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published: April, 2002

© Archives & Museum Informatics, 2002.
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MW2002: Papers

“There's Something Happening Here, What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear”

Kate Haley Goldman and Melissa Wadman,  Institute for Learning Innovation, USA



This paper discusses the facts about the museum on-line experience: What are the basics of the on-line museum experience (the who, what, with whom, and how sorts of questions)? Whom do we know we reach?  What do they tend to do?  How does this compare with the other virtual experiences people are having? This was achieved through an in-depth overview of the literature, drawing on sources both in the virtual museum field and in related fields.  This paper also takes a brief look at the relationship between the physical and the virtual sites. The authors investigate current literature but also report the results of interviews with museum professionals on their thoughts and insights about the relationship between their virtual and physical museums. Questions in this domain included: How do physical and virtual museums impact one another? Is there any interaction between the two? Where? In attendance? In audience size and type? In design? 

These results in turn help our field to build a foundation to someday answer even more critical questions. The next questions in this research will be ones that surround the unique context of virtual museums- from how does a visitor's prior knowledge of the Internet impact the visit to a museum Web site to how does the medium of an electronic visit impact in exhibition design.  This will also help us to begin to figure out how to attack the age-old yet never trivial question about outcomes- what do visitors really learn from a virtual museum?

Keywords: Web site evaluation, audience studies, Internet demographics, on-line exhibits


What do we really know about museums and the Web? What can we really say, and back up with evidence, about the virtual museum and the virtual visitors? As with any fast-growing field, any time this discussion arises we have endlessly more questions than answers. Our battle is made even more difficult by our goals.  Virtual museums may measure eyeballs and click-through rate, but the mission is not achieved when the visitor buys something.  The virtual museum’s mission is to inform, to enlighten, and perhaps to change lives - and museums have risen to this challenge.  During this decade, museums have put enormous amounts of energy, both in hours and dollars, into a virtual presence. In order to continue to push the boundaries of what virtual museum sites can achieve, we need to stand back and review the questions we’ve been asking about virtual museums and the answers we think we have.

We believe the most important questions about museums and the Web are all about learning.  Do people really learn from virtual museums?  If so, we need to know how, why, in what ways, and a whole host of other questions.  As one of the museum Web team staff members we interviewed said, “Does this really work, or is the medium just wrong for learning?  Can this create true engagement?”  (Boyd-Smith, 2002).  Unfortunately, we’re not yet at the time where we can, definitively, as a field, answer those questions in depth.  Yet we are definitely at the place in time where we should be asking them.  But in order to answer the more complex questions, such as whether people really learn from virtual museums, we must first know who and what’s out there.


We used three methods to investigate these questions.  We did a literature review, conducted a survey of museum Web sites, and conducted phone interviews with museum staff.

Literature Review

We conducted a literature review both of the literature within the museum field, and of related fields such as distance education, learning from television and learning in general.  What we found in relation to museum Web sites and their visitors was fairly sparse.  Although the field of distance education is rich in studies, little of it was transferable to museum Web sites.  Most of the research and any assessments of learning were directly dependent on traditional classroom dynamics, such as lectures and testing.  As physical and virtual museums move away from a transmission-absorption model of learning towards a more constructivist model, distance education research is less pertinent to virtual museum assessments.

Of the studies directly within the field, there were several common problems.  Most of the information came directly from Web server log analysis.  The results can vary a fair bit depending on the software package used to perform the analysis.  The server logs are sparse in terms of providing certain useful pieces of information. Analysis packages can tabulate the information stored on a server log and provide visitor information about the host computer, how the visitor was referred to the site, the length of time of the visit, the pathway taken through the site, and more.  But this type of analysis is unable to provide data on visitors’ demographics, social context, motivation, or learning.   One interviewee suggested one of the issues surrounding collecting information from museum Web sites is that some Web sites are unable to use cookies because they are hosted on state/government servers which are prohibited from using cookies to track visitors.  (Boyd-Smith, 2002)

On-line surveys, although providing information more similar to information that would be collected on a survey at the physical museum, have other risks.  Most of the surveys we reviewed either did not list a response rate, or had a response rate between 4 and 11%. (Chadwick and Boverie 1999; Chadwick, Falk and O’Ryan 2000; Semper 2000) This extreme self-selection means that most of the surveys suffered from a lack of reliability and validity.

Survey of Museum Web sites 

We did a survey of more than 80 museum Web sites, both national and international, in order to determine what visitors had available to them in terms of museum Web sites.   The national museum Web sites were chosen in a semi-random manner, attempting to include diversity both in geography and in the size of the museum.  The mix of different types of museums included was based roughly on the percentage of each type of museum in the United States as reflected by AAM membership (Museums Count, 1994).  The international museums were chosen at random from the Virtual Library Museum Pages list of Important International Museums. This component is biased towards large international museums, but allowed us to survey a geographically diverse set of sites while still within the constraint of sites in the English language.

On each museum Web site we looked to see if it contained the following components:

  • Logistical information - information on hours, location, etc.
  • Information on their collections - descriptions of museum’s collections, examples from the collections
  • An on-line database of the collections/part of the collections - a searchable database of collections/parts of collections
  • Information on physical exhibits 
  • On-line exhibits of physical exhibits
  • Virtual tours of exhibits/galleries
  • On-line only exhibits - on-line exhibits that were not connected to a physical exhibit
  • Education section - information for teachers, parents, children’s activities
  • News/calendar/events
  • Information on membership – how to become a member, donate to the museum
  • On-line museum store
  • Use of plug-ins to view sections/pages

These components were chosen because they encompass the majority of types of content found in major Web sites such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Interviews with Museum Staff

We did telephone interviews with several museum staff around the country who play key roles in their institutions’ Web sites.  We asked them questions about their Web sites, what they know about their virtual visitors and the relationship between their virtual and physical sites.  Although most staff did not have direct evidence of site usage, their comments were extremely helpful in putting other areas in context. 


Who do museum Web sites reach?

In reviewing the sparse information on museum Web site visitors, we have found some distinct trends.  Several of the earlier studies done (Gradwohl and Feldman, 1998; Chadwick and Boverie, 1999), describe virtual museum visitors that mimic general Internet users.  At that time, in the early days of museum Web sites (1994-1997), the Internet user was generally male, between ages 20-40, of a higher income.  The very earliest studies also point to visitors who had Internet access from research or university sites.

The population on the Internet in 1994 was very different from the population  on the Internet in 2002.  As time has passed, museum Web site visitors have changed along with the evolving Internet population. 


Virtual Museum visitors are still primarily North American, though possibly not for long.  Bowen (1999) shows that 88% of virtual museum visitors are based in North America, although he mentions the study limitation of an English-only questionnaire. There is evidence that this sampling method may account for a large amount of measuring error, because by next year the majority of the general Internet population’s first language will not be English, and by 2007, Chinese will be the most used language on the Internet (E-Spectra 2002).


Although some recent studies on virtual museums still show a slight predominance of male visitors (Vergo et al, 2001), other studies show closer to gender equity.  (Semper, 2000)  Still other studies (Chadwick, Falk and O’Ryan, 2000) show a higher representation of females (71%).  Visitation to physical museums is not homogenous regardless of type of museum, and there is no reason to expect that virtual museum audience demographics would be independent of subject matter.  Falk and Dierking (1992) state “More males than females tend to visit science museums, more females than males visit art museums.”  At the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., 60% of the visitors are male (Doering and Bickford, 1994).

Bowen (1999) proposed that gender equity in museum Web site visitorship would occur more quickly than gender equity on the Internet at large.  As we left the 1990s, the number of American women on-line has matched the number of men  (Department of Commerce, 2002). Additionally there is more rapid growth of women as Internet users than men, with the number of teenaged girls growing five times faster than overall Internet growth (Rickert & Sacharow, 2000).   One of the highest growth rates among Internet users in different types of households was for single mothers (29%)  (Cyberatlas, 2002).


Surveys of virtual museum visitors tentatively suggest that the average visitor is slightly older than the average Internet user.  In a study by Semper (2000), the virtual museum visitors tended to be young adults between the ages of 23 and 49.  This corroborates a study by Chadwick, Falk and O’Ryan (2000), where the average age was 40 years, with a high point of 75 and low end of 12.  A survey of on-line international museums (Bowen, 1999) reported that the average virtual museum visitor was between 40-64 years old.

General Internet use has increased in every age group since 1997.  Currently Internet use rises as age increases through childhood and the teens, plateauing at high rates of use for people in their prime working years, between 26 and 55, and then tends to fall among people at higher ages (Department of Commerce, 2002).  Use of the Internet in older age groups is growing with the rest of the population, and as the baby boomer generation ages, one can expect interest usage among the group over age 55 to increase.

Age of the average physical museum visitor varies wildly dependent on whether the visit is to  a zoo, art museum, children’s museum or historic site.  The majority of visitors to physical museums are between ages 35 to 50, with visitors over 60 rarely accounting for over 10% of the total visitation.  Adults as a whole make up 30% to 90% of the visitation, dependent on the type of museum (Falk and Dierking, 1992).


We have found no studies that indicate the income levels of visitors to virtual museums.  However, several assumptions can be made with the information on income that we do have available, although that information is solely from the US.  Income is clearly a predictor of computer use, Internet access, and independently, physical museum visitation.  Notably, Internet use among the lowest income households is undergoing rapid growth. The Department of Commerce study (2002) shows that Internet use in households grossing less than $15,000 increased from 9.2% in October 1997 to 25.0% in September of 2001.  Between December of 1998 and September of 2001, there was 25% growth for Internet use for households under $15,000, as compared to an 11% growth for Internet use during the same period for households over $75,000.  The likelihood that lower income households are new to the Internet has implications for their on-line behavior as well. Lower income visitors not only are generally newer to the Internet, but also spend more time on-line (13 hours per month) and view more content pages than higher income groups (Rickert and Sacharow, 2000).

While visitation to physical museums varies greatly by location and type of museum, it is still disproportionally an activity for higher income groups. (Doering, 1995) 

Visitor surveys consistently suggest that, by and large, museum visitors are of higher than average socioeconomic level. These findings apply equally to visitors of art museums, science museum, arboreta, and zoos; they apply as well cross-culturally, to visitors in the U.S.A, Canada, Sweden and Great Britain (Falk and Dierking, 1992).


None of the studies we reviewed had any information on race or ethnicity for virtual museum visitors.  As much funding for projects in both the physical and the virtual museum worlds is dependent on increasing the diversity of visitation, this remains a key area for future virtual museum research.

Race and ethnicity, like income, are strongly correlated with both computer and Internet usage.   (See Table 1).   The Internet is rapidly becoming more diverse: usage growth rates for African Americans and Hispanics has outpaced growth of usage for Whites, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The growth rates for African Americans and Hispanics have accelerated further within the last 18 months.  Despite this growth, there is still a divide by race of Internet usage.  Internet usage for Asian Americans is nearly double that for Hispanics (Department of Commerce, 2002).

Table 1: Computer Usage and Percentage of Race/Ethnicity
(Department of Commerce, 2002)

There is a constant push within physical museums to further diversify the audience, as it is widely understood that minorities are underrepresented in visitorship (Falk and Dierking, 1992).   The table below (Table 2) compares U.S. census population data by race with Smithsonian visitorship.   Using Smithsonian visitation (which here includes the National Zoo) likely overstates what minority visitation might be to the average physical museum, but it still exemplifies minority underrepresentation.  

Table 2: U.S. Population and Smithsonian Visitorship by Race
(Doering, 1994)

Social Group

A physical museum is at its foundation a social space, and most museum visitors are part of a social group.  The learning agenda presented in a physical museum has been demonstrated to be more successful when visitors communicate amongst themselves, rather than remaining silent (Falk and Dierking, 1992).  Certainly there are a number of innovative ways that virtual visitors can form social connections, even if they are physically alone when connecting to the site. Such collaborative workspaces like the Virtual Leonardo (Barbieri and Paolini, 2000) may eventually change the dynamic of social interaction at virtual museums.  Virtual field trips have greatly strengthened the amount of interaction for virtual sites.  But for the non-school visitor, most virtual museum visits tend to be solitary activities.

The evidence on the social aspects of the visit is mixed.  In one museum Web site survey, 90% of visitors were alone when visiting virtual museum sites (Vergo et al, 2001).   Even in a study of the highly interactive resources - Cow’s Eye Dissection, Flights of Inspiration and the Science of Cycling, two of which were designed for classroom interaction - 45% of people worked alone and 9% of people with someone else.  (As the authors point out, this is a less than satisfactory answer, as the total should reach 100%) (Semper et al, 2000).   Chadwick and Boverie (1999) found that 21.6% of survey respondents were in a family group and 8.6% were in classrooms. 


The setting and details of the actual visit are important pieces of information in understanding the overall virtual visit. Several virtual visitor studies have suggested that the majority of visitors currently are accessing museum Web sites from their home computers.  This evidence is drawn from the preponderance of America On-line and other personal access providers as the referring sites (Ross, N., Personal correspondence, 2002).

Forty-four percent of the U.S. population have Internet access from home, and 35% have Internet access at work.  Other places are also used to access the Internet, including (in order of popularity) schools, other people’s houses, libraries, and community centers (Department of Commerce, 2002).

Preliminary data shows that there is more interaction during the week, when presumably, people have more access to high-speed connections. (Semper et al,  2000) Through Web logs we can often tell the site an on-line visitor was at immediately before entering the virtual museum.  We know, for instance, that 45% of the visitors came to two art museums through search engines. Another 17% came from related sites, whereas 10% came directly from other Web pages (Vergo et al, 2001).   Thes figures are similar to the results from a study of science activities, where 40% were referred to the site from a search engine (Semper 2000).  What this does not tell us, however, is the overall context for the visit, what other sites the visitor was browsing during that same on-line session.

What do museum Web sites contain?

A survey of museum Web sites was conducted in order to get a feel of what museum Web site visitors are exposed to.  We need to understand that museum Web sites are not a one-purpose medium. Museum Web sites contain diverse types and amounts of content. Knowing what museum Web sites today contain helps us to better understand museum Web site visitors’ choices and what they mean. For example, if museum Web sites only contained contact information, we would know what visitors were getting out of the site. Our results show that most museum Web sites have more choices than that, and therefore museum Web site visitors can obtain a range of information.   

Table 3: Museum Web site Content

Logistical information

Ninety-six percent (n=79) of the museum sitess we looked at had logistical information on them. One of the museums that did not have logistical information appeared to be an on-line only museum.


Sixty-eight percent (n=56) of museums surveyed contained information about their collections. Though a majority of sites have information about their collections, only 21% of the museum Web sites surveyed had an on-line database of at least one or part of their collections (See Table 4).

Table 4:  On-line Database of Collection/s


Ninety-two percent (n=75) of museums surveyed contained information on physical exhibits at their museums. Only about half  43% (n=35) of the sites that had information on physical exhibits at the museum had on-line versions of them at their Web sites. A small portion (12%, n=10) of the museum Web sites had on-line exhibits that were not connected to a physical exhibit in the museum (See Table 5).  Ten percent (n=8) of the museum Web sites had virtual tours of the museum, specific exhibits, or galleries of the museum (see Table 6 below).

Table 5: On-line Only Exhibits

Table 6: Virtual Tours of Exhibits/Galleries


A majority, 60% (n=49) of the museum Web sites surveyed contained education sections which included curriculum for teachers, information for parents and/or on-line activities for children.


Of the museums Web sites surveyed, 66% (n=54) contained information or sections on news of what’s going on in the museum or a calendar of events at the museum.

Membership information

Forty percent (n=31) of museum Web sites surveyed contained information on how to obtain membership to the museum.

On-line museum store

Of the museum WWeb sites surveyed, 44% (n=34) had an on-line museum store.

Use of plug-ins to view sections/pages

Only 20% (n=16) of the museum Web sites surveyed had an obvious use of plug-ins whether it was for the whole site or just one or more components (an on-line exhibit, etc.) This is not surprising since many smaller US museum Web sites were surveyed along with major museums. It is also important to note that is it common for Web designers for public Web sites to try to use a lower number of plug-ins so that the Web site is accessible to visitors with slow computer processors and connections to the Internet.

What did visitors do when they reach museum Web sites?

Many museum educators and curators in the past despaired at the short duration of the average exhibit visit in physical museums.  In a world that we are constantly informed is speeding up, the average virtual visit is even shorter than the average exhibit visit.  Several studies showed half or more of museum Web site visitors entered the museum Web site somewhere other than the home page (Gradwohl and Feldman,1998; Jensen, 1999) .

The issue of non-home page entries is one several other museums have reported  (Gradwohl and Feldman, 1998; Chadwick and Boverie, 1999; Sumption, 2000), and can sometimes be fixed by site redesign.  In the Sumption study, the top 10 entry pages accounted for only 38% of the user sessions, but site redesign boosted the top ten pages to the starting point of 71% of the sessions. Another study showed that even within a specific exhibit, one-third of the visitors entered somewhere other than the main page.  Forty-five percent of visitors accessed just the first two pages.  However, 8% stayed over 20 minutes to access 43% of total page views (Kenderdine, 2001).

Starting at the entry point can be significant for site “stickiness”. Those who started from a topic page, rather than a detail page, had significantly longer sessions (Nordbotten, 2000). Those sessions also tended to have a richer amount of content, with entries into several separate topic pages.  Yet entry through the home page is no guarantee of a deep, content-rich visit. In one study, only 35% looked at home page and nothing else; in another study, 50% left immediately after viewing the home page (Nordbotten, 2000; Jensen, 1999).

What are the visitors interested in?

Visitors are strongly interested in logistics.  Studies varied, but reports ranged from 28-32% of virtual visitors reporting that they were in search of museum information, often to plan a trip (Chadwick and Boverie,1999; Nordbotten, 2000).  Vergo (2001) reports the other top 3 reasons virtual visitors came to particular arts sites:  25% were researching information on specific content, 12% were looking for fun-like activities, and 2.4% were looking for shopping. 

Bowen (1999) reports that in a survey of over 200 international museums ,the most popular content was museum collections.  A museum that has a large number of very specific collections on-line can develop a strong scholarly following.  One Canadian museum had 65% of total page requests for collections materials (Jensen, 1999). More recent data show that collection searches continue to be a fundamental reason for virtual museum visits (Kravchyna and Hastings, 2002).


The relationship between virtual museum sites and physical sites has not been extensively researched. Though many museum Web staff have hypotheses about the relationship between their Web site and their museum, few have tested their hypotheses or had any direct evidence. Through our interviews we attempted to address the relationship and interaction of  a museum’s physical and virtual sites.

Is there a relationship between physical and virtual sites?

In most cases there is a relationship between physical museums and their Web sites though unfortunately there is not enough evidence to prove it. Informal conversations with museum staff concluded that the majority of museum Web sites started for marketing purposes. It seems that who in the museum is responsible for the museum Web site has an impact on what the focus of the museum Web site contains.

Is there interaction between the physical and virtual sites?

Both interviews and informal conversations with museum Web site staff show a strong belief that there is interaction between the physical and virtual sites- “cross pollination”. For instance, use of on-line curriculum guides can promote class field trips, and vice versa. Another way that the physical and virtual sites impact each other is that museum Web site visitors go to museum Web sites for logistical information providing information for their trip to the physical museum.

 Museum Website staff that we spoke with felt that the museum Web site boosted attendance for the physical museum, but they had no concrete evidence to prove it.

Museum staff are looking for methods to increase the interaction between the physical and virtual sites. For instance, one museum hopes to print the Web site address on tickets and to integrate it more fully into its publications for marketing purposes.

There is also interaction between the physical and virtual sites in terms of exhibits. Many on-line exhibits were created from physical exhibits.  From our analysis of museum Web sites, the more sophisticated Web sites extended the story in their on-line exhibits while  basic on-line exhibits tend to outline the blueprints of physical exhibits

Conclusions and Recommendations

In order to contemplate the next steps in understanding museum Web sites and learning, we need to address the current status of museum Web sites and their visitors.

 There is a variety of information available on museum Web sites, but on-line visitors essentially use them for logistical information and information on the museum’s collections.  Museum Web site visitors frequently visit in order to plan an upcoming trip to the physical museum.  A challenge for museums is to have these visitors return to the Web site after their visit to the physical museum - to extend their visit virtually.  This juxtaposition points out a need to match goals, actual content and museum Web site visitor needs.

Museums need to develop new plans and review existing technology plans to determine what they want their Web site visitors to gain from their Web site.  As we move into an era of more experienced Internet users, expectations are higher for what a museum Web site might provide.

These results help our field to build a foundation to someday answer even more critical questions about museum Web sites and learning.  The next questions in the research will be ones that surround the unique context of virtual museums- from how a visitor's prior knowledge of the Internet impacts the visit to a museum Web site to how the medium of an electronic visit impacts exhibition design.  This will also help us to begin to figure out how to attack the age-old yet never trivial question about outcomes - what do visitors really learn from a virtual museum?


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