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published: March 2004
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Museums and the Web 2003 Papers

Developing the Strategy for Change and Redevelopment of your Web Site

John Horniblow, BLADEdigital LLC.


This paper is written for museums that are looking towards redesigning, rebuilding or redeveloping an older generation Web site with increased functionality, user experience, and management efficiencies, and to create an infrastructure for future expansion. Its is good to remember when beginning to devise a strategy for redevelopment that True creativity for the Web evolves from clearly defined, goals, boundaries and guidelines. While it's not good to dampen or hinder a creative process of redesign, in the world of technology it is best to define the medium within which the creative and the pragmatic processes work.

Keywords: redesigning Web sites, strategy, older generation Web sites

Getting Started

The first stage in implementing a project or strategy for change or redevelopment of an existing Website is to ask:

  • What kind of business am I in?
  • What to I want to achieve out of redeveloping a Web site?
  • What efficiencies do we want?
  • Is there going to be a Return on Investment?.

These question may sound simple or obvious, but it is surprising how many enterprises, including the museums, struggle with how and what their Web site is used for.

The answers to the questions may be manifold, but when an institution comes to the point of redevelopment, it generally does because of a few factors

  1. Its existing Web site doesn't work, is a labor of love, and key information is accessible through a labored path of investigation and clicks.

  2. The site's design is dated: and if so, its underlying code base and architecture are possibly also dated or from a past generation of basic Web standards.

  3. A site's information is out of date and inconsistent with the institutions current directions.

  4. The cost of running the site may be manageable for minor updates; however, its code base and structure make it cost prohibitive to add or remove areas from a site without incurring great cost.

  5. The museum wants to enter the burgeoning world of electronic services on a Web site such as e-commerce, e-marketing, on-line membership renewals, and fund raising campaigns, and wants to seek a cost effective way of adding these services.

  6. The museum wants to find a better way of managing its public information assets and reduce the workflow issues that surround updating content and graphics on a Web site.

Museums, and for that matter, many other cultural institutions are similar. In today's world of business, they are like medium-sized companies or businesses. They have various underlying business units that underpin and support the main purpose of the institution. These units provide support to the museum and associated services to the public, i.e. libraries, education departments, human relations, membership, and fund raising departments. Generally speaking all of these business activities seek representation on a Website, and rightly so. When it comes to deciding what should be on a Website, it can create a dilemma in raising the question of what's more important:

  • the information for a Museum's business of exhibition and public access to information? or,
  • the supporting information about every department within the business infrastructure of a museum?

In some instances I would recommend distinct separation of core business or mission of the museum and the other service based information that supports the core business. This separation is easily made by grouping like pieces of information together with clear delineation.

Develop a plan

From the very outset you have to have a plan of what you want your Web site to do and what it contains. This starts as a creative idea, then a structure of information, the electronic functions you want to facilitate, and any specific technologies you want to deploy. This will give you a site plan. Now its time to consider how can you implement it. The driving factors of these decisions will no doubt be:
  • Budget (what is a cost effective implementation): this often determines how realistic the ideas can be;
  • Do it ourselves? Go to a contractor via an RFP process?
  • Timing: how long a process can you allow yourselves? (or is it better to work in phases of development?)
  • Usability and review.
  • Ongoing maintenance: once you have created the beast, you have to feed it.

Review your Content

Web sites or projected screens that use light sources are not the best medium from which to read information, and in fact many people see the Web as a quick information fix medium. Being concise and brief with one's information is always a very good strategy. If you are in the business of publishing academic papers which you are making available through your Website and some of your content contains lengthy essays, still remember: at the point of first contact the users have with a Web site, keep your information short and concise. Let them find what they need easily and quickly.

There was a time when institutions first developed sites on the Web that they saw it as a medium where they could republish all their print materials. Doing so created great swaths of unread pages which remain unchecked, out of date, and irrelevant. The great bulk of information that an institution publishes over time can become a daunting management issue if it is not reviewed and structured according to its validity.

This does pose questions for the Website redeveloper. Do I keep all the old information? How do I know what works on site? Do I discard the rest? If you are planning to redevelop a site, you should already have a number of resources at hand to make it easy to understand what works and what doesn't work on a Web site. A quick analysis of user habits and traffic numbers gleaned from your Web site logs generally points you in the direction of what the user seeks in browsing your Web site. Never forget that in the interactive medium the users are not passive. They have come to your Web site to get or find some piece of information. In short, these logs define the user patterns and are excellent hot and cold indicators of what works in a Web site. Being privy to the logs of three separate museums Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego http://www.mcasd.org, Phoenix Art Museum http://www.phxart.org, and Santa Barbara Museum of Art http://www.sbmuseart.org), and undertaking their analysis, we have been able to conclude that user patterns, specially for Art Museums, follow similar patterns. This has given us key indicators as to how a site should be designed, what is important in organizing the navigation and underlying architecture. Our ongoing analysis of the user trends for these art museum Web sites indicates that the greatest areas of user traffic are things such as current exhibitions, collections, and events.

Should you keep your old information? If it has a research, historical or academic value, keep it. Other than that, discard it! Out of date and incorrect information sends very bad signals about your institution to the browsing public!

Decide on a Platform

Windows Unix/Linux or Mac? When faced with the question of what platform we should be serving on, work with what you know unless you can afford to outsource to contractors to manage and look after your hosting environment. The platform you choose to work with doesn't really affect the final outcome of a Web site's functionality. However, it does determined what your technology path is in terms of development and third party tools or software you can use, and the cost of development. The most ubiquitous and therefore the technology route that tends to remain in prominence is a Microsoft IIS. There are a number of off the shelf software packages and components that add different kinds of functionality to a Web site.

Moreover, the Unix / Linux Apache technology route is very well supported and is generally preferred by the computer programmer community. Why? Cost is the answer! The Linux Red hat operating systems is an open source project, so the server software has no license fees, and if your Web site requires a d/base backend for Content Publishing or an E Commerce application such as a shop, then MYSQL also is free software. The drawback in being free is that these software have no real support obligations. There are Content Management Systems and an array of other functional software and components for Web sites. These, too, are often opensource and offer little support for their software.

A Microsoft IIS environment is more costly to set up; however, due to the licenses and prevalence in the corporate and home user / small business world, getting support is often easy. Remember very few Web sites are served off the MAC OS!

Plan the Architecture

Web sites are a live information resource or media so they are constantly changing.

Over time Web sites tend to grow, and some content can become redundant. In that case many museums must make a management choice to archive and maintain an on-line historical resource of papers, works, and exhibitions. Unless these are structured in a precise information hierarchy or possibly referenced out of a database used for Publishing (Content Management System), the information can become a headache to manage.

Large and rambling Web sites without a definitive structure or architecture of information are big endeavors to re-engineer, and their information is sometimes convoluted, repetitive or redundant. The front end users' experience of having to drill down numerous levels to find what they are looking for can leave them swimming in endless pools of information, lost in its volume and unstructured nature.

The key to good architecture or information hierarchy is to group information of a like source together. This also reflects itself in a site's navigation, and that in turn relates to the overall plan of development. Cost effective development comes from well-considered site architectures. When planning to redevelop a Web site, plan for future changes or growth, not just the immediate objective of changing one Web site.

A very effective way of building for cost effective updating and scaling of a Web site is to use the principles of Dynamic Object Modeling. In short what this means is that where we have repetitive code from page to page, such as the navigation, page header, page footers, cascading stylesheets that determine a site layout attributes, or where the content on a page is published through a Content Management System (CMS), these come from a set of single entity 'objects'. These can be pulled into a Web page by using server side includes or, in the case of the CMS, via asp/sql or php/mysql calls. The advantage of using this method is that it removes the need to have every piece of code/content for a page hard coded into that page. For instance, if you need to change a piece of navigation for the site, you would make the change in the navigation object rather than having to change it in every single page on the site.

This means the costs of maintaining your site are reduced when it comes to making global changes to pages or undertaking any general changes, additions or maintenance. The term dynamic means that the different pieces of content for a page are being pulled from different sources or objects and rendered into a Web page. Content Management Systems work in this manner too. When you make a text or image change, you are not actually changing the html of a page. You are changing a unique object in the database so that the page makes a 'dynamic call' to go and get that piece of content and render it into a Web page.

Create a Visual Design

Design is the ambassador of first impressions when you come to a site. A poorly designed and presented Web site can create a negative reaction to the institution and can hurt its public image.

Generally a museum Web site needs to bring its exhibition schedule (if it has one) and collection to the foreground. Our ongoing analysis of the user trends in art museum Web sites indicates that the greatest areas of traffic on their Websites are things such as, current exhibitions, collections, and events, so bringing these forward in the design and architecture so the user to finds them immediately makes good design sense.

The Web site is as much a marketing tool, as it is an information tool, and we follow the rule of thumb that ultimate success of the museum is based on visitors through the front door and turnstiles much in the same way the movie industry coins the phrase 'bums on seats '. So the Web site design needs to reflect this. The very notion of bringing what it offers to the public by way of its physical business needs to be reflected in the same way on-line. It could also offer an experience that is different to what the public may experience within the physical museum. Perhaps somewhat unproven but well stated, is that a good Web site design in its look, structure/architecture and content has the direct result of stimulating further interest in the institution.

For example, a very simple way of re-engineering a site is to bring any current exhibition images onto the home page so it changes with every new exhibition, and these images link to the current exhibitions page for further information. Many first, second generation, say third generation Web sites hark back to the early days of internet technology and design ideas and as such hold back what a museum has to publicize.

Special Interest Content and Multimedia

A very good example of developing specific interest content within museum Web sites and offering something unique to the Web users' experience are explorations in Education or children's content or Digital Exhibition Spaces using multimedia technologies. On the education side, sites have been endorsed and developed by Institutions such as National Gallery of Art, Washington DC (http://www.nga.gov/education/classroom/index.htm), The Henry Ford Museum (http://www.thehenryford.org/education/museumquest/default.asp), and Seattle Art Museum; or the Denver Art Museum Education Department's old and now dated initiative http://www.wackykids.org. (Another excellent example of a multimedia/technology education activities Web site which is parallel to the museum's activities is found at the Monterey Aquarium's Website http://www.montereyaquarium.org/lc/activities.asp)

The example of Wackykids.org, while being old, still serves a model for review. The Project was funded in conjunction with the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Denver Art Museum and designed for the ages 7-10. Its idea was to create a site that explores the museum's artworks, undertaking some interactive activities that serve as education tools. These types of sites are not uncommon in the commercial and corporate world. 'Kids only' sites are also developed as fun and entertaining extensions of kid/ child consumer brands such as Lego, Nesquik, Wonkers Chocolates, and by institutions such as the NBA and NFL as extensions of their advertising and marketing through consumer goods and products such as breakfast cereals.

These kinds of sites are generally driven by multimedia technology that incorporates a graphical design, audio, video, animation text and images, giving it the "wow" factor it requires to captivate and bring back an audience spanning from early school age through to tweens. This on-line audience is well versed in computer driven interactives and is familiar with the metaphorical and narrative screen devices that drive interaction.

Other uses of multimedia have extended into creating special exhibition displays, virtual tours and more recently, Online Digital Exhibition Spaces. In the Contemporary Art Museum sphere, curators are dealing with the emergence of digital artworks or temporal based works such as installations, and are turning to the Web as a means for exhibition of these works. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles has a Digital Gallery (http://www.moca.org/museum/digital_gallery.php) where artists working in the digital media are exhibited; it has been operational since 2001. There is constant exhibition of works incorporating a number of technologies and where artists involved in electronic media sometimes develop their own software engines. The Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, launched an exhibition space for its CERCA SERIES; it featured emerging artists from Los Angeles, San Diego, The U.S.-Mexico border region, as well as international artists (http://www.mcasd.org/cerca/) in 2003. These two examples employ a number of different multimedia technologies (Flash , QuickTime, QTVR, Java , JavaScript, MP3 , Shockwave ) and exhibit wonderful examples of archiving installations, mixed media exhibitions, and specific digital artworks.

To Content Manage or Not Content Manage?

The update cycle of today's Web sites has led to a decentralization of responsibility for their development and ongoing management. The diversity of content that some Web sites have means that the update/responsibility for content is the work of several individuals from different areas of the Museum's Departments and with varying skills.

Content management systems can play a significant role in site management across site areas that change frequently. With a focus on workflow, Content Management Systems can reduce the time to publish information to a Web site and empower individuals within the museum, who don't have Web design skills, to update their content. This means there can be considerable ROI as the cost of updating your Web site may be reduced by removing the need for going to an outside contractor or Web master to make every slight change in site content.

A Content Management System is, in fact, a database publishing system that uses an application server interface to pull dynamic objects/content and their references in a database into HTML pages for an on-line viewer to see. Where these systems are used in Web sites, the actual HTML page doesn't change in its form or design; however, it is the content that it pulls from the database that can be dynamic and changeable and have formatting applied to it through templates and style sheets.

If you are looking at venturing into deploying a CMS you might consider buying an off-the-shelf CMS application rather than having one custom built. It depends on your needs and how much you can spend in supporting your Web site. If you require a basic publishing system, then the cost saving may be in the order tens of thousands of dollars, and the speed of developing the site is increased. But beware: there are many CMS products on the market offering a myriad of functions and price points from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars for major publishing systems run by entities such as newspaper publishers and Fortune 500 companies.

Staffing and Resourcing

The issue of staffing or undertaking responsibility for the Web site and any ongoing on-line plans is relatively straightforward. A staff position for the Web is justified by its functions as an integrated communications tool, produced on an IT platform. Management of a Web site is best structured around a core set of skills and the team knowledge required to ensure its success.

Generally Web sites fall under the joint or singular management of either IT managers or Marketing and PR Departments. Generally it's a good idea to institute a Web management team headed by one person who is ultimately responsible for overall site technology, services and content. The other members bring the required informational input to the table. This team defines the ongoing Administration, Production and Policy relating to how the Museum runs its Web site

The operational layers of the team should focus on:

  • the Museum's Web strategy and management;
  • Page origination, editorial and design responsibilities;
  • Web technology development;
  • Application / Business Systems development;
  • Server maintenance and technology assessment.

If you plan to do the work in house, create a Team Leader.

The skills and experience the team leader should have include good project management skills and a cross understanding of both Web / server technology beyond basic principles of HTML, FTP, and content related information. The person must be able to manage both internal resources and departmental needs and external contractors to ensure that any development projects are assisted and directed according to the needs and specifications of the Museum. The role can also serve as the site's administrator in maintenance, update and development, and can bring all the relevant business disciplines of the Museum together in a structured forum for Web site business.