Thinking differently about museum websites
It's tough to "think different". If it wasn't, we'd all be Steve Jobs. Yet that's exactly what those in museum management need to do when it comes to embracing technology and using their websites to effectively engage a broader audience.
Most museums woefully underutilize their websites. There are a lot of reasons for this (none of them good):
- Many museum executives don't spend much time online. When it comes to using the Internet, most people think others act just like them, which is a big mistake
- A "museum" has traditionally meant a physical space where a physical collection is catalogued and cared for. The web has been used to point people to the physical space, rather than being used as a venue in its own right
- Museum management is exceptionally risk-averse when it comes to investing in technology. A $30,000 website redesign project that goes only a few percentage points over budget is considered a big problem, while at the same time the budget for a special marketing initiative runs 30% over budget and millions are spent on design of a new exhibition
- Opening up the web is sometimes seen as a loosening of curatorial control over the "story" of the museum's collection
- Some feel their museums are not about technology
In order for museums to stay relevant, museum executive directors and boards need to move beyond their comfort zones and develop a new way of thinking about their website for audience development and outreach.
Museum websites can (and should!) be used in unique, inventive ways to supplement what's happening at their physical galleries, and to engage new audiences. The museum website needs to be seen as a venue in its own right, not simply a digital brochure listing the exhibits at the physical space.
At Plein Air, we work with the Maine Maritime Museum, which has largest collection of shipbuilding tools in the world, and is the only place where people can tour an active naval facility.
Researchers from around the world contact MMM via their website for information on the craft of maritime construction. We're gradually trying to bring more information to them on the site.
Many of these people will never visit the physical museum, but they can be provided with a useful and rewarding user experience on the museum's website. This is a new audience the museum was unable to reach before the Internet.
Done right, a great and rewarding user experience on the MMM's website just might be enough to turn this new audience into supporters, members and donors - advocates of the museum's mission.
Those in museum management need to embrace the web, educate their boards and invest in new technology and digital creative services to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the web and engage this new audience.