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published: March 2004
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October 28, 2010

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  License
Museums and the Web 2003 Papers


From Content Expert to Stakeholder: Using Online Tools to Bring Museum Staff to the Table

Willy Lee, Webmaster, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, USA


As the Web has become more mainstream and institutional demand for web projects rises, can we turn non-technical content matter experts into stakeholders? With the advancement of simple authoring tools and the proliferation of database driven applications, can these experts create their own projects? This paper addresses these questions with a look at recent projects from simple ways to help non-technical staff to visualize new concepts to collections management system based authoring tools.

Keywords: Content Management, Distributed Authoring, Database tools.


The days of clandestine web sites are numbered. More and more people are turning online for their always available source of information. As museums cut printing costs further, demand is shifted to the internet as a "free" resource. The model of one or two people managing the entire web site for a large museum is getting quickly outdated, but budgets are slow to follow. How can we involve more staff in the creation of web content and meet the growing demand with the same amount of resources?

Templates and "easy" editors

There are countless design firms waiting to sell you a set of templates you can easily fill with your content using "easy" editors like Macromedia DreamWeaver or Microsoft FrontPage. The templates would be customized for your own look and feel and you would be free to create the content. This solution would be fine for a small site that is not expected to grow at any appreciable rate. This method quickly gets complicated when these programs are used to create more features and content than originally accounted for in the initial design. Just as desktop publishing software led to a rash of unprofessional newsletters, this methodology is leading to a rash of unprofessional web sites. This often leads to sites that are fairly challenging to use and are poorly designed.

Commercial content management solutions

Content management systems promised to be the next big thing. They would allow an organization to create a web site simply using a design template and a database that would supply all the necessary content. By simplifying the technical aspect, these systems were to be managed by less technical editors using online forms to create web sites. These are not a panacea for organizations that want to have a larger web presence but do not want to keep a dedicated technical staff. It is tempting to think that you could buy one of these systems, spend some time with a design firm to customize the site for your use, and end up with a perpetual system for less than the cost of employing technical staff. For the most part, these content management systems are outside of the types of software that ISPs offer with shared hosting, so these require a dedicated or collocated server, further increasing costs for many museums. Server maintenance along with the management of user rights and passwords create a demand for staff that you may not have. These solutions can make sense in places where you have hundreds of content creators and sufficient staff to manage the content management solution. Even in cases like this, commercial content management systems may not make sense. There may not be a significant cost savings in such systems when compared to a robust system that draws data from existing internal databases and applications.

The case for custom applications (even without technical staff!)

A more manageable solution would be to create small scale custom applications. These can be written in one of many application languages like PHP, perl, ColdFusion, or ASP. These languages are often available with the fairly basic hosting packages that ISPs offer. These methods are even available to museums without dedicated technical staff. An experienced web programmer should be easily able to provide a solution that would be simple to manage in house. These applications can scale to the size of your vision and budget.

Custom applications can also constrain content managers to simple structures. This may sound like a disadvantage, but it often helps keep a site clear and navigable. On the flip side, larger custom applications can create a comprehensive site that can draw data from internal systems like collections management systems, scheduling systems, and even ticketing. This is a big deal. Connections like these allow a single source of information to serve multiple audiences and insure that all these users get the most recent information.

Case studies: Three different applications

For items like the press releases, job opportunities, exhibition listings and events calendar, content holders use a series of online forms that allow them to add content to preexisting pages. There is no set number of pages, but the application dictates the section of the site it appears in and how links between sections work. The events section of the artsmia.org site follows this model. By moving from static web pages to a dynamic application, the site was able to remove events as they happened so the site didn't appear out of date. It also gave control of the content to those who were more connected with it while freeing up time for the technical staff. In addition, the system in place was able to use the same data to simplify other aspects of museum operations. So while the application took data for the web site, it also created the tour sign up sheet used by the docents eliminating a task that the tour schedulers were doing on a monthly basis.

Another type of application can draw directly from the internal systems of the museum. many museum web sites are already using data from collections management systems to create large databases of online use. Custom applications can serve this purpose, but they can also extend this model. A function in The Museum System (TMS) allows users to save ordered groups of items for future use. These "object packages" are often used to keep track of projects within the museum. The Provenance reporting section of artsmia.org is managed in this fashion. Not only does it allow the curatorial staff to manage the data in an application they are already familiar with, it allows the public access to the most current data. In this case, the custom application was created not only to be used for this section, but so that it could be quickly and easily reused for other sections of the site. This level of abstraction allows the technical staff to quickly create other projects like this.

One solution often overlooked is staff use of public tools. With the success of artsconnected.org's Art Collector, we found that staff in the museum were using it as a slide library of their own, sometimes to organize a slide lecture and sometimes in place of slide lectures. Staff use of these tools can also help publicize the tools to a greater audience. These tools are often justified bby their use for the public, but it pays to look for ways to use them internally as well.

How do these models affect staff?

These systems may seem like they simply shift the work from technical staff to the rest of the staff, but more often than not, they can be designed to reproduce the brochures, labels, and other printed matter that staff were already authoring for. Just as the first generations of web sites borrowed liberally from the existing printed matter, the model works in reverse, in fact, it often saves time since the content is already entered digitally and can be simply imported into other applications. From the simple example of docent sign up sheets mentioned above to complete catalogs, once authored, this content can be reused over and over again. In some cases, museums have eliminated printed pieces and moved to online publishing of certain materials to save on printing and mailing costs.

Here's the secret. As staff become more involved in the process of creating content for the site, the site becomes deeper and richer. As staff become more involved, they come to see the site as another place to do their jobs and content comes more freely. Instead of seeing themselves as a resource used to make content, they feel like the end products as their own creations. There is nothing that can inspire a better product than ownership.