to developers that will help them to identify deficiencies in the site and make necessary improvements. Another study (also planned for this spring) focuses on the educational effectiveness of a virtual tour of Bayou Bend. Test results from classes of fifth grade students who take the "actual" tour of Bayou Bend will be compared to those who take a "virtual" tour on the Web. In addition to helping students fulfill doctoral degree requirements, the results of these studies will help guide the future development of the site.

Lessons Learned

With each successive semester, the evolution of the course continues to provide new lessons about the collaborative process. The nature of true collaboration requires that all parties involved share more than a friendly cooperation with one another for their mutual benefit. An effective collaboration requires a commitment by all parties to actively participate and contribute both time and resources to the design and development of the Web site, whether as subject matter experts or Web developers. The depth of this commitment is often a challenge for course facilitators in their efforts to make sure the site progresses each semester. For museum personnel, work on the Web site is an extra, time-consuming chore in addition to their other many responsibilities. And for some students, the commitment is only to a passing grade in the course. Fortunately, the desire of museum staff to develop an innovative Web site motivates them to continue to make contributions to the site and to provide feedback to developers; many students are motivated by the knowledge that they are creating a useful resource for actual clients.

The collaboration between the university and the MFAH has been and continues to be an educational process for both the students and the museum staff. In addition to new technologies, teamwork, and Web design theory, student developers must learn about the content, a subject matter with which most are unfamiliar. Many museum staff members, as newcomers to the Web, must continue to learn about the numerous possibilities the Web has to offer for expanding the educational mission of the museum beyond its physical walls. It is here that student developers have a unique opportunity to create new and innovative educational resources utilizing the already existing content. Because the museum personnel often have less experience with the Web, it is up to student developers to educate them about Web-based resources by demonstrating working prototypes to help them understand and envision the possibilities. Prototype demonstrations have proved very beneficial in improving Web components as well as generating new ideas for future development. Based on these prototypes, existing information about Bayou Bend has been gathered and formatted so that the Web site now provides information available nowhere else.

In order to continue to advance the Web site, students must necessarily build on the work of previous development teams since there is not enough time to "start from scratch" each semester. Creative design and development efforts can be realized with the development of individual resources or Web site components. Due to time limitations, students are encouraged to develop resources that can be completed during the semester. In addition, students are required to fully document team development efforts in order to aid future student developers, particularly for components that cannot be completed during a single semester.

Introduction to "The Franz Mayer Project"

Based on the success of the Bayou Bend Web project, the MFAH has proposed several additional ventures for consideration. Already, student teams have begun working on "The Franz Mayer" project, a second MFAH Web project related to a traveling exhibition that is coming to the Houston museum. In the spring of 2002, the Museo Franz Mayer in Mexico City is sending a traveling exhibition, Splendors of Vice Regal Mexico: Three Centuries of Treasures from the Museo Franz Mayer, to three cities in the United States. The exhibition will consist of 130 decorative and fine arts that will present to American audiences the rich artistic heritage of colonial Mexico as revealed by works produced during the vice regal period, 1521-1829.

The first stop of the exhibition will be the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. To prepare for the exhibit, students in the Project-Based Web course have begun working with MFAH staff to design and develop a Web site that will present information from the exhibit and include supplemental educational materials. In addition to basic information about the exhibit, the design team is focusing on presenting selections from the catalog, creating materials for teachers and students, designing activities for families, and producing streaming audio and video of guest speakers who will be part of scholarly symposia about the exhibit.

Plans call for the Franz Mayer exhibition Web site to be developed in both English and Spanish, and the development team is considering ways that both the Museo Franz Mayer and the MFAH can use the Web site after the exhibition has been completed. The initial work has focused on a comparison of Franz Mayer and Ima Hogg, the woman who amassed the Bayou Bend Collection, since Miss Hogg and Franz Mayer generally were collecting items at the same time, and from generally the same period. (Interestingly, both collectors were born in 1882 and died in 1975.)

High school art students from Houston and Mexico City will be invited to participate in a cultural exchange program during the exhibition period. The purpose of this project will be for students to study the art and artists from the Franz Mayer collection and how they compare with the works of European and Asian art over the last three centuries. Twelve high school students, a group of six from Houston and a group of six from Mexico City, will visit each other's cities and meet with artists and educators to explore the diverse cultural influences and identities of the two countries. The students will create their own works of art that will be displayed as part of the Franz Mayer exhibition and the entire process will be documented on the Web site.

The Next Generation of Museum-Web Collaborative Projects

Collaboration between the University of Houston and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has been a tremendously beneficial experience for both institutions. It is hoped that the two institutions can continue to expand the scope of the collaboration. On the University side, an effort is being made to attract more students from other programs such as art, art education, history, and social studies education and have them enroll in the course. Adding these students to the collaborative groups will most certainly increase the creative efforts of each team. One of the most surprising and enjoyable effects of continuing to offer the Projects-Based Web Design course has been that it has evolved from its original form, as strictly a Web design course, to more of a cross-disciplinary exploration in which a variety of students examine the history, geography, religion, economics, politics, and other cultural influences associated with works of art and artifacts. Admittedly, while American decorative arts is a totally new topic area for most of the students in the course and it takes some time and effort for them to understand the scope of the field, being able to work with so much of the museum's rich and diverse content has elevated the course to a more meaningful and fertile educational experience for all involved--the students, the instructors and even the museum staff.

Efforts are also underway to move beyond the initial Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens Web project. For example, it is hoped that further collaboration with Bayou Bend will focus on a planned education and visitor center with state-of-the-art instructional technology resources and new projects for future student groups. Through the present collaboration, Bayou Bend, a museum that studies nothing after 1870, has entered the 21st century. Ironically, Bayou Bend, which is unable to be seen from the street in Houston, now has a valuable cyberspace presence.

Discussions are also underway with MFAH staff on how this Web development model can be extended to other projects such as the museum's photography collection, the Art of the Americas, Oceania and Africa collection, a Murals in the Park project, and more. Getting more museum staff to become actively involved in the course is another goal. The success of the course has been in part due to the commitment of course facilitators who work closely with the student teams. Facilitators include students who took the course earlier and who still have an interest in the project as well as other faculty members who volunteer their time and efforts. Recruiting additional museum staff members to serve as course facilitators and consultants will add even more value to the course since they help articulate the goals and objectives of the museum and provide insight and expertise related to works of art and how they are exhibited.

University and museum participants are searching for additional funding opportunities, such as external grants, donations, corporate sponsorship, etc., which will be used to expand the scope of the partnership into new areas. An intriguing possibility is to create funded university/museum doctoral fellowships that will attract doctoral students to work on these projects. These students will work closely with museum personnel and university faculty as they take responsibility for various project components, mentoring other students, conducting dissertation research, publishing scholarly articles about their work, and presenting their findings at national and international conferences. As this collaborative partnership between the MFAH and the University of Houston continues to evolve, it is expected that new and even more interesting ideas will emerge.


In light of our experience, we would make the following recommendations to any museum considering this type of partnership:

  1. Be prepared to educate the students about the museum's mission, organization, and functions;
  2. Designate a staff member with knowledge of the subject matter to work with university faculty and students throughout the project as the primary liaison;
  3. Authorize and encourage other museum departments to cooperate, especially:
    a. Curatorial;
    b. Education;
    c. Publications;
    d. Registrar
    e. Library;
    f. Slide or image library;
    g. Rights and Reproductions;
    h. Museum photographer;
    i.  Public Affairs
    j. Information Technology and Webmaster.
  4. Provide tours and special access to the relevant collections for the students;
  5. Provide facilities for class meetings in the museum;
  6. Give students memberships or free admission;
  7. Become familiar with relevant web sites;
  8. Review the students' work frequently and provide constructive criticism;
  9. Host the final presentations to acknowledge the students' work.


Warren, D. B., Brown, M. K., Coleman, E. A., & Neff, E. B. (1998). American decorative arts and paintings in the Bayou Bend Collection. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts and Princeton University Press.