MUSEUMS AND THEIR WEBSITES:
AN EXAMINATION AND ASSESSMENT OF HOW MUSEUMS ARE COPING WITH THE CHALLENGE OF THE WORLD WIDE WEB
Richard SabinMA in Museum Studies
Institute of Archaeology, University College London, 31-34 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PY, United Kingdom
AbstractInternet traffic has increased dramatically over the past two years, due mainly to developments in the World Wide Web. Museum websites are also appearing on-line at an equally rapid pace. In this study, I shall examine how museums are coping with the challenge of the World Wide Web. This will be done through a combination of case studies, interviews, and an interchange of ideas/opinions with museum professionals world-wide, via the Internet.
IntroductionThe main aim of this report is to examine how museums world-wide are coping with the challenges of developing sites for the World Wide Web (WWW). It is my intention to examine specific issues which have arisen as a result of museums designing and maintaining a presence on the WWW. These issues include:
This report is not intended to be a technical document by any means; I shall leave the analysis of hardware and software specifications to those more familiar with these topics. My aim is to examine the 'finished product' -- that is, the graphics/text etc. -- which appears on screen when a website is accessed.
- The "Why?" of museum websites -- why museums feel it necessary to develop a presence for themselves on the WWW
- The cost of maintenance of websites, including staff commitments and quality control
- The intended audience -- who are these websites being designed for? Who (if any) are the proposed end-users (current and future)?
- Accessibility -- just what is being made available at present? Are websites helping to make museum collections more accessible?
- Hits! -- how can museums calculate the success of their websites?
- Copyright considerations -- a look at the problems a museum can encounter when making images and/or information more accessible.
Because of the current lack of detailed published work relating to the specific uses of the WWW by museums generally, I have approached many museum professionals directly, both in person and through the use of electronic mail (e-mail), to obtain as much original source material as possible. I shall be making extensive use of material taken from interviews which I conducted with key members of staff from the Natural History Museum (London, UK), the Science Museum (London, UK) and the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, UK). I will also draw heavily upon reference materials obtained from research undertaken over a five month period (May - September 1996), through my participation in two on-line discussion groups:
Both discussion groups are Internet-based services, freely available upon joining. Membership to these groups has allowed me to discuss issues with museum professionals world-wide, drawing upon their experiences and valuable expertise.
- MUSWEB-L: the Museum Web Development Discussion List: a discussion list for individuals concerned with the development, design, implementation and maintenance of museum websites.
- MUSEUM-L: the General Museum Discussion List: a discussion list for all individuals either working in, or with a general/specific interest in the broader spectrum of museology.
At the outset, I shall clarify the nature of the Internet and the World Wide Web and demonstrate why they have become so useful to museums. I shall illustrate what I believe to be the "evolutionary" relationship between computerised collections documentation, the Internet, interactive multimedia, and museum websites. I shall continue by discussing the sudden growth in popularity of the WWW over the past two years, and will conclude with an examination and discussion of the possible future potential of museum websites.
The full WWW addresses of all museum websites discussed in this report appear at the end of this paper in Appendix 1.
The Internet and the World Wide WebThe Internet is a global network of networks enabling computers of all kinds to directly communicate and share services throughout much of the world (Internet Society, 1996). Because the Internet is an enormously valuable enabling capability for so many people and organisations, it also constitutes a shared global resource of information, knowledge, and a means of collaboration and co-operation among countless diverse communities (Internet Society, 1996). The technical standards that form the basis of network communications were developed by the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), in order to provide a communications structure that formed a decentralised alternative to the existing communications infrastructure in the event of a global nuclear war (Jones-Garmil, 1994). The October 1969 launch of the ARPAnet marked the beginnings of the Internet as we know it today (Jones-Garmil, 1994).
The World Wide Web (WWW) was initially developed in 1989 at CERN, a particle physics laboratory based in Geneva, Switzerland (McLaurin, 1995). The WWW is a hypertext-based distributed information system allowing users of the Internet to create, edit, or browse through documents on-line (Jones-Garmil, 1994). Hypertext is a technology that allows for linking of text, graphics, images, audio, video, etc., in a computer application to approximate the way in which a person conducts research, or the way in which the human thought processes work (Jones-Garmil, 1994).
By 1986, the original ARPAnet had been split into two networks, one for military communications, the other for the expanding amount of research, business, and personal traffic appearing on the ARPAnet, and it was this latter network which, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, was mandated to encourage more general Internet use by providing free access to students, academic staff, and contractors at selected universities across the USA (Jones-Garmil, 1994).
The Internet can provide vast amounts of valuable information in various forms: data which is largely text-only is useful to researchers and administrators alike (Jones-Garmil, 1994), whereas e-mail, real-time written interactions, audio and video conferencing, or directory services to discover the addresses of people, are of particular use to businesses (Internet Society, 1996). The WWW however (itself a service available via the Internet), can present information in a much more exciting, dynamic, and visually appealing way, with a far greater capacity for random non-linear access and a more general appeal to a wider audience. It is this factor, plus the relative ease with which one can create a Web presence (home pages, etc.), that has made the WWW so attractive to museums and other institutions.
Paving the Way for Museum websites: Developments in Technology, Collections Management and Interactive Multimedia
Affordable Technology:Computer technology can now be found in virtually all areas of our day-to-day lives: at work, in our homes, at the supermarket, in our hospitals, at the airport, etc. The development of micro-circuitry and silicon-chip technology in the late 1970's - early 1980's, resulted in computers becoming generally more affordable to a much wider group of consumers. This, combined with the appearance of user-friendly, powerful operating systems like 'Microsoft Windows', turned computers into valuable tools for a seemingly endless range of applications. Museums, too, began to realise the potential of using affordable computer technology for a variety of collections-based operations, although as early as the mid-1960's, the view was that computers could possibly offer a means of preparing national catalogues, to which all museums might contribute and themselves have access (Lewis, 1965).
Collections Management:Since the early 1970's, The Natural History Museum in London has been using computers to list its annual accessions, and to produce inventories of its zoological collections, arranged by specimen type, species, etc. (Hussey, 1996). Computers were chosen for this task, and continue to be used for the following reasons (see Table 1).
Table One (after Gill, 1995)
The information held on computer databases is easier to:The accountability pressure on museums to adopt more efficient methods for stocktaking and inventory control, plus demands for greater accessibility of information, was often the starting-point for the development of new recording systems, at a time of increasing awareness of the potential of computers as a powerful tool for data processing and management (Wentz, 1995). In the United Kingdom, increased use of computers by museums for managing their collections inevitably led the professional body -- the Museums and Galleries Commission -- to raise the issue of data standards. It became apparent that an opportunity may have arisen to open up the information resources of UK museums. This led to important developments on two fronts:
- Search (interrogation of the data)
- Sort (arrange into order as required)
- Safeguard (make back-up copies and store remotely)
- Modify (edit, amend, etc.)
- Output (produce lists, catalogues, etc.)
1) The Museums and Galleries Commission forming the LASSI Consortium of UK Museums (LASSI: Larger Scale Systems Initiative) -- initially a group of nine museums and galleries working together to produce a detailed analysis and specification for collections management computer software (MGC, LASSI Consortium, 1995).
2) The Museum Documentation Association developing SPECTRUM -- the UK museum documentation standard: a set of guidelines concerning standard procedural requirements for collections recording used in museums (Miles et al, 1994).
Further, the Museum Documentation Association, in partnership with Chadwyck-Healey Ltd, set up the UK Museums Databases Project, which aims to collect, publish, and distribute computer databases from individual museums and groups of museums (The UK Museums Databases Project: Pilot Database, 1989).
In the wider museums world, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) made the following resolution (resolution 89/4) at its 1989 General Assembly in The Netherlands (see Table 2).
Table Two (from Roberts, 1989)
Documentation and Information:Internationally, the museum community had realised the importance and potential which lay within the opportunity to share data between institutions, and between countries. The Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) was amongst the first of the national inventories to emerge. To date, details of approximately twenty-five million objects from Canada's museum collections have been entered onto the CHIN database, which is stored centrally in Ottawa (Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1996). Other information available also includes data on human history, Canada's archaeological sites, conservation information, bibliographic references, and research aids in the humanities (Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1996).
[ICOM] Recommends that:
- Recognising that there is need for dissemination of information on museum objects and their context to increase understanding of cultural heritage
- Considering that the proper documentation of museum objects is essential for their safeguarding
- Realising the value of information about legislation in different countries to protect and preserve the cultural heritage
- Museums in all countries be encouraged to develop and implement effective methods of bringing together and disseminating all manner of museum information
- ICOM encourage and promote the development of museum information among professionals, institutions, and countries
- There should be closer collaboration between museum curators, conservators-restorers, and educators in the production of publications on collections, exhibitions, and objects so as to provide precise information about them
- Museums should make proper inventories and encourage the fullest documentation of objects reflecting both material and non-material culture
- ICOM promote the documentation and publication of information about legislation in different countries to protect and preserve the cultural and natural heritage
Interactive Multimedia:With the rapid advances in computer technology (the production of the laser disc and CD-ROM), and developments in collections documentation, interactive multimedia began to make an appearance in museums.
Multimedia is one of the most "hyped aspects of modern computer applications; some of the marketing can mislead people into thinking that there is something special or mysterious about multimedia, which is not the case (Gill, 1995)." The term 'multimedia,' describes a computer program for education and/or entertainment that allows interactive non-linear navigation through the content, and includes at least three of the following elements (Gill, 1995):
Multimedia, particularly in the context of front-of-house exhibitions, may be viewed as the offspring of computerised collections documentation/management. The ever-increasing capacity of multimedia to provide access through the screen to the world's storehouses of information and scholarship, its potential to enhance the experience of visitors to museums, and its in-house applications to the management of museum collections, touches the quick of museological raison d' etre (Wright, 1995).
- Still images
- Animated images
Some examples of interactive multimedia in museums:
Table Three (Gill, 1995)How can multimedia be used?
- To enhance gallery displays: object information can be provided and supplemented with related information such as narratives or historical backgrounds, putting displayed objects into context.
- To increase access: more information about objects on display can be made available than with traditional labels, but in manageable "bite-sized" chunks, because the visitor can choose which avenue of investigation to follow and therefore which information is displayed. Information can also be included about objects not on display (e.g. held in reserve collections, etc.).
- Education: multimedia programmes can be used to enhance the educational content of gallery displays and education centres, and National Curriculum (UK) support can be provided by linking the content to the topics in different subjects and at various Key Stage levels.
- Publishing: multimedia programmes are now a consumer commodity, the vast majority of which are published on CD-ROM (compact disk read only memory). Although the initial production costs are relatively high, once this has been achieved, large quantities of copies can be pressed extremely cheaply.
1) My Brighton: an interactive exhibition at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, UK.
John Roles, Senior Keeper at the Royal Pavilion, discusses in his paper (Roles, 1995) how his museum used interactive multimedia to create an exhibition that attempted to move away from traditional means of communication (text in the form of a label, text panel, or printed catalogue), removing the language which all too often exudes a form of pseudo-professionalism which can alienate a great majority of museum visitors. He acknowledges that changes in society are leading to different audience expectations: "it is becoming increasingly important that one's leisure time is 'quality' time, ...and long, rambling exhibitions requiring much reading and standing about are becoming less appealing (Roles, 1995)." A well designed multimedia exhibit can allow you to sample, proceed at your own pace, and progress by whim if you so choose (Roles, 1995). My Brighton, was an inclusive community education project working with members of the local community to create a peoples' history of the town, presented as a multimedia exhibit. The project set out to break down some of the barriers between museum curators, professional historians, and the general public (Roles, 1995). Through a combination of oral history, research, photography, video, and information from the town's museums and archives, the efforts of over one hundred and twenty people created an opportunity for visitors to navigate in a non-linear fashion through vast amounts of information displayed using touch-screen computer technology (Roles, 1995). The exhibition has enticed new audiences in the museum, and has brought the museum into contact with new areas of the community, providing visitors with an opportunity to access on a number of different levels a large quantity of images (approx. 2500) from the museums reserve collections (Roles, 1995).
2) The Micro Gallery, part of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, London, UK.
Displaying over 2200 paintings, with over a thousand secondary illustrations, dozens of animations, and some three hundred thousand words of supporting text, the Micro Gallery system represents probably one of the largest systems of its kind in the world (Cognitive Applications, 1994). The function of the Micro Gallery is to provide visitors with information about the collection, information that is relevant to their visit to the National Gallery (Ellis, 1991). My own visit to the National Gallery to try the Micro Gallery system was both enjoyable and informative. The system, based upon computer terminals using touch-screen technology, was very easy to learn, taking less than five minutes for me to become fully conversant with the method of operation. The data can be accessed in a non-linear fashion, using a fully searchable index. Each screen contained hypertext "hotlinks" to other relevant information. The screens were colourful and well laid-out, with each painting being described in both artistic and historical detail. Information was also available about the artist. The images themselves were (obviously) reduced in size to fit on the screen, and whilst this did detract from the quality of the painting, it must be remembered that the Micro Gallery system is there to "enhance the visit by enabling [visitors] to find out more about any particular area of interest, ...it is not seen as any kind of substitute for the real thing, quite the opposite (Ellis, 1991)." The language used in the descriptive text was readable (not laden with terminology) and very informative. Information was also available about paintings not on display, but held in the reserve collections. A major feature of the system was the ability to interrogate the data to find paintings of interest, to 'save' these details, and then to print them out onto a floor plan of the National Gallery, that indicated exactly the area in which they were located. This feature I found, allowed me to make full use of my relatively short visit, and maximised the amount of enjoyment and information I was able to gain.
'Big Web' Is Watching You!Estimates of current numbers of users of the Internet range from more than 30 million to more than 100 million world-wide, depending upon which source you use. One fact which is agreed upon is that the main reason for the phenomenal growth in the numbers of Internet users over the past two years (1994-1996) and the sudden interest of the business community, has been due to the development of the World Wide Web, which has enabled the Internet to become a global multimedia (Sim, 1995). Turn on the television, a significant number of advertisements and current affairs programmes now display a WWW address in their final frame. Many magazines, newspapers, travel brochures, etc. feature WWW addresses to a greater or lesser extent. There must be a reason for this interest in the Web. Commercial organisations may see the Web as a way of extending their marketing potential. The commercial investment in a Web presence is interesting considering that unlike televisions, which appear to be a common item in most homes in the UK, personal computers are still beyond the reach (at least financially) of a large proportion of the population. According to Duffy and Yacovissi (1996), the Web holds appeal for all 'for profit' enterprises because it is a controlled channel to demographically attractive audience segments and affinity groups: to economic and attitudinal elites if you will. Perhaps they see the computer-literate as a group of white collar professionals, and families (who have purchased PCs) with enough disposable income to be worth focusing extra attention upon.
The World Wide Web - Why Bother? Professional Views:Where does the Web fit in? At the Annual General Meeting of the UK Museums Association in 1984, the following definition was adopted:
"A museum is an institution which collects, documents, preserves, exhibits, and interprets material evidence and associated information for the public benefit."
The International Council of Museums gives the following definition:
"ICOM shall recognise as a museum any permanent institution which conserves and displays for the purpose of study, education, and enjoyment, collections of objects of cultural or scientific significance."
So where in these remits does the creation and maintenance of a museum website fit in? Why do some museums bother to invest time, personnel, resources, and finance into a medium which has a limited audience (in terms of the hardware required to access the service), and how can museums know what to offer 'virtual' visitors, when no comprehensive survey of museum website visitor demographics exists? (to my knowledge).
"I am rather hooked on the idea of experiencing the physical and everything that goes with it. At best, so far, their websites have only sent me a postcard from their museum. Can they do more than this? Do they want to do more than this?" (Nuske, 02/06/1996).
These questions, posed by Jennifer Nuske to members of the MUSEUM-L discussion group, do raise some interesting points:
1) Should museums try to recreate their physical presence in a virtual WWW context?
2) Can museums accomplish more with the contents of their websites than merely giving the impression of a 'postcard'?
3) Do museums actually want to provide more interesting, innovative, and exciting data on their websites?
Robert Guralnik of the Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley, USA, feels that none of the museum websites he has visited are anything like a physical museum, and indeed, why should they be? (Guralnik, 02/06/1996). Initially, I too fell foul of the idea that museum websites represented some form of 'virtual' on-line visitor experience, that from the comfort of your own home, you could access the treasures of a museum via computer, and wander in three dimensions through its galleries. I was soon to find out that this is not the case. And yes, why should it be? In a later communication, Jennifer Nuske expanded on her earlier remarks, saying that she does not just tie the physical experience of visiting a museum to the object, rather that the ideas a museum presents, challenges or enshrines are often more valuable and infinitely more interesting than many of the objects themselves (Nuske, 03/06/1996). The main point here is that museum websites do often disappoint the first-time visitor. It seems to be a popular misconception amongst the uninitiated (and here again, I am speaking from bitter experience), that the Internet is a single, vast, global database, fully searchable and regularly updated, and that museum websites are actually meant to be virtual replicas of the physical museum space. Of course, neither of these statements is anywhere near the truth. The majority of the world's museums still have a long way to go before they can take full advantage of the rapidly developing Web technology which is available to them. The main limiting factors being lack of time, lack of money, lack of expertise (to be discussed later), and a discrepancy between the amount of collections information/interpretative museum data which is actually ready to be transmitted on-line, and the amount of museum data which Web users expect to see.
Another important issue raised by some museum professionals is that of museum websites putting physical museums out of business. Although I have just mentioned the subject of museum website content (above), it is a very real concern to some that Web access may lure potential museum visitors away (Standage, 1995). Many others however, believe that it is very unlikely that website visitors will regard a virtual museum visit as a substitute for the real thing, rather, that the knowledge a museum exists in a certain country/area which has been gained from a trip to its website, will increase the likelihood of you actually visiting that museum (Standage, 1995). Neil Thomson of the Natural History Museum, is also of the opinion that the WWW will encourage people to visit museums, rather than deter them, if the museum website is used to stimulate interest by displaying items that users may not previously have known were available (Thomson, 1996).
In response to the frequently put 'Why bother with websites?' question, Art Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso, and subscriber to MUSWEB-L (09/06/1996), proposed the following reasons why his museum had developed a Web presence:
1) To give some basic information about the museum and exhibits: mission statement, open hours, permanent exhibitions (very general), special exhibits, special museum activities, etc. These details are aimed primarily at the regional population in the hope that it will be helpful to them.
2) To give access to some museum images that we think might be of general interest
3) To act as a resource for regional teachers for information on the natural history of the region through checklists of local animals, images and brief descriptions of local wildlife, information on plants used in native-plant landscaping, etc. Also, provision of links to other sites that we feel fit our museum's mission.
4) Oriented less to the general public is information that we hope is useful to researchers, including some information on the research collections and personnel, as well as a link to a site where researchers can find what institutions (including ours) have holdings of specific research material.
5) There is also a certain degree of local prestige (although not much) to be on the Web and at least 'trying' to present things important to the region. As lack of sufficient funding pinches more and more, public relations tends to assume greater and greater importance.
A point I would make at this juncture, is that museum websites, regardless of their content, could be viewed as a form of 'electronic' outreach, not only into the immediate community, but into the wider world. Obviously, Web content will determine the response which a museum gets from its on-line audience. So, what is out there?
What Is Out There?Web users have access to the best selection of museum offerings, especially if they start from the pages at the Oxford University Computing Laboratory, where John Bowen maintains what seems to be one of the most comprehensive collections of museum Web addresses world-wide -- the Virtual Library of Museums (Grossman, 1995). A diverse range of museums can be found on the WWW either by using a facility such as the one offered by John Bowen, or by using another Web facility known as a 'search engine.' There are several search engines available on the Web, and they all offer varying degrees of service. A basic service is the keyword search facility -- e.g. enter the word 'museum,' and you are presented with hundreds of options in the final search result (many of which will be of little or no value).
Many museums, like the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and the London Transport Museum, use their websites in a fairly straightforward manner, offering little more than a page of opening times, details of some of the displays and basic plans of the museum. However, at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, the website is being used to provide information on the complete museum hierarchy, gallery plans, departmental structure, staff contacts, shop facilities, etc., with more detailed information given on the permanent museum collections. Much of the information remains static (unchanged) for long periods of time due to the nature of the exhibitions etc., but the website also has a page which is updated on a monthly basis, giving details of temporary exhibitions, talks, activities, etc. A visitors guest book has also been incorporated into the website, encouraging visitors to record their comments about the site.
At the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, Illinois, USA, Web design has won the museum top-ratings from several website-rating bodies (Vaughan, 10/08/1996). Apart from a visually attractive on-line dinosaur exhibition with integrated educational applications (schools), a major display of Javanese masks from the museum's collections has also been put on-line. Good quality photographs of numerous masks accompanied by catalogue information and interpretative text, makes this data useful as a basic tool for academic researchers.
Museum Websites - The Costs:
"A multifaceted organisation like a museum, lucky or skilled enough to become wildly successful in its use of the WWW, will have created a significant new workload for itself -- a whole new "exhibit area" filled with live animals and plants that need cleaning, watering, medicine, tender loving care, etc... (Rauch, 26/07/1996)."
Rauch's comments raise some significant points: namely that museum websites need to be maintained. They do not create themselves, this requires a certain degree of computer literacy and design skills; they need to be updated on a fairly regular basis to prevent data becoming outmoded or useless, and all this costs staff time and money. And how do individuals within museums justify these costs to those who hold their purse-strings? Many museums may value more highly a radio, television, or billboard advertisement, which, through more established (though costly) channels, reaches a wider portion of their audience. Robin Panza of the Carnegie Museum, USA, raises the question of exactly how much visitorship is increased with a given advertising campaign, and how does this compare with Web 'advertising'? (Panza, 02/08/1996). This is a fairly mercenary viewpoint however; should we allow museum websites to become the tools of museum marketing departments merely to attract finance? The issue here again is largely about which medium better reflects the image a museum wants to put forth (Rauch, 02/08/1996). Perhaps budget for websites could come from museum public relations or marketing departments, as long as the content is controlled and/or carefully monitored by scientific/curatorial staff (Rauch, 02/08/1996). Surely it would be wrong to put all the emphasis onto the WWW's 'draw' value only, for executing advertising and increasing visitorship. There are institutions who appear to be following this central theme of 'marketing' for their websites however, perhaps as a means of attracting more finance. One such institution is the California Academy of Sciences, USA. In a quote by Tom Moritz (25/07/1996), he outlines plans for WWW development in the California Academy of Science's Museum context:
"Definition of Overall Goals/Objectives for WWW Development:
Increased awareness and promotion ('Marketing'):
1) To Increase Awareness: the effort to educate defined audiences about the museum and its constituent programmes, services and products; to make the museum internationally known and appropriately respected.
2) To Promote: Promotion in the sense of presenting the museum as an attractive, appealing destination for paying visitors or as a highly eligible recipient of grants or donations. 'Promotion' may also involve the direct sales of products or services (via the Web or conventionally). Secure forms of cyber-cash are relatively well developed and this suggests the possibility of sales revenues flowing over the Web.
'Marketing' is thus one central goal of the museum Web development."
This is not to say that some institutions are not making a success of their websites. The UK Institute of Physics (a non-profit professional organisation for physicists) publishes its journals in electronic editions, offers a market place for products, a letters noticeboard, jobs pages, and has an annual turnover of ten million pounds, plus a team of nine people running its electronic publishing (Keene, 31/07/1996). As Keene's comments suggest, a productive, innovative, effective website needs (relatively) dedicated staff, devoting time to its development and upkeep. At the Natural History Museum, London, UK, a highly interactive portion of the museum's Web pages - the 'Science Casebook' (to be evaluated later), takes approximately three person-months in total to develop, and is implemented by a two-person team: one researcher and one designer/technician (Johnson, J. 08/07/1996). Many people who subscribe to MUSWEB-L have admitted to producing their museums websites in their own time. It is not going to be long before these sites need to be updated (Quinn, 02/06/1996), and for how long can a museum expect staff to continue maintenance in this way? Once a Web presence is created, it must be maintained to avoid stasis or abandonment. Art Harris (04/06/1996) believes that the importance of having a museum presence on the Web outweighs the costs: in a museum (like the Centennial Museum) with little or nothing in the way of skills or financial resources, those who have already pushed websites forward voluntarily, will continue to do so. But how do we really know how successful our museum websites are? We cannot just rely on peer criticism for guidance. How can we tackle this problem?
The 'Hits' Experience: Evaluating the Efficacy of Museum Websites:
"We are wrestling with many of the same issues already identified when upgrading websites: how to do the work in-house, how to justify the costs, how to convince those holding the money that a new site will enhance the visitor experience of those coming to the museum, and those visiting remotely. What is a good benchmark for how many page hits indicate a strong museum Web presence, and how many indicate a site that is not interesting enough? How can we evaluate what we do? How do we know what people take away with them after they have visited the site? (Downs, 04/06/1996)."
'Hits' refers to the number of people who visit a website, and are usually calculated based upon the number of requests for home page data -- i.e. the number of times a website's introductory page (containing hypertext links to the rest of the site) is downloaded on a daily/weekly/monthly basis etc. (Thomson, 1996). For many museums, these hits are used to calculate the popularity of their websites, but are only usually useful in terms of numerical accesses. Without departing from this issue and going into great amounts of unnecessary technical detail, there are other ways of calculating visits to a website:
1) Timing the length of a hit (or access) to a Web page -- assess what people may have seen based upon this time, and balance it against the known download time for that page under optimal download conditions (Johnson, K. 16/08/96).
2) Many museum servers (computer network controllers) are capable of maintaining 'refer' logs, which permit tracking of page turns within a given website. If, for example, the referrer to a given page is the website's home page, one can be pretty sure that the user stuck around long enough during the loading of the home page to pick out an interesting link on it (Karp, 16/08/1996).
3) A specific refer log known as "Book 'em Dan-O," is a readily configurable and easy way to log the time of a visit, where the user visited from (country, school, university, commercial server), and what browser software they were using (Schroeder, 16/08/1996).
4) A logfile analysis program called "Analog," developed at Cambridge University Statistical Laboratory, UK, records the following information:
Total successful requests for information
Average successful requests per day
Total successful requests for pages
Total failed requests
Total redirected requests
Number of distinct files requested
Number of distinct hosts served
Number of new hosts served in the past seven days
Corrupt logfile lines
Unwanted logfile entries
Total data transferred
Average data transferred per day
One single aspect which none of the above hits-logging techniques demonstrates, is the ability to provide museums with quality website visitor data. The given examples deal largely with quantitative not qualitative information, and, whilst it may be useful in terms of assessing how well your Web server is operating, how much of what data is being downloaded (both successfully and otherwise), and where in the world people are visiting from, none of the applications are designed to provide truly detailed demographic data. We collect information about visitors to our physical museums and use that data to improve our exhibitions, our advertising, our floor plans, etc., so why not use similar on-line data to the benefit of our websites? A number of museums have already begun to address this issue. The Smithsonian Institution website has developed an on-line questionnaire which asks for the following information:
Table FourSmithsonian Institution on-line questionnaire:
(Note: please put an 'x' against the appropriate category)
Reasons for visiting the Smithsonian Institution's Site:
News and information
Checking out events
Education (level completed):
High School Graduate or less
Post Graduate or beyond
Clerical, Sales, Technical
Precision, craft, repair
Annual Household Income (in U.S. dollars):
$25,000 to $49,999
$50,000 to $74,999
Hobbies and Interests:
What new features would you like to see on our site? (briefly outline below):
This is a good attempt by the Smithsonian to get to know its on-line audience. The data may be used to make additions or alterations to the content of the Web pages, depending upon the results of the data analysis. The request for information from users relating to features which they would like to see included on the website, gives a feeling of interactivity, an opportunity to have your say regardless of where in the world you are. This is an important first-step to attempt to understand the demographics of Web users, and one which other museums (with the time and resources to do so) would do well to follow.
ConclusionA general aim of this report was to assess how museums are coping with the challenge of the WWW. My review of the literature, plus correspondence with other museum professionals, sadly indicates that museums may not be coping well at all. Technology moves fast, cataloguing and documentation of museum collections does not. Museums face the prospect of a public which may make demands of them they cannot meet. Small museums with small collections may be able to prepare them for transmission into electronic multimedia in realistic, measurable timespans, but may lack the necessary finance. Larger museums may have the finance, but are looking at immense timescales to completely catalogue, database and digitise their vast collections. And so we face a dilemma, but if we view the Web as a place where we can challenge the boundaries of traditional museum exhibitions, a place where we can experiment with interpretation rather than relying solely on images of objects and details of accessions, perhaps there is a way that all museums can benefit. Museum curators often have a strong and highly evolved narrative sense of their subject, and it is from this narrative richness that objects acquire much of their meaning (Marshall, 1996). Museum websites have no real physical boundaries, and as my discussions with other museum professionals has shown, many exist but have no 'official' function (see earlier comment by Johnson).
I think this report has shown that many museums have people on their staff who are capable of producing interesting and innovative websites, but it is not their job (either partly or wholly) to do so. Web technology offers museums the chance to reach out to a global community, and many museums are now beginning to realise this. We cannot let the inadequacies of our physical collections prevent us from utilising this growing, global multimedia. Museums have a knowledge-base amongst their staff which could be used to provide innovative interpretations of those objects which are suitable for on-line exhibition. It would be foolhardy of us not to seize the opportunity.
List of TablesTable 1
Reasons to choose a computer database
Documentation and information - ICOM Resolution 89/4
How can multimedia be used
Smithsonian Institution on-line questionnaire
Appendix OneWorld Wide Web Addresses:
Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN), Ottawa, Canada
Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, Illinois, USA
Israel Museum, Jerusalem
London Transport Museum, London, UK
Natural History Museum, London, UK
Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK
Science Museum, London, UK
Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, USA
Victorian and Albert Museum, London, UK
Virtual Library of Museums
I would like to thank Elaine Sansom of the Institute of Archaeology, London, for helping me to refine this idea; James Johnson, the Natural History Museum, London, Kerry Riches, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and Alistair McLaurin, Science Museum, London, for graciously allowing me to pester them with my questions.
BibliographyNote: A single author entry for unpublished MUSEUM-L and MUSWEB-L correspondence may relate to several pieces of correspondence received over a number of days/weeks. Please see main text for dates received. Copies of this correspondence are available from MUSEUM-L and MUSWEB-L archives upon request.
Cognitive Applications (1994) The Micro Gallery Project. Information Sheet. Brighton: Cognitive Applications.
Downs, T. (1996) Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Unpublished correspondence, MUSWEB-L.
Duffy, B. and Yacovissi, J. (1996) "Seven self-contradicting reasons why the World Wide Web is such a big deal." In: Williams, M.E. (ed.) Proceedings of the Seventeenth National Online Meeting. Medford, New Jersey: Information Today Inc., 81-90.
Ellis, M. (1991) "Microcomputers at the National Gallery." Museum Development, August 1991, 26-30.
Gill, T. (1995) "Why use computers?" In: MDA Fact Sheet 41, How to Choose Software for Documentation. Cambridge: Museums Documentation Association, 1-5.
Gill, T. (1995) "What is multimedia?" In: MDA Fact Sheet 42, Multimedia. Cambridge: Museums Documentation Association, 1-7.
Grossman, W. (1995) "The future of history?" The Guardian, Thursday 4 May, 1995.
Guralnik, R. (1996) Museum of Paleontology, Department of Integrative Biology, U.C. Berkeley, USA. Unpublished correspondence MUSEUM-L.
Harris, A. (1996) Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso, USA. Unpublished correspondence, MUSWEB-L.
Hazan, S. (1996) Head of Multimedia Education Unit, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Unpublished correspondence, MUSWEB-L.
Hussey, C. (1996) Systems Manager for the Department of Zoology, The Natural History Museum. Personal communication.
Internet Society (1996) "What is the Internet?" Internet Society Home Page. http://www.isoc.org
Johnson, J. (1996) New Media Developer, Department of Exhibitions and Education, The Natural History Museum, London, UK. Unpublished correspondence, MUSWEB-L.
Johnson, J. (1996) New Media Developer, Department of Exhibitions and Education, The Natural History Museum, London, UK. Unpublished interview text.
Johnson, K. (1996) Webmaster, Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Unpublished correspondence, MUSWEB-L.
Jones-Garmil, K. (1994) "What will the Internet mean to museums, and what will museums mean to the Internet?" Museum News, vol. 73 (4), 33-59.
Karp, C. (1996) Unpublished correspondence, MUSWEB-L.
Keene, S. (1996) Head of Collections Management, Science Museum, London, UK. Unpublished correspondence, MUSWEB-L.
Lewis, G. (1965) "Obtaining information from museum collections and thoughts on a national index." Museums Journal, 65 (1), 12-22.
Marshall, L. (1996) "Code for a Grecian urn." Wired, September 1996. p.75-104.
McLaurin, A. (1995) "History of the World Wide Web." Science Museum Web Site. http://www.nmsi.ac.uk/usage/histweb.html
McLaurin, A. (1996) Infrastructure Resource Manager, Science Museum, London, UK. Unpublished interview text.
Miles, G. et al (1994) "Foreword." In: Grant, A. (ed.) SPECTRUM, the UK Museum Documentation Standard. Cambridge: The Museum Documentation Association.
Moritz, T. (1996) Academy Librarian and Chair, Computer Committee, California Academy of Sciences, USA. Unpublished correspondence, MUSWEB-L.
Museums and Galleries Commission LASSI Consortium of UK Museums (1995) Information leaflet: LASSI, the details. London: MGC.
Nuske, J. (1996) Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. Unpublished correspondence, MUSEUM-L.
Panza, R. (1996) Section of Birds, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, USA. Unpublished correspondence, MUSWEB-L.
Quinn, C. (1996) Dogwood Network Coordinator, British Colombia Museums Association, Canada. Unpublished correspondence, MUSWEB-L.
Rauch, P. (1996) University of Berkeley, California, USA. Unpublished correspondence, MUSWEB-L.
Riches, K. (1996) Information Officer, Department of Information Technology, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK. Unpublished interview text.
Roberts, A. (1989) "Sharing the information resources of museums." In: Roberts, A. (ed.) Sharing the Information Resources of Museums. Cambridge: The Museum Documentation Association, 2-7.
Roles, J. (1995) "My Brighton: unlocking access." In: Fahy, A. and Sudbury, W. (eds.) Information the Hidden Resource, Museums and the Internet. Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference of the Museum Documentation Association 1995. Cambridge: MDA, 175-180.
Schroeder, E. (1996) Associate Curator, Anthropology, Illinois State Museum GIS Laboratory, USA. Unpublished correspondence, MUSWEB-L.
Sim, S. (1995) "The Information Superhighway." In: Day, G. (ed.) Museum Collections and the Information Superhighway. Proceedings of the conference held on the 10 May 1995, Science Museum, London, UK. London: Science Museum.
Standage, T. (1995) "The future of history." Net, 5, April 1995, 53-56.
The UK Museum Databases Project: Pilot Database (1989). Cambridge: MDA/Chadwyck-Healey Ltd.
Thomson, N. (1996) Head of Information Technology, Department of Library Services, The Natural History Museum. Personal communication.
Vaughan, T. (1996) The Waggin' Tongue, Cultural Resource Management, Interpretation, Planning and Training, Colorado, USA. Unpublished correspondence, MUSWEB-L.
Wentz, P. (1995) "Museum information systems: the case for computerisation." In: Fahy, A. (ed.) Collections Management. London and New York: Routledge, 198-210.
Wright, P. (1995) "A strategic approach to multimedia: three roles for the museum." In: Fahy, A. and Sudbury, W. (eds.) Information the Hidden Resource, Museums and the Internet. Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference of the Museum Documentation Association 1995. Cambridge: MDA, 131-138.
The methods, techniques, and conclusions found in individual papers are the work and responsibility of the author of the paper, and should in no way be thought to represent the opinion or endorsement of either the Journal of Conservation & Museum Studies, the Institute of Archaeology, or University College London. No liability or contract is accepted or implied by the publication of these data.
Copyright © Richard Sabin, 1997. All rights reserved.