Conference Papers

Museums and the Web: An International Conference
Los Angeles, CA, March 16 - 19, 1997

Stephen Alsford
Canadian Museum of Civilization

From Pilot to Program: Organizing Content Creation as a Web Site Grows

Over the course of the last two and a half years, the Canadian Museum of Civilization's Web site (CMCweb) has developed from a modest experiment, tasked on a single individual, for the purpose of getting a feel for operating in cyberspace, into a much more ambitious venture, more central to the museum's strategic directions and harnessing the creative energies of numerous people both inside and outside the institution. The aim of this paper is to convey some of the experience gained in trying to manage this change. We continue to grapple with the problems and so I won't pretend to have any magic solutions or definitive answers, but can at least address some of the issues; notably: where responsibility for a Web site project should lie within an organization, whether content creation should be done in-house or externally, and the need for quality control.

Telling testimonials

Genesis of a Webmaster

Whose baby is it?

Content creation: who does the dirty work?

Quality control: how did we get into this mess?

Content is king ... long live content!

Author: biographical notes

Date of creation: February 10, 1997
© Archives & Museum Informatics

Telling testimonials

But first, quotations from a few of the messages received from users of CMCweb. Netiquette requires that I not identify the senders, but I assure you all the messages are genuine.

One man writes:

From a young male:

A New York parent sent this message:

A female surfer from the other side of the continent:

This female writes from Texas:

From a Professor of History, again about our Mayan online exhibit (a popular feature of our site):

From a teenager coming to the site from a cybercafé:

This last one another adult male (who originally contacted us with a complaint about technical difficulty in logging in to the members' section of our site):

I present these extracts not to blow my own horn — "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." The point I wish to convey is that the strength of CMCweb, and what its visitors appreciate most, is its depth of useful, educational content. As the last quotation correctly surmised: the number one guiding principle underlying CMCweb is that content is king. Starting from the perspective (or bias, if you will) that museums are content-rich institutions with a fundamentally educational mission, my vision of CMCweb has always been that its primary task is to help make more widely available the museum's knowledge resources. This is not to deny the value of design (graphic or educational), interactivity, or the various cool or fun elements that adjunct applications allow to be incorporated into Web pages. There is no "right" model for museum Web sites, nor is it desirable that we try to fit them into a standard mould; diversity is the spice of life. But, given that limited human and financial resources make choices necessary, my main focus is on building an extensive site covering a wide range of subjects. Novice surfers tend to be thrilled by whatever they encounter on the Web. But familiarity breeds contempt: the realization that many subject- areas, particularly in non-scientific disciplines, are very patchily covered, if at all. I've heard a number of disillusioned colleagues dismiss the Web as not having any real content (they mean, of course, in their particular area of interest). My philosophy is: it's no use complaining about it; do something to rectify it.

introduction  |  

Genesis of a Webmaster

Let me back up and provide a little historical context for the initiation and development of CMC's Web project. As a federal institution, the CMC is given by Canada's Museums Actthe purpose of increasing among Canadians a knowledge of their heritage. The museum's strategic plan takes this further by requiring it "To share and communicate its knowledge to a degree unprecedented in museums". This was one of the key principles during the '80s, when new accommodations were designed and built to house CMC, and services and programmes were entirely rethought in the process.

Our CEO, George MacDonald, saw that the museum needed to employ new technologies if it expected to remain relevant to future generations, and this vision became one cornerstone of strategic planning. A sophisticated fibre-optic LAN was put into the building. We began to record electronic images of our artifact and photo archives collections, initially on videodisc and now on Photo CD. The museum entered into strategic alliances with Digital Equipment of Canada and with Kodak Canada, in order to gain access to expertise it couldn't afford to maintain in-house. The Kodak alliance will leave us with a digital imagebase approaching 300,000 items to channel into the Web site, CD-ROMs and so on. The alliance with Digital brought us telecommunications expertise, access to up-to-date hardware and software, and a well-connected commercial sector organization wishing to work with a content-rich organization for the purpose of developing and marketing multimedia services and products. A third collaboration, with Canada's National Research Council, which has developed a digital 3-D laser scanner system, will give us an archive of three-dimensional artifact images.

In early '94 a select number of staff were given introductory Internet training, and later that year Digital proposed the idea of the museum setting up a Web site, with itself as Internet Service Provider. Our visionary CEO had no difficulty in seeing this as a logical extension of the direction the museum was pursuing, and one capable of being handled through a low-risk, low-investment pilot. Having been duly fascinated and impressed with first Gopher and then the Web itself, I volunteered or was nominated (I don't recall which, and the difference is probably moot), to plan and create the prototype Web site. We felt it would be a good idea, while the Web itself was still young, to find out what was involved in creating and maintaining a Web site, to get in at the low end of the learning curve, and to capture an audience share as quickly as possible, while there were relatively few online museums to compete with. I picked up HTML in a couple of hours, without any formal training — in those days it was less complex — and found Web page construction creatively rewarding. I was given occasional help from a staff designer and Digital provided CGI scripting and server maintenance.

My vision was much the same then as it is today: to reflect the breadth of the museum's activities and programmes, to respect the museum metaphor and explore how it might be expressed in an online environment, and to develop content of sufficient depth to encourage people needing information on diverse subjects in the field of human history to return regularly to our site. The basic goals established for the site were:

My initial task was to create a foundation that could be built upon. As I created new pages, upgraded or updated others, promoted the site to online audiences, championed the Web project within the organization (spreading awareness and advocating involvement), prepared plans for the future development of the site, drafted guidelines for managing the Web project, dealt with a growing number of user queries, and tried to come to terms with the thornier issues of site visitation statistics, I gradually settled into the role of Webmaster. Today the Web remains by far the most time-consuming of the various tasks for which, as Special Projects Officer, I am responsible.

introduction  |  

Whose baby is it?

Why has the Web project remained in my lap, rather than being passed on to some other area of operations? Where within a museum does responsibility for a Web site most naturally fall? There are both pragmatic and philosophical aspects to the answers to each question.

As for the particular circumstances of the CMC, it is part of the role of a Special Projects Officer to run with new initiatives. Since our CEO, to whose Office I am attached, was particularly keen on the Web initiative and continues to be closely involved in its strategic development, I was his natural choice to take the lead. In a large institution where staff have fairly specialized roles, individuals can often be so focused on their own area of activities, that they have a "can't see the forest for the trees" outlook (hence museological debates over the fundamental purpose of museums). My past experiences working for CMC had given me a broad overview of museological issues and museum operations and therefore a good shot at representing the various aspects of the institution in electronic form. From my education I had gained some ability to work with complex subject matter and skills in organizing information. Add to this that I had proven writing/editing skills, some computer literacy, and above all an enthusiasm for the challenge of this project, and I was perhaps a good choice. Excuse my lack of modesty, and let me add that I still keep on my PC the earliest version of the CMCweb pages I created (now long since replaced) and look at them occasionally to humble myself.

Discussions with colleagues have shown me that my circumstances are not exceptional. A number of museum Web sites have begun as the projects of motivated individuals, in some cases with the (sometimes hesitant) backing of an institution, or part of the organization, in others as a purely personal venture on a private Web page. The pioneering individual might be some low-level employee with surfing experience and an itch to try creating his/her own Web page. Or it might be a manager — perhaps one whose department or unit has handled multimedia projects in the past — who will not do the hands-on work personally but will be an effective taskmaster and mentor of the project. A third scenario is for a Web project to begin as an agenda item in the meetings of a museum's top management. However, there is the risk here of getting bogged down in studies, surveys, considerations of cost and policy issues; I know of more than one Web project which has been long delayed or even cancelled after an inordinate amount of management hand-wringing.

Museums shouldn't discount the value of the "pioneers", who are likely to work above and beyond the call of duty to get a Web site up and running. If the human resources can be spared from other duties, management may decide to create a working team, in order to capture the wide range of skills needed; but even here, chances are there will be one particular member who is the real champion pushing forward the project. The key individual may not necessarily be the most obvious, such as a computer technician; it may instead be, for example, a librarian, an archaeologist, a collections manager, or one of the museum's volunteers. I recommend museums try to identify such individuals within their organizations, foster their enthusiasm, loosen the leash a little, provide whatever support they can. If managers are themselves not familiar with the Web, they should be prepared to allow some scope to their pioneers. At the same time, they should be prepared to provide guidance by defining, from the beginning, the broad goals that the Web site should address, and by giving constructive feedback that helps ensure the site portrays an image with which the institution feels comfortable.

A spearheading individual may not be with an organization indefinitely. What happens to the Web site then? This is one argument for turning over the site, at least once the trial period is over, to a particular section of the organization as a continuing responsibility, or even for creating a new organizational unit to take charge of the site. In cases where a Web project originates as an official management initiative, this step may be considered immediately. However, few museums are so well-resourced they can afford to create an entirely new department just to handle Web site development. My own museum, for example, has been subject to downsizing over the last couple of years — not a favourable environment in which to contemplate adding a new team to the organizational structure.

If a Web project is to be assigned to an existing department within the museum, which? Chances are, departments are all fully tasked, not enthusiastic about taking on another significant responsibility, and not really able to assign the intensive attention needed to make the site a success. Nor, particularly at the beginning of a Web project, may their staff be familiar with the Internet and, as a result, undervalue the project. On the other hand, growth in awareness of the Web, or initial success of a project, may engender in-fighting between departments to control the project. A further risk is that any given department — such as Education, Informatics, Marketing, Exhibitions, or Publishing — may impose upon the Web project the local paradigm governing its own operations. If the Web site becomes only a giant brochure, an e-zine, an electronic version of the museum exhibits, a neat computer application, or something targeted only at school groups, its true potential will be constrained. At CMC, I have always tried to promote a broader vision: that CMCweb is not a book, not a magazine, not an exhibition, not a database, nor a media kit; it is all of these things, and more. It is best understood as an electronic analogy to the real-world museum: a tool to be applied to diverse tasks and open to a variety of uses, many of which have yet to be envisaged. Inter-departmental responsibility for a Web site might be a preferable approach to developing more fully Web site potential. However, as many institutions know, inter-departmental efforts can become bogged down in politics.

On the whole, I am inclined to think that any museum wishing to represent within its Web site the full spectrum of activities of the institution would be wise to have the project overseen by top management, just as the real museum is. This may, however, be personal bias speaking. There is no set answer, and generalization may be inappropriate. Each institution has to find a solution that works for its particular circumstances.

introduction  |  

Content creation: who does the dirty work?

The foregoing discussion assumes that the work of content creation, at least for the pilot, will be done in-house. But of course having it done by some external agency is another option, and I'll return to this a little later. An in-house pioneer can only take a Web project so far. Once the pilot phase has been completed, museum management face a number of choices about where to go from here. If, after a reasonable trial period, visitation statistics are disappointingly low, they may decide to drop the Web site. Or, if they have more foresight, they may decide that what is needed is more aggressive efforts at promoting the site, and/or a design revamp. As far as content goes, they may be satisfied with modest ambitions: little more than maintaining a basic description of the facility, its current exhibits and public programmes; although resting on one's laurels cannot be expected to attract heavy visitation. Or they may wish to move on to bigger and better.

Here let me return to the tale of the CMC's experience. At the time of the official launch of CMCweb, in front of the corporation's Board of Trustees, I half-jokingly pointed out to the Trustees how it had taken almost a decade to plan and build the new Canadian Museum of Civilization, but only a few months to build the online version. I was younger and more foolish in those days! My real work was only just beginning. A few months down the road and I was realizing that simply keeping the existing pages updated, as well as handling the wider range of Webmaster duties (along with other duties not Web-related) was obstructing progress in expanding the site. Like Lewis Carroll's Red Queen, I was having to run as fast as I could just to hold position.

On the assumption that if I could learn HTML, anyone could, it had been my hope from the beginning that other staff members would also gain an enthusiasm and become involved in content creation for CMCweb. My initial idea was, once I had the foundations of the site in place, to decentralize content creation throughout the organization; this was for various reasons: to spread the workload; to harness fresh ideas and new creativity; and to empower particularly the curators and researchers to become directly involved in conveying their knowledge. I was encouraged in this hope by the fact that most departments within the museum had been keen to provide me with repurposable material when creating the pilot Web site.

In April '95 we ran two three-day training courses in Web page creation, a large part of which involved small teams of trainees working together to create very modest Web sites. Two dozen trainees were selected from staff having existing familiarity with the Internet (a pool of roughly 90 individuals at that point) and above-average computer literacy; a third were drawn from Research Branch, a third from Exhibitions and Programmes Branch, and the remaining third from the Collections and Information Access, Public Affairs and Administration Branches. Although a number of the graduates of the course had ideas for projects, and one or two actually began work on them — one in particular jumping in feet-first and embarking on what ended up as a major component of our site — there was little immediate consequence, in terms of content creation for CMCweb. My naive enthusiasm had blinded me to the fact that staff required not only training, but also the time to work on Web projects and the approval of their managers; this would mean a commitment of resources from the Branches, with ramifications for existing workplans and budgets, and (particularly in the case of the researchers) a preparedness to recognize Web content creation, along with more traditional forms of scholarly output, in the peer review process. Graduates also complained that they did not have convenient access to PCs with the necessary tools and power to create Web content.

To further matters, our CEO set up a Web Steering Committee whose members are the Branch managers. One of its roles was to entertain proposals for major new additions to CMCweb. Another was to address issues relating to the furtherance of the project, such as upgrading computer equipment. To my duties were added that of secretary to the Committee, coordinator between it and the various departments and their trained content creators, and liaison between the content creators and server administration. A few proposals trickled in, but the problem remained that staff were already overworked and couldn't find time to devote to CMCweb, while managers similarly found it difficult to assign priority to the Web given the other pressing demands on their resources.

The lesson I was gradually learning was that it is, perhaps inevitably, a slow process for awareness of the potential of a Web site, and commitment to participation, to permeate through any large institution. This is part of the ongoing change in the museum's organizational culture that is resulting from the introduction of new technologies and the consequent need to change the way we operate.

Contemporary with the creation of the Web Steering Committee, another tack was being taken, in the form of recruiting an assistant to help me on the Web project, under the title of "Electronic Products Officer". I was also assigned a larger chunk of the time of a staff designer. A number of other Electronic Products Officers have now been recruited into the organization — one in the Communications Division, one in Publishing, and one for the Canadian War Museum (an affiliate institution also represented on CMCweb); although CMCweb is only one of their duties, their efforts in content creation, or coordination of content creation, are helping move CMCweb forward.

I'll interpose here a few words about the desirable qualities of a Web content creator. When recruiting my assistant, I ambitiously sought candidates with the following set of qualifications:

I didn't really expect that any candidate would match the full set. Nonetheless, the winning candidate has proven a real asset to the Web project, not least because he brings aptitudes which I lack and an eagerness to expand his skill-set.

I continue to believe that tomorrow's "star" content creators will be those combining a range of computer skills, communication skills, and the ability to deal intelligently with subject domains they will cover in Web content. A museum may have to find this skill-set, along with project management abilities, through a committee or team approach similar to that many institutions use for exhibition development. However, at least one of the team should be doing the actual page creation. My own experiences make me feel that, because decisions often need to be made "in the field" when a Web component is being created, that page creation per se is not purely a mechanical function and cannot safely be treated as something akin to a clerical duty.

As for the CMCweb project today: things progress. The preparation and launch last summer of the Virtual Museum section of our Web site was a major undertaking which would have been unachievable a year earlier. With the Virtual Museum's multiple online exhibits and other features, CMCweb now comprises (I estimate) over 7,000 screens of information. Our approach to content creation has become diversified — we are trying out a range of options. My small team still does much of the work, but some projects have been contracted out to commercial agencies — both entire Web components or particular elements, such as graphics or programming. Student work-placements or volunteer programmes have made it possible to move forward on other content creation projects, not only because this is relatively cheap labour, but also because they can make available individuals with good mixes of subject-knowledge and computer-literacy; one student supplied us with QuickTime VR experience, another one has taken an interest in VRML. A few of the HTML course graduates have contributed material. Equally important, a larger number of staff are more directly involved in the Web project now, not in the actual content creation but in planning particular components and in preparing "raw" material that goes into the Web pages — in retrospect this is probably a more sensible use of their time and expertise than expecting them to create Web pages themselves.

The Web project itself has diversified. Other than a minor advisory role, I had little to do with the Cyberboutique section of our site, which was undertaken by one of the HTML course graduates on staff, with technical aid through contracts to private sector organizations. Our Children's Museum used our Web server to embark on a postcard exchange project with other Canadian and Australian museums, and recently conducted a survey of those visiting its part of the Web site, as a prelude to redesign and expansion. The Public Programmes Division is using the Web site for an online educational programme with several schools, the first of a series of such under the project title "Cybermentor". And the Publishing section has, again mainly using the services of commercial organizations, recently launched the Virtual Museum of New France on the museum's Web server.

Finally, beginning in the next fiscal year, CMCweb has found its way into the Branches' workplans, so that there is concrete commitment to specific Web projects within specific timeframes; departments will plan and undertake those projects using their own resources. In sum, awareness of the Web as a multi-purpose tool is growing throughout the organization. The seed has sprouted and, I believe, is about to flower.

Having said this, we still have much experience to gain in terms of organizing and managing content creation in a cost-effective fashion. Should staff become more directly involved in Web page creation? Should we make greater use of university or college students? Should we contract out more projects? There is no easy answer for CMC, and it is even more difficult to generalize for museum Web sites generally, since they vary greatly in character, but I'll briefly look at some of the pros and cons.

As already indicated, I believe that staff with an inclination and aptitude for Web content creation should be encouraged and supported. Self- motivation will tend to lead to skills acquisition. Learning HTML does not in itself make for creation of good Web content, but staff members will also know the museum, have some sense of its goals, its audiences, its information resources, and the image it wishes to cultivate, all of which will help make a better product. They may have had past roles in developing exhibits, publications or educational programmes; if not, they will have access to advice from colleagues with that experience. Furthermore they will likely work on projects related to the subject-areas in which they have expertise. At the very least the Web content creation experience they acquire will be useful in helping them deal, in an informed way, with external agents engaged to create Web pages. If staff time can be spared to a Web project, then this will keep the costs down.

The downside is that content creation can require a lot of time, particularly for a staff member going through the learning curve, and organizations must be prepared for this to impact significantly on other work. It may be very difficult to find someone who can drop other tasks to focus on a Web project; and if the wish is to develop a really successful site, the effort is going to require more than one individual. At the fast pace the Web and its associated technologies are developing today, it is a full-time job to keep atop of developments. Museums must be prepared to bear the costs not only of equipping in-house content creators with adequate hardware and software, but also of training and re-training, or at least for the time allocation for self-training. They must also accept the learning curve period, which will vary depending on the existing skills and abilities of the staff member — it took me several months to start producing pages at which I no longer grimace when I look at them. This was tolerable in the "early days", but today audiences are used to a higher standard.

On the other hand, if a museum can find no-one on its staff with aptitude and inclination, but must rely entirely on outside agencies to create, maintain and build its Web site, it must be prepared to bear those costs. A single staff-member with enthusiastic dedication may be able to make progress by bringing in students to assist with specific projects. Many post-secondary organizations now have multimedia technology programmes, while museology or library science programmes are increasingly incorporating courses introducing students to multimedia technologies. We have had experience with both at CMC. At the risk of an unfair overgeneralization, I would say that students specializing in multimedia technology are more likely to create Web page designs that are appealing or cool, but that museology students may be able to cope with organizing the subject-content better. In the former case, the structure and content of each section should be well-planned in advance and communicated clearly to students; in the latter case, advice or assistance with design elements may need to be provided. In either case, frequent consultation will be necessary and close supervision of progress is advisable; an attitude of "here's the material, now go away and do it" is not likely to result in a satisfactory product. The time involved in this liaison will partially offset the advantages of additional labour.

A third option is to take on the services of a company specializing in Web page creation, or to engage on a consultancy basis a multimedia developer — preferably one with museum experience. In theory, this is more likely to make available a wider range of the necessary skills and experience, including graphic design, application of the newer Web- related applications, structuring a Web site, and effective presentation of information. The result will be a more stylish design, but professional service will be relatively expensive. It will remain up to the museum to ensure that glitzy design doesn't overwhelm the content, or that — as is the case in some Web sites — prominent graphics aren't intended to disguise shallowness of content. There is no shortage of commercial services, which can be expected to have the necessary tools (avoiding a cost to the museum), and competitive pricing can be found, but skill-sets and extent of experience are likely to vary widely, and one needs to be cautious in making a selection.

In the case of professional Web page designers, and sometimes that of talented students, you may need to restrain them. They are likely to be most interested in creating the trendiest, most state-of-the-art, site they can — pushing their own skills to the limit — and unconcerned about how many Websurfers will have the powerful PCs, good 'Net connections, or latest browsers and plug-ins to allow them to take advantage of what has been produced. Museums should be prepared to make informed decisions up-front about what they want from their Web site, what audiences they are trying to reach, and what this means in terms of Web page design; then they must make sure this is properly communicated to contractors or consultants. Furthermore they would be advised to prepare content material in some kind of draft form to guide Web page development. Again, this assumes there is someone on staff with the necessary familiarity with the Web to be able to communicate intelligently with private sector Web page developers.

Without someone in-house with Web skills or experience, a museum handing over a Web site project to an external agency risks losing control over something which can impact on its public image. Museums should be very closely involved in defining the character of their Web sites, instead of surrendering their fate into the hands of those who know the Web, but may understand little about museums. A particular bugbear of mine is that we are seeing school and university groups creating online what they term "museums", which really only perpetuate the established public misperception that museums are nothing more than a set of exhibits.

The cost of a commercial service may not seem prohibitive when compared to the cost of training one or more members of staff, acquiring hardware and software for them, and then assigning them time to develop a site. However, any museum wishing to build or change its site (and this should really include all) must face not only the initial costs of site creation, but those for maintenance, alteration and expansion. The mutable nature of a Web site means that cost comparison cannot be done on the same basis as for, say, a CD-ROM product. Furthermore, if for whatever reason a museum dependent on an outside developer is suddenly left in the lurch by that developer (and I have a particular case in mind), it can do nothing with its Web site and must turn the project over to a new company. The design and coding of Web pages is not so standard as to make this an easy transition.

introduction  |  

Quality control: how did we get into this mess?

The matter of site maintenance brings me to the last main topic I want to address. Quality control is a good idea from the very beginning, but is likely to become more crucial as a site moves from the pilot phase into something more permanent and probably bigger. "Creating content" isn't simply a case of writing a few Web pages, loading them onto a server, and going away.

One of the earliest icons developed for use on Web pages was the "Under Construction" logo; and many Webmasters — myself included — made use of it. It only gradually dawned on us how redundant this was: that the nature of the medium was not like a book, where publication ends the project, but that "under construction" is the natural state of a Web site. Any Web site not under construction — that is, being constantly renewed or expanded — is not liable to attract frequent return visits. As in the real world, museums want not only to expand their base of first-time visitors, but also to draw regular return visitors: their core audience.

Site creation is one thing; site maintenance and expansion present a whole new set of problems. As a site ages, whether it is through growth, changing content, or periodic renovation, chances are that different individuals contribute to content creation — regardless of whether these are staff members, students, outside contractors, or some combination. You will get different views as to what should be on the site, how best to organize it, what it should look like, which HTML coding to use. There may be similarly competing visions across the different departments of a museum, introducing a political element into Web site design.

One aspect of quality control relates to the information content of Web pages. The democratic character of Web publishing makes it a vehicle in which information of dubious quality can easily be presented. Museums generally are very concerned about the accuracy of information they present to the public. In CMC's case, that information is vetted by subject experts and then gone through by editors, before being translated into Canada's other official language and going through a new round of editing in the second language. The present development of federal government policies regarding online services show the same concerns with accuracy, integrity and bilingualism of information presented by its departments and agencies, as well as concern for addressing the special needs of the disadvantaged. Commendable while all this is, it adds complications and time to the development of Web content. In the case of CMCweb we have largely avoided some of the issues by focusing on repurposing material produced for exhibits or publications, that has already jumped through the necessary hoops. So I have no recommendations or advice here, other than to say that the Web presents a new operating environment — in some ways a more forgiving one, in that its content is susceptible to easy amendment — and we need to adapt our processes to that, rather than to try to teach old tricks to a new dog. Organizations need to find a balance that allows valid concerns to be met but does not erect unnecessary bureaucratic barriers to getting content up.

At CMC attention to quality control has focused more on larger issues. I mentioned above the project management mechanisms established in the summer of '95, as our Web project moved beyond the pilot phase to one in which I hoped there would be content contributions from throughout the organization. This situation necessitated an approach to quality control, to ensure that material added to CMCweb fitted in with strategic directions, that there was no duplication of effort occurring within the museum, and that no undesirable material (such as hate propaganda, politically incorrect matter, or personal viewpoints not corresponding to those of the institution) made its way onto the Web site. With content for CMCweb now also being developed by groups or individuals outside the institution, the need for control and consistency is that much greater.

I completed the first edition of a set of guidelines in Fall '95, and am presently drafting a revised edition. This document has three main components:

  1. The first provides a common frame of reference by identifying the vision for CMCweb, including the key goals (which I touched on earlier).

  2. The second sets out the process of content development, in terms of roles and responsibilities and the steps involved in obtaining approvals and applying quality control.

  3. The third defines "house style", providing advice on various design principles (e.g. page length, image size), indicating the common elements that must appear on every page (notably dealing with corporate identification, navigation, and document dating), and indicating coding and file-naming conventions that are important to managing the site and facilitating its maintenance.

Essentially, the process is assumed to begin with a content concept of some staff member who then must seek backing from his/her Division, which will have to cover the costs of developing the content unit; alternatively it might be an external proposal directed to one of the Divisions. A brief document is then produced by the Division to outline such things as the nature of the content, envisaged size and lifetime of the unit, goals and target audiences, sources of information to be used, and an estimation of required resources and schedule for production. This document is reviewed by the museum's top management, in their role as the Web Steering Committee. If approved, the concept proceeds to development either by one of the trained content creators in-house, some external agency, or a combination thereof; quality of the information will be subject to checking during this stage. Once completed, the content unit must receive Divisional review and approval before being forwarded to the CMCweb Coordinator (myself) for technical checking and, if necessary, minor revisions (to ensure compliance with house style) prior to being loaded onto the server. After post-upload review from the perspective of operability, the Web Steering Committee can review the finished product online to ensure it complies broadly with the terms of the original proposal.

The aim of the process was to try to avoid creating too many bureaucratic hoops that would slow down content creation, while ensuring quality control at various stages. Recently, with awareness of and interest in CMCweb growing throughout the institution, we decided to transfer the content proposal review role from the Steering Committee (which meets infrequently) to the Branches, in the hope of speeding up the process. I cannot claim the process is always followed to the letter, but the safeguards are there when needed.

Nor can I emphasize enough the importance of having guidelines when Web content is being developed in any kind of decentralized fashion. Content creators naturally tend to focus on the units they are developing, and to envisage them as self-contained Web sites, giving little thought to those units fitting in to a larger component. I have learned through hard experience that this is liable to be particularly true of external developers. Having the guidelines is, of course, not enough. It is important that they be properly to communicated to all who may need to be aware of them.

The more people who are creating content for your Web site, the bigger the patchwork mess you risk ending up with, unless you have someone responsible for coordination, and have defined standards that apply consistency where needed (this need not inhibit creativity) and that facilitate overall management of the site, both in terms of its development and its maintenance. The bigger a mess gets, the harder it is to clean up. Written guidelines, as well as page templates bearing common elements that must be incorporated in all pages, are tools that museums' Web site managers will find worth the time invested in them.

introduction  |  

Content is king ... long live content!

It is dangerous to generalize about something so various and so young as museums' Web sites. The circumstances surrounding the birth of a site, the extent of in-house resources available to support that kind of project, the ambitions for and character of each site, the size and degree of complexity of sites, are all quite diverse — "vive la différence!" And it would be presumptuous to suggest that, even after two and a half years experience managing a Web site, I have solutions which others should adopt. All I have tried to do in this paper is identify some of the issues and problems involved in managing the content creation aspects of site development, and to describe the experience of my own institution in striving to come to terms with those issues and problems.

CMC remains as much in a learning situation as most other museums developing Web sites. When we began our Web project we had no idea whether the Web would prove any more durable than its predecessor, Gopher; or, if it did, what future directions it would take. Our aim was simply to go with it, and grow with it, and see where it would take us. As our ambitions for CMCweb — notably to build a large, knowledge content-rich resource that will expand indefinitely — grew beyond the scope of a one-person project, content creation took on new dimensions and the need to manage the process became an institution-wide concern.

I hope to see the day when content creation takes place more routinely as a venture between museums, and between museums and other cultural institutions. I like to think of our human heritage as a gigantic jigsaw puzzle of which parts are held by museums, libraries, archives, historic sites, universities, scholarly societies, media organizations, families, and so on. Cyberspace offers the prospect of reconstituting that knowledge of heritage to create a new entity, which might be called a "mega-museum", or "meta-museum". Before we can move on to that higher stage of collaboration, we must first get our own houses in order. This paper has tried to suggest some of the options available for museums to deal with content creation. Whether they bring this ability in-house or prefer to rely on external production agencies is less important than them taking the lead in planning and managing over the long-term something that may evolve into a major service characterizing museums of the 21st century.


Date of creation: February 10, 1997
© Archives & Museum Informatics

Author: Biographical notes

Stephen Alsford is Special Projects Officer in the Directorate of the Canadian Museum of Civilization. His involvement with the Museum began in 1982, when he was assigned to set up a resource centre and archive for the New Accommodation Task Force, created to plan the new museum (which opened in 1989). During the '80s he performed a variety of tasks associated with the planning of the museum, as well as acting in a consultancy role for other National Museums and government agencies.

In 1988 he took up his present position at the Museum. The wide-ranging tasks he has undertaken include audiovisual productions and the creation of a prototype for an interactive multimedia program on federal heritage institutions. Since 1994 he has been responsible for planning and developing the Museum's extensive World Wide Web site. Mr. Alsford also acts as secretary of the inter-institutional Meta Incognita Project Steering Committee which directs an international research programme on the Frobisher expeditions to the Canadian Arctic.

Mr. Alsford has Masters degrees in history and library and information science. He has had published books, booklets and numerous articles on museological and medieval history subjects. Most notably he is co-author (with Dr. George MacDonald) of the book A Museum for the Global Village.


Date of creation: February 10, 1997
© Archives & Museum Informatics

Copyright Archives & Museum Informatics, 1997

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Last modified: February 28, 1997
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