April 15-18, 2009
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Pimp My Web Site: Tech Tools to Redesign and Reinvigorate Museum Web Sites on a Budget

Layla Masri and Emily Grossman, Bean Creative - Funktional Web Design Studio, USA


While there’s been a lot of excitement about new audience-engaging technologies such as Flickr, YouTube, Facebook and SecondLife, most museums simply don’t have the staffing or budgets to constantly create new sites, games and functionality.

However, many institutions DO have a wealth of legacy, evergreen content that is still popular but may not have aged gracefully in terms of browser compatibility, design and support of social networking features or multimedia. How do they keep them alive – and augment them – with the advent of new technologies, browsers and platforms?

All museums are looking for ways to stretch Web and marketing budgets as well as maximize staff time. By showcasing enhancements and upgrades to existing sites and functionality using tech tools that are readily available, easily implementable and free (or extremely inexpensive), museums of any size or focus can not only keep their existing content relevant, but also feature the latest and greatest without a complete site overhaul.

Keywords: redesign, technology, interactivity, AJAX, CSS, budgeting


To say that the rise of user-generated content and the social Web has been astronomical in the past several years would be an understatement.

When Facebook, a site once dominated by teens and twenty-somethings, posts growth of 276% in the 35-54 year-old demographic in the six months from July 08 to Jan 09 (, it is clear there has been a broad and permanent shift in the activities of on-line denizens. From blogs, podcasts and wikis to rating/ranking features, sharing tools like and Digg, as well as ubiquitous news feeds and Twitter, the Web has come alive with the push and pull of information – a two-way conversation that museums are beginning to embrace.

Since Forrester Research first described "Social Computing" in 2006 as a groundswell of people using on-line tools and technologies to connect and create their own experiences (Li & Bernoff, 2008), user-generated content and social networking have evolved from an interactive phenomenon to a new world order for how to engage and connect with others on-line.

At the same time, the look and feel of Web sites have had to keep pace not only with the technological demands of incorporating these interactive tools and functionality, but also with the need for graphical refreshes to continually keep the attention of an audience with billions of on-line options.

Much like the rapid-fire growth of on-line tools, the shelf-life of Web site graphic design has also quickened. Long gone are the days when a Web site design could be launched and remain unchanged for five or six years and still be as effective as when first developed. Nor can it be expected that subsequent site redesigns can be superficial, such as updating a logo or updating home page imagery.

Clearly, museums are dealing with an on-line world where users expect technological and design changes at a rapid pace. Whether or not your users even realize that they expect these things, the global competition on-line has created innate expectations for things that are fresh, new and different. And these users are no longer content to take the museum's interpretations as the sole source of their understanding – they want the same tools they see on other Web sites that allow them to comment, to share, to react and to be part of a more participatory experience with your institution.

However, according to the latest survey of Museum Financial Information by the American Association of Museums (Merrit, 2006), the average operating budget of a US museum is only $783,000. Comparatively, a site redesign with the integration of social networking tools and user-generated content features can often cost $75,000 or higher (the average comparable Web development budget from the authors' Web development studio, Bean Creative, from 2006 to 2008) – which is approximately 10% of the average museum's operating budget.

Combine this with the current global financial crisis and museums are facing the reality of making do with smaller budgets, minimal staff and fewer resources available as grant money, endowments and visitor contributions shrink. The result is that a majority of institutions, regardless of size or budget, are struggling – and juggling – to meet internal operating demands as well as their public roles due to severely limited physical resources.

Now more than ever, museums of all shapes and sizes need to have the ability to change the design and functionality of their Web sites without arduous and expensive undertakings, and without substantial staffing.

Current Problems

Museums are well aware that visitors of museum Web sites are no longer coming only to view images and curatorial notes pushed out by the institution. In the era of the participatory Web, museums cannot solely control the dialogue, but must instead offer additional avenues to make the collection relevant to visitors.

Site visitors want to comment on and tag content, share collection imagery, download podcasts and peruse collection slideshows and videos. While the mindshift in museums' curatorial philosophies and approaches in light of these new functionalities is not the focus of this paper, the real-world Web ramifications of supporting these new directions are.

It is therefore important to begin by understanding the challenges that museums face in implementing Web redesigns as well as adding community and social networking features for sites of the 21st century.

Many museums do not have any dedicated in-house personnel devoted to working on their Web sites at all, so other staff – often with minimal or no Web or graphic design skills – are solicited to update  sites. Other museums have a single Webmaster in charge of keeping content and collections up-do-date, but often those staff are either not comfortable with back-end Web coding to implement new site functionality or do not have graphic design skills necessary for redesigns.

And still other museums do have IT staff with the technical know-how to incorporate social networking and user-generated content features, but must find the time to do so while managing the rest of their museums' technical needs, such as computer tech support, systems networking, kiosk and exhibit repair and maintenance of collections databases.

If there are no in-house personnel to tap, that leaves museums to bring in outside vendors to handle site redesign and Web technology implementation, often at significant expense.

New Solutions

Luckily, the progression of technology integration on-line, as well as in Web design and development coding, has reached a confluence to accommodate more professional, do-it-yourself options that can be achieved with minimal time and budget impact. There are currently a dizzying array of free and minimal-cost tech options that make it easier to publish and allow interaction with any type of content including text, images, videos, podcasts and documents.

The user-generated content movement started out on dedicated social media sites (such as MySpace, Friendster and Facebook), but has since fanned out to Web properties that include on-line retailers, major media destinations, portals and yes, museums.

User-generated content and social networking tools have exploded in the past few years, with people creating and consuming user-generated content in record numbers. Their level of engagement is deep and broad, with participation rates of up to 62% in categories like customer reviews, and involvement in an ever-expanding range of on-line content that includes video, audio, personal profiles, avatars, photo sharing and encyclopedia entries (

Several technologies and new methods for technology implementation have facilitated this era of more responsive and interactive design and functionality:

  • CSS: Cascading Style Sheets is a simple mechanism used to style documents written in HTML, XHTML and other markup languages. Using CSS, you can easily affect the look of  fonts, colors, spacing and other design aspects of Web documents by separating document content (written in HTML or a similar markup language) from document presentation (written in CSS).

    Changing the font characteristics of a link in your site's CSS file, for example, will change the font of all links throughout your entire Web site. Thus, a cost-effective and quick redesign can be accomplished simply by making CSS changes in one file (or a small set of files) that then automatically update the rest of the site.

    In addition to allowing efficient redesigns, the separation of content from styling can also improve content accessibility and reduce complexity and repetition in the structural content (such as by allowing for tableless Web design).

    Of particular interest to museums is that CSS can also allow the same markup page to be presented in different styles for different rendering methods, such as on-screen, in print, by text readers and on Braille-based, tactile devices. Indeed, CSS allows for stylistic redesigns that are truly far-reaching in scope and impact.
  • AJAX: Asynchronous JavaScript and XML is not a technology itself, but rather a term that describes an approach to using a number of existing technologies together, including HTML/ XHTML, Cascading Style Sheets, JavaScript, and the XMLHttpRequest object.

    When these technologies are combined in the AJAX model, Web applications are able to make quick, incremental updates to the user interface without reloading the entire browser page (hence its "asynchronous" nature). This functionality makes the application faster and allows you to update portions of a page based upon user events.

    Now imagine your museum visitors able to search your collection and – right from the search results page – be able to view image and data about each artifact that overlay on top of the results page without having to navigate away to a new screen. AJAX drastically improves the user experience, and there are many third-party tools and features we'll discuss in more specifics shortly that tap into this power.
  • There is a definite march toward decentralization of computing, as evidenced by the wide variety of external, third-party social networking tools that are now available at minimal or no cost for you for use in enhancing your site.

    Not only can you find everything from free blog software and sharing tools to RSS news feed services, but even Internet giants are joining in on the free bandwagon. Amazon products are readily and cheaply available (C2 for cloud computing/processing, S3 for storage, and SimpleDB for data) and of course, Google continues to provide a wide range of free interactive tools (Search, Analytics, Maps and Apps)

In the past, it was common and usually necessary to keep your Web code in a walled garden, where everything was created, accessed and housed internally. Now, it is to your site's benefit to have a flexible and modular structure that can easily pull in data and functionality from third parties. Why reinvent the wheel when there is so much rich, vetted and fully-supported functionality free for the taking?

Opportunities for Enhancing Existing Content and Sites

Given the current state of Web technologies, tools and back-end coding functionality, there are three distinct areas that represent the greatest opportunity for museums to implement with ease and at no or low cost.

  • Graphic redesign
  • Sharing tools for distributing content from your site
  • User-generated content and community tools to allow your constituents to interact with your museum

These three areas were chosen because the cost and implementation time versus impact ratio is exceptionally high. 

Each of these areas will now be discussed in greater detail to showcase the impressive level of impact that can obtained with minimal effort or cost, as well as offer analysis of the best of the many free and low cost tools available.

Graphic Redesign Using CSS

In the early days of the Web, sites were typically hard-coded. Nearly all of the presentational attributes of HTML documents were contained within the HTML markup – all font colors, background styles, element alignments, link colors, tabled layouts, borders and sizes had to be explicitly described, often repeatedly, within the HTML, and within each page of the site.

With the advent of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), much of that styling information is now removed from the individual pages and instead contained with a single document (or small subset of documents) that is referenced each time a Web page is rendered.

As a striking example of what can be accomplished by updating a site stylesheet, compare these two Web sites in Figure 1 and Figure 2. They are identical in content and code, but one has a stylesheet that completely alters the look and layout of content:

figure 1

Fig 1: The home page of CSS Zen Garden with no stylesheet

figure 2

Fig 2: The exact same home page of CSS Zen Garden with a stylesheet applied

Much like database-driven Web sites that pull page content from a back-end repository into a template when a page is clicked for viewing, CSS files house all the stylistic programming tags so that the presentation of content is separated from the structure (i.e. HTML markup) of the pages themselves.

Since a single CSS file can define colors, fonts, text alignment, size, borders, spacing, layout and many other visual characteristics throughout a site, making changes to site-wide design attributes can be done quickly and efficiently instead of wading through each and every page of a site to edit.

CSS can also provide graphical formatting for print-friendly pages and mobile devices, making it an extremely efficient styling method.

In fact, the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), the international standards organization for the Internet, has embraced  these considerable advantages of CSS for governing the graphic presentation of Web pages, and in 1999 deprecated the use of HTML markup to control the look and feel of Web sites ( Still, 10 years later, many sites fail to utilize this benefit.

If your site has been built within the last five years, chances are that your site is CSS-based, and therefore suitable for this type of redesign. But it is important to understand that not every site is a candidate for a redesign using this method. Some existing sites are so old and poorly constructed as to not really be viable for a purely CSS overhaul.

The primary attributes required by a site to be effectively redesigned without touching the existing HTML are:

  • An existing external stylesheet. Without an external stylesheet to manipulate, a CSS redesign can be as complex as any other redesign.
  • Few or no inline style attributes. Anything hard-coded in the HTML – for example, font styles, alignments, image dimensions – cannot be over-ridden via CSS. Effective CSS moves background image calls, dimensions, borders and other presentation items completely to the stylesheet.
  • A prevalence of styling hooks. “Hooks” is the term used for IDs, classes, spans and other design attributes that allow you to target specific content when creating styles. Most older sites used unnamed tables to handle all sorts of layout needs, from the entire page to minimal details, meaning that each of these elements did not have any individual styling hook. Without any specific identifiers in the code for these tables, CSS treats them all the same, meaning that table-based layouts need to be reworked before the benefits of CSS can be gained.

While the above list of attributes is ideal for a CSS redesign, a site that does not meet all the above criteria can still altered and improved using stylesheets, but will not be a complete departure from the original design as seen in the CSS examples in Figure 1 and Figure 2.

Content Sharing Tools

The sharing of text, images, services and other digital content as a way of communicating is growing in popularity, especially among the rapidly-expanding social networking segment. In August of 2008, researchers (comScore, 2008) estimated that social networking users comprised more than 65 percent of the Web’s 860 million unique monthly visitors.

The wide variety of sharing services available provide museums with a comprehensive toolset to make any content – whether a Web page or a standalone application – easily sharable to other sites, a user’s desktop or a mobile device.


RSS (Really Simple Syndication) has blossomed into the de facto protocol used by most Web sites as the means of distributing their news and information. According to the 2008 Google Zeitgerist report (, the fifth most searched “what is” question on Google was “What is RSS?“

A recent Avenue A | Razorfish Digital Consumer Behavior Study (2008) found that 56% of consumers use RSS feeds, and that number is expected to grow.

Through RSS, your audience can keep in touch with your institution on a regular basis by seeing your news feed on their mobile devices, computer desktop, Web home page and more.

Clearly, there is a high demand among Web users to keep up-to-date on content of interest, whether that is exhibit information on a favorite artist, a recent curatorial blog post or a new podcast. Several free and robust RSS creation tools exist to dynamically create RSS for your Web site:

  • FeedforAll
    An easy-to-use, desktop (PC/Mac) wizard walks novices through the process of creating, editing, managing and publishing RSS feeds. It supports unlimited feeds and can load and repair any existing feeds with ease for a one-time cost of $40.
  • Ponyfish
    This on-line tool just needs to be pointed to the Web page from which you want to create a feed, and requires only a few steps to set up which types of links you want to include in the feed. The resulting functionality pulls in links to relevant pages (as opposed to the actual content). Several free accounts are available, but additional premium services (like manual feed updating and link/title filtering) are only $60 a year.


When you make content easy to share, more visitors are likely to do so. Articles, text, images, videos and audio can all be shared across blogs, social networks, e-mail, instant messaging or text messaging by rolling over a small graphical button. On rollover, the button expands to offer a large selection of distribution tools (Digg,, Reddit, Facebook, Technorati, etc.) and lets visitors import address books and friend lists to make it easy for them to bookmark and share your content with others.

Sending your museum's content to social bookmarking services and social networks brings more traffic back to you and increases your link popularity for enhanced search engine rankings.

Distribution tools are also extremely easy to install and provide tracking analytics to know where your museum content is going across more than 80 social networking, blogging and bookmarking services.

Some of the best free tools include:

  • AddThis  –
    This popular bookmarking and sharing service, recently purchased by Clearspring Technologies (a leading widget network), offers a free and easy-to-set-up sharing button and multiple language support, as well as tracking and analysis.
  • ShareThis
    This tool is a close competitor of AddThis, and features a free and simple one-page wizard that allows you to choose whatever  services are available on-click. Analytics let you learn what people are sharing, and how.
  • AddToAny
    Like AddThis and ShareThis, this free button is customizable (and has a button pool in Flickr for other options), set-up is quick and intuitive with a guided wizard, and it interfaces with Google Analytics for stats tracking. The resulting two-in-one button offers both share/save/bookmark and subscribe options within the same on-screen button.


A widget is a portable piece of code that brings in live content – advertisements, links, images, video or really anything you could see on the Web – from a third-party site without the Web site owner having to update or control the process manually.

Instead of forcing users to share content by manually cutting and pasting HTML code into their Web pages, you can instead easily and quickly create a widget and give users simple tools to make sharing a breeze.

Familiar Web widgets include event countdowns, auction tickers, stock market tickers, flight arrival information, daily weather and more. In the case of museums, widgets may take the form of events calendars, collections repositories and more.

  • Clearspring – http://
    In the world of widgets, Clearspring is a clear leader, as comScore (2008) reported 254 million monthly unique viewers of Clearspring widgets, outdistancing its nearest competitor by 93 million visitors. Clearspring is widely credited for jump-starting the widget category by being first to introduce free click-to-share technology for making embeddable Web content portable.

    Their viral distribution enables Web widgets to be shared and distributed across over 80 blogging, social networking, and bookmarking services. Clearspring’s analytics suite enables detailed tracking and analysis of widget activity and performance.
  • Widgetbox
    This site offers a user-friendly wizard to walk you through the creation and publishing process, and accepts everything from Flash, HTML and JavaScript to blogs and Google Gadgets. The tool is free to make and distribute widgets.
  • Widgenie
    This free tool provides widget creators with simple steps and tutorials to create widgets. Users can import data from Excel spreadsheets, CSV files and data feeds from Widgenie’s partner sites. After the data is input, it can be customized via a drag-and-drop editor, giving you control over colors, size, headings and fonts. Additional customization is available for $50 a month.

Image Slideshows and Video

The ability to showcase museum collections, event happenings, tours of physical spaces and other important visual museum elements makes photos, imagery and video a key aspect for a successful and compelling Web site.

Image and video management, storage and display can potentially be an arduous task for museum staff in addition to their other functions. Many museums already use external, third-party sites for hosting images (Flickr, Picasa, SnapFish) and videos (YouTube, Google Video, Yahoo! Video.) However, sending museum visitors to an external site is arguably less professional and clearly not branded to your institution. It also means visitors are exiting your site instead of being engaged within your parameters.

There are several image and video-sharing Web sites that now offer the ability to create, customize and embed image slideshows and video directly within your Web site:

  • Flickr PictoBrowser
    Flickr dominates the on-line world of photo sharing ( The PictoBrowser is Flickr's free Web application that displays Flickr images and video on Web sites and blogs. Simply login to your Flickr account (or create a new one and upload images), then use a simple wizard to set, tag or group images as well as customize the look and functionality of your site to best suit your images and your Web site's design.

    Flickr will then generate HTML code for you to embed the PictoBrowser slideshow wherever you desire within your Web site. The free version allows for three albums, and for $25 a year you may have unlimited albums and collections.

    Pictobrowser has a interactive AJAX Organizer for organizing the images, and lets you add or modify, tag pictures, share your images with your groups, add geo-location tags for the images, edit the permission and captions for the images and do minor editing like rotating.

    You can alter the layout of the pages to a certain extent with pre-designed layouts (four layouts for the free version and six layouts for the paid version). The slideshow is displayed via Flash, and users can also subscribe to the RSS feed of your comments. Visitors need to be registered to post comments.

    There is a 100MB upload limit per month, with a limit of 200 images (5 MB each).

  • Picasa
    This Google-owned property is not as popular as Flickr, but offers many of the same benefits. It requires a free software download to use the tool.

    Once you upload images and videos to create slideshows (with features like image organization, cropping and image editing), you can also choose your settings (such as image size, captions, and autoplay) and copy the resulting HTML code into your Web site.

    The downside is that you cannot customize the look of your Picasa albums to match your site. Picasa also offers paid options ($25 a year) that up the storage capacity from 1GB to 7GB. There is a 10MB limit per image.

    Picasa features an AJAX organizer for arranging images within an album. The finished slideshow is displayed via AJAX and HTML and the embedded player is in Flash. Visitors need a Google Account to post comments.
  • SmugMug
    For $60 a year, this site hosts unlimited images, embedded slideshows and even embedded video (HD-quality video is $150 a year). While it does not offer embedded tools within your site, the on-line galleries you can create are high calibre and can be branded with a custom URL.

    Since it is aimed at professional (as opposed to general) usage, it uploads and displays images without compression for rich detail. It also has security features like right-click image copying protection.

    Administrators can make any gallery unlisted, password-protected, or limited to select museum members or donors sent to a group of unlisted galleries via a single URL. Best of all, you can remove SmugMug's branding and customize the logo, header, footer, and color scheme to match your own site.

    SmugMug creates Flash slideshows and video players, with the ability to offer feeds as well as commenting (moderated or unmoderated).

Many other sites offer free image slideshow options, such as ,, and

User-Generated Content and Community

Social networking applications help you engage and enlarge your audience by giving them a sense of identity and ownership.

User-generated content can benefit museums in a host of ways:

  • Interacting with your visitors and interested Web communities by promoting upcoming shows, sharing recent recordings and hearing what your museum-goers are saying
  • Raising awareness by getting the word out on important issues and causes and inspiring others to take action
  • Connecting with your members and event attendees by starting the meet-and-greet before they even arrive and sharing photos and videos afterwards
  • Fostering appreciation for your collection by building exposure and awareness of your unique curatorial niche

For the purposes of museum usage, we have focused our analysis on tools that allow Web site visitors to comment, tag, and rate/rank content, but you will see that many of these tools are wide-reaching platforms that also incorporate other helpful community-building tools such as image slideshows, widget creation, RSS and other easy-to-implement features to help you turn every visitor into an active member.

In addition, we have only included tools that allow for customization of the tool's design and the ability to disable advertising, since these features are imperative for the professional branding and credibility of museums.

KickApps –

KickApps is a broad Web-based platform that makes it easy for you to add a wide array of social features to your Web site. It offers tools to implement rating, tagging and commenting. As part of its wheelhouse, KickApps also supports image, video and audio embedding, widget creation, blogs and RSS content distribution.

KickApps supports membership and profile creation so that your site can foster an on-line community of constituents that can be segmented into more granular group subcategories, if desired. On the back-end, the platform provides content moderation, stats on usage and CSS control to customize look and feel.

The free option comes with advertising, but you can pay to disable ads. If your site has fewer than 5,000 hits per month, the cost is $100 a month, and fewer than 20,000 hits per month is $300/month. If your site has more than 20,000 hits a month, you will need to purchase the enterprise level, which, at several thousands of dollars a month, would no longer be a low-cost budget option.

Ning –

Comparable to KickApps is Ning, a similar social networking platform created by former Netscape founder Marc Andreessen. For the less technologically-sophisticated, basic users can set up a social network with point-and-click setup options.

Much like KickApps, Ning offers image slideshows, music, audio/video, forums/message boards, blogs, RSS, search, widget creation, tagging, CSS for customized design, membership creation, content moderation and usage stats. Ning also offers Facebook integration and an events calendar tool, but does not support rating/ranking features.

The free version has advertising, but it can be disabled for $20 a month.

Google Friend Connect –

If you want to test the waters before diving head first into social networking technologies, this tool from the Google team allows you to implement commenting and ranking on your site. By adding a snippet of code to your site, you can launch commenting and community social features immediately without programming.

To support the posting of user messages, the administrative area allows for moderation and easy removal of comments/messages. You can choose to allow posts in real-time or to require moderation. You can also choose to allow anonymous posts or require a site membership login (via Google) and can block membership, if necessary.

The resulting commenting area looks and acts much like a Facebook Wall, where site users can add feedback to share with the visiting community. 

Google Friend Connect lets you pick and choose from built-in functionality like user registration, invitations, member’s gallery, reviews and message posting, as well as additional third-party applications built by the popular OpenSocial developer community. The interface makes it extremely easy to adjust size and colors as well to match your site branding.

Note that you need a free Google account to set up Friend Connect.

Kampyle –

If you're looking for a free tool to engage your constituents in discussion, Kampyle is a handy free feedback management platform to increase customer loyalty and satisfaction.

Using a simple wizard, you can make basic style edits to the Kamplye tool and quickly deploy it on your site to solicit ratings and ranking as well as collect valuable feedback. The back-end offers tools to analyze and manage your Web site visitors' feedback. Kampyle allows you to create multiple feedback forms for different locations of your Web site so that you may customize relevant questions for each page's content.


Many free and easy tools exist to update and upgrade your site;  more are coming on-line each day and may be a perfect fit for your museum’s need. However, it’s important to keep in mind that you should not implement technology for technology's sake.

As with any communications plan, your implementation should not be wedded to any particular technology, but instead, aligned with the people, objectives and strategies of your museum.

Take a realistic, critical look at the people visiting your Web site. What are their age ranges, levels of computer savvy and Web proficiency?  You need to delve into not only who they are, but also what they want from their experience on your site. Some people like to create content; such as uploading photos or posting their ideas, while others are happier as critics who judge and comment on the Web actions of others. Determining the levels of engagement that your audiences will expect should come before you decide what technologies to implement.

Only then, armed with this critical focus, can you select technology that meets your needs. 


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Cite as:

Masri, L., and E. Grossman, Pimp My Web Site: Tech Tools to Redesign and Reinvigorate Museum Web Sites on a Budget . In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2009. Consulted