Starting to Look for Answers
With the objective of trying to define an appropriate model for
museums to follow, and rationale for investment of their resources
in this new medium, the BC Museums Association undertook a survey
in 1996 funded by the Canada-BC Agreement on Culture and Communications.
While this was not a particularly encouraging perspective, it did
nothing to discourage museums from continuing to invest. We all
ride on the crest of the marketing wave perpetuated by the Wintel
monopolies, and we tend to truly believe in and want a new
communications medium to put us in touch with our peers and our
Rationalizing our Participation: What are we doing wrong?
William Sheridan writing in the February 13, 1998 Computerworld
Canada quotes Paul Strassman as saying that "computers without
an effective business strategy are worth no more than the scrap
value of their plastic, metal and glass." If this is true of museums,
it is an unfortunate place to put the $2,500 that the local museum
has struggled to extract from local government, donors or casinos.
He suggests however that "knowledge is still a more important investment
than technology; computers can only be justified by the value they
add to a business."1
The Internet is a still more nebulous investment. The 1996 BCMA
survey found no institution that could point to significant benefits
derived from investment in the World Wide Web. People pointed to
a change in work methods, and that the Web facilitated this. There
was however no evidence that these changes actually benefited the
institutions making the investment, or changed the way they behaved.
"If you modernize the technology, but you donít modernize the business
process, the technology is just a wasted investment. If you are
not going to buy into the behaviour, donít waste your money on machines."
As in the business world, it appears that "The Web was never integrated
well, or in many cases at all, into corporate strategies." This
may point out that many cultural institutions donít have corporate
strategies, or that Directors and Boards not take their business
plans into consideration when making decisions about computers and
One of the great potential values of the web is to assist us in
evaluating our products and services. Businesses are encouraged
to use the net as "a fourth channel for having an interactive
conversation with customers, while still retaining the first three:
face-to-face, mail and phone."2
If we focus on the interactive elements of the Web, we can start
to see some of the incredible potential it holds.
All of these "channels" must however be synchronized, pointing
out some of our failings, and those of many organizations on the
web. Their public face does not reflect well on the institution.
They donít take the medium seriously, thought they are investing
serious amounts of resources.
Commerce on the Net: the great attractor
Beware of holding out high hopes for commercial success on the
Internet. While it is becoming increasingly common, and easy to
do, there are indications that a "skeptical and cautious" browsing
public does not readily accept it. The University of Michiganís
Hermes project provides
some fascinating and useful insights into commercial uses of the
Every little bit helps though, and perhaps the very obscurity of
most of our marvelous commodities makes them good targets for Web
Good insights can perhaps be obtained from looking at the range
of web sites now produced by museums, and trying to determine why
they have been produced. Though this is not always clear from the
site, there must have been originally a reason for the creation
of the web site. Following might be some of the groups we might
The fear of being left behind in the electronic world prompts many
museums to either create, or accept the offer of a "free web page"
from a local provider. Often the motivation is not thought out,
and there may be hopes of marketing value. These web pages are often
the equivalent to (or less than) an electronic brochure, presenting
the most basic museum information. On the positive side, such a
page is usually part of another institutionís information, making
the museum part of a community (municipality, local ISP, provincial
Museum mandate includes community outreach, and at the minimum
level, pages may be used for announcement of public events, courses.
At a higher level, it is also possible to give courses, provide
training, though very few insitutions are attempting this at present.
Presentation of Collection
Web databases can be used to present the collection, or be included
in virtual exhibits.4
Facilitation of Public Interaction
The Internet can facilitate many functions that require staff interaction
and Web sites. Membership renewals, course registrations, ordering
photographs, answering queries are examples.
The museum itself, in a successful site can achieve greater popularity
and visitorship. This can be an end in itself, but often is as a
result of other successful componenets of the site.
A truly two-way site, gathering and providing information can be
a truly new and awesome communication tool. The implicit problem
here is that you are adding another communication medium
to the existing tool set of the museum, and this requires dedicated
resource time; computers, Internet connections and people all be
committed to this task. Once the expectation has been raised that
this will be an important access point to the museum, it must be
kept open and current.
Management and Evaluation
The WWW provides the important capability to feed information back
to management about preferences and popularity of different facets
of the museumís presentation. In effect it is an on-going and current
survey of the electronic public. New
Internal Information (Intranet)
Run locally, a Web site can become and important access point for
staff to find museum information. Since museums often make use of
temporary staff, questions about programming, facilities, collections
and other resources can be presented in a coherent fashion. In effect
the site can be a procedures and information manual for staff.
Education and Programming
Information on the web site can be tailored to specific audiences,
and one of the most important is the educators in the community.
Focus this year at the BC Museums Association will be on creating
guidelines for museumsí interaction with their communities, suggesting
exhibit format, and content presentation that will link closely
with the curriculum at appropriate grade levels. While neither school
nor museum technologies can be relied on currently (many schools
have only one computer on the Internet) web sites could be important
delivery and communication tools between museum educators and school
Designing Your Site
"Give away something valuable, (information, software, advice,
humor) and people will flock to your site. Original content is the
most important trait of a great Web site." (What Makes a Great Web
Building a site involves focusing on both the audienceís and the
institutionís needs. John December's
evaluation is that there are six steps in
this design process: Planning, Analysis, Desgin, Implementation,
Promotion and Innovation.
Evaluate and Update
While this is part of the process mentioned in the creation of
the site, it is too often overlooked, once the site is in place
and functioning. You objective must be to get people to return to
the site over and over again. It must become a useful tool, one
of their most-used bookmarks. So continually evaluate how your site
is being used, and always be adding some new treat for people to
A new model for cultural and heritage institutions suggests that
cultural organizations are businesses; businesses that operate on
only a slightly different model than that of the for-profit organizations
that we often admire. We offer products and services, and are in
turn remunerated (usually) for them. It is frequently unclear how
that remuneration takes place, and unfortunately, as frequently
unclear what our products or services are. Knowing our products
will enable us to promote them, and to ask for appropriate remuneration,
whether in the form of fees, grants or other services.
Weil pointed out that we are very poor at evaluating how our
product is received, how well we are performing, whether we are
achieving our goals. Knowing the goals will faciliate this evaluation,
whether of the institution, or its Web site. With this in mind,
a serious, professional approach to Web site design will produce
a tool that will be of value to the institution and reflect proudly
the communityís heritage.
Last modified: April 6, 1998. This file can be found below http://www.archimuse.com/mw98/
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