April 11-14, 2007
San Francisco, California

Facilitating Access: Empowering Small Museums

Joy Suliman, Collections Australia Network, Australia


While the emergence of Web 2.0 offers many exciting opportunities for museums to engage with new and diverse audiences, the reality is that many small and medium museums struggle to maintain even an elementary level of presence on the Web. They face multiple barriers: an absence of suitably skilled staff, limited financial and technical resources, and sometimes even a lack of access to reliable broadband Internet services. How can smaller museums and cultural heritage organisations be empowered to develop high quality content and to participate in the on-line environment in ways which are meaningful to them and their target audiences? This paper shows how the needs of smaller museums to reach new audiences can be met through a collaborative, democratic model conceived around the notion of a Web portal. Collections Australia Network (CAN) – a redevelopment of Australian Museums and Galleries On-line (AMOL) – uses open source software solutions to provide a range of on-line tools that facilitate the creation of high quality, customizable, easily updated content by smaller museums for publication through the CAN Web portal. This paper demonstrates how the opportunities presented by Web 2.0 have been utilised by CAN to provide the means and context for smaller museums to make their content as discoverable to audiences as that from larger, better resourced museums.

Keywords: Small Museums, Web 2.0, Collections Australia Network (CAN), Open Source, Content Management System, On-line Collections


Museums and organisations with heritage collections use the Web for a variety of purposes – to publicise and promote their activities and exhibitions, make their collection records publicly available, and increasingly, to create unique discovery and learning experiences on-line. The Web allows museums to reach beyond their traditional audiences, promoting an unprecedented level of access to their objects and their collections. CAN’s main role is to develop and provide accessible and easy-to-use tools and resources to assist small and medium museums and collecting institutions to gain access to the on-line environment. This paper will discuss the unique Australian context in which CAN and CAN Partners operate, and will demonstrate the ways in which CAN is adopting Web 2.0 technologies and approaches. CAN’s on-line tools are easy to use; information can be simply modified and updated by our Partner organisations. Through strategic partnerships with larger institutions, CAN is increasing the discoverability of content from smaller museums across Australia, fulfilling the Web’s early promise as a democratic and collaborative space.


CAN is funded by the Cultural Ministers Council (CMC), administered through the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA), and was originally a redevelopment of the highly successful and long-running AMOL project. CAN is currently hosted by the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. In 2002, the Australian Commonwealth Government released the comprehensive and wide-ranging study of the Australian cultural heritage sector titled “A Study into the Key Needs of Collecting Institutions in the Heritage Sector” (Deakin, 2002). It identified a strong future need for the support of the work of institutions which are undertaking computerised cataloguing and those which are either trying to establish or maintain a Web site.

In 2003 it was determined that AMOL should be redeveloped to better meet these needs. As a result, CAN borrows heavily from AMOL in much of its basic structure, types of content, and understanding of Australian museums and galleries. AMOL was conceived of and to a large extent operated on the model of a Web portal. CAN also takes this basic structural approach, providing a profile page for all CAN Partners (organisations with not for profit, publicly accessible collections).  Where the two projects are markedly different is in the way content is created and managed. Content for AMOL was solicited from Partners and collected using a variety of methods, mainly printed paper forms and database files in common formats. AMOL staff was then responsible for creating the Web site content from this information. This method was both time consuming and difficult to administer. The CAN approach differs because it gives the role of content creation back to the CAN Partners.

After an extensive redevelopment phase, CAN first went on-line in May 2005, during the Museums Australia National Conference. CAN Partners are able to use CAN to publish on-line and promote their news, events and exhibitions, resources, and publications and collections records using an on-line content management system. This initial version of CAN was developed using proprietary software solutions for both the content management system and the on-line searchable collections database. Late in 2005, it became apparent that CAN would benefit from developing in-house, custom software solutions, and it is this later, custom developed version of CAN that is the focus of this paper.

The Australian Context

The Australian cultural heritage sector, of which museums form the major part, is extremely diverse. Institutions range from large, well funded and staffed national and state museums to municipal (local government) museums and heritage centres with small staff numbers located in metropolitan and regional centres, to small, largely volunteer run local history and special interest museums which are most often located in regional and remote communities. Although diverse in their situations, there is a commonality of needs dictated by the high number of volunteers, particularly working in museums. The Key Needs Study identified 2049 museum establishments in June 2000: 80.1% of the people working in these museums were there in a volunteer capacity; 58% of museums operated on an entirely volunteer basis, with no paid staff whatsoever.

People working in museums identified their future needs based on their current activities: 75% were engaged in cataloguing – computerised, 72% in e-mail correspondence, 55% in Web site establishment, 44% in Web site maintenance and 49% conducting research via the Web. At the end of 2001, 50% of the museums had a Web site, homepage or Web presence. A more recent figure, based on a recent informal CAN survey of our Partners, leads us to estimate that at the end of 2006, approximately 75% of CAN Partners had a Web site or Web presence other than CAN. That still leaves approximately 25% of the more than 1500 CAN Partners reliant on CAN as their main Web presence - a sizeable proportion.

Given these research findings and the combined experience of working with small museums of both AMOL and CAN, any Web site for which Partners were expected to create content directly had to be quick and simple to use. Volunteers in particular would not typically engage in any activity they considered time consuming or difficult when there were so many other tasks about the museum to which they could divert their efforts. To be successful, CAN must provide tools that do not require any specialist information technology background or computer training, and must show immediate results for effort and time taken. “Web 2.0 tools offer the promise of building such on-line communities within the scale of our institutions” (von Appen and Kennedy, 2006).

The CAN Open Source Solution

In early 2006, CAN began to investigate options for using open source software. Plans were drawn up for a new database structure, custom content management system and on-line collections database. There were several key considerations driving the development process: any databases developed for CAN must be flexible and the field structure easy to modify in the future; the site must be able to function and be maintained with minimum hands-on work by CAN staff; and the content management system should make creating and modifying content as simple as possible.

Looking at several technical solutions, it was decided by the CAN Web developers that PostgreSQL would be the database software most suited to the needs of the project, particularly in terms of operating quick searches through the CAN collections database, which has the potential to expand to several millions of records over the next 2-3 years.

PostgreSQL is the world's most advanced free software object-relational database management system (ORDBMS), released under a BSD-style license. It offers an alternative to other database systems. Similarly to other free software projects such as Apache, GNU/Linux, and MediaWiki, PostgreSQL is not controlled by any single company, but relies on a global community of developers and companies to develop it (

Other open source software used by CAN includes the Apache Web server, Linux operating System and PHP.

Typically, CAN Partners are completely oblivious to the hardware and software which is running the site. Their main concern is for the tools and services they use to create and modify content.

Unlocking Potential

CAN’s custom content management system is the key to CAN’s ability to assist small and medium museums in publishing their content on-line. Each Partner has a profile page on CAN, with details of that institution/organisation, and its collections.

Partners are issued with a username and password which allow them access to their own CAN Admin Area. In the admin area they can modify their own profiles and create or modify news, events, exhibitions and sector info items for publication on CAN. There is also a set of tools to enable CAN Partners to undertake collection management on-line and to make their collection records available on-line through the CAN collections database. There are image upload, document upload and Web link tools, with the ability to add these features to any items that are created. The role of CAN staff is minimal – we provide assistance where necessary, and approve for publication to the CAN Web site all suitable items. An example of the content management system can be viewed at

Partners are able to save their work as a draft at any stage before submitting an item to CAN, archive items once they are no longer relevant, and make changes to any part of their items at any time. Another key feature of the content management system is the placement of the help information in the same on-screen window as the forms that Partners use to create and modify content. Although seemingly simple, this feature greatly increased the confidence of several Partners when using the site, according to recent feedback..

The best indicator of how well CAN’s development work on the content development system has been received is in the number of new items of CAN content which have been created. In July, August and September 2006, the first three-month period in which the custom content management system was in use, there were 3 news and 35 event and exhibition items contributed by CAN Partners. In the following three months of October, November and December 2006, 15 news items and 83 event and exhibition items were created. This pleasing trend already looks established and set to continue in 2007.

Extending The Scope Of On-Line Discoverability

One of the key drivers for smaller museums to use CAN is the increased level of Web exposure that regular contributions of content to CAN provide. The project ensures a regular turnover of items contributed by Partners on the CAN front page by implementing a series of rules for front page positions which do not discriminate on the basis of which CAN Partner contributed the content, or what the content is publicising and promoting. The exhibition and event items, which are front, top and centre on the CAN Web site under the grouping of “what’s on”, are selected for the front page on the dates on which they are actually occurring, and also for three days beginning from a fortnight before they are due to begin. When they have reached their end date, they are automatically removed from the publicly accessible area of the site, but remain in the Partner’s Admin Area so that the items can be reviewed, modified and reposted if required. A contribution from our smallest Partner promoting an event will be given the same weighting on the front page of the CAN Web site and sit side by side an item which is contributed by one the national or state museums, and this happens on a regular basis. News items are posted on a first come, first served basis, with the most recent news item taking the prime position, (

CAN also provides the CAN Collections Database. This is a searchable database of over 500,000 collection item and collection level descriptions which have been contributed by over 70 CAN Partner organisations of all sizes from across the entire country. This development work is still relatively new, and it is anticipated that CAN will have over a million records on-line by the end of 2007. This resource is particularly important to small museums, many of which may have substantial portions of their collections digitised, but have no Internet or IT capacity to host their collection records on-line.

Larger museums, however, have sophisticated marketing and promotions strategies in place, in which updating and creating CAN content play a much smaller role. They also often have the ability to host their own collections on-line; for example, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney ( For these larger Partners, CAN must provide more than just a tool for on-line discovery. It is also of greater benefit to the smaller museums if the larger museums use CAN consistently as it will increase content, and more important, site traffic. For this reason, CAN has become one of the leading partners in a Federated Search Project across Australian cultural heritage collections.

The Federated Search Project

In 2004 the Heads of Collecting Institutions (HOCI) in Australia decided to embark upon a national federated discovery project, which was to be managed and led by the National Library in Australia ( CAN become involved in this project, now known as the Federated Search Project, in 2005.

Participating organisations have agreed to use the Amazon OpenSearch protocol. This allows the aggregation of search results from different sources using a simple keyword search. OpenSearch, developed by, is available under a creative commons license ( Based on the popular RSS and ATOM syndication formats, it was chosen for the Federated Search Project because it poses the least security risk, is relatively easily implemented, and is cost effective. The first three Australian cultural heritage collections available through the Federated Search Project are the National Library managed Picture Australia (, Libraries Australia (, and the CAN collections database. The Powerhouse Museum also has its records enabled for OpenSearch. In practical terms, this means that a visitor using the CAN search page is able to search the CAN collections database, Picture Australia, Libraries Australia, and the Powerhouse Museum collections from a single search page

Not only is the Federated Search Project a strong incentive for larger museums to engage with CAN, but it also provides smaller museums with similar contexts and opportunities for discoverability as their larger counterparts.

Case Study: St George Regional Museum, Hurtsville, Australia

St George Regional Museum is a small to medium museum which has been actively using CAN since the site was updated with the custom content management system in July 2006. It is located in Hurstville, in the Southern suburbs of Sydney, and is the local Municipal museum for that area. It is council funded, but also relies heavily on income from a variety of grants and funding schemes. There are 2 full-time paid staff, 5 part-time/casual staff, and between 10 and 15 volunteers and interns working with the museum at any one time. The focus of the collection is local history, particularly social history. This museum has a Web presence as part of the local council Web site ( through which their events and exhibitions are regularly updated and published as part of the Council Web site’s “what’s on”. They also use an Australian collections management system designed for small museums. None of the people currently working in the museum have a computer or IT background, and they do not consider themselves advanced or even intermediate computer users (Pugh, 2007). They represent a typical CAN Partner.

St George Regional Museum came into contact with CAN, as most Partners do, through one of CAN’s regular promotional activities. In this case it was the Museums Australia National Conference in May 2005, where a staff member from the museum attended a briefing and training session about CAN. At this stage CAN had been on-line only for a matter of days, and was still experiencing some teething problems. However the main message about CAN, its tools and capabilities was successfully imparted, and the staff member who attended was given a username and password, used at the training session to update the profile details on CAN ( and create an exhibition item.  In July 2006, Ms Allison Pugh, a student intern and volunteer at the museum, made contact with CAN, primarily to enquire about the possibility of making the museum’s collection records accessible through the CAN collections database. At this time, the database was still in development; however, Ms Pugh was advised of the museum’s previous CAN experience, and invited to contribute and create other kinds of content.

Ms Pugh reports that she spent some time that day familiarising herself with the site, and sought permission from the museum manager to update the museum’s profile details and add some content. Within a week, with no instructions beyond the basic ones included in the standard CAN introductory e-mail to new users of the Admin Area, Ms Pugh had created three items for CAN. Two of these were exhibition items, and one was promoting an event. Each contained an image and included Web links for more information.

Since then, Ms Pugh has created another item, but more important, has demonstrated the use of CAN to her colleagues, and they have subsequently included creation of CAN items as part of the regular promotional activities for exhibitions to be undertaken by the staff at the museum.

Ms Pugh rates herself as a basic to intermediate Web user: “I surf the Web , but I wasn’t using it on a regular basis and I had never created content for a Web page before. Mostly it was e-mail and newspapers and stuff like that”. She estimates that it takes her approximately 15-20 minutes to create an item for CAN, and that over the six months that she has been using CAN, she has spent a total of 10 hours investigating and working on the site. In her opinion, the content management system is simple to use; she likened it to other on-line activities she engages in such as Internet banking and using a Web-based e-mail account.

When asked what the main benefits of using CAN were to her museum, Ms Pugh replied that it was an essential part of the museum’s drive to reach and attract a broader audience, adding that “it’s a great resource for smaller museums because it links them when sometimes they feel on their own”. In early 2007, approximately 3000 object records from the collection of the St George Regional Museum (200 of these with digital images included) will be available for public access through the CAN collections database. The museum does not have the financial nor technical capacity to host these records on its own Web site.

Into the Future

Collections Australia Network has taken the notion of the Web portal and adapted it to suit the needs of the Australian cultural heritage sector. With the development of the custom content management system, the CAN collections database, and initiatives such as the Federated Search Project, CAN is bringing to smaller museums similar kinds of access and exposure that Web 2.0 provides for their much larger counterparts.

Building on the current success of CAN will involve development of new tools and resources which extend not only the promotional capacity of the Partners using the site, but also their ability to create richer, more detailed on-line content based around their collections. Currently under consideration for development for CAN over the next 18 months are interactive calendars for events and exhibitions; a specialised area to post and search for touring exhibitions; story templates to allow more narrative-based interactive content creation; and partnerships with organisations in the education sector to develop on-line training materials for museums to create appropriate, curriculum-based learning content.


Special thanks to the Cultural Ministers Council and the Department of Communication, Information Technology and the Arts for their support of CAN, St George Regional Museum, and the Powerhouse Museum and my colleagues there.


Deakin University, Faculty of Arts (2002). A Study into the Key Needs of Collecting Institutions in the Heritage Sector. Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific, Final Report, 1 May 2002.

Pugh, Allison (2006). Personal Communication, Interview at the Powerhouse Museum. January 19, 2007.

von Appen, Kevin and Kennedy, Brian. (2006). Community Sites & Emerging Sociable Technologies. In D.Bearman and J.Trant (eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings. Albuquerque, New Mexico: Archives & Museum Informatics, 2006. Last updated March 27, 2006, consulted January 29, 2007.

Wikepedia. (2006) PostrgreSQL. Last updated January 30, 2007, January 30, 2007.

Cite as:

Suliman, J., Facilitating Access: Empowering Small Museums, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2007 Consulted

Editorial Note