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published: March 2004
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Museums and the Web 2003 Papers

One Site Fits All: Balancing Priorities At Tate Online

Jemima Rellie, Tate, UK



Tate Online is Tate's 5th gallery. The aim of Tate Online, as with the organisation as a whole, is to increase public awareness, understanding and appreciation of art. Tate Online currently attracts in excess of 2 million visitors a year, and independent analysis confirms it is the most popular UK art Web site. Visitors to the site are diverse (comprising artists, students, academics, members, patrons, tourists, job applicants, journalists and government officials) and have distinct information needs. Almost every department across Tate now contributes content to Tate Online, targeting different audiences in different ways. Planning is fundamental to the successful development of the site, and is taken forward by the centrally located Digital Programmes department. As part of this planning, we have identified and communicated the key areas for focus over the next 3-5 years, and are beginning to profile and target better the different audience groups the organisation is endeavouring to attract. This paper will suggest some of the methods we are employing to balance the demands, in an effort to ensure that both visitor numbers and visitor satisfaction increase in line with Tate's overall objectives.

Keywords: Tate Online, art, museums, internet, management, priorities

Introduction to Tate

Tate has a dual role as the national Collection of British art and as the national Collection of International modern art and is one of the great public museums of the United Kingdom. It is made up of six sites, established in the following order: Tate Britain (London, 1897), Tate Liverpool (1988), Tate St Ives (1993), Tate Store (1994), Tate Online (www.tate.org.uk 1988) (See fig. 1), and Tate Modern (London, 2000). Tate's central aim is to create public awareness, understanding and appreciation of British art from the sixteenth century to the present day, and of international modern and contemporary art. The organisation cares for over 5,800 unique paintings and sculptures, as well as more works on paper, and the Turner Bequest - a total of over 60,000 artworks. Tate not only preserves and displays this internationally significant Collection, but also provides a range of educational and interpretation resources and activities for visitors of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. Its activities span across the areas of education, conservation, research, publication, exhibition and acquisition projects.

Tate home page

Figure 1: Tate Online January 2004 http://www.tate.org.uk

History of Tate Online

Tate.org.uk has always been the primary on-line destination for all information about the organisation. From its launch, the site offered an on-line catalogue of the Tate Collection (with several thousand illustrated works), full information about each offline gallery, and details about the imminent expansion of Tate Britain and the development of Tate Modern. The original Web site provided information on displays and special exhibitions, tours, talks, films, conferences and courses, sponsorship opportunities and membership, mail order from the Tate shop, and an 'Art Forum' and 'Visitors Book'. A sole Web editor working three days a week and located in the Communications department maintained this information. At this time Tate also embarked on a massive digitisation programme. This programme, called Insight, was supported by lottery funding (http://www.hlf.org.uk, http://www.nof.org.uk) and would result in virtual access to the entire Collection within five years.

A substantial redesign of the Tate's Web site was undertaken in March 2000, by Nykris. This overhaul coincided with the opening of Tate Modern, the extension of Tate Britain, as well as the launch of the new Tate brand developed by Wolff Olins (http://www.wolff-olins.com). It was accompanied by the launch of the webcasting programme, initially centered on Tate Modern's adult public programmes. The year 2000 also saw the development of an e-business joint venture with the MoMA (http://www.moma.org) called Muse, intended according to the press release to create an independent for-profit e-business that would establish the premier destination on the internet for individuals to access, understand, and purchase the best in modern art, design, and culture'. It was an undeniably ambitious initiative, determined to draw on 'the museums' unrivalled collections and intellectual capital to expand the global audience for modern art, design, and culture'. Although a Muse site never actually materialized, the project focused Tate's attention on the viable opportunities internet technologies offer the organisation to fulfill its central remit.

2001 saw the first sponsorship of the Web site by BT and its public branding as Tate Online. The organisations' ambitions for Tate Online were explicitly stated in the business plan from this year, which stated that the Web site should 'function as a sixth site for Tate, featuring a distinct and identifiable programme, appropriate to the medium'. BT's sponsorship of Tate Online facilitated the establishment of a dedicated central team to lead the development of the site. This new team was called Digital Programmes and reported to the Director of International and National Programmes. It assumed responsibility for setting high-level strategy and coordinating the delivery of Tate's public-facing digital content. One of its key roles is to ensure that the sum of cross-Tate initiatives in this area is maximized. Another is to ensure that Tate's Web site is developed as a destination in its own right. In April, 2003, BT renewed its sponsorship of Tate Online, providing a further £2,000,000 worth of support over the next three years.

Tate's attention over the past two years has moved beyond the digitisation of the core Collection to providing additional contextual information for virtual visitors. Richer, more immersive resources have been created to support the broader education, exhibition and display programmes, and a series of net art projects has been commissioned exclusively for viewing online. A further interesting development is the attempt to facilitate discourse both with and among visitors (for instance, with the Turner Prize forums), and to solicit visitor help in the creation and delivery of content (for instance, in the request for stories and opinions to populate the microsite that accompanies Olafur Eliasson's Weather Project).

Tate Online Now

The number of visitors to Tate.org.uk has more than trebled in just over two years. Over 333,000 unique visitors were logged in October 2003 (compared with 109,000 in September 2001), and the site witnessed an 85% increase year on year in December 2003. Assuming this pace of growth is sustained, Tate Online should expect to receive over 1 million unique visitors in October 2006 alone.

rising numbers of unique visitors over the last two years

Figure 2: Unique visitors to Tate Online since hosted at BT]

According to independent analysts Hitwise, Tate Online is consistently the top UK art site, relinquishing its number one spot for the few weeks in the year when BBC i-arts hosts The Big Read - the national poll to identify the UK's favourite books. This impressive record has only been possible because Tate has for some time recognised that the Web site is an essential component in the organisation's future and remains committed to cultivating Tate Online as a leading 21st century arts site, in its own right.

Driving traffic from the Web site to the offline galleries is one of the most important goals of Tate Online, but the Web site now serves a variety of functions above and beyond ticket sales and footfall. It simultaneously serves as a wide-reaching communications tool, an extensive resource for information on British and Modern International art, and an innovative, engaging entertainment channel. Visitors to Tate Online include artists, students, academics, members, patrons, tourists, journalists, government officials and job applicants. According to survey responses collected in June 2003, 66% of these people are from the UK, 11% from the USA and the rest from countries that include Albania, Fiji, Lebanon, Paraguay and the UAE. Note that 19% have never visited an offline Tate gallery, 35% visit Tate Online at least once a month, and 45% are first time visitors to the Website.

The impact of Tate Online on the organisation as a whole should not be underestimated. It is now broadly accepted that museums are no longer solely about collecting and preserving cultural artefacts, but also act as important forums for learning and cultural exchange. The unique and now very familiar characteristics of the internet ('always open', 'highly flexible', provides 'limitless space'), suit it to a central role in the ever-evolving relationship between visitors, the Collection and the offline galleries. Today, Tate Online is highly dynamic with regular, daily content updates communicating with the full range of offline and on-line visitors to the organisation. Most Tate departments now contribute content to Tate Online, and there is no shortage of excellent ideas on how the offering can be further improved and supplemented. The amount of content has increased exponentially over the last five years, and shows no sign of abating.

The inevitable result of this proliferation of ideas for digital developments is conflicting demands for limited resources. The biggest ongoing issue now facing Tate Online is how best to tackle this conflict while ensuring that both visitor numbers and visitor satisfaction increase in line with Tate's overall objectives. Various tactics have been employed in an attempt to stay on this course, including most significantly:

  1. The creation of and adherence to a shared set of objectives
  2. The adoption of guidelines and devolved content management
  3. Visitor profiling and site analysis, and
  4. A re-assessment of the overarching strategy for Tate Online.

These and other tactics have been initiated at Tate, but work is ongoing in all cases. The rest of this paper will describe what is involved in making use of these methods and any interesting findings that we have encountered in the process.

The Creation Of And Adherence To A Shared Set Of Objectives

Tate as an organisation takes planning very seriously. All teams are asked to review and submit their departmental plans on a yearly basis, and Digital Programmes is no exception. Each winter, the Digital Programmes team reviews the overarching objectives for all Tate's cross-platform public facing digital content, and more specifically for its primary distribution channel: Tate Online. These core objectives are crucial in informing the priorities for Tate Online and are communicated within the organisation in an effort to ensure that all developments on the site are orchestrated within a shared vision. The core objectives have not changed radically since their inception, but the process of regularly reviewing them does serve to focus and refine developments. The current iterations are elaborated below in order to better indicate their relevance.

1. Increase access to Tate's Collection and Programmes

First, this objective is about enticing more people more regularly to the offline galleries by both increasing the levels and improving the targeting of on-line marketing. Initiatives such as Explore Tate Modern (which provides an interactive map of the displays to facilitate planning a trip), along with microsites (such as the Warholiser), and the monthly communications e-bulletins have all proved successful in this respect.

Secondly, the objective means improving the offering to visitors at the offline galleries, by providing increased access to digital content via handheld computers and kiosks. The research and development into multimedia PDA tours at Tate Modern, as well the increase in use of site-specific interactives, such as Turner's Gallery or the touch-screen sketchbooks displayed at the Turner in Venice exhibition, both at Tate Britain, are examples of a growing interest in the use of new technologies to improve the in-gallery visitor experience.

Thirdly, the objective relates to on-line visits in their own right. It involves increasing the number of visitors to the Web site as well as the amount of time people spend on arrival, engaging with the Collection and programmes. Obvious existing initiatives that meet this objective are: the ongoing development of the Collections section (which currently accounts for roughly 30% of all visitors to Tate Online); an increasing focus on e-learning content which provides a more structured opportunity to engage with Tate's works; and the continued investment in the Web casting programme which enables people to attend Tate conferences and seminars from any location with internet access, at a time that suits them.

It should be noted, however, that this aspect of the objective cannot simply be met by creating ever more digital content, but rather must also be understood to mean improving the quality of the content already available. Tate is committed to improving accessibility to all content at the Web site by adhering to government guidelines and where possible developing bespoke content for the socially excluded.

2. Broaden, expand and diversify Tate's audience, both real and virtual

The second objective states that Tate's digital programmes should not simply focus on a general increase in visitor numbers to the organisation, but should also take advantage of the opportunities new media provide to encourage new audiences to engage with Tate's activities. The objective is achieved by targeting under-represented audiences with specific and relevant content, intended to stimulate an interest in art. Existing successful efforts in this respect include: the promotion of Tate Online on 5,000 BT Vans; the ground-breaking iMap project focusing on works by Matisse and Picasso and developed specifically for the visually impaired; the creation of e-learning content around Sonia Boyce's display at Tate Modern From Tarzan to Rambo which explored issues of race and identity; and the recently launched two-year on-line course, Introduction to Modern and Contemporary Art.

3. Function as a fifth site for Tate, featuring a distinct and identifiable programme appropriate to the medium

The three key strands around which distinct programming are currently developed for Tate Online are e-learning, net art and the Collection.

E-learning: 21% of visitors to Tate Online in June 2003 gave e-learning as their reason for visiting. This statistic combined with the clear seasonal trends in visitor numbers suggests that Tate is already attracting a significant learning-driven audience. Furthermore, the audience for on-line learning is certain to grow in the UK in parallel with government initiatives such as Curriculum Online and Culture Online and the rollout of broadband to schools. In 2003 Tate hired its first e-learning curator, charged with developing a cross-site e-learning strategy, intended to ensure that future initiatives in this area are not simply opportunistic, and that the key audiences interested in on-line education are both identified and catered to. All e-learning projects are currently based around but not limited to the Collection and existing educational programmes. Importantly, the initiatives are designed to be self-contained, and do not rely on the ability of the audience to visit the offline galleries.

Net art: The internet has developed in parallel with concepts of globalisation, the communication age and the information age, and is integral to their definitions. If Tate's job is not only to rethink the past, but also to celebrate what is most vital and relevant now, then the internet cannot be ignored as a valid location and focus for artistic practice. In fact, net art fits well into post-1960 curatorial debates about the death of the object, the erosion of media hierarchies, the expanded field and conceptual art. Tate has now displayed net art on a few occasions, including in the Tate Modern pre-opening programme and at Tate Britain as part of the Art Now series. A small programme of net art commissions has also been initiated at Tate Online. The six Tate Online commissions to date are Uncomfortable Proximity (2000) Graham Harwood, Les Match des Couleurs (2000) Simon Patterson, Borderxing Guide (2002) Heath Bunting, Tate in Space (2002) Susan Collins, blessed-bandwidth.net (2003) Shilpa Gupta, and AgoraXchange (2004) Natalie Bookchin and Jacqueline Stevens. Critical texts are commissioned to accompany each of the Tate Online net art commissions, intended to encourage a broader audience to engage with the practice. Education and events are developed to accompany these projects, and take advantage of Tate's network of sites.

The Collection: The internet is unique and arguably unsurpassed in its ability to display the Collection. Now that Tate has digitised and made its entire Collection available on-line, the organization is exploring what further information visitors would like and increasingly expect to find alongside the images. Some interesting recent initiatives in this respect include much of the work the Insight team has delivered: digitising strands from the Tate archive; collating all Turner's works worldwide to display them alongside Tate's Collection at Tate Online; and experimenting with the use of richer technologies to represent works in 3D.

In addition, all content pertaining to Tate's Collection in the TATE magazine is now re-purposed for on-line distribution; work is underway to digitise texts from past Collection catalogues; a hypertext glossary is in development, defining terms used and intended to complement the Collection subject search; and two new sections of the Web site are soon to launch, dedicated to Tate's academic research and conservation work.

4. Promote and enhance organisational efficiency

As well as serving the general public, Tate Online also serves business-related audiences including journalists, museum professionals and job applicants. The UK directive that all government services should be delivered 'electronically, and in a customer-focused way' by 2005, suggests that the administrative functions of the Tate Web site will, like other areas, continue to increase. Recent improvements in this area include the on-line sale of memberships, membership renewals, ticket sales, monthly mailing lists, custom print sales and licensing requests. Work is underway to develop an improved on-line press office; share research findings and Collection-related processes; supply more corporate governance information on-line; integrate the various registration systems currently provided across the site; and ensure all content is appropriately listed on the most popular search engines.

5. Generate revenue to support future Tate activities

Tate Online offers a number of opportunities for revenue generation. The shop is profitable if not booming; gift-membership sales rocketed in the run-up to Christmas 2003; and in-house on-line ticketing goes from strength-to-strength. Some events are now sold only on-line, such the PJ Harvey concert at Tate Modern (2003) where over 200 tickets were sold within half an hour of being released, with all commission from the sales going to Tate.

The longer-term vision is to enable cross-selling off the back of these initiatives, so for instance an exhibition catalogue might be offered at the on-line point-of-sale for the associated exhibition ticket. Consideration is now also being given as to whether all digital content at Tate Online can always be offered free. Content syndication, micro-payments, and an e-membership scheme all remain possibilities for the mid-to-longer term, but will be entered into only if they enable Tate to meet visitor demands for additional content and services that cannot be otherwise funded.

6. Facilitate new partnerships to improve the range of content and services offered

A number of mutually beneficial partnerships have already been formed around Tate Online, not least with BT (http://www.bt.com) who provide both cash and technical expertise, with Groveart (http://www.groveart.com) who supply artist biographies, with Historyworld (http://www.historyworld.net ) who use Tate thumbnails in return for traffic, and with the development of the Tate@BBC site. Further partnerships will be explored and established as long as the opportunities to develop digital content around Tate activities continues to outstrip current in-house resources to deliver such opportunities.

The Adoption of Guidelines and Devolved Content Management

Digital Programmes act as the gatekeeper to Tate Online, and provides quality assurance for all content and services found at the site, irrespective of whether the content is developed by Digital Programmes itself, another Tate department, a freelancer or a third party vendor. All content is subjected to the same set of standards and guidelines. A high-level checklist has been compiled to alert contributors to the most fundamental issues and is supplemented by detailed information pertaining to copyright, usability, accessibility, branding, style and implementation. Standards and guidelines are distributed via Tate's intranet.

As indicated, Tate Online has evolved both quickly and to a degree organically and as a result not all the necessary standards and guidelines are yet in place. Furthermore, as new technologies and their uses continue to evolve, so too will all these standards and guidelines need to be reviewed and updated. More work is also needed to communicate existing standards and guidelines better, and ensure that they are adopted as soon as any public-facing digital content production is considered. This will become ever more pressing as the number of distinct contributions that are made to Tate Online increases.

Aside from wholly new contributions, requests for content updates and additions also remain on the increase. Many of these requests are relatively straightforward because they are formulaic and vary little from one occasion to the next. The use of two full-time Web editors to perform these simple tasks is not the optimum use of their skills and reduces the time they have to focus on the development of richer content. Publishing tools have already been developed for some key, frequently updated areas of the site to eliminate the need for the direct involvement of the Web editors. These tools are currently restricted to the Collection, Shop and Ticketing sections of the site. The most regularly updated content in these sections is now managed directly by the owners of that content, who sit within the Collection, Enterprises and Ticketing divisions.

Further pockets of content which will benefit from similar tools have been identified. These include press releases, job applications, e-mail marketing bulletins and events listings. Tate has recently purchased a license for a content management system (Rhythmix by Percussion) and will be extending its use to these sections of the site over the coming months. The Web editors will remain responsible for creating the basic templates for these areas and for providing quality assurance and support as needed for content creation. The use of guidelines and devolved content management should give them more time to focus on the overall consistency and improvement of the site as well as the development of new content areas and services.

Visitor Profiling and Site Analysis

Some in-house analysis and evaluation is conducted on Tate Online, but this is an area where again, we realise we would benefit from being more sophisticated. High-level quantitative analysis is already regularly undertaken to understand better usage patterns and spot areas where improvements to the visitor experience can be made. A combination of tools is used, including Webtrends (Tate Online logfiles analysis), Crystal Reports (to represent e-commerce activities), and Hitwise (providing competitive analysis based on UK ISP data). This quantitative analysis has been supplemented with high-level qualitative research into visitor attitudes and needs, undertaken through both on-line and in-gallery surveys as well as visitor feedback (some of which is carried out in-house, some by Red Sheriff, and some by MEW). While this is a great start, we now recognise a need for more in-depth analysis, focused on more specific content areas and audiences and executed over time.

In parallel with this more focused analysis, a series of three comprehensive reports are being commissioned to help evaluate Tate Online and direct developments. First, a consultant has been commissioned to conduct a survey of the on-line activities of Tate's national and international peer group. The survey will concentrate on the museum sector but include other relevant organisations offering art related content on-line. The objectives are to create a snapshot of current on-line activities and to identify and comment on relevant ideas and trends. Secondly, an audit of all the content and services currently offered at Tate Online is to be conducted. The site has grown considerably over the last few years, and many of the developments have to a lesser or greater degree been opportunistic. The time has now come to map and evaluate these efforts in an attempt to determine the fate both of sections and pages, and to define better the structure and usability of the site as we move forward. Thirdly, an external agency is being commissioned to audit and document Tate Online in terms of its accessibility. The Digital Programmes team is aware that Tate Online is not as accessible as it might be and are keen to get existing issues documented so they can be systematically fixed.

A Re-Assessment of the Overarching Strategy

Digital Programmes is Tate's newest department, and like Tate Online it has changed considerably since it was established. Four new posts have been created, including a second Web editor, a team administrator, an e-learning curator and a developer. These posts join the existing Web editor, the Web casting curator, a Collections content curator, a senior digital content manager, and myself, the head of department. The Digital Programmes department is not responsible for creating all the content at Tate Online, but it is responsible for pulling it all together in a way that is consistent with the objectives of both the organisation as well as the Tate brand. The department's growth has been critical to the development of Tate Online and has signalled a continued increase in Tate's investment in the use of digital technology to engage more effectively existing and new audiences. In order to continue to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded by digital technologies, I believe it is important that Tate further increase its investment in this area, in parallel with the site growth, use and funding opportunities.

Tate Online has now existed for six years, and both director- and trustee-level discussions are planned to evaluate the options and determine its future. These discussion will make use of the reports mentioned above, but will also be based on the findings of a series of internal, cross-departmental meetings that are underway to debate future focus areas. The subjects and key issues for debate are:

  • Galleries: Is there any further content being created at other Tate sites that should be re-purposed for Tate Online? What content is currently available at Tate Online that should be made readily available within the bricks and mortar galleries via handhelds and kiosks? What are the site-specific needs for in-gallery displays and how might these relate to Tate Online?
  • Collections and Research: Now that Tate has digitised its Collection, what is next? Should Tate be filling in the gaps virtually to include works from other collections, and if so which? Should Tate Online be the first destination to visit on-line to find out about British art, 20th century art, contemporary art or all art? How might we achieve this?
  • E-learning: What audiences should Tate Online focus on? Should Tate create digital resources which directly support the national curriculum? Which other organisations should Tate partner with to increase the resources available?
  • Net art: What can be done to raise the profile of net art at Tate? Is Tate doing enough to support this ever-growing practice? Should Tate Online be commissioning works and creating online exhibitions?
  • Members: What additional information and services could Tate provide on-line to improve the membership offering? Should Tate be offering a virtual membership package? How can Tate engage its members using new technologies, and create further value from these relationships?
  • E-commerce: What further revenue generating opportunities exist at Tate Online? What can be done to improve existing sales? Should Tate be charging any segments of visitors for any content? Is there any existing Tate Enterprises content that could be sold at Tate Online?
  • Corporate information: What further corporate information should be provided at Tate Online? Are there any further B2B activities that should be facilitated? How should Tate corporate information be positioned alongside other content?

Enthusiastic conversations have started, and it is fair to suggest that a range of opinions exist on each matter. What is consistent, however, is that the organisation recognises that Tate Online is an essential component of Tate's future. Tate is fully committed to building on the success it has already achieved in the digital arena, in a well considered way.

Tate Online's Future

Tate Online has come a long way in the first six years of its existence, and has a lot further it could go. Developments in digital technology, not least the rollout of broadband, will result in even more innovative ways for Tate to encourage public awareness, understanding and enjoyment of art. Not only does the whole on-line experience become smoother and faster with a broadband connection, but arguably more significantly, the connection is always on, thereby radically improving the potential for museum Web sites to act as effective communication tools.

Other factors which suggest a bright future for Tate Online are:

  • The Office of the UK e-Envoy's commitment to providing internet access to all who want it by the end of 2005. (http://www.e-envoy.gov.uk)
  • Only 34% of visitors to Tate Online in July 2003 were based outside the UK, while the global internet population is currently estimated to be 682,500,000. (http://www.internetworldstats.com)
  • Increases in global internet usage, which despite growing by 90% in 2000-2003, still only equates to 11% of the world population. (http://www.internetworldstats.com)
  • An aging population: as the population ages, so will the percentage of those on-line.
  • As the range and amount of content that is made available at Tate Online increases, so too will it appeal to larger numbers of people for longer.
  • The continued rollout of broadband and 'always-on' connections are likely to increase the total time spent on-line by individuals. Broadband will be available to 90% of the British population by the end of 2004. (http://www.bt.com)
  • Leisure usage of the internet, for entertainment purposes as opposed to information retrieval, is increasing as connection speeds improve, access costs decline, and platforms converge.
  • Government support for initiatives such as Curriculum Online will create further demand for trusted, educational materials.
  • A broad range of higher-education courses are increasingly available for those interested in pursuing a creative career, specialising in new media.
  • Wireless networks will continue to facilitate ubiquitous computing, enabling access to Tate Online via more platforms and from any location.

These facts all combine to suggest very forcefully that it is still early days for Tate's digital programmes and its hub Tate Online. Tate is working hard to figure out both how best to use new technologies and where it should secure and devote the resources needed to employ them. We do not yet have all the answers, but one thing is clear: future generations of visitors and artists are actively seeking information, inspiration and entertainment on-line. This alone determines that Tate Online will continue to provide tremendous impetus to the ever-evolving relationship between visitors, the Collection and the entire organisation for generations to come.