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What makes a good museum website?

A website offers the chance to bring the essence of a museum to a virtual platform, but what can be done to ensure that nothing is lost in translation?

Museums are havens of knowledge, experience, and emotional resonance. Nothing quite beats the sensation of walking through a museum’s inspiring halls, but this can make projecting what makes that museum special onto a digital platform somewhat challenging.

When done well, a museum website can be hugely beneficial. Like museums themselves, these online presences should be a feast for the senses, a hub for user-generated content and an experience that showcases creativity.

It’s important for museums to ask themselves the right questions when it comes to creating a digital platform: does it reflect our identity as an organisation? Does it appeal to visitors? What does it need? What trends should we be considering and which should we ignore? What would make this site more appealing? And, of course, what mistakes should we try to avoid?

Factors like target audience, area of expertise and location can all have an impact on the way a museum website works. And while each institution’s web presence should undoubtedly feel fresh and unique, there are some things that every good museum site should do.

Let’s take a closer look.

Exhibition and collection promotions that are exciting, with direct CTAs

It’s important to think ahead when it comes to curating a museum’s website. For that’s essentially what a museum website is: an online curation; one that reflects exactly what it is that makes a particular establishment so special.

In order to do this successfully, exciting and interactive elements are necessary. Take the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Wakefield, UK as an example. On their website, users are encouraged to take part in their interactive Sculpture Cam – allowing them to explore works from every angle and then create and share their own 3D animations.

Meanwhile, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago website features an online gallery of tagged social media images from visitors. Website users can hover over an image and learn more about a particular exhibit, with a direct call to action (CTA) that promotes ticket sales.

CTAs are a vital end point for online content. Research by Grow & Convert suggests that powerful calls to action can increase website conversion rates by as much as 25%.

User-generated content that falls outside the box

It’s all too easy to spend too much time worrying about the kind of content digital visitors will want to see, but one way to tackle this issue is to allow users to generate some of the museum content themselves.

For example, the Royal Ontario Museum encourages visitors to share photos and videos of their time at the museum and upload them to social media using the hashtag #atROM. The museum then features the most creative posts on their website.

As a result of this, visitors spend around four times longer on the website. Allowing users to contribute to the museum is a direct way also helps to create a loyal community of followers.

Content that reflects the target audience

Understanding a museum’s target audience is a vital step to creating the right kind of website. Art galleries may wish to create a lofty, timeless ambience with their website, while a science museum targeted towards children and families will likely use lots of colour, noise and interactivity.

This helps to generate a more personalised experience for website users, something the Denver Art Museum has demonstrated effectively. Through their ‘Make Art More Accessible’ campaign, the museum is able to curate individual content for visitors based on their UGC. According to Samantha Robb, communications and public affairs coordinator at the museum, this campaign aimed to hammer home the message that “art is for everyone”.

Showcasing the museum experience

Generally speaking, people visit museums in order to see their exhibitions, so it isn’t too much of a leap of faith to assume that many museum website visitors are online in order to find out more about the pieces currently on display.

It is always important that museums are able to meet these demands by showing their exhibitions online. This could be as simple as providing further information on some key pieces – The Louvre, for example, has an entire section of the website dedicated to the Mona Lisa, including an accompanying video ­– or it could be an interactive look at the museum as a whole.

The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Australia features full video walkthroughs of exhibitions on their website, giving detailed analysis of certain pieces alongside views of the exhibition in its entirety. Viewers are then invited to book tickets, plan their experience and explore more exhibitions and events.

Mobile transferability

In November 2016, mobile internet traffic exceeded desktop traffic for the first time. Since then, the mobile revolution has only continued to grow, with most of us now relying on mobile devices for our browsing rather than a desktop computer.

This means that good mobile performance is now crucial to any website’s success, including that of a museum. While some museums simply transfer their desktop site to a mobile platform, others take the move as an opportunity to create two distinct homepages with different feels and navigation spotlights.

The V&A in London appears radically different in its mobile form when compared to its desktop site. The latter offers a more sprawling, overarching view of the museum’s features and exhibitions, while the mobile site shines a light on a particular exhibition first and foremost, then highlights key information such as opening times.

The ideal museum website pairs creativity with common sense

None of these website features are radical or controversial, but what they do offer is a creative way to provide museum audiences with the content they want to see. The same rules that apply to the physical museum space also apply to its website: a space that’s engaging and information; a space that’s easy to navigate; a space that makes amazing content accessible. By achieving this, museums can succeed in translating their establishment to a digital platform.

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About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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