What is the main aim of a museum website? Browsing the internet, you quickly conclude that this is to promote the institution to potential visitors. This is of course a worthwhile aim, museums would not exist without an audience, but I believe that museum websites can be much more.
The starting point for all digital activities within a museum should be its mission, this is likely to be to educate, to inspire, to preserve and to share (or similar). Visitor figures have a role in a museum, but these should be a way to measure how many people we are reaching, not the reason that the institution exists.
The solution I believe is for museum websites to become hubs for ideas, publishing platforms which allow institutions to pursue their missions by sharing knowledge and inspiration with the public.
Walker Art Center recently did this, becoming a digital hub for not just contemporary art which is hanging in their institution, but for contemporary art as a whole. The result was a 40% increase in traffic to their website and a digital experience which seems to ties in more closely with their mission.
Old Attitudes to Museum Websites
For the Walker Art Center website to grow beyond being primarily a marketing tool they had to invest in the team who produce their website, adding members of staff to manage and produce the huge quantity content needed to keep this ideas hub constantly changing.
Many have said that this added expense means that other institutions are unlikely to move their websites towards being publishing platforms. ‘Museums don’t have the budget to do this’ they say.
The Walker art Center has an annual turnover of around $17 million, and the idea that a few extra staff would put a huge strain on this budget is preposterous, they have simply decided to fund their website over something else.
I believe that even much smaller institutions could do the same, but there seems an unwillingness to divert funds from the physical museum to pay for digital activities, perhaps because many institutions see websites as primarily a marketing tool and things which happen in the physical museum as delivering on mission.
An Open Letter to Museum Directors
Museum leaders need to rethink digital, and look at it from a more strategic perspective, one which can really deliver on the mission of the institution and the needs of the public. Museum leaders need to recognise that a powerful website can deliver just as much as a powerful exhibition and fund the roles within the institution to produce something credible online.
If museums see updating their websites as something which their marketing people can do in a couple of hours per week, then they are missing a huge opportunity to step beyond the walls of their institutions and settling for little more than digital leaflets.
I believe that our website have a real role to play in delivering on the mission of museums, but to do that, we need to be prepared to invest in them.
About the author – Jim Richardson
Jim Richardson is the founder of MuseumNext. He has worked as a consultant to the museum sector for more than twenty years advising on technology and leadership. Jim now splits his time between running innovation consultancy for museums and leading our museum conferences around the globe.