The Changing Role of the Museum Webmaster: Past, Present, and Future
Paul F. Marty, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, School of Information Studies, Florida State University, USA
This paper uses results from a study of information professionals currently working in museums to determine the changing role of the museum Webmaster. It explores the past, present, and future of the museum Webmaster, and examines how the responsibilities have changed since 1997. It presents an analysis of how present-day museum Webmasters view their jobs, and argues that the museum Webmaster of the future should assume the role of the user's advocate in order to ensure that the needs of the users of on-line museums continue to be met. The skills and abilities of the museum Webmaster have evolved from a more technology-oriented to a more user-centered perspective; future Webmasters should acquire the necessary expertise to determine the needs of the museum's users and then create museum Web sites that best meet those needs.
Keywords: Museum Webmaster, Web design, user-centered design, user advocacy, changing responsibilities, information architecture
It has been seven years since the first Museums and the Web conference, and what it means to be a Webmaster in a museum has changed dramatically over those years. The notion that the museum Webmaster should be concerned only with designing and developing Web pages is now as anachronistic as the term Webmaster itself. Modern 'information professionals' in a museum must possess expertise in collections management, database systems, metadata standards, Web-casting, interface design, and data mining. Moreover, they must be able to apply those skills for multiple audiences, inside and outside the museum, over the Internet or on the museum's Intranet.
When simple Web design responsibilities can be delegated to a twelve-year-old child, what is the role of the 'new' museum Webmaster in the modern museum? This paper will answer that question by presenting results from a study of the information literacy skills of information professionals working in museums today. This study was designed and implemented by the author in 2003 to
During the summer of 2003, twenty-one museum professionals were interviewed to determine their information literacy needs and skills. All of these individuals were responsible in some fashion for managing information resources, tools, or technologies in a museum. Most of them were responsible for manipulating information on-line over an intranet, on the Internet, or both. The interviews were analyzed using grounded theory methods to chart the rise of the information professional in the museum. The results of this analysis can be used to answer questions such as:
Answers to these more general questions will be addressed in a forthcoming article that will cover the characteristics of the information professional working in the museum.
This paper focuses on one particular aspect that emerged from this study: the changing role of the museum Webmaster. Ten of the information professionals interviewed in this study used the term 'Webmaster' when referring to their own job titles. By their own accounts, however, their jobs required them to do significantly more than simply design and develop Web pages. The descriptions they provided of their responsibilities and the ways their jobs have changed over the years should be extremely useful to the Museums and the Web community.
This paper is organized into three sections. First, we explore the past of the museum Webmaster, examining the changing nature of the Webmaster's responsibilities since 1997. While necessarily brief, this review serves to highlight the need for museum Webmasters to be aware of the changing needs and expectations of visitors to museum Web sites.
Secondly, we explore the present of the museum Webmaster, drawing upon interviews with information professionals currently working in museums. In their own words, a representative sample of museum Webmasters tell us about their changing skills, needs, and expectations with respect to the daily challenges of being museum Webmasters.
Thirdly, we explore the future of the museum Webmaster, presenting a hypothetical argument about the role museum Webmasters will need to play over the next few years. While necessarily speculative, this section argues that museum Webmasters will need to assume the role of user advocate, and take steps to ensure that museum Web sites in the future continue to serve the needs of the museum's on-line visitors.
The Past: The Museum Webmaster Since 1997
Perhaps there is a new role in museums for an 'information manager' who is charged with caring for the museum's information. The information manager should know standards, understand how they can be implemented for each museum system, and, most important, advocate their use within the museum. Few, if any, museums have a staff position with this title now, but the function will become increasingly important as we integrate information systems into our daily work
Hermann, 1997, p.75
Today, more than seven years after this passage was published, most museums still do not have the luxury of a dedicated information handler, information manager, or chief information officer. Nevertheless, many museum administrators, even those unable to afford to hire a dedicated information specialist, understand the need for someone on their staff to be able to cope with information management issues. They know full well that if a museum is to be an active participant in the information society, someone at the museum needs to be well versed in metadata standards, controlled vocabularies, database design, and the latest Internet issues. While some technical jobs (including Web design) can be and will continue to be outsourced, museums that do not have at least some information technology skills in-house will likely find themselves paying increasingly expensive consultants if they wish to continue to meet the constantly evolving demands of their information-savvy audiences.
In many museums, the museum Webmaster is often the only person who possesses the necessary skills to satisfy the demand for on-line access to museum resources. Sometimes this is because the museum Webmaster was specifically hired because of his or her IT skills; sometimes this is because the most technically-skilled museum employee was selected to become the museum's Webmaster. In either case, it is quite often to the museum Webmaster that museum directors turn when they wish, for example, to contribute data about their museum's collections to an on-line consortium. It is usually the museum Webmaster who will be expected to take the lead in converting the museum's electronic resources to the required data format. Far from being a passive encoder of static content, the museum Webmaster is required to take an active role in the development of the museum's digital content, dynamically linking collections data to on-line information systems. How, and when, did this happen?
In most ways, the evolution of the museum Webmaster and the use of the Web by museums parallels the evolution of Webmasters and the world wide Web in general. The heyday of the dot-com boom - where young programmers could earn top-dollar simply based on their ability to code HTML - is long gone; with it, perhaps, went the original notion of what a Webmaster actually does. The modern Webmaster (for want of a better term) has to be able to do much more than code HTML. Given the increasing prevalence and capabilities of WYSIWYG Web site authoring tools, the act of creating Web sites has become technically nearly trivial.
To be successful in today's information society, the modern Webmaster has to be able to position an organization's resources in a rapidly changing on-line environment so that the right information is delivered to the right people at the right time. This is not, and never was, a matter of simple programming. Doing this well requires a wide variety of skills, some technical and some not; in particular, the modern Webmaster needs skills in information organization and information management above all others. The museum Webmaster is no exception to this rule.
Over the past seven years, museum Web sites, have become increasingly complex. Even before the first Museums and the Web conference, museums were well on their way to having well-established Web presences (Bowen, 1997). In the mid-1990s, the number of museum Web sites grew rapidly; during these early years, museum Web sites were often mere on-line brochures. This changed quickly, however, as more museum professionals adopted the latest interactive technologies for their on-line exhibits. No longer a collection of passive text and images, the on-line museum landscape became more complex, more interactive, infinitely more interesting, and much more challenging.
Museum professionals and museum visitors both saw great potential in the future of museum Web sites. Virtual museums offered visitors new opportunities to examine digital representations of museums artifacts - opportunities that could not be duplicated in the physical museum (Schwarzer, 2001; Schweibenz, 1998). Museums could offer unprecedented access to their collections (Cameron, 2001); instead of static information pages, on-line museums could offer interactive exhibits dynamically linked with data from the museum's collections management systems (Besser, 1997). Museum visitors, curators, and other experts could interact on-line and have virtual experiences spanning time and space (Paolini, 2000; Galani & Chalmers, 2002). Educational opportunities were dramatically enhanced by new on-line technologies (Teather & Wilhelm, 1999; Rayward & Twidale, 2000; Adams, et al. 2001; Frost, 2001; Bennett & Trofenko, 2002). In more ways than can be counted, the concept of the Wired Museum revolutionized the very idea of what the museum should provide on the world wide Web (Jones-Garmil, 1997; Bearman & Trant, 2000; Marty, Rayward, & Twidale, 2003).
These increased potentials, however, led to increased expectations. If a museum were to survive in the new world of the Internet, a museum simply had to have a Web site — and that Web site could not survive long as unchanging, outdated pages of static text. Museum visitors, as well as museum professionals, were becoming more Web-savvy; they expected museums to have high-quality, fully-interactive Web sites. To survive in the new world of the Web, museum Web sites had to evolve from passive pages of static content to highly interactive on-line exhibits. At the same time, museum Webmasters had to evolve from passive producers of on-line material to active participants in the development of dynamic, interactive Web sites.
To meet these new expectations, museum Webmasters had to learn many new skills. They had to understand the latest data standards and metadata schemes to participate in data sharing initiatives (Bearman, 1994; Gladney, et al., 1998; Moen, 1998; Perkins, 2001). They had to learn the latest digital imaging techniques (Mintzer, et al., 2001) and the best ways of applying multimedia technologies in the exploration of digital images of museum artifacts (Douma & Henchman, 2000). They had to experiment with innovative interface designs, resulting in projects such as the Smithsonian's Revealing Things or History Wired (Gillard, 2002). They had to learn the best ways of integrating on-line activities with in-house experiences, such as the Minneapolis Museum of Art's Restoration On-line project (Sayre, 2000). Suddenly, to succeed in the new world of the Web, on-line museum projects required the involvement of extremely skilled museum Webmasters.
As on-line museum projects became more sophisticated, it quickly became clear that technical skills, while important, were only half the story: the truly skilled museum Webmaster needed to bring more to the table than mere technical skills. As museum Web sites became more and more interactive, museum Webmasters needed to know more and more about their audiences. What are the information needs and wants of the on-line museum visitors? Are their needs being met? Are they satisfied with the on-line museum experience? Is the museum offering them what they want? As the number of on-line museum visitors grew, the answers to these questions became more and more important - and yet for many of these questions there were no good answers.
This situation placed museum Webmasters in a difficult situation: they found themselves developing extensive on-line offerings despite a critical lack of data about the needs of their on-line visitors (Cunliffe, Kritou, & Tudhope, 2002). Even as late as 1999, three-quarters of art museum Web sites were being designed and developed without the slightest attention paid to the needs and wants of their on-line visitors (Pierroux, 1999). Not understanding these needs meant that it was not possible for museum Webmasters to know whether they were creating sites that actually satisfied the needs of their intended users (Hertzum, 1998). This lack of useful data was not only a nightmare for museum Webmasters, but also a potentially disaster for the on-line museum community as a whole.
One of the disadvantages of not knowing your users is not being able to dispel myths about who they are and what they want. One of the myths faced by museum Webmasters was that visitors to on-line museum Websites would no longer feel compelled to visit physical museums. As museum Webmasters worked to create elaborate Web sites that provided access to a wide variety of museum resources, they faced early opposition from individuals who believed that the on-line world posed a threat to the physical museum (for some information on this phenomenon, refer to McKenzie, 1997; Bowen, Bennet, & Johnson 1998; Bowen, 1999). That this myth took so long to dispel was directly related to the lack of solid data about the needs, activities, and preferences of on-line museum visitors. Recently studies have gathered excellent data showing that visitors to virtual museums are also visitors to physical museums (Kravchyna & Hastings, 2002), and it seems that at last this persistent worry may fade away. Nevertheless, the fear that virtual museums will in some way harm physical installations serves as an excellent example of how incomplete data about on-line visitors can pose a threat to the on-line museum community.
Despite the recent increase in visitor needs assessment studies, the incompleteness of available data about the users of museum Websites remains a serious concern for museum Webmasters. Recent studies have focused on the need for museum Websites to become more user-centered, but they cannot become so until museum Webmasters learn more about the needs and expectations of their on-line visitors (Streten, 2000; Hertzum, 1998). If a museum Website is truly to serve the needs of its on-line audience (an audience that for many museums easily outnumbers their physical visitors), museum Webmasters must have at least as much data about their on-line visitors as museum educators and curators have about their face-to-face visitors. While recent studies have taught us a great deal about the demographics of the on-line visitor (Booth, 1999; Chadwick & Boverie, 1999; Ockuly, 2003), we still have much more to learn about what virtual visitors do, how often, why, when and with whom. To have a successful on-line project, it is important for the museum Webmaster to bring these and all relevant data to the project planning table.
As well, museum Webmasters need to be conversant with theoretical areas such as interface design, human-computer interaction, and usability engineering (Streten, 2000; Cunliffe, Kritou, & Tudhope, 2002). As museum Web sites become more sophisticated, it becomes more important that museum Webmasters be able to evaluate the designs to determine whether they are usable (Garzotto, Matera, & Paolini, 1998; Harms & Schweibenz, 2001). The recent interest in usability evaluations for museum Web sites is a good start (Cleary, 2000; Peacock, 2000; Semper et al, 2000; Arora et al., 2001); nevertheless, museum Webmasters must be encouraged to pursue usability studies with their own sites if museum Websites are truly to meet the needs of the on-line visitor.
As the design of museum Web sites becomes more complex and more interactive, museum Webmasters find themselves needing a broader spectrum of skills: not just technical skills, but analytical abilities to determine user needs as well. The audience could include external museum visitors or internal museum employees, as many museums now use internal intranets to manage their own information resources. It is extremely important that museum Webmasters, who are often charged with the design and management of both intranet and Internet sites, be aware of their representative users at all times and build sites that meet the needs of their users.
The need to know the user has totally changed the job of museum Webmasters. They now spend less time concerned with the technical requirements of creating Web pages and more time dealing with audience analyses, information needs assessments, requirements analyses, and usability evaluations. In this regard, the museum Webmaster is becoming more of an information architect (Dillon, 2002; Rosenfeld & Morville, 2002) or user-centered designer (Landauer, 1997).
The Present: Interviewing Information Professionals in Museums
A museum cannot afford to sustain many programmers and developers. The industry is changing too fast. You want to be able to take a boutique approach to get the skills in when you need them [and] when you want them. The notion that a couple of people who know Web development can keep up with everything in the back office of a museum is ludicrous. It requires elasticity of staffing and a certain collegial critical mass to really keep up with that stuff.
With these words, an information professional currently working in a museum proclaims the death of old-fashioned Web design. This quotation (as well as all the ones that follow) comes from a study conducted by the author in 2003 of twenty-one information professionals working in a museum. This primary goal of this study was to analyze the information literacy skills of information professionals in museums, but since a majority (15 of 21) of the individuals interviewed were either Webmasters themselves (10 of 21) or museum professionals who worked closely with Webmasters on a daily basis (5 of 21), their interviews offer valuable insights into the evolution of museum Webmasters.
The twenty-one information professionals who participated in this study engaged in semi-structured interviews with the author, each lasting approximately one hour. These information professionals held various jobs (including new media specialists, Webmasters, project managers, and CIOs) in different types of museums (from small to large, including cultural heritage, natural history, science, art, and children's museums), and had worked in museums from anywhere from eighteen months to thirty years. The interviews were analyzed using qualitative analysis methods informed by a grounded theory approach. From this analysis comes a picture of the life of the museum Webmaster and the opinion of these individuals about the skills needed by Webmasters in modern museums.
Responsibilities of the Museum Webmaster
According to these interviews, therefore, what does a museum Webmaster do? The following quotations represent several viewpoints on the job of the museum Webmaster.
I manage the [museum's] Website and manage the day-to-day updates and maintenance of the Website, and special projects related to the [museum's] Website, ranging from putting the museum's collections on-line to creating on-line-based marketing materials with our marketing department, a range of things.
I am the technical authority for the museum in matters of the Web site and the materials that go up on the Web. I do some Web production myself, and help others in the museum to do Web production in house. I oversee contractors who we pay to do Web production for us. [...] Part of the job is more of a content manager to help to work with the staff of the museum to develop the perfect content for the Web site, and kind of decide what that is.
I oversee the technical aspects of our Website and also try to set some of the directions for the architecture and usability and the way it presents itself to the outside public.
As Webmaster I have to manage the flow of information from server to workstation, managing and coordinating the review policies and review committees. I also have to do some development for our museum systems. I have to manage our collections information system as it relates to approved Web data from that system. I have to pay attention to administrative tasks, security rules set forth [by the IT office], and I have to do periodic system administration on servers. I have to test products, review products. I sit on several working groups for product assessment [including] digital asset management systems, Web content management systems, collections information systems, and those sorts of things.
Thus the museum Webmaster must be able to do much more than design and build Web pages. This is not to say that technical skills are not important. Every museum Webmaster interviewed emphasized the importance of technology in the job, and stressed the amount of time spent solving technology problems and dealing with other technology issues. Every individual, for example, had a story to tell about improving bandwidth, installing streaming video servers, installing cache servers, scripting pages to allow for more complicated interactivity, or the like. What was clear from the interviews, however, was that the successful museum Webmaster must develop many new skills, some technical, and some not.
Driven to Learn New Skills
The acquisition of some of these skills was made necessary by the industry-wide transition of Web sites (whether museum Web sites or not) from static pages of print-like material to interactive pages driven by new technologies. Not only has this transition required new skills and abilities to cope with new technologies, but it also has required a change in mindset for both museum Webmasters and other museum employees as they grapple with the ramifications of interactivity.
It is a big challenge for [many museum professionals] to understand the difference between publishing for a book, and publishing for a non-linear platform [such as the Web].
When I first came here, I was making the switch between print and Web work. And now I'm trying to learn using databases, ASP, interactive sites, a lot heavier scripting than when I first came here.
Museum Webmasters found themselves acquiring other new skills as technological advances allowed them to automate older, more time-consuming aspects of their jobs. Automation allowed many to free up a significant percentage of their time - time that was quickly consumed by other responsibilities. As the content of Web pages became more dynamic, for example, museum Webmasters found themselves dealing with issues of project management and interpersonal relations more frequently than they faced typical programming challenges.
The biggest part of my job when I first started was updating the calendar. It's gone. I don't do that any more. It's done by an application. The people who own the content for the calendar just go type it into a Web application: it does itself.
There's a tendency to want to build automated tools to decentralize Web development or at least the updating of the Web site. Whereas before, early on in Web development, the Webmaster would be the person who would write all the HTML and somebody would say 'hey I have all this information to post to the Web site' so that would just get written directly into the source code, now what I've seen in my own role and heard from other Web managers that I've talked to is that there is more of a desire to build systems that will give a Web interface that will let people update their own content areas of the Web site. And so I think that that means that my role has to be understanding more broadly what the current and future needs of the departments are going to be so I can build systems that will let them do what they need with their parts of the Web site. I think this means looking farther ahead to some extent and just being a little bit more involved in whatever time this frees up from writing code to try to be a partner in finding new content areas of the Web site and kind of fleshing out what we offer on the Web as opposed to just focusing on the technical side.
A Necessary Change in Attitude
These changes shift the museum Webmaster's focus from inherent self-sufficiency to needing to be able to work with the correct people at the correct time. For many museum Webmasters, the possibilities offered by new technical capabilities came as a bit of a surprise. Understanding the potential of new approaches to Web design, in particular the dynamic nature of content management, took time, and required, among other things, a change in attitude.
This "attitude shift" can be clearly seen in the way other museum Webmasters describe their jobs and how those jobs have changed over time. In particular, the individuals interviewed stressed changes to the way they approached problems they faced on the job, how they began new projects, faced problems, and found solutions.
My job has changed. It used to be more for me about basic updates to the Web site, and there the only information I would need is if there were a coding problem I had a question with and I would have to go out on the Web and find it, and now that's become more about project planning and strategic planning, having the Web there as a resource, as sort of like the boxed library on the desk, has been especially helpful just to see what's out there and as something to kick start ideas.
We don't know the right answer when we start [a Web design project], and maybe even by the time we finish we don't know the right answer, but an awareness of what the options are [...] to research those and try to come to some point of conclusion, having that internally, having that on the museum staff is really important to the way we work, so that we're not dependent on contractors and vendors selling us their solutions instead of looking at what's [...] readily available out there.
The job has developed in a variety of different ways. I think maybe part of the reason for that is that this is such a new field, and where [my job] started as just a Webmaster job initially, and then because of my involvement with some of the software projects for exhibits it expanded to educational technology, and like I said, I think the focus seems to shift depending on what the key projects are at any given time.
Constantly Shifting Job Requirements
These changes are forcing museum Webmasters to concentrate even more on content management in the daily workings of their job than they ever did before. The practice of design and the skills of the Web developer are shifting from the more technical level of computer programming to the more conceptual level of information architecture.
Design is becoming less and less of the powerhouse it was in the early days of the Web [...] those skills are less important than the overall architecting of the Web site, which is the much harder skill.
[I succeeded because] I knew how to handle information. Forget about the technology. Anybody can learn the technology. It's a lot more difficult to learn information.
This shift in the nature of the museum Webmaster job, combined with the ability to automate previous job responsibilities, has even inspired some museum Webmasters to write themselves out of a job (a circumstance that they describe as "exciting").
There's a certain level of excitement over the ability to be able to do something once and really reuse that so that the next time around you can spend more time doing something more interesting. One of the things we're always trying to do is take the boring parts of our jobs and automate them, so that we never have to do them again. And to be perfectly honest I think I've written myself out of a job maybe four times since I've been here.
Writing oneself out a job, as in this example, is not seen by museum Webmasters as a bad thing at all. By relieving themselves of some of the tedium of Web design, they are allowed to focus on new applications, new principles, and new areas of interest. The mere fact that they can write themselves out of a job shows the changing expectations of their clientele, both outside and inside the museum, and reflects the increased support provided to the museum Webmaster in order to meet these expectations.
People expect things to be bigger, faster, flashier, and more interactive. That's pretty much been the trend I've seen going on.
[Our IT department] has gotten so much support that we have been able to get involved in everything. The more we reach out, the more people expect higher quality, and more inclusion [of the IT department] in projects.
Constantly Changing Expectations
In many ways, these changing expectations are due to a growing demand for Web projects from both museum visitors and museum employees.
The demand is always growing, at least is has been for the past five years. […] People are starting to rely on [the IT department] more, and as we face budget cuts and as we face restrictions on what we can do in other places, instead of printing a brochure, people might think 'let's put that on-line instead' and so our demand has gone up.
Even very small, very focused museums are branching out and putting things on the Web as an outreach program. We in our museum find that a lot of our visitors go to the Web first for information about where we are, and hours, and programs, and things like that. So I think as the general population learns to go to the Web pages instead of the yellow pages for more information then museums are forced to have a Web presence and to pay a lot of attention to what it looks like and how it works.
Five years ago we went around looking for people to put things on the Website, now we have a list that reaches out almost a year with people with requests for the Website. […] [Back then] the time horizon for a new project was about two weeks. Now we're looking at about a year. If you came to me with a brand new idea, and we thought it was a perfectly good idea, we might get to it in a year.
These expectations reflect changes in how museum professionals think about the importance of on-line offerings. As the value of the on-line museum becomes more and more obvious, the museum Webmaster is more likely to assume a position of importance.
People in our museum at least are really catching up, in maybe not skills but mode of thinking, to the relative importance of the on-line offerings. And when I say relative importance, what I mean is comparing numbers of people that come to the Website vs. that come to the physical museum. […] There is some recognition that this is really important.
Meeting New Demands
To meet these new demands and face these changing expectations, the museum Webmaster must become involved in nearly all aspects of museum operations. The key to successful Web design is early integration of the museum Webmaster into the project development lifecycle. If integration is to work, then two things must happen. First, other museum employees must learn more about the role of the museum Webmaster, and understand the role of the museum Webmaster in the successful implementation of many different types of museum projects.
There's an awareness of some of the things that are possible, but not an awareness of the environment it is all happening in, not an awareness of the surrounding issues. We find it always kind of our responsibility to make people aware of some of those things as ideas come up. Our role is definitely a two way role. There are very few projects that come in [to the IT department] and get finished without some modification, without some bit of added insight or added perspective from our viewpoint, being the people who are really familiar with the technology.
Secondly, museum Webmasters must acquire the ability to work well with others on a variety of projects. This includes working with other employees within the museum and other individuals outside the museum, from on-line visitors to subcontractors.
[When we got email and the Internet] that revolutionized how the interoffice workings worked and also how we dealt with the outside world.
[My job is to] run and administrate the Web server. There are approximately thirty other people who do design work for our site, and so I also manage [the uploading of their work] and help them with they have problems.
My whole job is basically deciding what to put on the net and how to put it on the net. I don't do the programming. We subcontract the programmers, and I call the programmers, and say, 'Can you make it do this?', and they say, 'Yes', and I say, 'Well, can you make it do that?', and they say 'No, but we can make it do this instead.'
Museum Webmasters already have experience working with on-line museum visitors, as many Webmasters are already the first line of contact for people e-mailing the museum, requesting assistance or information (cf. Gaia, 2001).
[As Webmaster] I have a public role in dealing with e-mail. All kinds of stuff comes into the Webmaster. I'm the first contact point for people who ask a lot of questions. So I feel that I have a public role as that first contact point as I get all that e-mail that comes in: general questions, crazy questions, good questions, all kinds of things, and the first line of defense there, that role has a bit of a PR slant to it.
Working as Information Professionals
Successfully working with others to design and develop information management projects means learning skills that are much more difficult than simple technological know-how. Figuring out what needs to be done is usually more challenging than figuring out how to do it technologically.
[As part of project planning,] we sat down and spoke for a half hour to an hour, and I took notes about what kinds of data she keeps, what kinds she needs to additional keep that she isn't able to right now, what she would need, what kind of reports she would need, things like that. And then I went back and put together as best as I could what I thought she had agreed to, and they I go back and show her and she says 'no, instead of this I need that changed to that' and then I tweak it and then I go back and there is an iterative process that we go through where she reviews it and we make changes and review those changes.
You need to be able to receive the requirements given to you and be able to query and find out in more detail what the real requirements are. A lot of time people think they are telling you what they need, but you need to be able to probe it to find out really what's underneath that. I think the requirements gathering for specific needs is the most challenging part of any information job.
In developing these skills, the museum Webmaster is taking a huge step on the road to becoming a true information professional in the museum. The museum Webmaster is rapidly becoming the one individual who has not only the technical skills to get the job done, but also the practice and experience needed for working with all walks of users to satisfy constantly changing needs and expectations.
Users of today's museum Web sites expect to find the best state of the art, interactive multimedia technologies when they visit a museum's Web site. As these expectations evolve and become more elaborate, Webmasters will need skills in requirements capture, needs assessment, survey data analysis, interaction design, and usability evaluation. Only then will they build sites that truly satisfy the needs of the museum's on-line visitors.
The Future: The Museum Webmaster and User Advocacy
[In the future,] technology is just going to be a stepping stone; people will be experts at technology and interface design or human-computer interaction, or people will be specialists in technology and education, or [...] I could go on and on, but different aspects where technology is a means to an end and not the end itself.
One of the main problems with predicting the future of the museum Webmaster is that no one seems to have a clear idea of where the museum Webmaster belongs in any given museum hierarchy. Should the Webmaster be part of a standalone IT department or integrated within some other section of the museum, such as the education department, administration, or perhaps new media? Each museum seems to take a different approach
Perhaps the problem is that the Webmaster has traditionally been seen as a neutral occupation. For most museums, the Webmaster occupies a unique, perhaps hallowed, spot, working with other museum employees or departments to develop content for on-line dissemination. The museum Webmaster position, by definition, crosses intra-institutional boundaries and defies simple categorization. This must end. If the modern museum is to meet the demands of its on-line audience, the museum Webmaster can no longer afford to remain neutral.
If the museum Website is to function in the future, the museum Webmaster will have to become extremely biased in one particular direction – toward the user. The museum Webmaster must become the user's advocate. The museum Webmaster is most likely the employee best suited to become an information professional with the necessary skills to interpret user needs and ensure the museum's on-line offerings actually meet those needs. The user typically has no voice within the museum; therefore, someone must argue from the user's perspective. If ever the needs of the users are threatened, it will likely be the museum Webmaster who must forsake neutrality and argue the user's case.
The museum Webmaster must become the user-centered mediator between the museum and its on-line users. As the user's advocate, the museum Webmaster must perform this role for multiple users with different information needs. For everyone from on-line visitors searching collection databases over the Internet to internal museum employees looking for important documents on the museum's intranet, information must be readily available.
Future museum Webmasters, already in the front line and used to interacting with on-line visitors, will position themselves as the user's advocates for good usability as well as for appropriate data.. They will ensure, as much as humanly possible, that each individual user has the most successful on-line interaction with the museum's available resources. But they will not be able to do this alone.
Even the most talented and capable museum Webmaster, fervently driven by the desire to support the user's needs, will need the support of the museum's administration if the fight for user rights is not to be in vain. Museum directors must understand that information technology is not an end in and of itself, and that a successful IT implementation depends not so much on having the latest, greatest technology as it does on assessing, analyzing, and meeting user needs. The principles of user-centered design, while powerful, need to be supported by individuals in positions of authority. As they enter the complicated world of information architecture and information technology management, museum Webmasters need to be given the authority to make their sites usable and ensure that the on-line museum continues to meet user needs.
Conclusion: Where to Turn for Help
This paper has argued that the museum Webmaster in the future must assume a role of user advocate. Museums that do not consider this important will be left behind in the information society. If the on-line museum is to survive in the 21st Century, the Web site's intended users must gain stature as the site's primary customers. By developing skills, expertise, and experience in working with users in on-line settings, the museum Webmaster is ideally positioned to become the user's advocate.
The author wishes to make one final suggestion. Any museum Webmaster who needs help fighting for the rights of the user should consider seeking assistance from Schools of Library and Information Science, institutions which for years have led the way in user studies. LIS faculty are experts in conducting user-oriented research, and they specialize in training information professionals whose primary concern is the user. Now is the time for museums to form collaborations with the LIS community to explore the best ways of ensuring that museum on-line resources actually meet the needs of museum on-line audiences. Such collaborations would benefit all involved parties, and are perhaps the best way of ensuring that the museum Website of the future will remain both usable and relevant for the museum's on-line clientele.
Adams, C., T. Cole, C. DePaolo, & S. Edwards (2001). Bringing the curatorial process to the Web. In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.), Museums and the Web 2001 (pp. 11-22). Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2001/papers/depaolo/depaola.html
Arora, R., T. Cofino, C. Karat, J. Karat, et al. (2001) "Less clicking, more watching": results from user-centered design of a multi-institutional Web site for art and culture. In Bearman, D. & J. Trant, (Eds.) Museums and the Web 2001. Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2001/papers/vergo/vergo.html
Bearman, D. (1994). Strategies for cultural heritage information standards in a networked world. Archives and Museum Informatics, 8(2), 93-106.
Bearman, D. & J. Trant (2000). Special Issue on Museum Informatics. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 51(10).
Bennett, N. & B.Trofanenko (2002). Digital primary source materials in the classroom. In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.), Museums and the Web 2002 (pp. 149-156). Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2002/papers/bennett/bennett.html
Besser, H. (1997). The transformation of the museum and the way it's perceived. In K. Jones-Garmil (Ed.), The wired museum: Emerging technology and changing paradigms (pp. 153-170). Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums.
Booth, B. (1999). Understanding the information needs of visitors to museums. Museum Management and Curatorship, 17(2), 139-157.
Bowen, J. (1997). The virtual library museum pages: whence and wither? In Bearman, D. & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web 1997 (pp. 9-25). Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. http://www.museophile.sbu.ac.uk/pub/jpb/mw97.pdf
Bowen, J. (1999). Time for renovations: a survey of museum Web sites. In Bearman, D. & Trant, J. (Eds.) Museums and the Web 1999 (pp. 163-174). Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw99/papers/bowen/bowen.html
Bowen, J., J. Bennet, & J. Johnson (1998). Virtual visits to virtual museums. In Bearman, D. & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web 1998. Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw98/papers/bowen/bowen_paper.html
Cameron, F. (2001). World of Museums: Wired Collections—The Next Generation. Museum Management and Curatorship. 19 (3), 309-315.
Chadwick, J. & P. Boverie (1999). A survey of characteristics and patterns of behavior in visitors to a museum Web site. In Bearman, D. & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web 1999 (pp.154-162). Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw99/papers/chadwick/chadwick.html
Cleary, Y. (2000). The impact of subjective cultural issues on the usability of a localized Web site: the Louvre Museum Web site. In Bearman, D. & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web 2000 (pp. 153-162). Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2000/papers/cleary/cleary.html
Cunliffe, D., E. Kritou, & D. Tudhope (2002). Usability Evaluation for Museum Websites. Museum Management and Curatorship. 19 (3): 229-252.
Dillon, A. (2002). Special Issue on Information Architecture. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 53 (10).
Douma, M., & M. Henchman (2000). Bringing the object to the viewer: Multimedia techniques for the scientific study of art. In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.), Museums and the Web 2000 (pp. 59-64). Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2000/papers/doumahenchman/doumahenchman.html
Frost, C. O. (2001). Engaging museums, content specialists, educators, and information specialists: A model and examples. In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.), Museums and the Web 2001 (pp. 177-188). Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2001/papers/frost/frost.html
Gaia, G. (2001). Towards a Virtual Community. In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.), Museums and the Web 2001. Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2001/papers/gaia/gaia.html
Galani, A., & M. Chalmers (2002). Can You See Me? Exploring Co-Visiting Between Physical and Virtual Visitors. In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.), Museums and the Web 2002 (pp. 31-40). Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2002/papers/galani/galani.html
Garzotto, F., M. Matera, & P. Paolini (1998). To use or not to use? Evaluating usability of museum Web sites. In Bearman, D. & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web 1998. Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw98/papers/garzotto/garzotto_paper.html
Gillard, P. (2002). Cruising through history wired. In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.), Museums and the Web 2002. Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2002/papers/gillard/gillard.html
Gladney, H., Mintzer, F., Schiattarella, F., Bescos, J., & Treu, M. (1998). Digital access to antiquities. Communications of the ACM, 41(4), 49-57.
Harms, I. & W. Schweibenz (2001). Evaluating the usability of a museum Web site. In Bearman, D. & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web 2001. Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2001/papers/schweibenz/schweibenz.html
Hermann, G. (1997). Shortcuts to Oz: Strategies and tactics for getting museums to the emerald city. In K. Jones-Garmil (Ed.), The wired museum: Emerging technology and changing paradigms (pp. 65-92). Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums.
Hertzum, M. (1998). A review of museum Websites: in search of user-centered design. Archives and Museum Informatics. 12: 127-138.
Jones-Garmil, K. (1997). The Wired Museum: Emerging Technology and Changing Paradigms. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums.
Kravchyna, V. & S. Hastings (2002). Informational Value of Museum Web Sites. First Monday, 7 (2). Available online: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue7_2/kravchyna/index.html
Landauer, T. (1997). The trouble with computers: usefulness, usability, and productivity. MIT Press, Cambridge MA
Marty, P., B. Rayward, & M. Twidale (2003). Museum Informatics. In Cronin, B. (Ed.), Annual Review of Information Science and Technology. 37, 259-294.
McKenzie, J. (1997). Building a Virtual Museum Community. In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.), Museums and the Web 1997 (pp. 77-91). Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics.
Mintzer, F., G. Braudaway, F. Giordano, et al. (2001). Populating the Hermitage Museum's new Web site. Communications of the ACM, 44(8), 52-60.
Moen, W. (1998). Accessing distributed cultural heritage information. Communications of the ACM, 41(4), 45-48.
Ockuly, J. (2003). What clicks? An interim report on audience research. In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.), Museums and the Web 2003. Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2003/papers/ockuly/ockuly.html
Paolini, P., T. Barbieri, P. Loiudice, et al. (2000). Visiting a museum together? How to share a visit to a virtual world. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 51(10), 33-38. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2000/papers/barbieri/barbieri.html
Peacock (2002). Statistics, Structures & Satisfied Customers: Using Web log data to improve site performance. In Bearman, D. & J. Trant. (Eds.) Museums and the Web 2002. Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2002/papers/peacock/peacock.html
Perkins, J. (2001). A new way of making cultural information resources visible on the Web: Museums and the open archive initiative. In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.), Museums and the Web 2001 (pp. 87-92). Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2001/papers/perkins/perkins.html
Pierroux, P. (1999). Art in networks: information and communication technology in art museums. Available online: http://www.media.uio.no/internettiendring/publikasjoner/tekst/Pierroux/02Contents.html
Rayward, W. B., & M. Twidale (2000). From docent to cyberdocent: Education and guidance in the virtual museum. Archives & Museum Informatics, 13, 23-53.
Rosenfeld, L. & P. Morville (2002). Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. O'Reilly Press.
Sayre, S. (2000). Sharing the experience: the building of a successful on-line/onsite exhibition. In Bearman, D. & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web 2000 (pp. 13-20). Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2000/papers/sayre/sayre.html
Semper, R., N. Wanner, R. Jackson & M. Bazley (2000) Who's Out There? A Pilot User Study of Educational Web Resources by the Science Learning Network (SLN). In Bearman, D. & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web 2000 (pp. 179-200). Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2000/papers/semper/semper.html
Schwarzer, M. (2001). Art and gadgetry: the future of the museum visit. Museum News, July/August, 36-41.
Schweibenz, W. (1998). The virtual museum: New perspective for museums to present objects and information using the internet as a knowledge base and communication system. In H. Zimmerman & V. Schramm (Eds.), Knowledge management und kommunikationssysteme. (pp. 185-200). Konstanz: UKV. Available online: http://www.phil.uni-sb.de/fr/infowiss/projekte/virtualmuseum/virtual_museum_ISI98.htm
Streten, K. (2000). Honored guests: towards a visitor centered Web experience. In Bearman, D. & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web 2000. Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2000/papers/streten/streten.html
Teather, L. & K. Wilhelm (1999). Web musing: evaluating museums on the Web from learning theory to museology. In Bearman, D. & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web 1999. Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics. Available online: http://www.archimuse.com/mw99/papers/teather/teather.html